Queer Goggles

Saint Ruth

June 19, 2019 Brian Poth, Nick Vargas, Ruth Coker Burks Season 1 Episode 6
Queer Goggles
Saint Ruth
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Queer Goggles
Saint Ruth
Jun 19, 2019 Season 1 Episode 6
Brian Poth, Nick Vargas, Ruth Coker Burks

After reading an article about Ruth Coker Burks and her work with AIDS patients in the '80s and '90s, Nick reached out to this modern-day saint to see if she would be interested in sharing her story with The Source. She said, "YES"!!! In this talk, she shares how her work began, about the love and loss of thousands of men, death and dying, and the importance of keeping this history alive. Silence still equals death. 

Support the show (http://paypal.me/thesourcelgbt)

Show Notes Transcript

After reading an article about Ruth Coker Burks and her work with AIDS patients in the '80s and '90s, Nick reached out to this modern-day saint to see if she would be interested in sharing her story with The Source. She said, "YES"!!! In this talk, she shares how her work began, about the love and loss of thousands of men, death and dying, and the importance of keeping this history alive. Silence still equals death. 

Support the show (http://paypal.me/thesourcelgbt)

Speaker 1:

Hello, this is Nick Vargas, what the source, LGBT plus center. And you are listening to queer goggles

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Speaker 1:

today on queer goggles. We're speaking with Ruth Coker Burks . I read about Ruth in out magazine and her story about caring for thousands of gay men dying from Aids and burying some of them touched me and I just knew we had to have her speak to us here at the source. So I found her on Facebook and I sent her a message inviting her to talk to a group of us here at the source. And she said yes. So what we're listening to today is her talk to us at the source LGBT plus center.

Speaker 3:

