His name was Melchizedek. It is a biblical name of a priest that appears only three times in the Bible. Twice in the Hebrew Scripture and once in the Christian Scripture. His uniqueness was although he was a priest to the Yahweh’s rival god El Elyon Abraham is told to make a sacrifice to and be blessed by him. Later in Christian Scripture Jesus is identified as "a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek". This is significant to those of us who believe in a more interfaith way of being. I wrote one of my best papers in seminary on him.
So when I met Melchizedek he was surprised I knew so much about his namesake. Although everyone else called him Mel because they could not pronounce Melchizedek I always used His full name. I met him while I was coordinator of a group home for persons living with AIDS. His mother Frances and I had met at the Unitarian Universalist church where I was a member and had become friends. Melchizedek had contracted HIV and had developed AIDS. She was looking for somewhere for him to live because he had lost his home and refused to live with her. He was in his mid-twenties. So I had met with Frances, Melchizedek, and his sister Irene at my office to show them around our home. The three of them were all they had. Their kin shunned them and she did not want the church to know about it. He was a success story as they had risen from the government housing to a lower middle income lifestyle with hard work and persistence. But now they were filled with fear and shame.
They were worried about confidentiality. They were concerned with the predominant gay white population of the house accepting a black man. The tour went well but it came down to really his mother trusted me. Melchizedek wanted to relieve his elderly mother of having to deal with a dying son. His sister wanted to be sure he received good care. And I hoped I could fulfill their needs.
One other piece of the puzzle was Irene’s son Jarvis. He loved his Uncle Mel but they had all agreed not to tell him about his uncle’s health. I liked Jarvis. My son and Jarvis had gone to camp together and were in the same religious education classes together. I was always struck hoe the lives of Jarvis and my son were so different a fact determined arbitrarily by birth. I would have to hold my cards close to my chest to keep Melchizedek’s confidentiality.
Melchizedek became a good resident. He caused few problems, related well to others, and demanded little. He was dying and he knew it so he did not need much from anyone elsa. Irene would visit him on occasion. Frances’, his mother, physical and mental health was not doing well. She attended church less and less. She did not want to run the risk of them finding out about her son. I was doing my best to lead them through this crises.
He had been in the house for a little over a month. Things seemed to be going well. The house was going on an outing and everyone but Melchizedek was going. He was not feeling well he said. I stayed at the house so the resident manager could enjoy the outing. It was me and Melchizedek. We talked a little. He was in relative good spirits. He stated how his family had always been close knit and relied on each other and that was how they how accomplished a modicum of success. He was sad or felt guilt that he could not fulfill his mother’s hopes and the community’s dreams for him. He was like so many other black male residents who felt they had disappointed their struggling community. He excused himself saying he needed to lay down. As I walked down to my office I noticed how cavernous and quiet the house was when the residents were gone. It was a ghost of its normal self. I started doing some paperwork.
Thirty minutes later I heard a noise in the house. I thought Melchizedek must have fallen. I went to his room to check on him. He was on the floor struggling to get up. I looked at him closely and realized he was having seizures. I ran over to him. He had struggled to get back in bed but the seizures were wracking his body and he was sitting up and laying down like a rag doll. He was fighting the seizure. I grabbed him and held him to prevent him from hurting himself by falling off the bed or banging his head. He vibrated in my arms. I called out for help but remembered it was only the two of us and realized my voice was an empty cry in this silent home. I could not call 911, I could not reach a phone and I could not leave him. All my tools for survival were gone. It was only Melchizedek and me. I saw pain, anger, and fear in his eyes. After a lifetime he stopped seizing. I looked at him there was no life in his body. My heart was torn asunder.
I went to my office and called 911 and then went back to the room. He was not moving .I held him in my arms in case he was somehow still alive. The doorbell rang and it was the EMTs. I guided them to the room. I told them what had happened and gave them his medical records. They started ministering to him and then stopped and looked at me. They did not say it but he was dead. They took him in the ambulance. I slowly trudged back to my office and called Irene and told her he was headed to the ER. And then I stopped ‘Irene he was not awake or moving when he left.’ I called down to the ER and talked to the EMT who left his name, He stated “He died on the way.” I hung up and begin to think how I would tell the other residents about his death when they returned in a few minutes. The next few days the house would be a place of immense pain, consoling words, comfort in an age of fear, and house of worship for a memorial service to Melchizedek for those in the house.
His sister Irene would die a year later and Frances would pass soon after. Jarvis would be left at eighteen without any family. I occasionally see Jarvis who works at a grocery store and we talk about the old days. He seems somehow to be making it in the world but I wonder if he ever feels lonely or abandoned. I pray after seeing him because I have nothing better to offer.
I realized Melchizedek was my high priest into the land of death. He was the first person I held in my arms as they died. He introduced me to the arbitrary cruelness and distance of The God of death in an empty group home so many years ago.