It was a desperate call by a teenage girl from a hotel room. Her mother was dying of AIDS and could barely get out of bed. Tomorrow was the last day they could afford to stay in the hotel. She did not know what to do. We asked for the hotel name and room number. The hotel was not one of our finer establishments. I said I would go and discern what was happening.
The scene I found would have turned even a Scrooge’s heart into mush. The dank, dark room with a woman lying in bed dying, a teenage girl trying to hold it together, a young adolescent boy with fear and hardness in his eyes. The woman in the bed greeted me with a smile. They told the story of leaving their home in another city after the father had died of AIDS; they had come to Savannah to be with relatives. But once the relatives discovered that the mother had AIDS the relatives offered no hope or refuge. And so they had been stuck in this hotel for a couple of weeks. I asked the children if they were going to school. The girl said yes. I would later find out she was an honor student. She had assumed, with her mother dying in bed, the role of parent. It was up to her for the family to survive. The boy said yes he was going to school but I would later find out he was roaming the streets during the day. The mother would die in a few weeks in the care of hospice. But for now she needed help to secure a place for her children. I agreed to help.
He was the equivalent of Savannah’s matinee idol. He had boyish good looks and a charm about him that always worked. His charm probably worked too well for him. He could sing, dance, and was one of the local thespians. He was a lawyer. He was gay and out before that became a cliché’. He wrote a column for the paper. He worked for Georgia Legal Services as their HIV\AIDS services lawyer. His life was a stage and he was always performing, acting as though he did not have a care in the world. There was nothing he could not do.
I had called him to meet with the family and me as we tried to find government housing for them. I called him because we never knew when and where AIDS phobia and discrimination would occur. I wanted this process to be as simple as possible. The mother only had a short while to live. I also needed him to work with the family on living wills and custody issues.
I had developed a small rapport with the family but it was nothing special. The moment Robert stepped in he clicked with the family. The children loved him. The mother trusted him fully. It was magical. Robert was a good friend but his life was lived as a party and he always excelled as the party boy. I liked Robert because, although he could live on the edge and be frivolous, there was a depth of soul longing to come out. He was out as a gay man but he had not come out as soulful man. He was still closeted in that category. We secured housing for the children and as expected the mother died soon after. Robert had arranged, at the mother’s request, for the uncle to be the children’s benefits payee. He quickly took the children’s money and spent it for his own uses. The house the uncle provided them was furnished with a chair, a table, a television that sat on the ground, as did the two mattresses he had furnished. The pantry was empty. I found this out when the boy called and said they were hungry. I brought them some food and slowly they confessed that they seldom saw their uncle and he never bought them food, clothes or anything else. The money they had between the two of them, while not living the grand life, should have given them the basics. I called Robert once again; they needed a new payee. In the midst of this, the housing authority revolted against leaving the two children together without their uncle supervising (a sad irony) in what was now their home. If the girl had been a teenage mother she could have stayed, but being an honor student and not pregnant she was too young to remain in public housing. She and her brother would have to be separated and moved to foster care or an orphanage. Robert, at this point, became an aggressive advocate. The absurdity of the case would hit national news. The conservative local politician, feeling this could provide some fanfare, used his influence to help get a stay on the eviction and Robert worked with the courts and the housing authority to get a resolution. The case was settled with the children being allowed to stay in their home. Robert became their payee and he arranged for a local mother, also in the housing authority, to watch over them. The two children who had seen and experienced so much of life and had nothing but each other would not be separated.
Then something surprising happened; the glamour boy became soulful. He had developed a relationship with the children through all the trouble and he grew to love them. One day he asked them if they would come live with him. They said yes. He became their father.
The story, as seldom happens in life, was no fairy tale; they had been “into the woods.” The new father would struggle with an alcohol addiction. He would struggle giving up being the life of the party for another life. He was slow to learn that all of life is not a stage. Sometimes it was a struggle behind the curtains. His son would grapple with being raised by a gay white man who seemed to be so rich and he a poor black boy felt as though he was Robert’s trophy. His painful past left him with a hole he could not fill. His daughter would go to college, build a career, and start her own family.
But out of the woods a family had been birthed. They would spend holidays together. His son would have a father to rebel against and rant about. His daughter would have someone who looked after her, who parented her. Grandchildren would be born. And Robert exits the stage to find his soul and start a new journey.