I am not a religious person, but I grew up in a very Catholic family. My memories of church were more about allegories to live ones’ life by, punctuated by rituals, and a crush on one of the priests. I can’t divorce those experiences from the use of angels as a metaphor for my current experiences. It’s enough to say that when you don’t speak the language of the country you live in and are diagnosed with a life-altering disease like HIV, my immediate instinct to seek comfort and guidance. Well, maybe not my immediate instinct. First, my instinct was to walk into traffic and end it all. It was that thought which inspired me to open my phone and find an angel to help me.
From the moment of diagnosis and Francisco showing up and hugging me I began to see things differently. Not knowing the language well enough to navigate the medical system in Mexico added to the surrealism. Moments melted into hours and days. I could not tell you what I heard and saw, but only that it felt like a plastic bag had been placed over my head to mute sounds and visions. Inside I could see was disease, shame, guilt, and anger at myself. Outside the angels were telling me their stories and assuring me that I would survive this. The nightmares reminded me of my friends dying in the 80s and 90s continued to plague my mind. Plague. Operative word. I would walk through another socialized medical facility and see the scene of my own death. I’d imagined it a million times while watching other waste away. So I was looking for answers in the form of angels. Every one of the people I came in contact in these places, each only wanting to subdue my fears, and push me in the next step towards health.
Angels also appeared in unexpected ways. I guess I chose to see them as angels assuming even angels can be fallen, hide in ignorance, and say things one would never think to say. I reached out to all my sexual partners from the past 6 months to let them know they would need to pay a visit to their own doctors to be tested. The responses ranged from anger and accusations to thanks and action. I was accused of being a whore. I was also thanked for taking responsibility and allowing them to do the same. Some accused me of lying to them. Others were shocked by my honesty but asked me to never speak to them again. Anger. Fear. Doubt. Self-loathing. I understood the reactions to the news, but in the end, we are all adults playing a game with adult consequences. The angry ones still remained angels to me because the messages of fear validated the worst in my own thoughts. I needed to externalize and attach those dangerous thoughts and feelings, so they would not calcify in my heart. Thanks for telling me how you feel and who you are. A long time ago a friend said to me, “Rejection is God’s protection.” You don’t need to believe in God to see how that might be true. It was time to clean away some of the debris so some angels would need to be cast out.
Unintentionally I had scheduled my ritual Swanks-giving the weekend following my diagnosis. I thought it might be wise to cancel the event, but I decided it gave me something to focus on other than disease and treatments. I did what I could for the event which was only half what I would normally do. I asked for what I needed from everyone to make this happen and they showed up wearing wings. It was an amazing 10 hours for me because it disproved the voices of isolation inside myself. I worried that this diagnosis would cause me to have to leave Mexico and return to the USA. I worried my friends would fall off and I would be sitting there with four trays of lasagna. I worried…worried…worried. Almost everyone showed up and the party was on like Donkey Kong. I did virtually nothing but wander in a daze from person to person accepting love and giving it back. More angels. More love. More forgiveness.
The other night I spent 2 hours on the phone with my mother. Mostly me talking. I realized that a portion of the reason we did not speak for MANY years had to do with the stigma of AIDS. As I watched my friends melt away, in my mind I was next. I assumed in those early days being gay equated death from AIDS. That was the message I heard in Indiana at the time. I had so many experiences that validated it, so it made sense to me that I didn’t want my mother to see me that way. I ran away. All evidence leads me to disconnect our relationship at that time, but all the new evidence created the opportunity to talk that out with her now. She had become an angel to me because upon my telling her about my diagnosis she absorbed me in her loving embrace. An old wound healed instantly without any intention of being resolved.
Now it has been almost 3 weeks since the diagnosis. Tomorrow I will return to the clinic and get the results of my blood work. I am scared to hear this but also anxious to resolve questions about what the next steps will be. I will carry an angel along with me to interpret and comfort my aching heart. It still aches. You know that feeling when someone close to you dies and your chest hurts? That is my ache. Is it an idea that died? A part of myself? I don’t really know or understand. I just accept it is there and in moments with angels, it hurts less. Each day just slightly less pain and fewer tears. As the bag is lifted from over my head my artwork has returned to me.
Yesterday I called in sick to work due to not sleeping. Continued nightmares keeping me from resting and unable to control my emotions the next day. I woke in a fog crying again. I got out of bed, showered, and made coffee and eggs. It took me 3 hours to do it, but I made it out the door with my camera. I beat the path I often do to check all my spots for evolution. My process has evolved over the 10 months in Mexico City. I used to document the destruction and reconstruct a story around that image. About 6 months ago I started carrying a water bottle to spray the scene with and pull colors from the layers below. Last week I started tugging and pulling elements away to change the compositions. Yesterday I crossed over. The surfaces became my actual canvas and I created the art in the streets. I pulled out chunks and sprayed entire areas to reveal the elements below I had been tracking for weeks. I sculpted the paper to play with dimensions and tell the story of my angels. There they are in plain sight amongst the piles of garbage in the streets. An energy overtook my spirit and my chest stopped aching. Air returned to my lungs as I pushed the button and released the shutter. I filled my bag with scraps to take back to the studio.
The order is restored. Art saves lives. More evidence I will survive.