H. Wayne Schow
On Tragedy and the Death of a Son [July 1988]
So quick bright things come to confusion.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream
[p. 1]In common speech the word “tragedy” has become roughly synonymous with personal misfortune, especially if life has been lost. A father of a young family is killed in an automobile accident, a beautiful child dies of a blood disease, an airliner smashes into a mountain carrying a hundred people to their deaths: such occurrences are pronounced tragedies, especially by those who knew the victims.
But in a stricter sense the tragic vision of life embodies more than simply misfortune and loss, more than victimization and pathos. Works such as Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Shakespeare’s Othello, and Goethe’s Faust impress on us a paradox, that tragedy has a powerful affirmative side. Misfortune notwithstanding, tragic vision ultimately makes us aware of impressive dimensions in human nature. Instead of plunging us into despair at the prospect of life’s cruel uncertainties, tragedy in the strict sense reconciles us to existence because it makes us believe that we can be greater than our fall.
The essence of tragedy may be understood by examining the [p. 2]nature of the world in which it happens and the nature of the individual who is centrally involved. The protagonist’s downfall occurs in part because he is subject to powerful external forces inimical to his needs and desires. Or, as one critic expresses it, “tragedy explores thwarted energy and possibility.”
Yet the catastrophe that overwhelms the central figure is seldom simply a matter of externalities impinging on his life. Aristotle wrote that such a one is not perfect but has a “flaw.” Accordingly, he bears some responsibility for his fall. For example, his impasse may derive from powerful internal contradictions. Or his flaw may be just that he refuses to accommodate external demands. Although by conforming to them he might well avoid catastrophe, he refuses to compromise. Where most of us would retreat from confrontation, his flaw may be just that he insists on his dignity, his pride, his sense of what he justly desires though it means that he must suffer ruin as a consequence.
In the process of a losing confrontation with overwhelming forces, the tragic figure achieves impressive stature, a stance that compels admiration. It may be manifest in courage, tenacity, or integrity, in philosophical insight or moral vision. However it is revealed, we know we are in the presence of someone extraordinary. For this reason, in an age when the word “hero” makes us uncomfortable, we nevertheless accept the logically-consistent phrase “tragic hero.” Ultimately, tragedy may not clarify the great enigmas or diminish the uncertainties of life, but it assures us there are some of our kind whose existential response to those terrible dilemmas can be awe-inspiring.
It follows that tragedy cannot occur instantly, in a vacuum. It requires a context of choice and response, an opportunity for human stature to develop in the face of extreme opposition. Life-taking accidents, so often casually misnamed as tragic, mostly lack such context.
I review here these commonplaces concerning tragedy because they seem particularly relevant to events I have recently witnessed. I rehearse them because their humanistic perspective helps me find [p. 3]affirmative dimension in a matter otherwise simply devastating. The matter which provokes these reflections is the death of my oldest son, Brad, on December 5, 1986, from AIDS.
It is not easy to lose a son. Francis Bacon observed that when we marry and have children, we give hostages to fortune. Few people really know this when they set up in the business of parenting. In our time, we expect our children to outlive us. We expect them to realize the potential of a full life. We expect them to go farther, to be happier than we. And so whatever the cause of an early death, no parent finds it easy to reconcile. Among the losses that humans sustain, this surely is one of the most significant. Yet that in itself does not make such loss tragic.
Brad was twenty-eight years old at the time of his death. After high school, he spent two years at university studies (in Pocatello and Salt Lake City), dropped out to move to Los Angeles, and returned after four years to continue work in Logan, Utah, toward a degree. At the end of his second year at Utah State University, he came home to Pocatello for the summer to help us construct a new residence. But the AIDS virus had begun its deadly work, and so it was not carpentry but confrontation with disease that would engage him immediately and for the remaining year and a half of his life.
On the surface these facts do not allow us to call Brad’s experience tragic, for they tell us nothing about the contexts that evoked choice and action, without which the question of tragedy is moot. I want now to write about those contexts. I want now to trace the complex threads of his life, to remember how he responded as that complicated fabric was being woven.
