I am almost finished with the second draft of a murder mystery that I have been writing for the past year in between hospital shifts and driving my children hither and thon. The book is autobiographical in many respects particularly in that the heroine is a young woman whose gay father has just died of AIDS after which she escapes to snowy Maine in the winter of 1992-1993. That was me 25 years ago. The murder mystery that ensues in entirely fictional. As I write, my father has been constantly on my mind. Nowadays he is a calming presence, his warmth of personality is in the forefront and the negative memories have fallen away with the years as they have passed. The mystery investigates deeply the homophobic and stigmatizing years of the 1980s and early 1990s before everything began to change for the better for the gay community. I seem to have have channeled into the book much of my rage at my experiences of homophobia during my childhood and what the stigma did to my father who did not live long enough to see the changes.
Our relationship was deeply damaged by the social issues we had to deal with. And this is how the murder mystery form came to be the perfect vehicle for my story. The murder mystery looks at human rage, stigma, shame and the failure of humanity to live up to its own ideals. But it does so in a more or less predictable format that has book ends on either end within which to contain the overwhelming emotion of these difficult topics. And of course, at the end of the book, the killer is caught and the crime avenged. Very satisfying.
In my book, the heroine spends a fair amount of time rummaging through boxes of her father’s papers and items, in search of clues that allow her to solve the killing at the center of the story. She finds pictures of her father and his lover in Montreal, Quebec and she finds diaries describing illicit love affairs that were kept secret. Last night, I dreamt that I was going through my father’s boxes again, boxes that have been stored in my attic for many years and left untouched because looking through them was too painful. In the dream I found a box of gifts that he intended for me to find later in life when I had matured. There was a tiny box for each of the people that were important in his life – my aunt, certain friends. In my box there were precious gems – amethysts. A note in his handwriting stated that the estimated value in 1992 was $1,750,000. Aha! my dreaming self said, now I can write to my hearts desire and put all the money worries to rest for good.
When I woke up I decided to go up to the attic and open one of the real boxes. On the top was a red three-ring binder containing my father’s journal from 1974 through 1986. He died in 1992. There were also cards and letters from loved ones and some poems and musings that he apparently deemed important enough to type up on his typewriter. I spent the afternoon reading through the journal and found that it all – nearly 50 sheets of my father’s neat, small hand – concerned his anxiety and his fear about being a homosexual and how he attempted to navigate his relationships with both men and women, all the while suffering from varying degrees of dismay and concern over his sexual orientation. I’m well aware that my father’s life was more than just the material in the journal, which he clearly used to puzzle out his life’s most difficult problem. But still, the journal is a testimony to the power of discrimination and stigma to twist the life of a brilliant and warm man into a frequent battle with anxiety and fear. It left me feeling a bit empty.
I must go back to my mystery. In the vast beauty and creativity of my mind I will avenge my father’s suffering. And it will be a fun and fascinating read at the same time. I will end this note with one of my father’s writings that I found in the box. It was written six months before he died, when he was facing yet another opportunistic infection – one that he knew could end his life.
“Having my first serious illness after the toxoplasmosis, a lot of neurological stuff, but no toxo on the MRI. Dr. Bellman thinks it is CRV – got one positive biopsy from the duodenum. On a very rigorous and toxic treatment course, and having a lot of doubts, despair. Feel out of control – unable to be directive . . . No choices. Should I give in to the Dr.’s care without question? Others do. I’m having a support committee meeting on Thursday.
The leaves are out . . . Very beautiful. You burst into glory. Only to wither and die soon after. Is this the rhythm of life? Why do we object so? Making plans and expecting to do them. We fall into life’s trap, Wanting, desiring, and hoping, Instead of following god’s plan.
Ok Dad, I will try to follow God’s plan for me. Enough striving for one day. I shall head outdoors with my two lovely children, your grandchildren, and we will honor you by looking up at the blue sky and feeling the warm breeze of the summer on our skin. And I will give thanks for all of the hearts and minds that have changed over the last twenty-five years and for my gay friends that can live out loud in these better times and for the healing I have been blessed to receive.