My friend, Joseph Kramer is a visionary and one of the most courageous people I know. Joseph studied for several years to be a Jesuit priest. Then he had his “aha” experience.
One of Joseph’s Jesuit housemates at the Jesuit Theologate in Berkeley, CA took massage training at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, CA.. Upon his return, he offered to practice what he’d learned on his Jesuit housemates, including Joseph, who at the time was a scholar who lived largely in his head. During the course of the massage, Joseph, in my telling, experienced, for the first time, full incarnation, full embodiment—body, mind and soul perfectly aligned. (Joseph doesn’t dispute this.)
After this experience, Joseph knew he had to leave the Jesuits to be faithful to the intuitive guidance that accompanied it. He substitute taught in parochial schools in the Bay Area while he attended massage school. Once licensed, he began building his massage practice. A couple of years later, he opened his own massage school, Body Electric, in homage to the poet Walt Whitman.
During the early years of the AIDs epidemic, Joseph began massage trainings to teach people how to safely and sensually touch infected men and women. He also dedicated time to educate us to become “midwives to the dying.”
In 1990 I spent a week in Oakland during the Christmas holidays participating in one of Joseph’s trainings.
A few days into the training, one of the men (I had never met before) came up to me during the break and asked, “You live in Los Angeles, don’t you?”
He sat down next to me and said, “I need a male friend in Los Angeles. I have a couple of close girlfriends there, but I don’t know any men. My boyfriend, Philip, lives there. He has AIDs and it’s getting worse. I’m moving down there right after the holidays to take care of him.”
“So, will you be my friend?” He asked a second time.
“Sure. Of course, I will.” (What was I going to say?)
Gio, short for Giovanni was, at the time I met him, a well-known, highly respected theatre director. Everything about him is bigger than life and highly dramatic, like an opera impresario. Even in a small room he makes grand, sweeping gestures as if he is playing to a sold out crowd in a concert hall. He would be perfectly at ease in a black cape and fedora.
Gio continued: “Philip’s coming up from L. A. in a couple of days to spend Christmas with me. Will you join us for dinner, while he’s here?”
In for a penny, in for a pound: “I’d love to,” I replied.
That dinner was the only time I ever saw Philip until he was on his death bed late the following summer.
Gio called me almost as soon as he was settled into Philip’s West Hollywood bungalow. I invited them to dinner.
“Philip doesn’t leave the house much,” Gio said, “But I could use a break.”
When I arrived to pick Gio up, he was waiting at the door. “I’m going to have dinner with Jim,” he called into another room, “Can I bring you anything?”
“No thanks,” said a voice from another room. “Hi Jim, you and Gio have a good time.”
“Hi, Philip,” I called to the voice in the other room.
This would be the routine for the next several months.
Philip, who had been a professional dancer, and a very attractive one at that, had developed Kaposi Sarcoma. KS is an AIDs identifying condition; among its symptoms are cancerous tumors around the nose, mouth, genitals and anus. Philip was, understandably, uncomfortable having anybody but his closest friends see him disfigured this way.
As the months passed by, I grew more enchanted with Gio—apart from his devotion to Philip—I’d never met anyone like him—and I worked in show business!
During this time, I met Gio’s girlfriend, Magda, an ample woman given to wearing soft, flowing kaftans and a devotee of Nichiren Buddhism, notable for the practice of chanting. Magda had a high-pitched, whispery, almost Marilyn Monroe-like voice which seemed a bit incongruous when she chanted softly under her breath, which she did when stressed, which seemed to me most of the time.
Toward the end of a particularly hot summer, Philip’s condition deteriorated to the point that Gio admitted him to the hospital. Philip’s devoutly Catholic parents, who deeply disapproved of their son’s lifestyle and Gio’s round-the-clock presence (which they judged to be a “bad influence”), flew in from the east coast.
This wasn’t unusual. I know too many stories of grieving parents coming to their gay son’s deathbed, having no idea what a rich, love-filled, life he had, only to discover it when it was too late to share in it.
Gio called me when Philip was settled into his room at the hospital. I said I’d be there shortly.
“Philip won’t want you in the room,” Gio said.
“I’m not coming to see Philip I’m coming to support you. You shouldn’t be alone.”
Gio greeted me at the door of Philip’s room. “He’s been in a coma and unresponsive since 9:00 this morning. I don’t want to leave him. Come in and keep me company.”
“No,” I said, “Patrick made his wishes very clear.”
“He’s in a coma,” Gio insisted.
I had attended a conference on death and dying a couple of years earlier with author Steven Levine. I shared my one seminar expertise with Gio: “Steven Levine says that people in a coma can hear what’s going on around them. Go tell Patrick that I’m here and you want me to come in and keep you company.”
Gio rolled his eyes and went to Philip’s bedside.
“Philip,” Gio spoke softly, Jim Curtan’s here.”
Philip barely lifted his head from the pillow, opened his eyes, looked at me and whispered, “Hi, Jim. It’s okay. Come in.” He closed his eyes, lay back on his pillow and didn’t come out of the coma again. Gio grabbed my arm so tightly I’m surprised I don’t have bruises to this day. A bit later Gio and I went out into the hall while Philip’s parents sat in his room with him.