Among the forces that shaped Brad’s life, two stand out prominently. First, he was born to Mormon parents who reared him strictly according to the moral vision of that religion. Second, he was born homosexual. To understand his choices and their outcome, one must understand how these forces came into conflict and ultimately how for him in his standing place they were irreconcilable.
Brad’s Mormon roots on both sides of the family go back well [p. 4]over a century. Up until 1950 virtually all members of the extended family branches lived in Utah and Idaho. All of Brad’s aunts and uncles and their spouses, all of his great-aunts and -uncles and their spouses (save one), and all of his grandparents and great-grandparents were members of the faith. Even today there are no more than a handful of non-Mormons in the extended families.
My wife Sandra and I grew up in orthodox Mormon homes in a southern Idaho town where 85 percent of the population were Mormon. We went to church regularly, participating in a religious community whose outlook and values and political power dominated all aspects of local life. Though we lived in Idaho, just across the state line from Utah, our cultural, commercial, and media connections, directed southward to Salt Lake City, had an unquestionable Mormon slant. After I served a thirty-month proselyting mission as a young man in Denmark during the mid-1950s, Sandra and I were married in the Logan LDS temple.
Under the influence of this religious and local cultural background, we reared four sons, participating regularly as a family in Latter-day Saint wards and stakes where we lived. Eventually three of our sons filled foreign proselyting missions for the church, an indication that Mormon theology and practice were strong forces in their lives.
There was, to be sure, something of a liberal interpretation of Mormon thought and culture in our home. My education in the humanities and work as a university professor made me doctrinally unorthodox in the eyes of some, and Sandra’s evolution as an artist and her moderate feminist persuasions similarly widened her view of our Mormon heritage. But for both of us these developments were gradual and did not conflict, in our eyes at least, with those aspects of Mormon thought we regarded as valuable in our sons’ upbringing.
This was the family ground in which Brad grew up.
As students of American religion know, Mormons are Christians but with several important doctrinal differences from the Christian mainstream. Orthodox Mormons assert that Christ’s original [p. 5]church disappeared after several centuries of apostasy, that the legitimate priesthood of God was withdrawn from the earth as a result, that through the prophet Joseph Smith the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored to the earth in 1830 along with indispensable priesthood keys. They consider this the “one true church,” the only repository of the power to perform essential saving ordinances for all humankind. Moreover, Mormons believe that “as man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”
I cite these beliefs, albeit superficially, simply to explain the strong insular tendencies of Mormonism and to suggest how powerfully it demands obedience to its doctrines and conformity with its lifestyle; how powerfully it demands commitment to building the kingdom of God; how powerfully it prescribes self-discipline and self-improvement within its parameters.
To grow up a Latter-day Saint is similar in some ways to growing up Catholic or Jew. Like these sister religions, Mormonism loads substantial guilt onto those who acknowledge its authority but do not, for whatever reason, conform to its ideology. Structured communal practices reinforce these pressures. To the extent that one allows it to do so, Mormonism absorbs one’s time and attention, claiming to have answers for virtually all of life’s great questions, and programs for addressing virtually all spiritual and social needs.
To be raised Mormon is to be subjected to a formidable process of indoctrination. Sunday school, Primary, Aaronic Priesthood activity, daily seminary instruction during high school years, a variety of special worship services and youth conferences: all this teaching machinery, insisting on the uniqueness of Mormon identity and its accompanying responsibilities, works on the minds and develops loyalties in young Latter-day Saints. They are taught to regard themselves proudly as “a peculiar people.” It is not surprising then that many of them are characterized by moral earnestness.
Latter-day Saints stress the importance of strong families. There is no place in the highest heaven for singles, members are told. It is taken for granted that young people will eventually marry and found families of their own.
[p. 6]If a Mormon youth has keen moral sensibilities to start with, all of this intense environment and training can accumulate in a pretty heavy load of baggage.
Take a boy like Brad, naturally sensitive, respectful of his parents. Let him grow up in a loving home, which makes him want to reciprocate the love and loyalty he feels there. Let him have a full dose of church instruction from its varied sources, though such teaching occasionally rubs against the grain of his common sense. Give him a peer group of Mormon friends who, during the emotionally vulnerable teen years, are daily subjected to highly orthodox seminary instruction. Let him in that environment develop strong peer group loyalties. Then watch to see what develops for that powerfully conditioned youth when an element of inescapable, shocking nonconformity enters the equation.
