My mom and I have always been close. I was a nervous kid. I’d hold onto her dress when I met new people, often I’d have nightmares and beg to sleep in her bed. She brought me up Catholic. My mom’s relationship with God is deep and unshakeable. She sent me to Sunday School and we’d attend mass every week. I used to pray every night before bed, a prayer for my soul and for the souls of my loved ones she’d taught me when I was very young. When I realized I was gay, my worry was not that she’d be angry or disown me. I was scared that our relationship would change, that she wouldn’t understand that part of me. We talked about a lot of things growing up, like what it means to be black in a country that’s set against you, how marriages can sometimes fall apart, how it’s important to have a relationship with God so that if things go wrong you have someone to turn to. But we never talked about gay people.
I’d always thought that was because my mom didn’t know anything about them. For a long time, I felt like I had to teach her about that part of me, the same way she’d taught me about the religious part of her. That meant telling her why I found it offensive when our priest equated gay people with the devil, it meant telling her about the importance of referring to people with the correct pronouns and reminding her every year why Pride and Stonewall should be celebrated. I wanted her to understand me. I was afraid she’d feel like a stranger.
When you’re a kid it’s difficult to see your parents as real people who lived and had experiences before you were born. Years after I came out, my mom opened up to me. It became clear that she knew more about my community than I ever thought. She’s a psychiatrist, and she’d tell me about her gay and trans patients and how they’d had the rug torn out from under them. Shitty parents, drug abuse, people on the fringes of society that fall too far and don’t know how to get back up. It surprised me to hear this from her, a middle-class, Catholic doctor from the suburbs. The conversations were sometimes awkward, but it warmed my heart that she took these important moments from her past and used them to relate to me, to understand who I was.
It’s now been five years since I came out, and it was only a few weeks ago that she told me about a gay man she met in 1986, back when she was just Robin, not Dr. Johnson. She was in her third year of medical school, and had just received her white coat, black bag, and stethoscope. It was an exciting time. She was doing her rotation in internal medicine, seeing patients with pneumonia, hypertension, and the like. It’s the student’s job to meet and assess the patient, then report back to the Intern, the Resident, and the Chief Resident. A patient came in one day – a 21-year old single white male who’d been admitted to the emergency room short of breath. The doctors knew he had pneumonia but weren’t sure which type. Robin was the first to meet with him. She refers to him as Will, though that’s not his real name. Will told her his story, that he’d been kicked out of his house by religious parents because he was gay. My mom had known gay people, but none that were out to their family, and certainly none that had been abandoned like Will. While reporting the patient’s condition to her superiors, she mentioned that Will was gay. The Intern and the Resident shared a look but otherwise didn’t comment.
The next day, Will was diagnosed with Pneumocystis Carinii, a type of pneumonia that only appears in people with weak immune systems. It’s the most common cause of death to people with AIDS. When Robin and her team found out, the Chief Resident turned to her and said, “This is your patient.” He handed over all responsibility to a third-year medical student; Robin would be in charge of determining Will’s treatment. She was excited: this kind of thing is rare, and it felt like a big opportunity for her. Her classmates didn’t share her view. “Robin,” another student said, “Don’t you know what’s going on? They didn’t give that to you as a favor.” After that day, when my mom and her superiors made their rounds and listened to her report on patients, they would skip over Will. They didn’t want to hear about him. In fact, they didn’t want to see him either; no doctor stepped foot in his room. I pressed my mom about this. It was the beginning of the AIDs crisis, maybe the doctors knew that there wasn’t a way to help Will. Maybe they couldn’t face him because they felt guilt or perhaps shame. My mom wouldn’t hear it. “No. No. No. No. There was no guilt, there was no shame.” She was adamant that the actions of her superiors were at their core, despicable.
Robin had Will on every drug imaginable, but he wasn’t getting better. She began to feel like there wasn’t much she could do for him. One day she asked why his room was always dirty, and he admitted that the cleaning staff was too afraid to go inside the room. “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t bother me.” She marched up to the Intern and demanded that something be done about it. Eventually, the Chief Resident caught wind of this and scolded the cleaning staff. He may have been dying, may have been bone-thin and always tired with a fever, but he deserved dignity. Robin talked to Will every day, about his family, about his regrets. He talked a lot about his mom – he hadn’t spoken to her since she’d kicked him out. Robin called his mom several times, and it never went well. The phone calls were always short and full of harsh words. My mom felt almost powerless, Will was in bad shape and it was looking like the end for him. She wanted Will to have the chance to speak with his mom.
During rounds one day, Robin insisted the doctors talk about Will. She explained that he wasn’t doing well. The Chief Resident looked at her and said, “We can’t save them all.” She realized then that no one expected Will to make it. She was doing as much research as possible, reading about similar cases of Pneumocystis Carinii and possible treatments every night. It was approaching the end of Robin’s rotation, soon she’d leave the hospital and a new group of medical students would take over care of the patients. To her surprise, Will’s mom did show up one day, bearing a small gift from the hospital gift shop. Robin doesn’t know what Will and his mom talked about, but she feels happy that, despite everything, she could do something for him. She never found a miracle cure for Will. On the last day of her rotation, she had a chance to speak with him. She sat on his bed and he said to her, “Listen, I know you have done everything you can for me. I want you to know that I will always remember you and I am thankful for what you have done. You’re going to be a great doctor.” Robin was choked up. He was saying goodbye to her like he was going to die.
A few weeks later she went out to a bar near the hospital with some other students. She doesn’t drink, but if you bought two drinks, you’d get a free appetizer. She’d give her drinks to friends and eat for everybody. A kid that she didn’t recognize came up to her and said that one of her old patients wanted him to send a message. “Will wanted me to find you wherever you were and tell you that he walked out of the hospital.” Robin looked like she’d turned to stone. She was expecting to be told that Will was dead.
The student put his hands on her shoulders and started shaking her. He explained that when he took over her patient, the Chief Resident instructed him to stop all of Will’s medications. They were trying to withdraw all care and let him die. “But he got better, and we discharged him. He was insistent that I find you and tell you.” Robin was shocked. “It meant everything to me to hear that. I felt like my team wasn’t good to him. Why couldn’t they go in to see him? They were the fucking doctors, I’m the medical student. Did they just keep him alive for me? They were just going to let him die. But they couldn’t tell me that, because they knew I would not have tolerated that. I don’t know what I would have done but I wouldn’t have tolerated that.”
When I was coming out, I never could have imagined that my mom had been on the front lines like that, that she’d witnessed true horror. It’s possible she’s done more for my community than I ever will. I felt an overwhelming sense of grief when she told me Will’s story. I’d already known about the AIDs crisis, of course, but I wasn’t there. I’m too young to fully understand what those years were like. Hearing a personal story like Will’s makes our painful history more real. The hundreds of thousands who died become more than just numbers, you realize that they were patients, sons, lovers, the list goes on. The people who refused to help the sick transform from imagined, cartoonish villains to real individuals: doctors, cleaning staff, mothers. I imagine my mom with long braids and an even longer face, staring down at Will, truly afraid that he could die because of her team’s neglect. My mom and I are different, but we are not strangers. She knows me, knows my community. She knows that gay history is a painful history. I think that’s why she didn’t discuss gay people before I came out; she didn’t want me to know that sometimes gay kids get harassed, get sick, get kicked out. She wanted to protect me from that pain.