“Is there anything you need, Gio?” I asked. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Gio closed his eyes, thought for a moment, and said, “Papyrus. I need papyrus. As soon as Philip passes, I’m performing the Egyptian Rites of the Dead so that Philip’s spirit won’t get lost in the bardo.*”
I had never heard of the Egyptian Rites of the Dead or the bardo and I had no idea where, in Los Angeles on a hot Saturday afternoon, to find papyrus. (These were the days before I-phones, Google and Amazon Prime.) Gio suggested I try an art supply store.
“I’ll do my best.” I said
“If they don’t have papyrus, parchment will do.”
I went to three art supply stores. None of them had papyrus. I asked the clerk at the third store if he had any idea where I might find papyrus. “Egypt, maybe.” He replied helpfully.
I bought parchment.
When I returned to the hospital, Gio had been joined by Magda and Philip’s former boyfriend, Carl.
Philip had just passed and his parents were in the room saying goodbye.
“We’ll begin as soon as they leave,” Gio said, “before Philip’s spirit leaves the room.”
Moments later we entered the room and Gio unpacked a gym bag which contained a candle, small Tibetan bells, a cigarette lighter, several ballpoint pens, and copies of an Egyptian chant printed phonetically for each of us to recite.
Gio tore the parchment into post-it sized pieces and instructed us to write our wishes for Philip in the afterlife on the pieces.
When we finished writing, Gio chanted something, lit the candle and told us to burn our wishes, one after the other, until we were finished.
Before we had managed to burn one wish, a nurse rushed in and ordered Gio to blow out the candle. “What are you thinking, there’s an oxygen tank in the room. You could blow up the whole hospital!”
Gio pleaded with nurse, “We have to act quickly or Philip could get lost in the bardo.”
The nurse looked at us quizzically, pushed the oxygen tank to the door, and said, “Okay. Open the windows and wait fifteen minutes before you re-light the candle.”
Gio took the phonetically printed Egyptian chant out of the bag and handed one to each us. “This will give us an opportunity to practice.”
Carl handed the paper back to Gio, pulled a rosary out of his pocket and said, “This is gibberish to me. I’m going to recite the rosary.”
Magda squinted at the paper and said, “Giovanni (she always called Gio, Giovanni) I don’t have my reading glasses. I’ll do my Buddhist chant. Okay?”
Gio and I practiced the Egyptian chant. I have no recollection if he ever told me what it meant.
Then Gio pulled what looked like a prayer shawl and a relatively small pair of Tibetan hand bells from his bag. He carefully arranged the shawl about his shoulders.
When the fifteen minutes had passed Gio relit the candle and each of us, in turn, read our wishes for Philip in the afterlife, mine were pretty generic since I barely knew the man. When the parchment was reduced to ashes, Gio began to ring the bells and instructed us to begin chanting. Carl repeated the Our Father and the Hail Mary; Magda whispered the Buddhist chant, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, and Gio and I recited the Egyptian chant.
After what seemed like forever, the nurse interrupted the ritual to tell us that we must bring our ceremony to an end, “the attendants are here for the deceased’s remains.”
We watched silently as Philip‘s body was put into a body-bag, gently lifted onto a gurney and rolled away.
Gio looked at the three of us and said, “We have to repeat the ritual for the next four nights prior to Philip’s cremation. Everyone be at our house tomorrow at 7:30 PM.”
When we arrived the following evening, Gio had transformed the dining room into a memorial to Philip. Lighted candles, carefully placed around the room, provided all of the light. A cassette of Eastern chants played softly on a boom box. The table was covered end to end with flowers. Exquisitely arranged among the flowers were mementos of Philip’s life: his dance shoes, various cassette tapes, stubs of concert tickets, a well-worn teddy bear, a few credit cards, a skate key, and, in the center, Philip’s gorgeous headshot, the photograph he left with casting directors after an audition. In the photo he is tousle-haired, handsome, lively, and muscular. The shot bears no resemblance to the wasted body we had said goodbye to at the hospital the previous day. “There are enough bells for everyone,” Gio said. Magda selected the smallest pair. Carl pulled his rosary out of his pocket making it clear he was not there to ring bells. I chose a medium pair and Gio, of course, picked up the largest ones which sounded more like gongs than bells. There were no phonetic lyrics to the Egyptian chant; I couldn’t have held the paper and rung the bells anyway. We began: Carl’s deep baritone reciting the rosary, Magda breathily whispering the Buddhist chant, Gio saying the Egyptian chant. Gio noticed that I was silent and mouthed the word, “Pray!” “God, grant me the serenity . . . ,” I began.
We repeated this ritual for the next four nights. Each night Gio had done something to make Philip’s memorial more beautiful. I suspect Gio spent much of the time between the evening’s gatherings mourning Philip and perfecting his tribute.
The cremation was scheduled for late morning at the fabled Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA, final resting place for everyone from Frank L. Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney to Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. White doves are available for rental for both weddings and funerals. The cemetery is one of the top tourist attractions in Los Angeles.
