On a bitterly cold Thursday night in February of 2019, I was sitting on the ground hanging out with a group of folks experiencing homelessness down by the Chicago Art Institute. I spent most Thursdays this way, as chaplain to the student-run Labre Homeless ministry. Despite the bitter cold, we laughed a lot. After a particularly icy burst of wind rushed through, one of the men, named Wiz, looked at me and said “Gimme a scarf.” The students always bring a bag of donations with them, so I looked toward the student holding the clothing and asked if she had a scarf.
“No,” Wiz corrected me, pointing at my neck, “I want that scarf.”
I froze and not because of the temperature.
The scarf I was wearing was not just any old piece of fabric, but a gift from one of my dearest friends. Carlos was a pivotal figure in my young adult life, sort of surrogate parent. He had picked up the scarf for me on a trip to Europe and asked about it every time I saw him. It had become a tangible sign of our deep friendship, a totem of his abiding love for me.
And Carlos was dying. A rare cancer diagnosis meant I wouldn’t have many more chances to see him, so at first I didn’t think I could give up the scarf. I needed that physical reminder of his presence. For thirty seconds, I wrestled with whether or not I could bear to lose it.
But Carlos had given it to me out of love, and I really loved Wiz. Maybe I didn’t need it as much as he did on that terribly cold night. Taking off the scarf, I handed it to him saying, “this was a gift from a really good friend. I need you to pray for him.”
I took a photo of the two of us to send to Carlos.
When I returned to Chicago in August of 2019, I gathered again with the students from Labre. As we shared our summer vacation stories, Akshita, one of the student leaders, presented gifts to each of us. Turning to me, she said, “I know you gave away your scarf, so I got you a new one.”
I was taken aback by the gift, surprised that she had remembered. Only days before, I had been with Carlos back at his favorite bar in New York. He was getting noticeably weaker, so even thinking about him brought tears to my eyes. I examined the new scarf with slight trepidation. It wasn’t quite as warm as the one I had given Wiz, so I couldn’t wear it on the coldest nights. It’s beauty stunned me, though, bright reds and blues with a rainbow fringe.
It took a few weeks before this new scarf found a home in my room. First, I draped it over my desk chair, but it fell too frequently. It moved from my prayer chair, to my bed, and over the door, finally settling on a chair that didn’t get much use but was angled to show off the scarf’s colors. It became part of the furniture.
Then, just a few weeks into lockdown in Chicago, I got an early morning call. After months of anticipation, Carlos had died peacefully overnight. I was devastated, and spent much of the next few days crying. I had expected his death. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I’d be stuck in quarantine when it happened.
As I watched him get sick, I had taken some comfort in planning out my trip to the funeral. I knew where I’d stay, and who I’d spend time with, and the Broadway show I’d try to see to cheer me up. Suddenly, everything was cancelled. There would be no public funeral, no gathering of close friends at his favorite bar, and certainly no therapeutic musical comedy. Instead, I’d mostly be stuck in my room remembering all he’d been for me.
The coronavirus destroyed my grief plans.
I scrolled through old photos of us, and came upon the one of me and Wiz and the scarf. I started to cry again and began wiping my eyes. I realized with a jolt that I was using the scarf Akshita had given me.
So, the scarf became my grief plan.
As I prayed and mourned, I wrapped myself in the scarf. It felt like a hug from Akshita, and it felt like a hug from Carlos, and it felt like a hug from Wiz. The first scarf had been a sign of Carlos’ love. This new one was a sign of something more. Not just Carlos, but also Wiz and Akshita were comforting me in my loss.
I imagine that the resurrection will feel something like the embrace of that scarf. We won’t be able to cling to worldly things anymore, but the comfort we crave from them will surround us in a new way. The tokens of friendship we’ve given and received while on Earth won’t follow us. Instead, the love represented by those souvenirs will enfold us in an infinite love far exceeding the comfort of worldly things.
On the last day, we won’t have to worry anymore about goodbyes and death and homelessness. On that day, as St. Paul writes, “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Carlos and Akshita and Wiz and I will all be together with Jesus. Until then, I’ll wrap myself in the scarf to try and get a foretaste.
Photos courtesy of the author.