Ruth Buried Me

For Ruth Coker Burns, who buried over three dozen AIDS victims when no one else would.


Ruth buried me.
When no one else would,
when everyone else would rather leave me to the flies,
Ruth buried me.
I, her Polynices.
She, my Antigone.
But first–
First, there were all the days and nights I spent above ground:
9,354 of them to be precise.
My mother tucked me in,
always making sure there was time for a story,
like Owls In The Family
and Terrible, Horribly Edie.
My father taught me how to change a tire,
or he tried to 26 times before giving up.
My grandmother stood over the stove every Sunday,
making sauce while I watched,
her varicose veins like a map to her past,
and her thick tomato sauce our family’s glue.
My grandfather played piano,
songs like Skylark and I’ll Be Seeing You.
There were three dogs,
though all at different times:
Max, a golden lab whose kidneys shut down at age 13.
Rascal, a pit bull who got out of the house and hit by a car on my sixteenth birthday.
And Pepper, another lab.
Might even still be alive, that one.
Might even have outlived me.
After all…
Who hasn’t?
There were schools,
four to be exact,
and girls–
or so I’d been told.
There were books I read and books I never opened.
There were winters so cold I swore I thought my nose might freeze off and summers so hot you could scramble eggs on the sidewalk.
There was a stray cat who had kittens under our porch.
There was a bicycle,
a skateboard,
a car.
There were shirts I outgrew.
Socks that never escaped the dryer.
Pictures of me on the wall,
every year a different sweater even though that same forced smile never seemed to change.
That same forced smile I would recreate a thousand times,
whenever I needed to pretend that everything was fine,
even when Ruth would come and hold my hand.
Even now in Ruth’s backyard.
These are the things that link us:
My mother and I,
my father and I,
Grandmother, grandfather, teachers and neighbors and strangers and people I never met and never would halfway across the world.
Dogs and flat tires and schools and girls,
whether you notice them or not.
These are the things that form a common ground.
But then there are boys.
Not just boys, but men.
Not just men, but lovers.
Not just lovers, but one-night-only affairs that never really end because they never really begin.
If I’d had varicose veins like my grandmother,
if I’d lived long enough to have varicose veins,
you could’ve followed them,
a bumpy trail from one bed to another,
from Michael and Peter and Tim and Nathaniel and Ronnie and Ben and The Boy With Blue Eyes whose name I never learned and the man in the park who kissed me and told me I tasted like black cherries.
We live our lives in fragments.
We break,
we shatter
or we fray like the end of a shoelace,
heading in a hundred different directions,
every destination farther away than the last.
And some times those fragments never come together again.
Ruth buried me.
When my parents wouldn’t come to my side,
Ruth did.
When my grandparents wouldn’t take my calls,
Ruth did.
When I no longer had the strength to beg them,
she’d beg them for me.
When I’d forgotten my name,
she reminded me.
When no one else would enter the room,
she would sit right next to me.
When my eyes stopped working,
she read to me.
When my arms stopped working,
she bathed me.
When I’d cried out for my mother in my final moments,
she whispered,
“I’m right here.
My sweet baby boy, I’m here.”
When no one else would take my body,
Ruth brought me home.
I spend my time now under a Sycamore tree, in the perfect balance of shade and sun, a permanent umbrella to protect me from the rain.
There are flowers of every type and color blooming around me.
On a not-too-windy day, I can hear the trucks a few miles away on Route 66.
To my right is Nelson.
I saw him lip sync to Cher last March.
To my left is William.
I kissed him in an alley one New Year’s Eve.
A few feet down, there’s Malcolm,
a playwright I never met.
Across the way, there’s Johnny,
who had a gap between his two front teeth.
We shared a room in the hospital for two short days.
There’s others:
A singer, a lawyer, a dancer, a teacher, a nurse.
We lived our lives in fragments.
We broke,
we shattered,
we frayed
And then we spent the rest of our lives following varicose maps,
searching for someone to put us back together again.
Ruth buried us.
When no one else would,
when everyone else would rather leave us to the flies,
Ruth buried us.
When all our broken pieces were blown across the world,
Ruth stitched us a quilt of memories warm enough to last an eternity.
We, her Polynices.
She, our Antigone.

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