‘Honey I’m Home,’ he would yell with a smile on his face and then continued, “I always wanted to say that.” For the six months he lived at Phoenix Place, a home for persons living with AIDS; this would be how Harold came home. Harold was a proud ex-Marine. He had served his country. He was a small man but he had that erect posture learned and had polite mannerisms mastered through the crucible of basic training at Parris Island, one of two boot camps for Marines in the nation.
He had been the hometown hero of his small town in South Carolina. He grew up in a black community where most never made it out of the oppressive racist town that was caught in an age that most thought America had left behind. But he was the example of a black man whom teachers, family, and neighbors talked about as a light that a better day was coming. His mother would beam with pride every time he came home for family gatherings. He would, as his busy life permitted, lead volunteer efforts to support the neighborhood. Harold was small but his aura would fill any room he was in. His only flaw: he was too chatty. He could talk your ear off as, they are want to say. He had stories, mostly unbelievable, but they were worth listening to. Everyone liked the bubbly personality of Harold until the chatty would wear you out.
Sometimes in the early mornings before anyone was awake and it was only him, he was silent. He did not like the silence because it was in those moments when the guilt and disappointment would corner him and leave him no room to escape. He was no longer the hometown hero; he was the man with AIDS. His mother had cried and told him he was a disappointment. She did not say it but he knew she preferred him not to be around. His brothers and sisters did not look up to him anymore but looked at him confused. The man who had showed his small hometown of how to pull yourself up by the bootstraps saw him now as one more black man lost to the ravages of a white world. Then the day for others would start and he would lift the spirits around him and plot how to give back to Phoenix Place.
He was one of our best representatives. He would make even the staff believe in what we were doing. He was an encourager and you could see he was a natural born leader. But he also, I suppose, learned from his Marine Corps days to follow. He would do anything I asked without hesitation because I was the man in charge and he always followed the chain of command. Some mornings he would enter my office mockingly, standing ramrod straight, and salute me and ask for his duties for the day. He was the one man esprit de corps of the house. He was a man’s man but he was also a fluffy pillow. The fluffy pillow endeared him to the women of the house.
It was easy to see how he could be seen [you have used 2 versions of same verb see and seen] as a hometown hero, because he was heroic. He had his demons but only the few and the chosen ever saw them. He inspired and encouraged everyone he knew, for any length of time, to be a little bit better. He never judged, as he had been by his hometown. He strived to be the best man he could be.
I was scheduled for a much needed vacation when he was hospitalized. It was the day before I was to leave town. I went to the hospital; the news was not good. He was dyingI glimpsed him before he saw me. He was alone and had the early morning look on his face that I had noticed so many times before. . I entered the room and said ‘Honey I’m home.’ He laughed. His whole demeanor changed as I came in. The change was not for me particular although we had become friends. He sat up straight in his bed and shook my hand.
We talked for thirty minutes or so. He was scared, I could tell. He was hiding his physical frailty from me. I felt bad knowing I was to leave town tomorrow. Sensing this he asked me about my vacation plans. Asked what my adolescent son wanted to do most on the trip. He proclaimed, if anyone needs a vacation it was me. He poked fun at me, saying how I was being a pain at the house because I was too stressed out; all the residents had been holding specially called morning-prayer sessions for me and were so looking forward to some peace and quiet when I left. At this point I reminded him he was the Chatty Cathy and how, for real, the house was quiet now that he was in the hospital. After razzing each other for a while, it was time for me to leave.
I clasped his hand in mine. Told him as soon as I came back, I would be there to see him. He looked at me and said do not worry I will still be here when you get back. Besides he was going to milk this dying thing as much as he could. He said the nurses loved a dying man and all his friends were coming and telling him how much he meant to them. This was a great gig. He stopped and looked me in the eye, “You enjoy your vacation; that is an order you hear.” I smiled. Yes sir, I replied. We prayed and I told him he was a good man. I turned to leave; as I left I caught a glance of him out of the corner of my eye. He had collapsed on the bed; he looked very ill.
Harold died the night before I returned from vacation. I did not go to his funeral in his hometown. I knew it would not be a celebration of a remarkable man but an unnecessary judgment of a good man. I grieved in my own way. Early in the morning sometimes I sit in the darkness awaiting my “Honey I’m Home” moment to begin my day.