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fatherless sons

Bernard - London, UK/Co. CLare, ireland

Mrs. Sheehan looked like a typical farmer’s wife that I had grown up with from West Clare as she emerged from the crowds at Kennedy airport. She told me that I would recognize her, as she would be carrying a child’s chair together with her suitcase. I immediately went over to her and introduced myself. “He has the Rock Hudson disease Father.” I took her suitcase from her and linked her arm out of the main terminal into the car park where I had parked my Buick Skylark. We drove together up the West Side Highway to Saint Joseph’s hospital to visit her son Michael.

There are no words to capture these all too frequent encounters I had with Irish mother’s arriving in New York City alone. They were there to be at the bedside of their young dying gay sons. For many of them it was the first they knew of their son’s gayness. This was now compounded by their ‘child’s’ inevitable and immanent death. I never cried. I could not afford it. I surrounded my heart of flesh with steel as I tried to hold on and be strong for these women on a mission of mercy. They always arrived without their husband's. Sometimes a son or daughter would accompany them, but never in my experience with their husband. “Jack did not come as I don’t think he could cope with Michael being gay and dying of the gay plague. You know what I mean Father?”

Never, as long as I live, will I ever forget the words spoken by this strong, gentle, powerful woman of West of Ireland farming stock. She stood there in pride and sorrow, before a congregation of one thousand New Yorkers with the opening line, “You were Michael’s real family. I want to thank you” . . . . .

Mrs. Sheehan, never left Michael’s bedside for three continuous days and nights. She grabbed whatever sleep she could in a cot in her dying son’s room. I came and went as often as I could amidst my other calls. Eventually I got word to come quickly, Michael was on his way out.

Arranging the funeral was easy. I had already arranged so many. Mrs. Sheehan’s daughter Mary arrived from England a day later. She joined her mother for the Requiem of her brother. The Church of Saint Francis Xavier was packed with fellow AIDS sufferers and friends who patiently awaited their fate. I celebrated Michael’s funeral Mass. After the Holy Communion I invited Mrs. Sheehan -- as agreed before -- to come to the lectern and say a few words. Never, as long as I live, will I ever forget the words spoken by this strong gentle powerful woman of West of Ireland farming stock. She stood there in pride and sorrow, before a congregation of one thousand New Yorkers with the opening line, “You were Michael’s real family. I want to thank you” . . . . . The sobbing and crying of many individuals was palpable throughout the beautiful Romanesque Church. Many people I know envied the relationship Michael had with his grieving mother. She unlike so many other mother’s and father's did come to the AIDS deathbed of her dying gay son. 

Some parents did not even want to know about their son’s. As soon as they heard the word AIDS, both myself and those on my AIDS Ministry team received strict instructions not to make any further contact. Other mothers, and sometimes fathers arrived at the deathbeds of their sons asking them to “go to confession and repent of their ‘lifestyle.’ These devout people would not tolerate gay friends or lovers near the death beds of their dying sons. These parents in fact created more pain and suffering for the dying. Their religion became one more opportunistic infection killing an already dying son. This religious righteousness of course was compounded by the Catholic Church's teaching of the time. Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XV1) together with Pope John Paul 11 had blamed gay people dying with AIDS for their disease . . . “AIDS is the natural results of unnatural acts” . . . and told us in the LGBT community that “we ought not be surprised when we have violence visited upon us” . . . “as we claim rights to which no human being has a right” . . .