“Don’t let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.” Unknown
Upstairs on my antique tripod table sits a 50 year old, detailed and beautifully-carved horse head. The horse head is carved into a grainy piece of faded, now dusty, and variegated wood the color of Kurashige mango. I pass by this slab of wood every time I go in and out of my bedroom or walk through the upstairs hall. It is dear to me as my brother, Jim, carved it way back when he started junior high school. It was Jim’s first attempt at woodworking and it shows how extremely talented and creative my brother was.
There are a variety of mementos from Jim sitting around my home: a dried flower arrangement in my bathroom, note cards and photo albums stashed under my desk, and even a miniature pot for burning incense, that was never used by me, sitting on one of my bookshelves. These gifts were all thrown out by our mother when my brother died, only to be rescued by me. I ask, HOW can a mother callously throw out remembrances of her son’s life? As I sit here rehashing our family trauma, I feel like a deflated hot air balloon, devoid of emotion. I have spent nearly all of my life being angry at my parents, so I think I have finally cleansed myself of that horrid sensation. When I lived with my parents, expressing my anger wasn’t allowed, so I stuffed it only to explode at mom and dad years later after my brother’s death.
Now, I suffer such a conundrum as I struggle to unravel the tangled threads of our family dynamics. My blue-eyed, red-haired, hotheaded brother was beyond rebellious while growing up. Yet, Jim was also highly artistic, creative, and intelligent. My brother drew detailed pictures while also exhibiting an eye for design and color. Jim loved various cultures and was fluent in Spanish, French, Russian, and Tibetan. Plus he knew and spoke a little Dutch and German. Jim and I were night and day opposites as I worked at being a people pleaser, to calm my mom and dad. Plus, I loved the freedom of being outside, riding my bicycle 35 miles, body-surfing in the ocean, doing water-ballet, or reading a book in the sun, as I escaped from being around my parents.
My brother was also quite liberal-minded, but it was the 60’s in Southern California after all … “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” Dad, a staunch conservative, couldn’t be in the same room for five minutes with my brother before the fireworks went off. Ninety percent of the time I felt as if I was in the middle of a Vietnamese war zone between the surprise attacks and sudden explosions. Avoiding being around our parents was a priority for my brother, Jim, and me.
Our dad’s grandparents came from Conwy, Wales and were exceedingly strict to the point of being abusive. Consequently, our dad’s father used to beat up his wife, his daughter, and his son, our dad. Our dad broke the cycle slightly in the fact that when he finally out grew his father, dad told his father that he “would kill him if he EVER laid a hand on his mother and sister again.” However, what dad did not recognize was the belittling that took place at home. Thus, he carried that habit forward to our home.
Mom grew up in a similar situation. Mom’s father’s family came from Germany. My great grandfather had been a superior court judge for the state of California. He had been quite wealthy, but then he tried to help the state by backing a bond for a Northern California water system. Unfortunately, the bond failed and the state of California took everything from my family. Our family’s anger never dissipated and brutally impacted everyone. Mom’s parents were extremely stringent in their life-style and beliefs. Thus, our mom’s and dad’s childhoods had been extraordinarily difficult, and they had quite strict ideas about how the world “should be” as neither of our parents had a healthy or happy parenting style.
Consequently, our parents had no idea of how to deal with two children who had ideas of their own about what they wanted out of life. Supposedly, “good children” always followed their parents’ advice and did EXACTLY what their parents said… right? Not in our case.
I had spent my life as a buffer between our parents and my brother so when I left for college the firewall was gone. Jim and dad argued one day over heavens knows what, the argument escalated, and dad beat my 16 year old brother up. Jim ran out of the house never to return as he moved in with a friend. Jim sold drugs to survive. Plus, what we didn’t know is that the “friend” was a sexual partner. I learned years later that Jim had been raped too by a supposed Sea Scout leader. So Jim had quite a few sexual experiences that we had no clue existed.
When my brother was 19, in the early 70’s, much to the entire family’s surprise Jim ‘came out’ as being gay and declared that he was HIV positive. Recently I have heard people say “Oh no, HIV wasn’t discovered until the 80’s.” What these people don’t realize is that the medical community definitely knew about HIV/AIDS before the 80’s as they attempted to cover up these findings thinking that they were a few isolated incidents.