Brad was twenty when he told us that he was gay. This announcement caught me by surprise and left me dubious, first of all because his strong-willed temperament and his broad-shouldered physique hardly fit the common stereotype. But there was a second and even more compelling reason for me to deny the validity of his assertion: I accepted the prevailing view of the church that homosexuality is a perverse “choice” of lifestyle, an impulse that can be overcome. With sufficient time to sort out his experience, surely a decent young man like Brad would not ultimately make such a choice. My son a queer? No. I had known him too long, too well to believe he really wanted such an identity. I felt certain that if he were patient he would come to recognize his assumption as fallacious and develop normal heterosexual desire, leading to marriage and a family.
Though I regarded myself at that time as broadminded and tolerant, homosexuality was a phenomenon about which I had powerful biases and little information. I told Brad that he could not have found a posture more difficult for me to accept. His mother was deeply troubled as well. We had not thought it possible that a home like ours could produce a gay son. Had she, she worried, been responsible in some way for his becoming homosexual? For [p. 7]a long time we denied, hoping for change, hoping that some girl, the right girl, would come along and bowl Brad over. Meanwhile, with heavy hearts and confused feelings, we started to study homosexuality, reading, observing, listening to any who we thought could help us sort it all out. It was arduous, slow work, especially since we undertook it in the closet.
But, of course, Brad’s difficulties started long before his twentieth birthday. He had been aware from early years in grade school that his sexual attraction was toward males, and if early on that knowledge was less than fully realized, with his advance into adolescence and a series of unspoken crushes on male athlete friends, he could not ultimately deny the reality of an inclination that was, in the context of his world, unthinkable.
In those late teen years Brad read everything about homosexuality he could get his hands on. He knew, of course, the church’s position, that homosexuality is unnatural and inappropriate (since it does not lead to marriage and family), that homosexual acts are grave sins, that homosexual marriage is a contradiction in terms. He had therefore two culturally acceptable alternatives: live celibately or renounce his mistaken choice and find a way to enter into a faithful heterosexual marriage.
Through his reading Brad became aware of contrary views, namely that homosexual orientation is not chosen, that it likely has a biological basis. This seemed consistent with what he knew of his own feelings. His intellect and his self-respect wanted to accept these assertions. But faced with the church’s moral authority, he was filled with doubt.
Like many young homosexuals, his ego was battered.1 His high [p. 8]school journals reveal poignantly the continuing turmoil he felt as he tried to suppress his feelings and to imitate the social attitudes and dating patterns of his friends. They reveal that he prayed long and fervently that God would help him change, that he promised to do anything necessary to bring about such change.
Only later did we come to understand how difficult his teen years had been, how filled with confusion, conflict, and self-hatred. We did know that frequently he had struggled with nagging bouts of depression which worried us but for which we had no explanation except teenage doldrums. We did not know how deeply alienated he felt from his religion, to which he wanted to be faithful; from his friends, who did not really know him; even from his family, whose expectations for him were not compatible, he was sure, with what he knew he was.
These inner conflicts reached a crisis point when at age nineteen he had to decide whether to serve a two-year proselyting mission. The official position of the Mormon hierarchy is that all young males should accept a mission call. Health permitting, there are ostensibly no really valid excuses for not doing so, and powerful pressures—institutional, familial, peer—to help bring this about. It is not easy to say no, but finally that was Brad’s answer. Though he had not, at nineteen, engaged in homosexual relations and thus was presum-[p. 9]ably worthy in this and other respects, how could he without violating himself represent the church that denied the legitimacy of his deeply-felt identity.
Brad’s first two college years were dominated by tortured internal dialogue. It became explicit in the pages of his journals wherein one can read the blow-by-counterblow of these arguments, his attempts to believe in the theoretical possibility of positive rewards in gay relationships, his simultaneous recognition of the seemingly insupportable cost of such nonconformity. In college, especially after leaving Pocatello, he turned increasingly by inclination and necessity to new friends who helped him see beyond the implicit views of his narrowly-orthodox high school peer group. In those two years he moved a long way, doubtless thrust forward by the cumulative unreleased pressures of his teen years.
