Having spent time recently writing about Sarah Houghton-Jan and Lori Reed, two trainer-teacher-learners who embody the true spirit of volunteerism in all they do, I’m turning toward another friend whose volunteer efforts in the world of nonprofit organizations provide a timeless example of how those facing tremendous challenges sometimes keep the rest of us inspired.
David Moebs has touched and changed a lot of lives through his commitment to the arts. A professional clarinetist and teacher working with children through the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department, he attracted significant numbers of undergraduate- and graduate-level students to the school while also employed in its admissions office, and his efforts on behalf of his fellow musicians in the Sacramento Symphony until the organization folded in 1996 gave him a level of credibility others might not have achieved.
Like Sarah and Lori, he accomplished much of this after learning that he was facing severe physical challenges: he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive in 1985. During the initial years after he received that diagnosis, this wonderful educator volunteered for clinical tests designed to find ways to lessen or eradicate the effects of AIDS. He maintained his position as a Conservatory employee, a Prep Department instructor, and member of the Sacramento Symphony. And he continued, with whatever free time he had, to work on behalf of those he cared about by volunteering to serve on the Symphony musician union’s negotiating team during extremely stressful discussions even though he understood that the effects of that stress might have devastating effects on his health.
Remembering some of the difficulties he had as a young gay man in a less than accepting environment, he looked for ways to help others in a similar situation better cope with the challenges they faced. Wanting to use his knowledge of and passion for the arts in those endeavors, he enrolled in a creative writing course and considered adding coursework to his already busy schedule so he could earn a counseling degree which would qualify him to work with gay teens who needed all the support they could find.
When David’s health took a drastic and potentially fatal turn for the worse with a diagnosis of Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy—PML—most of us assumed he was finally out of time. As PML rapidly progressed over a two-month period by consuming significant levels of the myelin sheath around his nerves, his ability to play clarinet rapidly disappeared. Along with his ability to move and talk and maintain his independence. But his sense of humor during that awful period of time never failed; as a few of us were watching television together one evening and sat through a commercial citing the symptoms of diabetes—all of which matched parts of what he was experiencing—he looked at us, smiled, and struggled to say, “Oh, thank God; I thought I had PML.”
The rapid decline appeared to reverse itself on Thanksgiving morning that year; without warning or explanation, he was able to get out of his bed, walk around a little, and eventually join us for a Thanksgiving meal. Over the next few months, he began feeling well enough to attempt to play the clarinet again. He took steps to register for those counseling courses he had been hoping to complete. And he even began driving short distances again.
But at the end of what appeared to be an entire year of recovery, the effects of PML became apparent once again, and within a few months he was no longer able to remain at home even with the around-the-clock care friends and professional nursing staff were struggling to provide. So in May 1998, he moved into Coming Home Hospice, in San Francisco’s Castro District. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, his friends would sometimes see him reach into the air and flutter his fingers.
“Was he a musician?” one of the hospice attendants asked. “It looks like he’s trying to play an instrument.”
We gladly volunteered to hold his hands and rub his back long after he stopped giving any sign that he knew we were there. His eyes stared blankly up toward one of the corners of the ceiling.
“We call it ‘watching the angels,” a hospice worker told us. “It’s very common when the end is near.”
I read him passages from his favorite books even though there were no visible responses, and I didn’t care whether he was trying to communicate with me or was simply displaying reflex actions when I felt his hand squeeze mine a couple of times.
And when he passed away, exactly eleven years ago, I knew I’d lost an irreplaceable friend. Who continues to inspire me to watch for the angels in my life. And to volunteer in every way I can to carry on the spirit they embody.
–In memory of David, January 27, 1959 – June 6, 1998