Someone who was here is no longer. Your best friend, your brother, the guy in the apartment down the block, a coworker, someone you don’t even like that much. And you grieve, not always because you loved them but because your world has been altered without warning. A person has been removed from your life like a planet from a solar system. Even a really far off planet. What would we do if Mars ceased to exist? Pluto? One of Jupiter’s moons?
And then there is the funeral, the embarrassing public struggle to justify what happened in terms that allow us to continue living in this world.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“He’s in a better place now.”
“We should be grateful for the time we had with him.”
Our biggest questions are ones we can’t even poke with a stick, much less answer. Sometimes funerals help. Other times, they just bring up more questions, like Sam’s funeral did.
Sam did not want a Christian funeral, but his parents wanted him to have one. At the funeral, family and friends sat in the pews for nearly a half hour listening to recorded religious and classical music until the priest called to say he would not be there because he had a flat tire or something. This was an oddly pleasant surprise to Sam’s closer friends.
Some of us later speculated on whether the priest actually had a flat tire. Maybe he caught wind of the fact that Sam was a practicing Pagan and an openly gay man who also happened to be HIV positive. Maybe it really was car trouble of some kind. Either way, it’s what Sam would’ve wanted. Instead of a preacher talking about him being up in heaven with Jesus, a handful of friends and relatives stood up and talked for a few minutes each about Sam, how they knew him, and why they loved him. I don’t remember any of what was said.
The night before the Christian funeral was Nov. 1. Our small circle of friends had a strong Pagan bent, and knowing of Sam’s faith, we held a service of our own. I volunteered to lead the ritual. It was thundering outside as we began, and Renee said, “Sam, stop being so dramatic.” But all good rituals are 90% drama, so we dimmed the lights and lit candles for effect. We made small offerings to the deities, and we did our meagre best to honor Sam’s memory. Each of us took a turn talking about him.
My story was that he introduced me to all these people. We’d all worked at the student newspaper together, and when I started, I was shy and confused about what my job was. I had no business being a copy editor or a reporter. Sam befriended me, let me smoke his cigarettes, and introduced me to Caren who would become one of the best friends I had throughout college. Others told about arguments they had with Sam, going to the bar with him, or trying to support him through his loneliness and fear.
A 28-year-old guy with HIV experiences a lot of loneliness and fear, I imagine. It doesn’t help if, since the moment you came out as gay, your parents have refused to acknowledge this part of your identity. It doesn’t help if your family is constantly trying to bring you to a church or a counselor that wants to convince you you’re not gay. Isolation upon isolation upon isolation. And still, Sam did his best to reach out to people — people like me who felt a little lost and confused and who just wanted someone to listen and be with us for a minute.
I call it stray dog syndrome. Any sad person could come up to him and ask for directions or a cigarette or a place to crash for the night, and Sam would give it to them without question. That kindness at his core was what we all loved about Sam. When Kyle Johnson showed up outside his shoddy off-campus apartment building asking for a smoke, Sam gave it to him and then sat and listened to his sob story about how he ended up homeless, penniless and strung out at 20. Sam gave him a place to stay for the night, let him take a shower and have a meal. It was an incredibly generous thing to do — the kind of thing many of us wish we could do for our fellow human beings but realize we shouldn’t because that’s how a person gets killed. This is not foreshadowing. You already know how it ends.
Caren was furious when Sam told her he’d let this derelict stranger stay the night. She said he looked sketchy and out of sorts. Plus he stole things and ate all of Sam’s food. After Kyle crashed on the couch a couple times, Sam did what he should’ve done from the beginning, which was to say the guy couldn’t keep coming over, eating all this food and stealing stuff. Then there was a fight, and Sam died. He was strangled to death. Kyle probably didn’t plan to murder Sam, but he was on drugs and in need of money, and there’s really no explaining the logic of a person in that situation. He stole Sam’s car and some other things from the house and was on the run until they caught him in January.
We learned of the death on October 31, 2005. We think it actually occurred on October 26.
We searched for explanations. Sam was sick and probably getting sicker. He hadn’t been seeking treatment. The most important people in his life had all but rejected him, and he had chosen to make a family of us instead — us and anyone else who needed him.
When Caren called to tell me he was dead, I made the noise you think people make when they find out someone’s been murdered. It was a guttural animal sound that I have not made before or since. It is the sound of a faraway planet being wrenched out of the sky.