Hummingbird Pays a Visit to Jamie’s Grave
by Ephraim de Francisco Solanas
I was certain that storing Jamie’s ashes on a bookshelf in the bedroom was sacrilegious. More time was needed, as it was not clear about how to honor my partner and I was still reeling from the shock and exhaustion following his death from opportunistic infections, related to what was later called AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). As I settled into my new apartment, I shelved the crude, plastic box of grey ash and fragments of bone among my books. There was my lover in his new, reduced form, sitting like an unlabeled tome on a shelf. I hoped it would eventually become apparent how to properly commemorate our relationship and his death. I did not intend to have his ashes on a shelf in perpetuum.
One of the multiple, monstrous tragedies during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic was widespread AIDS-phobia alloyed with virulent homophobia. During his struggle to survive, Jamie and I had been abandoned by both family and friends. After enduring the continuous barrage of loss, and feeling deeply vulnerable, I was hesitant regarding many areas of my life. San Francisco was a war zone. Death lurched through the neighborhoods, staining the skin of emaciated men with purple blotches. After six months, clarity arrived regarding the appropriate ceremony, yet no invitations were mailed, for I suspected that no one would respond.
My plan for Jamie’s memorial was to return to the urban forest he and I had navigated during the early weeks of wooing that followed our first date. We had blazed a route between his flat in the Western Addition, up to my apartment high on the other side of Twin Peaks. We frequently scaled the steep hillside of eucalyptus trees and fragrant undergrowth, alone together, hidden in the urban forest. This perambulation between our two homes was directly above the hospital room where Jamie died, the UC Medical Center.
I gathered the items for the impromptu ritual: incense, a candle, matches, as well as a small trowel for excavation, and placed them in a small backpack. Before departing, I inserted the earbuds of my Walkman, and loaded a cassette tape with one of Jamie’s favorite opera performers, the magnificent Leontyne Price. With the plastic box of ashes secured under my arm, I left the house, and began to weave through the Haight-Ashbury, soothed by the arias of Puccini and Verdi, as tears streamed down my face, as if an inner levee had burst, permitting a torrent of bitter grief, regret and guilt. I surrendered and let myself be inundated, unconcerned if anyone might take notice of a twenty-six-year old man walking the street, sobbing helplessly.
After locating our secret entrance to Sutro Forest, an artificial grove of eucalyptus trees planted by the City in the late nineteenth century, I began to ascend through the forest tangle, where every fifteen meters, I tied a thin, red strip of cloth around a tree, marking the route, in anticipation of future visits to the gravesite. Half way to the summit, I came upon a narrow, earthen shelf in the steep hillside. After sitting down, I removed the items for the ritual, and after gently pushing aside the dried leaves and ivy vines, dug a small hole in the wet earth. I began to pray audibly, beginning with a petition for forgiveness, followed by a wish for a peaceful afterlife. After lighting the incense, I opened the box, and while musing that it was surreal for a six-foot two-inch man to be reduced to mere five pounds of ash, poured the contents into the hole and covered it with earth. In that precise instant, a hummingbird appeared a meter away, her shining, wet black eyes inspecting me. A soft thrill tingled through all of my cells. Her visit lasted less than a minute, and she departed vertically, flying directly up to pierce the canopy of trees and disappear into the sapphire sky.
I sat frozen in a stunned silence, shrouded by the grove, as the pungent odor of the leaves mixed with the incense. The distant sounds of the city below pulsed and fell into stillness. I was certain the hummingbird was connected to Jamie’s spirit: a messenger delivering word that he was well, and that his sacred journey was underway.
It was 1986 and I was a mere twenty-six years old, still an adolescent in most ways. The years of living under deep suffering had stripped me of the sweetness of life and plunged me into the underworld. The iridescent, winged emissary had come to the hidden hillside memorial to emphasize that my vitality was intact, and that life was waiting for my return. It would be decades before I would understand the great initiation that I had traversed, and the resultant gifts that had been installed in my heart.
As an elder, long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS, thirty-one years as an HIV-positive, gay man, Ephraim de Francisco Solanas is living his life backwards: his twenties and thirties were focused on death and dying, his fifties and sixties are about living and learning.