I really appreciate you all being here to talk to you . This is so important. And you know, I don't know if it's it . We were on fire back in the 80s not because we were, you know. Oh well are you still there? Can you hear me? Yeah . Okay. It just said it's launching again. But back in 1984 my friend Bonnie was in the hospital, she had cancer and she had five reconstructive surgeries. So, you know, we got to know the nurses really well and if, you know, we were eating chips with offer the nurses , you know, how it is and so she would, you know , take a chip and eat it or whatever. And um, so we had a great relationship with the nurses. We were always on the same floor. And one day I saw these nurses out in the hall and they were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on this young man. And his , um , door I noticed had a big, they moved him in there, he had a big red bag on his store and covered the entire door. And there was a little cart out there where you had to put on your paper gowns and your paper shoe covers. And I never really understood how that worked because wouldn't the age germ just crawl right up your leg if you were wearing a dress or shorts? You know, it didn't make much sense. And , um , I watched the tray , you know, when they would draw straws, they'd say, okay, well best two out of three, well best eight out of 10. And then they would completely ignore the person in that room and go about their business. And you know, I watched through, you know, his trays would line up out in the hall, his food trays. So the , and I didn't even know they had styrofoam trays, but they'd be on these little styrofoam trays with styrofoam bowls and you know , everything was paper and disposable. And they would set his food on the floor and they would come back at lunch and they would set his lunch on the floor and his dinner on the, and never come back and pick it up. No one was touching anything that came out of his room. Are you all still there? Yeah. So anyway , um, I , um , was talking to Bonnie about it and I just couldn't stand it any longer and I had a cousin or I have a cousin and who, why , who is gay. So I had heard about that gay cancer that was happening and I had been in cow . I had been in Hawaii that Christmas before. And ask him, you know, are you worried about this thing that's happening? He goes, oh no, no, that's just the leather guys in San Francisco. Well here I was a 25 year old church lady. What did I know about leather guys? But I thought, well, he's not worried about it, I'm not going to worry about him. So I came back and that's when I saw that door in that hospital room. So I eased myself down the hall when the nurses got busy and snuck into his room and I walked in and he was just very skeletal and very sick and you knew that it wasn't going to be long before he died. And I walked up to his bed and I took his hand in mine and I took his arm, you know, in my hand. And I said, honey, is there anything I can do for you? And he said he wanted his mama and I thought, oh good, I can do that. You know, that was an impossible thing. So I'm marched myself out to the nurse's desk proud, you know, as punched that I had found a problem and fixed it because they were going to call his mother for him. And I announced, you know, I said his mother, he really wants to see his mother and they go, you didn't go in that room, did you? Did you go in that room right over there? And I said, well, yes, I said, y'all were busy and Oh will you? And they treated me from then on, like I had the mange, it was terrible. And uh , so it went back and forth a little bit. And finally a nurse waited till the other nurses had left and she shoved his mother's name and phone number towards me and said, it's not going to do you any good. So I reached over to use their phone, which I had been using and she goes, the phone is down the hall. And I go, oh, okay, well I'll see how this is going to go. So I went down the hall and um , I called his mother and I told her who I was and you know what I was doing and she goes, I don't have a son, and don't call me back and hung up on me. And I thought, oh no, you don't. I know I've got the right person. So I called her back and I told her that if she hung up on me one more time, I would put her son's a bitch, wary in the newspaper and I would list his cause of death. So I had her perfect attention at that point. I knew she wasn't going to hang up, so she didn't. And she goes, well, I don't know what you've got up there at that hospital, but it's not my son. My son was a center and was just an awful person and he died to me years ago. So don't even call me when he dies. Well, you pretty much know that I've got the right person. She's telling me everything. So I go back into, you know, I wasn't gonna let those and all the nurses were lined up down at the nurses station and I was not gonna let them know that the phone call didn't go the way I wanted it to. So I had to put my face back on my game face back on, and I went in his room and when I walked up to the bed and took his hand in mind, he looked up at me and he said, Oh Mama, I knew you'd come. And I was just, my feet just froze to the floor. I mean, what was I going to do then? So I said, well honey, I'll be right back. I'm here. I'll be right back. And I went down the hallway and I told Bonnie what had happened and she is , couldn't believe it either that no one was coming. And so , uh , she said, you know what, I'm okay. He's the one that needs you. So I went back down the hall and I went into his room and I pulled up a chair and I sat with him for the next 13 hours while he took his last breath on this earth. And I would sing, you know , a little lullaby or whatever. I would, whatever to pass the time. And I would read to him and I would tell him about hot springs and just kind of take him on a tour of town. And so when he finally died, I went out and told the nurses, and there's, well, now what are you going to do with him? And I'm like, what am I gonna do with him? He's not my problem. He's your problem. I said it a little nicer than that, but probably not a lot. And a net go, no , he's yours. We don't have any. There's no one we can call none of the funeral homes. We'll take them . Uh , and we don't want him here. Excuse me. And , uh , so I started calling around to funeral homes and I had to get into the lower income funeral homes because I knew that they could probably needed the money. And I finally found a funeral home after probably an hour of calling around and they said, well, we will take him, but we will only cremate him. We won't touch the body or anything like that. And