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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

The Prodigal's Father

Today marks the fourth anniversary since the last time I saw my oldest son, Patrick Wayne Robertson. It's an anniversary my wife Joy and younger son Jonathan and all the rest of immediate family would rather not have to observe, but we do --- by doing so, it means we have not given up hope that we will learn where Patrick --- or Rick, as we call him --- is some day and bring closure to this episode in our lives.

Rick disappeared in October 1996 from Columbus, Ohio, where he was then living and where he also was in trouble with Franklin County law enforcement authorities. Without going into all his legal problems, I feel like I can say part of his problem was living in denial that he had them at all. He would skip court appearances, which only exacerbated his troubles. A few months before his disapperaance, he was arrested by the Franklin County Sheriff's Office for failure to appear in court. We refused to make bail for him. I told him we were not going to pretend he was just a victim of circumstances and mistaken judgment anymore.

It was a tough love approach and it didn't work. He took my anger for rejection, which it was not, and the minute a friend, against our advice, bailed him out, he started making plans to run away, which we knew he would eventually do. I suppose my wife and I should feel more guilt about the way things have worked out for Rick, except that we don't, really. While not claiming to be perfect, we did offer him unqualified love and what financial support we could afford. We were somewhat late in realizing how deeply troubled and immature he was, but once we did, we tried to help even when it meant sometimes saying no to him. I probably tried too hard and ended up being an overbearing parent. I can do that, as Jonathan will quickly agree. I can't help it; my children are a topic about which I have no objectivity. They make me crazy and so does my love for them.

Rick, if he is still alive, would be 28 years old. Every day, I speak to him while shaving in the morning, while driving in my car, while typing articles for my newspaper or for my internet column, while looking out the window and seeing a blond-haired, hazel-eyed young man walk down the street. I am convinced Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote "I Say a Little Prayer for You" for my benefit. I tell Rick in these conversations, "We miss you. I miss you. Your mother misses you. Your brother says he doesn't miss you and would punch you in the face if he saw you, but I know he would be so overwhelmed if you came back that he would forget his anger and hug you anyway. I hope you are alive. If you are, I hope you are well. I hope you have a good job. I hope you are loved. I hope you have stopped running. If you are not well, I hope you can afford treatment. If you are dying, I hope you are not alone. If you are dead, I hope there is a marker with your name on it somewhere." "I wish we could reconcile," I tell him.

If you came to our home and knocked on our door, I don't know how I would greet you. At one time, I wanted to just slap your face. At another, I wanted to hug you and then slap your face. The desire for slapping is now gone, but I don't know if I would, or could hug you. I would want to, of course, but I think I would just be dumbstruck. I probably would just say hello and then go sit down. I would be afraid to say anything for fear that your coming home would not be real."

We've kept a small gift bag hanging on a nail in our home. In it are letters we've written to Rick, birthday cards, Christmas cards, different things to show him, if we ever get that chance, that he was never forgotten for a moment. I've saved copies of every "Family Ties " I've ever written, to show him how deep is my love for him. I would show him the records of meetings of the Firelands chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the chapter that Joy and I helped form because we are his parents.

I would try to tell him that he has given me much by being in my life and even by leaving it, for all the time and work and words I have put into the gay civil rights movement have been because I am his father, the proud parent of a son who happens to be gay. It is because of him that I have found a passion in my life again, a cause in and for which I can believe and fight. It is because of him that my world has been expanded to include people I would never have met except through working for gay rights.

All the leads we ever had about where Rick is have found dead ends. His trail is as cold as the water surrounding the Titanic. It will be some kind of miracle if we ever connect again. But miracles happen. Just as Robert Ballard found the Titanic, I believe it is still possible that we will find our beloved Rick again. And just as I believe in that, I believe that we will win the battle for equality for all gay people in this world.

Published 25th September 2000


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