Christian Piatt column

Love can be as close or far as one condition away

A middle-aged mother faced a reality every parent prays to avoid, the premature death of her son.

She lost him to AIDS two years prior, but the pain she feels over the loss is still like a fresh wound. Even now, she receives dozens of sympathy and support cards from friends of his.

New cards arrive on birthdays, anniversaries and those holidays with images of family that only magnify her son’s absence, and therefore, her sorrow. Some family members offer comfort from a distance, while others try to ignore the death altogether. Though the judgment and awkwardness is hard, she tries to understand. She struggles with her own degree of shame about it all.

As she begins to learn more about parts of her son’s life he was reluctant to share, she befriends others within the gay and lesbian community who share her sense of grief. For them, her son is one of many friends and loved ones they have lost to AIDS in the past two decades. Knowing they hurt alongside her is of some solace, though she still hesitates to talk about his personal life.

After the death of yet another young friend of her son’s, she shuffles through the handful of condolence cards, wishing to find something conveying the empathy she has for them. She finally settles on one and takes it to the counter.

The clerk behind the register wears a bright smile and a rainbow bracelet. He asks how her day is and she lies, saying everything is fine. Noticing the card, he asks if she has lost someone special.

“No,” she pauses. “I mean, yes.” She explains that although this card is for another family, she lost her own son to AIDS two years prior, the word “AIDS” suppressed to a muted whisper as she casts her eyes toward the counter.

“You don’t have to whisper,” said the man, coming out from behind the counter, offering her a long, warm embrace. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I didn’t know that man,” she explains, “but in that moment, I loved him.” She carried that love he shared out into the world that day, resolving never again to speak of her son’s life, or death, with shame.

Another mother confronts her daughter, who has told her she is a lesbian, and confesses that she will never accept her as such. “I prayed she would change,” says the mother. “I felt she was committing a horrible sin.” She even took her daughter to corrective counseling, though it was clear the girl, only a teenager at the time, didn’t feel there was anything wrong with her that needed to be fixed.

As time went on, the distance between mother and daughter only grew, until the daughter stopped corresponding all together. The final words the mother received from her daughter were in the form of a letter that explained the irreparable damage she felt as the subject of her mother’s “shaming words.” She ended the letter with the words, “Heal thyself, mother.”

In 1997, the family received a call about their daughter’s suicide. She hanged herself in her closet, leaving no note. Through friends, the family learned their daughter had been undergoing treatment for depression for some time.

The woman’s parents began to study everything they could about homosexuality and the Bible the following year. “It was a big jump for us,” says the mother of their change of heart. “(But) in the end I found myself far away from the safe place I’d been all my life.”

Since then, she has started speaking publicly about the dangers of homophobia, creating an educational program called TEACH: To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia.

“Now I know the value – the power – of unconditional love,” she explains, “and though it came too late for Anna, I believe she knows what we’re doing. And she is proud.”

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning.” For more information, visit http://www.christianpiatt.com.

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