I said, that's fine with me. So I arranged for them to come pick him up and I gave a am, I guess I had to have given him my phone, my number, but I didn't think about it. My address. And , um, one day I was sitting on the couch, it was a Saturday afternoon and the mailman arrives and he has this box, this little postal box. And I'm like, Oh, well somebody sent me something. Okay , let's open it and see what it is. And it was his ashes and I thought, oh no, what am I gonna do with these? And I had told him about my cemetery. My mother had gotten mad at her oldest brother when I was 10 years old. They got in a vicious fight. And My, not a fist fight or anything, but my mother went to the cemetery lady and bought all of the remaining grave spaces. So he and his family couldn't be buried with the rest of us. She bought 262 grave spaces and I'm an only child. [inaudible] and she, every Sunday we would go out to the cemetery and she goes, some days all of this is going to be yours. Well, I really like that diamond ring you have on, I think I would get much more use out of the, a much more enjoyment then I would a cemetery. But who would think that 15 years later there were common time when families didn't want their children even to bury them, didn't even want them in the same cemetery with the rest of their family. And uh, that time had come. And so I thought, well, this is nice and I'll do this and then, you know, my life will go back to normal and maybe I'll get in the junior league and you know, do some things like that. And of course the junior leg . I, I'm really not the junior league type I'd like to think I am, but I'm really not. And , and so anyway, I , uh , put a bow on my daughter's hair and fixed her up real cute. And I thought, Oh, I've got to really figure this one out. So I took my daughter, she was two at the time down to the pottery store with me and I had her fixed up, real cute to where , how he couldn't possibly tell me no . And I had the box of ashes under my arm and I just went down to Kimbo and I said, look, here's the deal. And um, you know, I said, I need something to put him in and do you have anything that might be, maybe it didn't fire right or maybe there was a chip in it or something. And so he gave me a cookie jar. And , um, that's what I put the ashes in. And , um, I took him to the cemetery and I've took a post hole digger and a pickax and I dug the grave on top of my daddy's grave because I told him that daddy would take good care of him and see that nothing happened. And you know, my grandparents were there and I tried to, it's kind of crazy because I'm talking to a box of ashes, but I'm trying to reassure him that he's in a better place than he could have been wherever else he would have been buried. So we dug the grave and had to do it yourself funeral. And I'd never done that before, but I thought, well, this is the only one I'll have to do. So I've done this and now you know, my good deeds done. And they started coming. It was just a few days later, I got a phone call from another young man whose partner was dying and they just kept coming and coming and for the next 10 years they never stopped coming. And um, I, I buried them over 40 in my family cemetery because it was the same thing. Their families weren't coming. And I could not imagine. I thought, wait a minute, that's what Jimmy's mother said, but you're not Jimmy's mother and you're telling me the same thing, that you don't want your son even to bury him. And they would go, yes ma'am. That's exactly what I'm saying. And I those thought, well, if you're not going to take care of these young men and you're not going to see that they have a decent burial than I'm going to do it. And my church, I mean, not at Methodist, which today, that's not saying much with the way they've handled the LGB t situation. But , um, you know, I just, I just couldn't believe it. It was, it was just, and I was 25 years old. They took the minister , uh, later on when I saw that this was really going to be a thing. And you know, it was a, it was just horrendous. I asked him if I could have one room for us to have support meeting. And , uh , I was in a finance committee meeting and he said, Shirley , you're not talking about bringing those people into this church, are you? And I said, oh no, Dr. Hayes , I'm not talking about bringing those people into this church. I'm talking about walking those people across her new $30,000 worth of grass that we just bought. You walking them into your new $300,000 home. We just bought them and setting their asses on your $40,000 worth of new furniture. The church just bought you. That's what I'm talking about doing with those people. Needless to say, I didn't get put back on the finance committee, but it would , you know, it was like that and it was just unbelievable. So I, I really, I'm getting more and more man , and I'm getting them now to where I'm taking care of them in their homes and , uh, I'm keeping them at home while they're sick and while they're dying. And I'm not trying , I'm not a nurse. I'm a light person. And , um, it was, it was, it was the worst of times. It was so horrendous. I had Billy was , um, uh , s a thin young man, but he , um, oh, he's probably about five, nine and he weighed 54 pounds when he died. And Roger was six foot four and weighed 75 pounds when he died. And my daughter said that she can remember seeing every organ in his body while he was laying in bed because there really wasn't much left besides skin and organs and bones. But , um, all of my, I loved every one of them. They were so special to me and we had the most fun I made . Just because you're dying doesn't mean you can't laugh and things aren't funny. And I found that out with Bonnie. I noticed that no one was ever once she was diagnosed with cancer, that was it. The jokes, no one told jokes anymore. Nothing was funny anymore. And you have to laugh. I mean, even if it's gallows humor and you learn how to sing amazing grace to the tune of Gilligan's island, and I can wait and let you all figure that out while I'm getting this water out the door. But , um, it just , um, you had to do anything you could to keep their spirits up, but they really did a good job of keeping their own and they would keep my spirits up and they would take their act the day they died because they just knew that tomorrow it be on TV, that they had a cure and their families, the ones that I had, and you know, I was in this a long time and none , uh , I had two families who kept their loved ones at home. Well, two and a half. The others, I'm not quite sure what that was, but they w and the ones that were at home, they