Recently , Frankie and I went to New York for our official honeymoon. A dear friend let us stay in his apartment just south of Central Park since he was on vacation from work and was going to be doing some traveling. We had a general sketch of everything that we were going to do during the time we were there. We probably stretched ourselves a little thin, but some things just had to be done. One of those was visiting Bethesda Fountain near the middle of Central Park.
My first memorable encounter with Bethesda was watching the movie, Angels in America, an HBO miniseries with a stacked cast based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Tony Kushner. Bethesda shows up in several key scenes in the movie, not to mention the opening credits. The end of the series brings together: Justin Kirk, an HIV-positive man, Prior Walter,who is living in the early 90's and the show's most prominent character; Belize, played by Jeffrey Wright, Prior's best friend and former drag queen compatriot; Louis, Prior's ex-boyfriend who ran off at the early onset of prior's HIV-related symptoms, played by Ben Shenkman; and Hannah Abbott, the conservative Mormon mother of a closeted gay lawyer , played by Meryl Streep. It's wintertime and the four are gathered around Bethesda for a picnic, talking about politics and change, bickering like old friends do, and Prior slips away to talk directly into the camera about Bethesda being his favorite spot in the whole of New York.
According to the quartet, the story about Bethesda goes kinda like this: during the time of the Second Temple, the angel Bethesda touched down in Jerusalem. From that spot, a fountain welled up, a fountain with healing properties. Anyone who bathed in this fountain was healed, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. When the Temple was destroyed, so was the fountain. However, when the Millennium comes—the thousand year reign of Christ on Earth—Bethesda will spring up again. Hannah, now close friends with this ragtag trio of gay men, promises that they will all bathe and be healed.
Seeing the movie, I was touched deeply by this pre-ending. Hell, the miniseries has grown to mean so much to me that I watch the entire six hours in one sitting at least once a year. This past January, I went to visit New York for the first time. Naturally, my first full day was spent in Central Park. It was cold, overcast, and I knew that Bethesda would not be running. I still had to see her. As I wound my way around roads and paths, I finally came upon the plaza that holds her. I couldn't help but cry. It had been just over six months since I'd lost Nanny, who I always talked about taking with me to see New York. Though she was not there in person, her spirit was palpable.
During my trip back with Frankie this time, I was determined to see her in her full splendor, surrounded by life. We took our time walking through the park, exploring parts I'd not seen and visiting parts that I had. I wanted to share Bethesda with Frankie. I wanted him to see her in person at the peak of her season. Neither of us was disappointed. We came upon the plaza, now filled with two different high school tourist groups that I refused to let ruin my encounter. When you're walking along Terrace Drive and hit the north end of the Mall, you can see her over the top of the veranda above the lower corridor. Wings spread and head tilted, she is glorious regardless of the season. In January, I'd seen her "sleeping." This time, she was vibrant and awake.
Although the true history behind Bethesda is that she was commissioned as an original installation in the park to represent those lost in the American Civil War, I still like Kushner's representation best. Bethesda symbolizes healing and wholeness. In a world riddled with brokenness like ours is, she is an ideal that sometimes seems distant, untouchable. Yet I imagine a time when the cycle of brokenness has been halted and is replaced by an age of grace, mercy, love, and redemption. A time when the powers that be, whatever you would call him, her, them, or it, see fit to catalyze creation's return, humanity's return, to its original state. It's a dream that I hold on to tightly. It's a hope that one day, my personal struggle with depression will no longer be paramount to my identity. Even more so, she stands as a call to those who want to be agents of change, healing, and transformation in the world. She's an image of love and protection, of remembrance, and of restoration.