So when Jim made his announcement, I was totally shocked, as simply I had no clue to what Jim was experiencing. I knew Jim had considered suicide in his mid-teens as I had sensed something was radically wrong one night when he slipped out a window and didn’t return until the wee hours of the morning… but I didn’t have any idea of the specific problem. Ohhh man, the family shook like a Ferris wheel in a violent wind storm. Any relationship that my brother had developed with our parents evaporated like a drop of water on a sizzling pan as my dad stated “No son of mine is going to be a F***ing Fag!”
Being gay, especially in the 70’s, was unacceptable to our parents. It was also met with total intolerance within the community. I remember Jim had to go to the doctor for some blood work. The aide mistakenly hit my brother’s vein and blood spurted out all over. The aide was terrified and ran from the room, leaving Jim to bleed and solve the problem himself.
Because my brother could not find acceptance at home or within the community, Jim strove to find acceptance through religion. Over my brother’s short, but action-packed lifetime, Jim dove headlong into most of the world’s religions at one time or another. Jim, in his early high school years started out as a Christian Scientist. At that time, Jim became sick from his involvement with drugs. By this time, I was married with my own life, so I only happened to find out from my parents that Jim was in the hospital in intensive care. The doctors discovered while Jim was in the hospital that Jim was born with an abnormal heart – three lobes on both sides of his heart, plus it was severely tilted to the left. The doctors wanted to do exploratory surgery and thought that Jim would die if they didn’t check out his heart. Since Jim was 19 and a Christian Scientist, he refused the surgery. Miracles happen as thankfully even though he was in critical condition Jim survived without the doctors cutting into him. The great news though is this experience did get Jim off drugs.
Jim’s life dramatically straightened out then, so he went off to college in Northern California to obtain a Liberal Arts Degree. After his graduation, he taught blind children in a school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Jim’s goal was to teach these youngsters that there was hope for them to grow up to become productive adults and not be victims.
Over the years, Jim belonged to Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s group and had to escape up over an eight foot barbed wire fence at a Los Angeles compound late one night in order to get out of the group before Reverend Moon and his group was kicked out of the United States.
Jim’s next learning experience was when he joined the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s group that practiced “human potential psychotherapy.” The Bhagwan taught a syncretistic spiritual path that combined elements from Hinduism, Jainism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, ancient Greek philosophy, and new forms of therapy and meditation. As the other followers, my brother grew his cinnamon-red hair long enough for a top-knot on his head. He was clothed in orange and wore a beaded necklace with a picture of the Bhagwan attached. When the Bhagwan started collecting his followers’ worldly possessions, Mercedes, Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, bank accounts, etc., Jim finally recognized the Bhagwan for the fraud that he was and left the cult. Shortly afterward, the Bhagwan was kicked out of the United States and sent back to India.
In the meantime, while in Seattle, Washington, Jim taught at a school for Special Education students to help the kids learn to function in the everyday world. Then my ever curious brother, moved back to Northern California to graduate with his Master’s in psychology. Because of his interest in the Buddhist philosophy from when he was involved with the Baghwan’s group, Jim decided to learn more about the Buddhist religion while he was obtaining his Master’s Degree in psychology. Surely, he would gain acceptance for being who he is this time! What I find incredible is that people don’t seem to look beyond the surface at who we are as individuals. Jim was Gay, but he was a loving and very bright person who helped children and adults. Why couldn’t he be accepted for the good aspects of his life? In each of Jim’s religious followings, like at home, Jim had to hide the fact that he was Gay.
When Jim completed his Master’s dissertation on starting HIV/AIDS Support Groups, he set up the first support groups back in Seattle to help these people suffering with this disease, as Jim was. Eventually, Jim became so enmeshed in this religion that he decided to become a Buddhist monk.
Because Jim was HIV positive and extremely thin, Seattle’s cold weather was creating havoc with Jim’s body. So he moved to the Buddhist Ashram in Honolulu, Hawaii where he eventually ran the Ashram because of his depth of knowledge in the Buddhist religion and his capability in speaking the Tibetan language.