were trying to get the gay out of them and get them to , um, uh , uh , what's the word I'm looking for? Um , and government and that's a good word. That's exactly what I was like important . I've had a stroke, so I lose words every now and then. And Roger was one that weighed 75 pounds. And the thing that stuck out to me the most is after the funeral, they kept him at home, but they were going to get the gay out of him and his sister, I had flown down air ambulance to pick Roger Up. And um, his family, you know, they wanted him home. And I thought, well, that is wonderful. I don't have to do all this now. And you know, he's in his family's hands, but there was no hospice or a hospice had just started coming out. There was one in Arkansas and it was in hot springs, but they wouldn't take an aids patient. Oh No, no, no. So Roger, I, you know, we had the angels made us sit there port and I had the bed and just the whole hospital room set up for when we got back. And uh , he lived for maybe about six weeks and he was , um, he had a brain tumor, so he was paralyzed and he couldn't talk. But I knew he knew everything I was saying. And I could see the glimmer in his eye and you know, or if I would say something funny, I could tell that he was, you know , right there with me, but I can't imagine what all his parents did to him and his sister because one night, right before he died, they called me to come out there. They said that, you know, there was an issue. So I go, I take Alison out there with me and we go out there and , um, his dad had a tape rule and he would tell me , you know how you pull it out and let it pop and go back in and it makes that popping sound. And he kept pulling it out and you know, sucking it back in. And he said, we've got a problem. And I saw the preachers standing in the corner with his Bible and he was facing the corner and he was almost invisible but not quite. And he said, well, we've been measuring the hot tub and the, Huh ? I thought, oh my God, I know what's coming next. So , uh , and the problem is that the heater in the hot tub went out and this was on a Friday. And , uh , we can't get a new one in until Monday. And so I, you know, thought, Oh man, this is really out of my pay grade and what am I going to say to this family? So to make a long story short, you know, I said, look, my God and my Jesus I'm pretty sure is the same as yours. And he agreed that it was, but they were very Pentecostal. So there was a , a layer of even deeper religion in it. And , um, I said, let's think about it. We, we christen at the church so we just get water sprinkled on our heads. And do you think I'm a okay? Good Person? He's a little , of course, I said, well, do you think I'm going to heaven? He said, of course you are. If anybody is that you . And I said, well , see, then Roger could do the same thing. So why, what about you and Craig taking Roger and you know, holding him under the shower and letting the shower wash his perceived sins down. I had to be careful, and I couldn't say that word, but anyway, washed down the drain and they looked at each other and they thought that was a great idea, but they had to go and ask Cathy done, done. Um, the sister. And so she said, oh no, he has to be immersed because he is such a center. And basically they had to get the gay out of him. And back then I really wondered, and I wondered if it was the fact that they were gay or that they had aids. And I don't think that the aids part really registered with a lot of these families. I think it was the gay part that they were so desperate to get rid of. And of course, you know, aids was their punishment. And so , um, but when I first walked in he said, well, how long do you think Roger's got to live? And I said, well, I don't know. Let me go and look at him. And you know , see what I think. And I came back out and I said probably about three days. And he said, boys go dam up the creek. And I thought, oh no, cause this was the middle of October. And they all the grandchildren took off running down the hill and they dammed up the creek and they baptized him in the middle, a winner , appellate winner , they, it was 32 degrees outside and they baptized him in the creek. So on Sunday I get a call that Roger's in the hospital and I pretty much had figured that. And so by the time I got up there, I walked in the room and the whole family was there and I walked in and she, his mother had him sitting upright in bed. I'm not really sure how they had that going, but she was trying to feed him oatmeal. She had a bowl and a spoon and she'd say, Roger, just eat Roger. Just take a bite. And I walked over and I took the bowl out of her . I took the spoon out of her hand and I took the bowl out of her hand. And handed it to somebody I know , you know who, and she turned and just fell into my chest sobbing. And um , so after the funeral I went out, they said, come out to the house. We have some things for you. And I, you know, I didn't, I thought they were for me. I wasn't really sure what they were talking about. And by the time I got out there, there were these ladies up on ladders with yellow, a dish, gloves on their hands, and they were bleaching the ceiling fan to get aids, germs out of the house. They were bleaching the walls, they had bleached everything. And they had, I mean, his bedding, his clothes, his keepsakes, his Jaci , everything they gave to me to give to someone else. But that was what it was like. And probably everywhere I, you know, I'm not sure they would baptize in the creek other places, but I'm not sure that it wasn't done, but there was such hysteria over it. It was, it was just, Oh , it was a very, very hard time. But it brought such a comfort to, we brought comfort to each other. And the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control. And there was someone else, they sent people from Egypt and Israel and Sierra Leone and the World Health Organization down to me for a week to see what I was doing because my patients ended up living two years longer than the national average. And the only thing that they could find out was the fact that I loved them and they loved me and they knew they were loved and they knew they were cherished and they knew that I wanted them there. And um , so that's how it ended up and I just kept taking them. And then after in the 90s with all the drugs that came out and the pretty ace inhibitors and everything, my job became functionally obsolete. And you know, it was a, it was a good thing. But then I thought, well Gosh, all these guys are living in , I'll never get to meet them. But that's still a good thing. So that's kind of my aid story.

