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JaneOne Last Time

By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Ed Obregon is a big bear of a man, who refers to himself as "Gentle Ben." He is bald, but a dark mustache frames a friendly smile. This smile is often the best medicine he can offer a dying patient.

In 1993, for three memorable visits, Ed served as Hospice nurse to Mick Morse. In his care for Mick, Ed tried to console him with an unspoken message. "Things are not perfect, but things will be okay. There is a God. God is merciful. Every bad thing in life, something good can come of it."

It was not easy to be cheerful in the face of Mick's suffering. With his immune system destroyed, Mick was laid low by tuberculosis and pneumonia. Cancerous lesions covered his arms, legs and torso. Mycobacterial infections created horrible diarrhea. Open sores on his tailbone produced a green matter rampant with bacteria.

What Mick required, on a daily basis, was "intimate, personal, unappetizing care."

Ed remembered a lot of caring in the home of Aunt Joan and Uncle Ralph.

"I remember Jane standing in the dining area, very strained, but very dignified. She was able to talk about her feelings, but looked somewhat overwhelmed. She accepted a hug. She expressed warmth and caring for Mick -- maybe for a man that she did not really know."

That man, Michael David Morse, looked before his death like "a captive from Auschwitz."

Ed Obregon's characterization is apt, and not just because of Mick's gaunt appearance.

Mick was born in 1939, the year the Nazi death machine stalked all who threatened Aryan supremacy: Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals. In the concentration camps, homosexuals were forced to wear pink triangles.

By the time Mick was 10 years old, surgeons still performed lobotomies on men to "cure" them of their homosexuality.

By the time Mick was 13, the witch hunts of the McCarthy era equated homosexuality with communism and treason.

At the time Mick married Jane, 1968, psychiatrists still listed homosexuality as a mental illness.

Even as late as the year of his death, 1993, America debated whether gays should be able to serve their country in the military.

Should it come as any surprise, then, that Mick, if he was gay, would find cause throughout his life to conceal his true nature?

In the weeks and months after her husband's death, Jane tried to decipher the cryptography of Mick's character. It was an emotional process, which reached a crescendo the night she went to see the movie Philadelphia. She remembers weeping in the dark, especially during the scene when the Tom Hanks character, dying of AIDS, emotes and trembles while listening to the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano, as if the music is pulsating through the molecules of his frail flesh.

Wheeling his IV stand around the room, Hanks translates his favorite aria to an amazed Denzel Washington: "I bring sorrow to those who love me. ... Live still. ... I am life. ... Heaven is in your eyes. ... I am divine. ... I am oblivion. ... I am the god that comes down from the heavens and makes of the earth a heaven. ... I am love."

The scene struck an emotional chord deep within Jane, who remembered how much Mick loved opera. She knew the stereotypes about gay men, and some fit Mick: his love for the arts, his desire for travel, his facility with languages, his sensitivities as a teacher and counselor. They were the best parts of his character. Were they also expressions of his homosexuality?

Walking out of the theater, Jane tried to get her mind around the idea that Mick, her husband of almost 25 years, the father of her children, was gay. She had evidence, but it was circumstantial and impressionistic. How could she, or anyone, plumb the recesses of a human heart, especially one as secretive as Mick's? She knew she could never solve that mystery. But she could learn to live with it, even as Mick had died with it.

From 1980-89, Mick had worked closely with a school counselor named Penny Melo e Souza. Penny still advises students at the American School in Rio. She lives in an old Brazilian house, filled with handsome art objects. On her shelves are books about education and psychology. She is studying psychoanalysis.

She reaches for a book and reads from a letter that Freud wrote in 1935 to an American woman seeking a cure for her son's homosexuality. Freud reassures the mother, telling her that there is nothing to cure if her son is at peace with who he is.

Penny knows that Mick found no such peace. "It must have been hell for him," she says.

If he had come to her for counseling, what would she have said to him?

If he was gay? "It might have meant his family. It might have meant his job -- the two things he cherished most -- but somewhere in his life he had to be honest about who he was."

Penny believes that Mick loved Jane and respected her, but recognizes that "To love, you have to know who the other person is." She has a theory that Mick knew he was infected and withdrew physically from Jane to protect her.

She wonders if he was less concerned about protecting himself. "What is he saying to us about getting AIDS?" she asks. "Maybe he's saying: 'I can't be what I really am. I know how to avoid getting it.' But self-hatred can lead to destructive behavior."

That behavior left its legacy of pain and fear, for Mick and his family. Jane dealt with it as best she could, even when feelings of dread once again flooded over her. It was now months since Mick had died. One last time, she went to the doctor to be tested for AIDS.

THE SERIES: This is the 28th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 29, The Good Father


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