When at the end of his sophomore year Brad came out to us, he knew it was a risk. Doubtless he hoped we’d be accepting, or, failing that, perhaps he had faith we would eventually come around. In any case, he had made a courageous decision. He knew there was a truth about himself that he must accept, and that that truth must in some undeniable way shape his life. He needed our support.
I wish we had been able to give it to him immediately, unqualifiedly. We couldn’t. Oh, there was no outward anger, there were no threats of disowning. He knew, I am sure, that we loved him. But we could not say, “Listen to the voice within you, Brad, and follow it. Go with our blessing: find and nourish who you really are.” We couldn’t say it, for we did not trust his inner voice. We were products of the lessons we had learned through life that could not be unlearned overnight. How could we give him license to become something we had been taught to abominate.2
[p. 10]A few months later Brad left to find a different kind of life in Los Angeles. With conflicted emotions, we drove to Salt Lake City to help him move out of his apartment and ship his belongings. We said our goodbyes in an ambience of dazed unbelief.
The decisions he made that spring and summer marked him with tragic potential. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic. Many young people have broken with their inherited culture with results not necessarily tragic. What I want to say is that the preconditions for tragedy were coalescing. Here was an especially intense young man, earnest and passionate and idealistic, wanting so badly to find moral and philosophical justification for his life in the face of society’s disapproval. The situation called for an easygoing pragmatist, which Brad could never be.
He knew that in coming out and going to live in the gay culture of West Hollywood he was burning bridges. His mother’s and my response at the time was qualified at best, the attitudes of his younger brothers highly uncertain, and he was almost certainly cutting himself off from all but a few of his closely knit extended family. Moreover, he was effectually breaking with his church, a major decision, for fellowship in the church is regarded by Mormons as indispensable for salvation. Not least of all, he was sepa-[p. 11]rating himself from the culture and lifestyle he had known growing up in Idaho.
Did he feel ambivalent about these decisions? Of course. But having decided he could not live authentically in his old world, he felt considerable exhilaration, as when in a risky situation one says with some bravado, “What the hell, let’s go for it!” He did not at twenty understand that deeply ingrained loyalties would not allow him easily to lay aside emotional bonds of an upbringing such as his. In this he was unwise, as other tragic individuals who think as they embark on a path leading to extremity that the strength of their desire will overcome obstacles to its fulfillment.
Los Angeles beckoned with all its dazzling hedonism. After a relationship with first one, then another lover proved unstable, he drifted increasingly into the bar scene. Drugs, which had never previously been part of his life, contributed to the dionysian atmosphere in which he was caught up. “Dad, I’m in a new world. You can’t believe how my consciousness is raised.” After a time he was teetering on the brink of addiction, and his friends were worried about him. Then came a bout with hepatitis. We did not know until later how far things had gone with him.
Meanwhile, he had sense enough to see he had gotten into a bad state. He exerted his will, got drug use under control, watched his health, and moderated his behavior generally. Since he was not making a lot of money and was at the same time taking night classes at UCLA, he needed considerable discipline to get through his illness and at the same time make ends meet. He didn’t fully reveal these difficulties to us. It was characteristic of him that, having gotten himself into a mess, he intended to extricate himself by his own means.
Best of all from our point of view, he began to realize that underlying gay life in West Hollywood was a deep-seated nihilism, that the frenzied activity of the gay bars was an attempt to cover despair. He saw increasingly in many around him—and in himself—the effects of alienation, pessimism, and hopelessness about the future. On several occasions he considered suicide (a couple of [p. 12]phone calls to us in the small hours of the morning were frightening). For all of its excitement, he understood gradually that the aesthetic, hedonistic culture dominant in Los Angeles was incompatible with his real needs. Somehow, though it meant leaving a supportive community, he had to reincorporate himself into the mainstream. “Much as I love this place, I’ve got to get out of here, to somewhere less distracting; I’ve got to get back into school.”
