The mass shooting in Orlando hit me hard. Maybe because I lived near Orlando for thirty years. Maybe because the death of so many in one place horrified me. Maybe because someone with mental health issues purchased an assault weapon days before. Maybe because hatred could be so strong toward people of a particular race, religion, or sexual orientation that it caused so many people to die–people who were simply enjoying a good time together.
Maybe all of the above made me cry for two days afterward anytime I saw media coverage. My heart is heavy and my prayers are for all the victims, survivors, and their loved ones.
Years ago, during the first wave of the AIDs epidemic in this country, I watched as friends and relatives ran away the gay community. Sons and daughters were left to die alone from a disease that had yet to find drugs to fight it. It happened in my own family. My uncle and aunt refused to go to their son’s bedside or to even attend his funeral all because they couldn’t accept him and his choices.
This man, my cousin, did everything he could to prove he wasn’t homosexual. He married twice, the second time Miss America of 1973, Terry Anne Meeuwsen. Both marriages ended, the first one worse than the second. The first wife took their son away and had my cousin sign away his rights of parenthood. But then, my handsome charismatic cousin continued on his path to please his parents and began dating Miss Wisconsin. My aunt and uncle were beside themselves with pleasure. And never were parents prouder than those two at the Christmas wedding several months after she ended her reign as Miss America with another famous Miss America, Phyllis George, at her side. During those years, their mantel was cluttered with photos of their daughter-in-law with President Nixon and other dignitaries. Stories of the amount of clothes they brought when they came for visits sprinkled all their conversations when asked “How is Tom?” I found an article today in the Ocala Star Banner, giving a nod to the pride they felt. Click here to see.
When the second marriage ended, Tom moved to California. And that’s when the disconnect came. Stories of his lymph node cancer came in pieces from them, but still they didn’t go to his side. “He’s recovering now,” came the reply to my inquiries.
And then the recovery ended with his death in 1992. His partner called asking them to attend the memorial service. They refused despite their ability to very well afford a trip from Florida to California. The partner sent them a poem about Tom. I never saw it until after my uncle died, and my aunt presented it to me. She asked me to take it and keep it safe. She couldn’t look at it, but she didn’t want it destroyed either.
So sad. And now thirty years after my cousin’s death we are living in a world where acceptance still doesn’t come. Compromise on the issues seems impossible. And a demi-god stands at his pulpit screaming more hatred and division.
As an author, I eventually wrote about my cousin in my second novel, A Lethal Legacy. It was with the writing of this novel that I finally understood what writers meant when they said, “being in the flow” of a piece of writing. As I wrote the death scene, I closed my eyes and tears streamed down my face. My fingers flew across the keyboard without my knowledge. I was lost in the writing. Twenty years later, I still seek those moments of the “flow.”
I have no solutions except to practice kindness and acceptance in my life and urge others to do the same. Love must conquer hate.
From A Lethal Legacy – The narrator Ed tells Gary’s parents about his condition.
“Ed, what are you doing out in this weather?” Claire said when she opened the door in the garage to let me in. “I thought you were at the beach,” she said as I came into the kitchen.
“Ed, I was just going to have a beer. Want one?” Philip asked, as he stood with the refrigerator door open.
“Sure, Philip, that’d be great,” I said as I hugged Claire.
“Can’t sit on the porch, now can we,” Claire said as she motioned me toward the living room.
“How come you came back early? I thought Marge said you’d be gone all this week. Was it the Gulf or Atlantic this time?” Claire asked.
“Neither, although I did stop at St. George on the way home,” I said.
“Your mother is getting more and more forgetful, Ed.” This remark came from Philip.
“On the way home from where?” Claire asked.
“Mom got it right this time, Philip. I mean, that’s what I told her. I was in New Orleans. Gary called last week and asked me to visit him. And he asked me to come home and tell you something.”
“You went to New Orleans? To see Gary?” Claire seemed surprised but not upset. “Did you see Kristina, too?”
“Yes, I saw them both. Claire, Philip.” They both looked at me expectantly. “Gary’s sick, very sick.”
Silence met my words, except for the storm raging outside the sliding glass doors. The rain began slashing against the windows.
“Sick?” Claire echoed my words after a moment.
“He wants me to bring the both of you back to New Orleans. We need to leave first thing in the morning.”
“What is it? Cancer?” Philip asked.
“AIDs,” I said without emotion.
“AIDs? That’s that gay disease. It’s killing all those homosexuals. Is that it, Ed? Is that the one?” Claire’s voice rose several octaves as she sat forward on her chair.
“There’s no cure, if that’s what you mean. Claire, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Gary doesn’t have very much longer.” I said this as gently as I could.
“God damn it!” The outburst came from Philip. The storm moved inside. “He’s a queer, isn’t he? I always knew it. A pansy, Claire, that’s what you raised. Couldn’t even satisfy his wives, queer all along.” Philip finished his beer in one gulp.
“Shut up, Philip, just shut up.” I stood up and went over to his chair with tears streaming down my face. “Don’t you do this to Claire or to Gary. I swear I’ll kill you if you don’t shut up.”
Years of frustration with this man, who had nearly destroyed Gary’s life and now in his death wanted to strip him of his last shred of dignity, came bubbling forth from deep inside me. Philip rose from his chair, and we faced each other nearly nose to nose.
“Stop, both of you,” Claire said. “Ed, sit down, you too, Philip, and shut up. Now our son is dying, nothing else matters. Ed, when do we leave tomorrow?”
“I’d like to leave as early in the morning as possible, Claire,” I managed once I sat back down. “I need to go over to the apartment and check on Mom and Aunt Susan. I have to tell them, too. Then I need a good night’s rest, and so do the both of you.” I looked over at Philip who sat with his head in his hands. “I’ll come by around five to pick you up. That should get us to Gary’s by five or six in the evening. OK?”
“Should I call him?” Claire asked in a wounded little voice.
“It might be better to let him get his strength back. His roommate told me that the doctor started some new meds yesterday, and he seemed to even want something to eat last night.”
“His roommate.” Philip made a snorting sound.
“I mean it, Philip, if you say one more word,” I turned toward my uncle.
“Philip, that’s it, I’m warning you, too. One more word, and I walk out that door forever,” Claire said.
When I left, I was still angry with Philip. I realized I blamed Philip for Gary’s situation, for the fact that Gary had AIDs and lay dying while Philip sat in his easy chair drinking beer with his white shoes and striped blue seersucker pants. He disgusted me.
I didn’t blame Philip for Gary’s homosexuality. I believed that kind of thing is already predestined at birth or earlier. No, I blamed Philip for giving Gary the sense that he was inadequate, the sense that Gary was always lacking in some way. It was that sense of failure, of never measuring up, that left Gary searching and wanting and seeking out lovers at any opportunity. Gary never shared the details, but he told me enough for me to know that most of his adult life he led a promiscuous gay life. Only in the last year or so with Rick had he settled down to one partner. It was those multiple partners that caused his mortality to be reached long before its time. And for all of those reasons I raged at Philip in my mind as I drove to my mother’s apartment.
Gary went so far as to marry Miss America in an attempt to win his father’s approval. Probably for the few moments of his lifetime while he was in the limelight with Elizabeth, he earned his father’s superficial acceptance, but at what cost and for what reasons?
June 15 and 16 – Click here to download A Lethal Legacy for free on Amazon.