I was the first to arrive. I went to the main office and was told by the mortician (concierge) that neither Philip’s remains nor any the mourners had yet arrived.
Gio, Magda and Carl arrived together. When told that Philip’s remains had not arrived, Gio said, “Just like Philip, always has to make an entrance.”
Gio told the manager that we wanted to have a ceremony.
“You haven’t reserved a chapel,” he reprimanded Gio. “I’m sorry they are all booked. You should have called ahead.”
The manager, rail thin, in a black suit and tie, with a voice as deep as a crater, was a totally stereotypical mortician—think Lurch in the Addams Family. He looked almost as much like a corpse as the clientele he was caring for.
“We must have a final ceremony!” Gio insisted.
“All I can offer you”, said the manager, “is an outdoor loading dock adjacent to the crematorium.”
“Fine,” Gio said.
While we awaited Philip’s arrival, Gio walked us through the ceremony.
When he had finished, he looked at Magda and said, “Where is the boom box?” Magda chanted for several seconds and said, “Giovanni, you are going to be so disappointed with me. I forgot to bring the boom box.”
“We must have music!” Gio insisted. “I recorded all of Philip’s favorite music. Philip was a dancer. We’ll have acapella singing!”
Gio looked at Carl: “I’m praying the rosary!”
“Magda,” Gio pleaded.
“Giovanni (chant, chant, chant), Please don’t be more disappointed in me, but I can’t carry a tune to save my life.”
Gio turned to me.
“Gio,” I said, “I pretty much know the complete scores of Oklahoma and South Pacific but I don’t think either “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” or “Some Enchanted Evening” is suitable to the occasion.
“Jim, please. Think!! You must know a good song!”
“There’s this silly Carmen Miranda song I sing to my nieces and nephews . . . “
“Sing it!” Gio commanded.
Where are we going?
Why are we going?
What are we going to do?
We’re on our way to somewhere
the four of us and you!
“Who will be there?
What’ll we see there?
What’ll be the great surprise?
There may be caballeros
with dark and flashing eyes!
Gio interrupted me as if he had been conducting an audition. “Perfect!” he said.
The manager informed us that the remains of the deceased had arrived, had been put on a gurney and were waiting for us on the loading dock.
There was no coffin atop the gurney; there was a cardboard box with Philip’s name written with Magic Marker on the side of it. I had neither expected nor imagined that.
“Do not open the box!” the mortician commanded.
“Trust me,” I thought!
Gio retrieved the majority of the items that had decorated his dining room table for the last four days and placed them, mindfully and delicately on top of the cardboard box.
Gio drew the Tibetan bells from his gym bag and gave me a pair. Carl took out his rosary and, following Gio’s lead we began to circle the cardboard box. Gio rang bells, Carl said the rosary, Magda chanted and, as the temperatures topped 100 degrees, I sang the Carmen Miranda song and wished I’d brought maracas.
Cuanto le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta
Cuanto le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta
We gotta get goin’, where are we goin’, what are we gonna do?
We’re on our way to somewhere, the three of us and you
What’ll we see there, who will be there, what’ll be the big surprise?
There may be caballeros with dark and flashing eyes
We’re on our way (we’re on our way)
Pack up your pack (pack up your pack)
And if we stay (and if we stay)
We won’t come back (we won’t come back)
How can we go, we haven’t got a dime?
But we’re goin’ and we’re gonna have a happy time
(A YouTube version of Carmen Miranda singing Cuanto le Gusta.)
We had circled the gurney three or four times when the mortician interrupted us to tell Gio the loading dock needed to be vacated for another arrival.
“We’d like to wait for the ashes,” Gio told the mortician.
“Sir, they won’t be ready for at least 72 hours. Perhaps you’d like to sit on the benches under those trees and watch the smoke billowing out of the crematorium. When the smoke turns white, all liquids have evaporated.”
“Just like electing a pope,” I thought. I really thought that.
We sat on the benches (which we’re located under leafy trees that suggested relief from the heat, but didn’t provide it), and shared our reminiscences about Philip while we waited for the smoke to turn white.
I had two—only two—reminiscences about Philip—our holiday dinner in San Francisco and his brief awakening from the coma in the hospital, so while Gio, Carl, and Magda reminisced , I sweated in the 100 plus degree heat and watched the crematorium chimney, praying for white smoke.
When the smoke finally appeared, I pointed it out to the other mourners and suggested that we retire to an air-conditioned restaurant, which served liquor and toast Philip. They agreed.
I walked back to my car, drenched in sweat. (I’d made the mistake of wearing a jacket and tie, conventional attire for a conventional funeral.)
When I had reached my car, two cemetery workers approached me.
“Senor,” asked the first in heavily accented English, “What religion are you people?”
“Why do you ask?” I replied.
“It’s the most beautiful funeral we’ve ever seen,” said the second.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but over the years I’ve come to believe that these two cemetery workers were messengers from the beyond letting us know that Philip had made it through the bardo.
*bardo: (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.