About this time, after three and a half years in L.A., he became acquainted with a young man who also had grown up in Idaho. Drew had been living in Honolulu for a year or so, and, like Brad, he left Idaho originally because, as a homosexual, he was not accepted there. Brad was not prepared to return to the mountain west, but by joining with Drew he could leave L.A. and move to an attractive, smaller urban environment in Hawaii. With Drew he thought he could find a way back to the simpler, more wholesome values he associated with his Idaho upbringing. His enthusiasm for this fresh direction was so typical, another zenith in his psychological pattern of roller coaster highs and lows. But we did not attempt to dissuade him. Anything that takes him away from L.A., we thought, will be an improvement.
Alas, the interlude with Drew did not prove to be paradise. On the positive side, the two young men enjoyed excursions about the island in their free time, hikes in the hills, swimming in the ocean. For Brad, who had been searching for a new kind of religious faith, the exposure to natural Hawaii was at times a mystical experience, an encounter with deities of wind and sky and sea. His spiritual imagination was fed by this exotic environment. Unfortunately, he began to realize that Drew was not his soul mate. Brad felt uncomfortable with the religious simplicities to which Drew was drawn, and Drew did not share Brad’s intense love of the arts. Their romance sprang up quickly, intensely, but planted in shallow soil, it soon wilted in the tropical sun. Sadly, this painful recognition of an inadequate fit came at a juncture when Brad badly needed a secure and loving relationship.
Initially, Brad found employment in Honolulu as a landscape [p. 13]gardener. After several months he applied for a position with a firm that specialized in sophisticated advertising graphics. Underqualified for the computerized work, he talked his way into the job on a probationary basis, brashly confident that he could pick it up quickly. Suddenly he was under tension in a pressured environment. At the end of a month, the owner told him the experiment was not working and let him go. This defeat caught him at a low point. First another failed relationship and now fired! The dismissal magnified in retrospect every setback he had ever experienced, every thwarted ambition. The Hawaiian idyll had turned ugly. He was devastated. Concerned about his health, both physical and mental, we persuaded him to come home for awhile.
It took several months for him to pull himself back together. He had lived so intensely during those four years away, had poured himself so passionately into his quest for a way that he could live, had taken risks, cast prudence aside to see if he could seize love, some purpose, and self-acceptance—and at this juncture it all came crashing down. His badly bruised spirit is revealed in the pathos of a journal entry just before leaving Hawaii: “Please don’t let everything I’ve loved so far be a mistake, as it seems in their eyes.”
I am laboring (albeit superficially) over these biographical details not for their own sake so much as to show how Brad pursued vigorously, if not always wisely, self-realization against the grain of his culture, how he insisted on his right to be himself according to conditions thrust on him by his biology and his particular place and moment in history, and how those circumstances continually assaulted and undermined his confidence. I am attempting to convey my perception that if well into his twenties Brad was still trying to find himself, it was because, given his character, his situation, and the choices that flowed from their combination, there was for him no easy road to contentment. Perhaps I have not emphasized sufficiently his romantic temperament. What I hope to suggest is that in his case the nemesis of AIDS came along as a by-product of his insistent quest.
In September Brad enrolled in Landscape Architecture at Utah [p. 14]State University in Logan. He toiled at the curriculum for two years, exhilarated by the aesthetic, botanical, and social facets of the discipline. He struggled some with the mathematical requirements where his confidence had always been shaky. He lived in a dormitory and was a floor resident assistant.
His life in Logan was characterized by continuous intense ambivalence. While he loved the physical environment—a striking campus positioned against steeply rising mountains and overlooking the pastoral valley where he had been born—it seemed to him that religious provincialism dominated both his campus contacts and the community generally. He hated that. Doubtless he was hypersensitive to Mormon orthodoxy and not altogether fair in his sweeping condemnations of it. He railed against what seemed the smug and unquestioning attitudes of his student peers. Reluctantly, he forced himself back into the closet, feeling he could not afford to run the social, academic, and physical risks that openness would entail. He felt his authenticity sharply compromised. Thus, Logan was, from a psychological point of view, altogether the wrong place for him to be. There his tendency toward depression would be greatly exacerbated. But he reasoned that this alienated life was temporary and could be gotten through.
