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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.

Love The One You're With

By the time most people read this, the 29th birthday of my son Patrick Wayne Robertson, known as "Rick," will have come and gone.

My wife Joy and I will have lit a candle for him at church, during a time of sharing known as "joys and concerns." Rick is both a joy and a concern. We rejoice that he is our son and are concerned because he continues to be a missing person after more than four years.

I just don't have the strength to repeat once more the story of how he got into some legal trouble, ran from it and disappeared from his home in Columbus, Ohio. We've gone through every of emotion of grief and fear that a parent can imagine and are simply sapped out. All we know is his whereabouts are unknown, he could be in further trouble, he could be in jail, he could be living under an assumed name, he could be trying to find us, he could be sick with no one to care for him, he could be happy or he could be dead - from disease, his own hand or through foul play. We also know that every day without him is a heart breaker.

To compensate for this loss in our lives, we have become somewhat strange people. We are overly protective of our nearly-6-foot-5-inch, 200-plus pound younger son, Jonathan, much to his annoyance. Our family tends to hug and touch more than we used to. We keep Rick's pictures where we can see them when we want to, but not out in the open - that is too painful.

A friend of mine recently adopted a golden brown, almost blond, Italian greyhound, which he named Ajax. The dog just turned 3 years old on Feb. 25. My mind went goofy when I heard the dog's birthday - the same day as my blond-haired son Rick. I joked, sort of, that it would serve Rick right to come back reincarnated as a wiggly, fast-running little greyhound - our son spent enough time squirming out of jams and being a runner. When I visited my friend on Ajax's birthday, I called the dog up on my lap and whispered in his ear, "If you're in there, Rick, happy birthday and I love you." The dog licked my face and ran off to play.

We are haunted when we see round-faced, handsome young men with blond hair and ruddy complexions walking down the street. I can't watch old clips of Glen Campbell when he was young without thinking of Rick. Seeing the actor Rick Schroder on "NYPD Blue" is particularly unnerving. One time I even asked a Rick-like young man in a coffeehouse to lift his ball cap, just to see if his hair was the same color as my son's. It wasn't.

Perhaps the strangest thing we've done, although it doesn't seem strange to us at all, is to seek out gay friends, hoping that something in our conversations will bring back pleasant memories of Rick. Of course, there can be no replacement for him, we know that, but sometimes someone will say or do something that reminds us of him.

We have young male friends who we can tell are fussy about their appearances just like Rick, who at one time owned 12 business suits, more than I've owned in my whole life. We have others who can quote favorite sitcom characters, with perfect inflection, just as Rick would do with Jack Benny or George Burns. There are others who can weep at a sentimental moment - Rick cried at Nixon's funeral, for pete's sake!

Of course, Rick also was a scoundrel who could run up someone else's phone into hundreds of dollars and would only act guilty when confronted. He would lie, he used drugs and drank too much and ultimately did things that got him in trouble with the police. In one of my last conversations with him before his disappearance, I tried a "tough love" approach and told him I knew he was a liar and a thief. I don't regret saying that - it was time to say it - but I wish I could have said it with less anger.

Ultimately, Rick is like everyone else's son - perfect and imperfect, a joy and a concern. Our family chose to focus our energies on the gay civil rights movement not because Rick's sexual orientation was his most obvious characteristic, but because it is where we have found so many other young men and women who remind us of him in different ways. Thanks to him, we can appreciate the uniqueness of the pains and joys they have experienced, no matter how different the specifics of their lives.

Rick was born in 1972. A popular song of that era was by Stephen Stills. It in it, he suggested, "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

We have never stopped loving our missing son and never will. But his loss at least has enabled us to love many other people, for their own unique sakes and in his memory.

Published March 5th


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