Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30th, 2009: Tomorrow, July 1st will be the 29th anniversary of my move from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco. I had been "kidnapped" by my friend Maria who drove me to California with a modest supply of clothes. The conscious excuses for my move were better job prospects and better opera. I planned to settle in an apartment and find a job as technical writer. The fact that I had no actual experience as a writer was offset by my background as a college English instructor. I figured that I knew my way around a sentence and that would be enough to get me started in my new career. As for the opera, I had been traveling to San Francisco for opera weekends where I would see two or three productions over a two or three day span and then, full to my brim, I would return to Portland. But there were deeper reasons that did not immediately reveal themselves.

Some five months earlier I had been taking an after-dinner cigarette break on the back porch of the home where I lived in the Portland hills. Standing under the eaves of the house, I was puffing in the cold, wet darkness, muttering to myself about the lousy Portland winter weather. I was perched over a ravine far away from any person on a rainy winter night. Into this silence a voice took up my thought and said with distinct clarity, "You might as well enjoy this weather because it's the last winter you'll spend in Portland." I was so startled that I blurted a response of, "But I live here!!" After my quick protest, I realized that the sound was disembodied. There was no one out there, just the voice.

A few months passed and rather abruptly my plans to move to San Francisco came into focus. I moved, and crossed the Bay Bridge into my new home on July 1st, 1980. Years later while I was doing bedside care during the fifth or sixth year into the AIDS epidemic, I remembered that voice in the dark. I realized that if that voice had continued with more context and said, for example, "...this is the last winter you will spend in Portland. Because you need to move to San Francisco and learn about hospice care. There is a serious epidemic that is already spreading through the bodies of people you will care for including many men who will become your friends some of whom will die in front of you..." If the voice had continued, I realized that I would have said, "Epidemic? That's psychotic! We don't have epidemics. There's not going to be an epidemic. There's no reason to move."

Of course, the voice would have been correct, although I would have not been able to comprehend that amount of catastrophe. Fortunately, the voice restrained itself and kept it simple: you will move. And I moved.

I was born in Berkeley across the Bay. I relocated to Oregon when I was a three year old baby. But within the sanctuary of our home when just our family was together, my parents would remind me that I was a Californian. For our neighbors and friends we assimilated as quickly as possible, but within our family agreement we were Californians, unrepentant and unconverted. My move to San Francisco in my mid-30's was to step into my birthright. As events have unfolded over the past three decades, this was the home I was born to move to.

There have been better job prospects and better opera. Of course, if I would have stayed in Portland, the epidemic would have found me there. But in San Francisco, the mobilization for AIDS was so deep and impressive that I have always been grateful to have lived through the epidemic here. I can remember going to hear Elizabeth Kubler-Ross lecture in Portland in the late 1970's. One of my deepest promises to myself was that as soon as I got settled in California, I would find a volunteer hospice program to join. That happened early and with surprising ease. Within eight months of arrival, I was sitting at a scruffy cafeteria table in the dining room at San Francisco General Hospital. Across the table was the woman who would become my mentor: Eileen Lemus. She explained that her new program was designed to match volunteers with terminally ill patients who used the County hospital: often foreign born, always poor, often alone, all needing help in a confusing medical system at the time that their body systems were collapsing. That is precisely the mix that most appealed to me.

I signed up immediately and was trained to give emotional support to the men who I was assigned to. Rodie Alexander, the tiny black guy who abandoned his family in New Orleans and lived a marginal life for decades until bladder cancer brought him into SF General and our program. Amazingly, Rodie's cancer abated and he moved back to New Orleans to rejoin the family he had left years before. Gustavo, the Mexican teenager whose cancer had already cost him his left arm before I met him, and who I sat with during the last night of his life. At the end of that long night I was on my way out of the hospital and wanted to say goodbye to Nancy the nurse who had helped Gustavo to breathe as he died. I found Nancy cleaning up in the room of a guy on the ward named Michael Maletta. Michael was in his late 30's, a very dynamic guy with a mysterious illness that had already landed him in the hospital several times. From caring for Gustavo it was just a few short steps into another hospital room. In that room I found Nancy and Michael, and with Michael AIDS found me. We have been together ever since.

From the moment that I connected that voice in the winter darkness with my destiny to move to San Francisco and become a caregiver, I have trusted that my life was guided with purpose and intention. That isn't to say that I haven't gotten lost since then or made mistakes or regretted some actions. But fundamentally, I have felt well used in my life and San Francisco was the container for my work. Gratitude doesn't begin to describe how much I love and appreciate this City.

1 comment:

Joy Graham said...

Hi George,
My Google News RSS reader sent me a link to your most recent blog post because you mentioned "San Francisco General Hospital". I'm the hospital's librarian and i like to know when SFGH turns up in the news.

You write really well, and your content is compelling. I'll be a regular reader. Keep on blogging!