THE GOOD LIFE
Brent was a tall good-looking ole boy from a small town in Kentucky. He had a degree from the University of Kentucky. He worked in the medical profession. He was the darling of his mother. He was out and proud before it was cool. He was full of confidence and comfortable in his own skin. He was opinionated but not offensive. He let you know his opinion but did not mind hearing yours. He made friends easily and yet offended others with his same open way of living life. He also had AIDS.
Brent became the advocate supreme for his friends with AIDS. He educated himself and confronted and challenged people’s ways of thinking. Because of his good ole boyness he did not fit into the stereotypes of gays and often caught people off guard when in a conversation he would mention it. He was renowned for confronting a local gay philanthropist with his obligation to support the local HIV\AIDS support agency. Every time he saw this man he asked him what he was going to do to help the community. He called him out in a gay bar and said he had a responsibility to give back. The philanthropist was taken aback and realized Brent was going to hound him until he did the right thing. He did the right thing and Brent made sure it kept being enough of the right thing.
Brent drove medical staff up the wall. Because he was in the medical profession, he was comfortable challenging doctors and nurses alike. But AIDS was new; treatments were ever-developing; oftentimes the patients would know the latest and best treatments before the doctors. Brent was one of these people and was often giving unsolicited advice to doctors who were not used to such patient empowerment. When he was hospitalized he would fuss at lax nurses, about standard protocol of wearing gloves and mask as necessary. He would often tell them he did not want to be responsible for them contracting this disease.
Brent was thought to be invincible. His attitude, persona and size made you think he was going to beat this thing called AIDS. It shocked everyone when he became vincible. The syndrome attacked his immune system in an unforgiving way. Brent was dying. We gathered in his home as he lay in his bed. He was under hospice care. His friends took shifts to ensure he had around the clock care. Despite the ravages of the disease his spirit remained indomitable. He joked about his demise and laughed at all of the worried faces around him.
He was not denying death. He was denying death the power of fear. He was also choosing to live the life he had left. Brandie, his friend and head of the local AIDS organization, and he had a special connection. She was a vivacious, passionate, beautiful woman. She had the ability to make everyone in the room she was in feel good. She was at his bedside often. It was an emotional time for her; not only was she dealing with losing a friend, she was pregnant and preparing to welcome a new child into the world. Each time she would visit, Brent would reach out and touch her belly to feel the baby kicking or moving. He would smile and as if he was a shaman blessed Brandi and her baby with his last touches of life and wishing the good things life had offered him onto the baby.
Brent was an atheist and held no quarters with religion especially after the whole “AIDS was the curse of God on gays” thing. He accepted me as a minister because I was present, not because I had any special gift to offer him. As the disease progressed he began to show signs of dementia. Knowing his mind was not healthy he knew he was not long for this earth. He wanted to think through things with his last bit of clarity. Surprising everyone he said he wanted spiritual counseling. And he flattered me by saying I was the only one he trusted to give that spiritual counseling. He said he knew I would not try to convert him and not make him listen to all that religious mumbo jumbo. He knew that I would accept his atheism. He also knew how to draw the parameters of how he wanted to talk about these issues.
I was a bit intimidated. I had never counseled, knowingly, an atheist on their deathbed before. It was out of my bailiwick. But I liked Brent and respected who he was. I agreed to meet with him. I had spent much time reading and studying before we met and hoped maybe something I could say would offer some consolation to him. So it was with fear and trembling that I went to offer my ministerial guidance. I came into his room and a crowd of people surrounded him. I passed the usual niceties with people. I was a little stressed about the conversation we were going to have. Finally, Brent said, “Now all of you leave because Mike and I have some things to talk about and none of you need to hear any of it.” The room cleared and I sat next to the bed and we began. He talked mostly and I listened a lot. He did not have fear about death but was curious what he might encounter. He did not have a view of the afterlife and he wanted to think through what death meant to and for him. I offered my most poetic mini-sermon on how we did not go on in this form but that these bodies came from the stars and at death went back into the cosmos from which they came. This and other semi-useful thoughts I offered. He nodded and listened. Finally, he said, “If you do not have anything left to say I think I sorted out my thoughts and am okay.” I nodded and said, “Let us conclude with a moment of silence.” After the silence I said, “You are a good man and I cannot see the universe ever letting go of you.” It was only about forty-five minutes but it had seemed like a lifetime for me.
Brent called everybody back in and they all began to interact and be present for Brent. I felt relieved. I also felt a sense of pride. I had handled the situation so well. Just as I was about to leave Brent looked at me and said, “It is about time you got here, I have been waiting for you.” “Ministers,” he said smiling “they think they are so special and show up whenever they want to. You need to give me my deathbed counseling.” The room fell silent. He started telling everyone to leave so he could be alone with me. When someone said, “Brent he was just with you.” Brent looked confused, paused and finally said, “And I am sure it was comforting too.” He laughed we all laughed. He died the next day. The city’s annual award for the volunteer who had contributed the most to helping persons with AIDS in the last year was named the Brent Bothman Award.