The boxing nun and the burned flag made me smile. Something in the news got me digging around in my office in my box labeled “Matt” and I came across them both at the top of the remnants of Matt’s life. My friend, mentor (and something of a muse and tormentor) Rev. Matt English, died 25 years ago – in 1996.
I think about that scorched flag fairly often. Matt always hated when misguided U.S. policy decisions caused our nation to do stupid things. He needed an outlet when his rage burst out of him, so he kept a small plastic flag over the stove in the kitchen of the house he rented in Dallas. Whenever he became sufficiently riled by an item on the evening news, as he prepared his dinner, he’d burn a new hole in that tattered plastic American flag.
The flag had a place in Matt’s house right next to the cooling oil and skillet. Matt expected to be upset. He’d cook up a little rage with his stir fry. That symbol never went stale for him and I still have that flag now.
In fact, that damn flag launched 23 years of torment for me personally. I first learned of it the evening after I found out Matt had AIDS. Three of his colleagues at the food pantry he ran staged an intervention the day before. I followed up with a loaf of my homemade bread and an offer of friendship.
He accepted all my offerings and shared the purpose of the flag. “Really, I melt it more than burn it,” he said. “It’s plastic. It doesn’t really burn.”
Matt and I became close. After I moved from Texas to California, he followed me 5 months later. We had many adventures together and I found myself doing his laundry, taking him on motorcycle rides, and acting as his medical power of attorney. As he died, I was something of his project manager. He had led at least a couple secret lives and there was a lot to coordinate at the end.
I helped him find a way to tell his family about his illness. I took charge of the morphine in case he wanted to, you know… I even planned his funeral, talked to the Dallas press and called friends and family members after he died. I sat with the family at several services. We were a thing.
Matt, at the end, said he didn’t know me.
Today is World AIDS Day. This year, 2021, marks 40 years since the first case AIDS in the US on June 5th, 1981. Matt died on July 23, 1996, 25 years ago.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to tell the story of that damn flag and my reaction to it ever since. It became my first test case 23 years ago after I decided that the way I could fulfill the promise I made to Matt was to become a writer. More recently, I sketch hypothetical scenarios about how I might have clearly and directly communicated my essence when he was alive – what I could have said about that flag in the moment I learned of it? When he talked about a continuum of sexual attraction? About his confessions and fears and how I came to have empathy and compassion?
I don’t remember Matt as a victim of AIDS but as a fighter for maintaining people’s dignity. I started writing with that flag in mind and, many years later, I focused on Matt’s motto for the food pantry he ran: to “Err on the side of grace.” Both the stickiness and fragility of that motto for that organization inspired me to write my book Virtuous Corporation.
The trick in living to be beloved 25 years after death comes down to how artfully you can channel your rage. Today, as I read his obituaries, stored unread for years in that box, I see they all mentioned that motto. It is not a small thing to leave such a legacy.
I remember Matt with all his humor, flaws and potential. Time and trials haven’t dimmed my feelings of determination to carry on his work in my own way.
I’m reminded my the boxing nun toy that I need to smile, collect irreverent things and share more bread again.
I rage daily that AIDS took Matt before could know me.
I’m furious Matt is not around to demonstrate and teach all of us to err on the side of grace