When I woke up this morning I knew right away that it was the memorial day for Howard, a member and resident at the Zen Community of New York for many years. 24 years have passed since he was killed that spring afternoon in the apartment he shared with a housemate and, sporadically, with me.
I stayed in the apartment 2 nights a week while doing work for the Greyston Foundation in Yonkers, and that day I returned to my home near Woodstock at 11 at night only to find a message from the Yonkers Police Department: Please call right away.
Oh no, I thought, did someone complain about Woody (my dog)? Did I forget to clean up after him? Did I park my car in an illegal spot? You search in all the familiar routines of your life to discover what went wrong, but it’s nothing like that at all. A man from the neighborhood had knocked on the door and asked Howard for money. Howard, usually generous to a fault, said he couldn’t give him anymore, and the man killed him.
Howard was Chinese. If he’d been Jewish we’d have called him the Golden Boy, the one who succeeds in school, has lots of friends, knows just what he wants to do with his life and gets into the best colleges, the one who is going to make the family proud and prosperous. I knew lots of Jewish immigrant families with a son on whom their fondest hopes and plans rested.
There was only one problem: Howard was gay. No one knew in the family. All they knew, it turned out much, much later, is that he broke off all ties with them and they had no idea where he went or what happened to him. Howard meandered back and forth around New York and finally found his way to the Zen Community.
He was not a Buddhist, he told everyone, he was a Confucian, and to prove it he wrote a book describing the positive values of Confucianism, especially family ties and obligations.
“So Howard,” I said to him while sitting in the kitchen we shared one day, “If you think so highly of family, how come you’re not in touch with your own?”
He turned from the sink where he was washing dishes, his usually kind, friendly eyes filled with rage. “You stupid woman! You think any Chinese family wants to know that their son is a faggot?” That last word he shouted out with loathing, then walked out of the room and didn’t talk to me for a week.
This morning I thought of him, and the many sons and daughters who left their families for the same reason. Howard was lucky enough to find another family, a community of meditators. With them he moved to southwest Yonkers to do economic and social development work and stayed long after most of us had moved on. It was that family that cremated and mourned him, and that planted a tree in his name.
After he died, a tech wizard tracked down Howard’s family and a brother came down for the memorial. Years after that, a niece created a film about a man she never met out of old photos and interviews with many of us; the film was shown in film festivals. Times and generations had changed, and the family reclaimed its faggot son.
This morning I lit incense for Howard and then looked out the window. It was April, but the sky was gray. “Live with others in the spirit of spring,” Howard used to say, quoting a Confucian scholar, “live with yourself in the spirit of autumn.”
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