It would prove more difficult than he imagined. His journals describe debilitating mood swings resulting at least in part from the contradictions of his personal situation. “I feel as if I am living my life in a vacuum—no friends, no real stimulating conversation, no night life, no confidante, nowhere to get away.” Frustrated with his isolation and increasingly depressed at the prospect of a continued sentence of residence in Logan, he began to develop ominous health problems late in his second year. As the semester wore on, he felt less strong, and he muddled through something like an appendicitis attack without bothering to seek any medical help.
When he returned home in June, we were surprised that he had lost weight. Within a couple of weeks he was hospitalized for an appendectomy, then a return to overcome a post-operative infection. Tests showed irregularities in his blood, including sharply reduced [p. 15]T-cell levels. The specter of AIDS loomed, but we clung to the possibility of other causes. It was too ironic to think that after his having abandoned gay life in Los Angeles, after his almost monkish retreat to northern Utah, he might now have AIDS. As the summer progressed, the multiple symptoms of ARC (AIDS-related complex) presented themselves—loss of appetite, more pronounced weight loss, low grade fever, night sweats, fatigue, sleeplessness, coughing.
By late October Brad developed increasingly alarming respiratory difficulties. Was this pneumocystis pneumonia, a confirmation of AIDS? Fatalistically, he resisted hospitalization, but when it became clear in early November that he must either be admitted to the hospital or die (and he was too ill to know this) we simply could not accept the latter alternative and called the ambulance. Twenty hours later his blood oxygen level fell to a point incompatible with life. Earlier he had said emphatically that he did not want to be kept alive by mechanical means. Again, faced with his death as the alternative, we agonized, then gave our permission to employ a respirator. Later we learned that without Brad’s cooperation the breathing tube could not have been efficiently inserted in the perilously short time left. For ten days we kept a family vigil at his bedside. Neither his doctors nor we really expected him to survive that ordeal in the intensive care unit.
He did. Thanksgiving and Christmas were joyous holidays for us that year. Brad began to recover his appetite, began to gain back some weight. The AIDS, now officially confirmed, was in remission. We knew, of course, about the formal death sentence in that diagnosis, but hope revives with the most slender encouragement. If he could keep alive for a year or two, perhaps the research breakthrough would come, a cure be found. In January, with renewed will to live, he felt well enough to enroll for a journalism course at Idaho State University.
“April,” Eliot wrote, “is the cruelest month.” That was when the tide turned, when the insidious disease reasserted its power. It was a crucial turn, stamped with inexorability. Brad knew, and we [p. 16]knew, that at this late stage he could not afford to give up much ground.
AIDS is a relentless aggressor. It takes a person apart incrementally. From the toes to the brain, no part of the body—muscles, nerves, organs—is safe from its ravages. One fights it on one front, only to have it attack elsewhere. Gradually, the incursions assume cumulative proportions. In May and June Brad struggled against a growing barrage of ailments, the most obvious of which were nausea, weakness, and extreme fatigue. Above all, he struggled to keep believing that he could hang on, that if he did he might still find some measure of quality in his life.
In late June he managed to finish a month-long history course at ISU but did it like a battered boxer in the late rounds, mostly on instinct and guts. The physical slide continued. His normally well-defined muscles lost tone. He grew more pale, gaunt, listless. Walking became increasingly difficult and painful, his vision was affected, and there were two ominous brain lesions. He stopped driving the Dodge Challenger he had been so proud of, knowing that his reflexes were no longer sufficiently reliable. One day in a grocery store he tried to fill out a check and, humiliated, could not remember how to do it.
I was with him one day in early August when he asked his doctor for an honest estimate of his chances, and that kind man, who had become Brad’s friend and buoyed up his spirits on many occasions in the course of their cooperative effort, replied: “If the rapid decline we are now seeing continues, it is unlikely you can go on for very long.”
That was a difficult recognition. A day or so later, Brad told us he had decided to dispose of his possessions. He wanted to make sure that the things he had lovingly chosen over the years would get into the hands of individuals who would value them too—his combined edition of Tolkien, his Beardsley, his Bible, his fairy tale collections, and numerous other books; his classical records and funky collection of popular music; his prints, photographs, posters, [p. 17]and small art pieces; a few antiques. He wanted to do it while his mind was still clear.