Then, finally, during the Gulf War, Jim accompanied his Lama and the Dalai Lama to India to give out money to the temples. I do know that in order to be selected to accompany the Lama to India Jim had to be able to speak and write Tibetan at a certain capability. Since it is the Dalai Lama’s duty to distribute money, Jim and the Lama accompanied him as they had brought some of the donations from Hawaii. Sadly, the sentiment against Americans at that time was vicious, so the Hawaiian Lama disguised Jim as a Nigerian. They dyed his red hair black and darkened his skin, and then hid Jim out in Katmandu for three months until they could figure a way of sneaking Jim out of the country and back home. I never did learn the details of how Jim managed to get home, but it was a complicated route.
While Jim was hiding in India and Katmandu he saw the drastic differences in how the Buddhist nuns were treated versus the monks. The monks lived in temples surrounded by finery, whereas the nuns lived in corrugated metal huts. The nuns swept their dirt floors and were vigilant for snakes as there were no doors on these huts. Jim was disgusted by the caste system and the treatment of these nuns. Jim wanted acceptance for all! When Jim returned to the states he turned in his robes and left the Buddhist religion. After Jim’s experience with the vast religions he was so angry he vowed never to participate in another religion. He was true to his word, because he died a little over two years later.
Because of the dirt and squalor in the food and living conditions in Katmandu, Jim unknowingly picked up three vicious parasites that were unknown to the doctors in the states. By the time, the doctors figured out why Jim was so ill, the parasites had made Swiss cheese of his organs. Jim went through nearly two years of hell as his organs gave out. He experienced pain and incredible suffering as he could no longer control his bodily functions. Plus, since my brother was seriously HIV positive his system could not fight the diseases or the parasites, nor was there any medicine for either. The doctors told Jim he did not have long to live, but they didn’t know exactly how long. It simply depended on Jim’s body and what fight it had left.
I still remember his call saying that he was dying. He warned me that he would have no warning… he would simply be gone. I felt crushed as I didn’t want to lose my friend and brother. I was determined to have time with my beloved brother. I promptly climbed on a plane to Honolulu, to say “good-bye.” Fortunately, it was Memorial Day weekend and I had a three day holiday from work. I was a single mom so I had two children at home to support. I scraped together the money for my trip. By the time I arrived, his strength was marginal and he had to rest between the three days of my visit. Jim was so ill that he could not be with me for three days in a row. I simply wanted time, whatever time I could get, with my brother, but he was determined to be strong and be a good host. One day he drove me around the island to show me the tourist spots. I have no idea of where we went as frankly I didn’t care. I simply wanted time with my brother. The next day Jim rested while I sat in my hotel room studying for a class. That night, we went out to dinner at a local Asian restaurant. The next day, my brother drove me to the Honolulu Airport where I hugged him and said “good-bye.”
I want to know how you say “good-bye” to someone you love, knowing you will never see them again? I didn’t want to upset my brother so I worked at being very strong. Then sat on the plane as the tears trickled down my cheeks.
Amazingly, Jim lived for nearly a year longer. We would chat on the phone frequently to discuss our lives and what we had learned. One very important fact that jumps out and hits me in the face is that because mom and dad insisted that our jobs be practical, Jim and I did not follow our passions. Why Jim taught children escapes both of us as because of his interest in languages and cultures, he would have preferred to be a translator and maybe work for the United Nations. I went to work for a bank, but I would have preferred designing clothes or doing something with my love for the water. I loved creativity.
Then one day Jim dropped into a coma and three days before his 42nd birthday he died alone. Jim had refused to call our parents when he entered the hospital. Jim was too tired to deal with mom’s and dad’s judgment of him. By the time Jim dropped into a coma, his friends realized that our parents didn’t know Jim was in the hospital. Then I will never forget the dull sound of my dad’s voice as he said, “We missed the flight. Your brother passed away before we could get there.” No matter how I try, I can’t remember the rest of the conversation. My body went dead, my ears rang, I felt like I was going to throw up, I had to go home. I couldn’t stay at work.
When I think back about my brother’s now spent life, my mind is flooded with memories and tears. Everything cascades forward so I have difficulty telling one detail from the next. However, the one thing that stands out is that my brother definitely was an interesting character, and he lived more life in his 41 short years than most of us live in a far longer life span. My brother, James Robert Edwards, had been on a crusade to discover acceptance for who he was as an individual and never found it because he felt that he always had to hide who he really was – a Gay man.