Speaker 4:

I mean , I could listen to you and your stories less. Let's hear from our Ahmet out timeframe. Ruth. My name is race and [inaudible] . Thank you so, so much. I'm 61 and nine years of age and I wanted to come in here . Yeah , I knew about you from before and you were just eating the tip of the iceberg. What a lot of younger people , uh , they don't know what we endured at that time. And I also was one of those caregivers we were seeing with Nick told me I would cry when he told me you were going to share. Um , that night I cried because I was thinking of all my friends that I helped a crossover send it there either. I want to thank, I just want to personally thank you for being one of the Nikki of the armies of people that loved our

Speaker 3:

brothers and sisters. Tell , tell I not, how could I not? Thank you . Beautiful Man . Like you. I mean now people today they don't have a clue because you can see a picture, but you could also close the book and not have to look at the picture and um, it, you know, it was just tough, tough times. But thank you so much.

Speaker 4:

Leaders are running search , you know . Yes. I started . You all use go to church . Are they all local into your area that are in Arkansas or where they told me from different areas.

Speaker 3:

Well, why happened is in the middle part of the United States, you know , I'm from a town with 32,000, but we had six and a half million tourists a year. Uh , it's the second most visited national park. And um, what happens is you can't be a doctor or lawyer or anything and still and be gay and Arkansas. So these guys would graduate from high school and leave for college or just leave for a job and they would stay on the east coast or the west coast. And then when they got too sick to take care of themselves and there was no one still living that could take care of them. They had to come home to die. And you know , some of them really did want to come home because it's home and yeah, that's where you want to be when you're sick and dying. But I would , um, and there were some man that I didn't know anything about. And so I would get a pizza and go to their hospital room and yeah, this is where they were still well enough to set up and everything. And we'd have a pizza party. And I'd make it a fun occasion because I would have to fill out their death certificate without it being a more , you know, a gloomy thing to do. And they would have fun with it because I wouldn't know their mother's maiden name. And if you start asking people these questions, they're going to go, well, why do you want my mother's maiden name was sign put on your death certificate so people don't want to hear that. And that's when I decided to make it fun. And , uh , yeah , there'd be pizza and I w and back then you didn't get pizza very often, so it wasn't like it is today. So it was really a treat. And I would go, okay, now you know, what was your mother's maiden name? Okay, what's your date ? And that's how we would have to fill out a death certificate. And Yeah. Not Be in tears. So go ahead.

Speaker 4:

Thank you so much. Uh, I , um , I just spend no , what once and that,

Speaker 3:

well, I did, I had been arranging all these funerals for all these years, and then , um, I was talking to a lady at their funeral home and I'm like, wait a minute. You mean I can be getting paid for doing funerals? And she goes, well, yes. And I'm like, well shoot, I'll do that because they say, do what you love. And obviously I was gonna love it or not because, you know, I already had a cemetery and then , you know, I had all these people who were dying and , um, you know, it was just something that I'm, you know, we didn't have , uh, Christmases and thanksgivings when I was little. We had funeral and , um, that's when the family would get together and, you know, it would be an event, let me just put it that way. But , um, and so that's how I made a living. And I , uh, you know , even went back to the same families, the ones that had taken care of their sons and wrote their funerals for them. And so I, you know, I really, and then I moved later, moved to Florida and that's God's waiting room down there so you can make a ton of money riding funerals. And one more question. Sure.

Speaker 4:

I wrote , my name is Ian Jackson. I lead the HIV [inaudible] here. Yes. Um , and I am one of the problems I have people now like , oh yeah. And then they're awesome.

Speaker 3:

Wait, I can't, I'm having trouble. Could you say that?

Speaker 4:

Oh yeah. Um, there you go. I said that , um , the problem I have is , um , you know, I'll meet people who are just diagnosed and they'll need a little support at first, I'll get them connected to doctors, pharmacies, you know, the latest medications, and then I never see them again. Right. And it's good for me to hear these things and thank you for doing all that you've done. And it's just so different than when I encountered it . I mean, it's a good, it's a good problem to have that they don't need me. Why ? Um, let us just, it's so different now and for everything you've done automatically .

Speaker 3:

Well , thank you. If I tell you I'm , I'm very concerned about the young people today, the because , well , I'm concerned about everybody. People just, yeah, they think that it's , it's an old man's disease and it doesn't happen now. And if it does happen, we'll just take some medicine and be done with, and it's not that simple. I mean, you know that the, you know how rough those protease inhibitors are on and crap on the body.

Speaker 1:

Alright , well, Ruth, you, it's been an honor to hear from you. Thank you for spending some time with us. Absolutely .

Speaker 5:

You [inaudible]

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Speaker 1:

thank you for listening to queer goggles. If you want to support us and our work, please consider a donation by going to the source lgbt.org/donate and please remember to follow us on Facebook. Rate us on iTunes and subscribe on Spotify.