In early September his best friend Scott came from southern California to visit. We drove up into the mountains together to see the scenes Brad had loved, to walk along the clear mountain creeks where flaming scrub maples and bold-yellow aspens defined the water course, where the views over the narrow valley to mountains beyond were sharply etched in the clear air of autumn. He could not walk far. A few days afterward, his youngest brother Ted left to be a missionary in Uruguay. These were significant farewells.
I cannot say that he spent those last months in a sustained heroic effort to stay alive. Rather, he was caught in a terrible ambivalence, vacillating between the will to live and the will to die. In either direction, the operative word is will. I had supposed that when a person gives up the fight for life, what follows is a passive drift toward death. I should have known that Brad could never drift passively. When the experimental drug AZT was publicized in early fall as a means of arresting AIDS, he quickly made arrangements to secure it in a last effort to seize back momentum. But by the time the red tape was all cut, a month had passed, and his case was too far advanced for the drug to be efficacious. So, if death it was to be, he would have it on his own terms, with some measure of dignity. Suicide was a possibility he considered seriously for the time when his condition became incontrovertibly hopeless. Ultimately he decided to face it out, to let nature run its course. But as he approached the end, he determined, with concurrence of his physician, that he would cease taking the antibiotic that helped him in his rearguard struggle against opportunistic infections, and that if the end came at home or in hospital, no aggressive measures would be taken to keep him alive, only provision of what comfort was possible.
He was no saint, no perfect stoic during those last months. He ran the gamut of emotions. From his volatile nature spilled dejection, irony, irritability, nostalgia, islands of humor, and—not least—sharp anger against the utter absurdity of it all, anger that [p. 18]sometimes lashed those around him. Dylan Thomas’s line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” exactly characterizes those moods. The light died literally in one of his eyes a few weeks before the end, extinguished by one of those brain lesions. But the mind that could momentarily forget how to make out a check was still capable of insightful reflection as counterpoint against the rage.
And we others stood by like a Sophoclean chorus, filled with lamentation, knowing that our pitiful words were inadequate response to the passion in which the central figure of this drama toiled. This was a trial of spirit that somehow gathered up the personal suffering of a lifetime. And now his struggle had come down to, was epitomized in, this life-and-death wrestling with AIDS.
During the last month and a half the wasted legs would not support him. A wheel chair was necessary for his movement about the house or outside for medical treatment. Before our eyes, he became physically much like an aged man, with thinned hair, sharpened visage. Because of the pain of movement, he found baths difficult and exhausting. We worked out a way that he could shower. From a piece of lumber, we fashioned a seat that could be laid across the edges of the tub. I would help him remove his pajamas, lift him from the wheelchair to the edge of the seat, then assist him to ease the aching legs very slowly, very carefully over the edge. And then he could manage. For me it became a deeply moving ritual. Two men, son and father, were bonded together in a matrix of pain, humility, frustration, and love. The warm water that soothed and cleansed him seemed sacramental.
Ironically, Brad’s quest for religious truth was a core element in his tragic impasse. This might surprise anyone exposed simply to Brad’s pointed, occasionally caustic, irony. But his search for self demanded idealistic validation. When years earlier it had become clear that the religion of his upbringing would not accommodate his identity, he was reluctantly set adrift. The search for an alternative religion led him to consider ascetic Christianity, pantheism, oriental mysticism, new age philosophy. Even his drug experience [p. 19]in Los Angeles was fraught with overtones of a religious quest. But none of these, nor eclectic combinations of them, finally answered his need.
I think it a credit to him that as the sands of his life ran out he disdained to compromise his intellectual honesty or his experiential truth. However much solace traditional faith might have provided, he went as an agnostic to face whatever lies beyond. At the very bottom of his religious consciousness there remained, I think, a soft sympathy with important facets of Mormon theology. I have wondered more than a few times since his death whether the religious upbringing we gave him was, on balance, more help or hindrance to him in his life. Whatever the answer to this question, that upbringing was a large part of the cross he bore.
And so as time passes, I perceive more clearly in Brad’s life the ambience of tragedy. He is not a large scale tragic protagonist, to be sure. But in the face of forces inimical to his just desires, he did not flinch or turn aside. He had wanted so much—love, authenticity, beauty, achievement, self-knowledge, self-acceptance—and after his fashion he had pursued them uncompromisingly. Beginning with his boyhood conflicts, continuing through the trials of his young manhood, and concluding with the body- and mind-sapping illness, his ordeal had extended sufficiently long for his passion and courage to shine forth. In the end he had run out of time, or perhaps there would never have been enough time, to reconcile the inescapable contradictions in his life. But that he never gave up trying demonstrates the largeness of his spirit. In the furnace of this effort was forged the hard-won moral insight from which he looked back and judged what he had done.
Could the outcome have been avoided? Perhaps if those around him had been more enlightened, more accepting, he might have found a companion nearer home, might have chosen self-exile to escape intolerance, might thereby have avoided the path of alienation and self-destruction. Had he followed the advice he was given and, for example, accepted docilely the hand dealt him, been patient, and remained celibate, he would still be alive. But if he had [p. 20]demanded less from life, he would not have been Brad, and the question of tragedy would be irrelevant.
That was just it. He made demands. That was the essence of his attitude. If that was his flaw, it does him credit. If in the last analysis I persist in seeing him as tragic, in seeing his ordinary life as more than ordinary, it is for the reason that he could not—or would not—accept the either/or premises that life thrust on him, would not give up on the one hand his natural necessity (and right) to be gay, including the extremes of his exploration of that identity, or on the other hand his need for respect from the idealistic culture that was formative in his development. He could not have it both ways. His losing bout with AIDS seems to symbolize that fact. But I doubt, had he the chance to live his life again, that he would do it differently.
Speaking as a member of the chorus, I stand in the aftermath troubled by the inscrutability of much that I have witnessed. In this case, the conditions of mortality did not seem perfectly fair, nor easily borne. And I am dismayed that the cultural values we humans have created so often unnecessarily place stumbling blocks for our companions rather than easing their burdens. But as a father I now contemplate my son’s responses with respect. Though he experienced deep discouragement along his way, there was nevertheless a resilient toughness in the core of him, and I do not think he was ever beaten in spirit, not even in the last difficult days.
1. [p. 7]The difficulty and the damage experienced by gays in a conservative culture are suggested in the following: “From their youth the seeds of low self-esteem are planted. From both adults and peers they hear the deprecating epithets, the scornful aspersions, the biased misinformation about gays which [p. 8]cause them to feel contemptible. They struggle to understand their difference in an environment which demands conformity. They hide their feelings from the world, even from loved ones, and hate themselves for this deception … . They read books confirming their fear that they are flawed or mentally ill. And when they desperately need to turn to the church for comfort and assurance, it proclaims its ‘love for the sinner,’ its ‘condemnation of the sin.’ Ironically, the more orthodox the individual, the more he believes he is wicked, and the more he suffers from this institutional repudiation of his identity. His ‘tainted’ sexuality seems to him the central fact of his existence and colors all facets of his life” (H. Wayne Schow, “Homosexuality, Mormon Doctrine, and Christianity,” Sunstone, Feb. 1990, 12).
2. [p. 9]In the years that followed, my view of homosexuality and its theological implications changed significantly. Based on wide reading together with direct observation of the numerous homosexuals I have come to know, I now believe [p. 10]that this orientation has a biological basis, that one does not choose or learn to be homosexual. Such a premise changes the ethics of homosexual behavior, and changes similarly the ethics of response by the heterosexual majority toward this significant natural minority. I believe that our sexuality, however oriented, is one of God’s important gifts, with the potential to enrich our lives. From a Christian perspective, we should judge its expression by the fruits it bears. Just as we assess heterosexual relationships in terms of commitment and whether such relationships contribute to long-term growth and holistic well-being, so we should assess homosexual relationships. The question is thus not whether one is homosexual but how. Biblical passages that bear on the question of homosexuality are not free of contextual cultural bias. In the light of Christian teaching, we should love all persons as God has created them and assist them in realizing their unique potentials.