Dear Gentle Folks:
This is a different column for me. It is different because the story that you read next was not a letter written to me, but information that was sent to me when I asked. There is no solicitation here but rather a cry for help for an all to often ongoing problem in our world — that of a missing gay child. Please read this and if you can help or you know of this young man’s whereabouts ask him to “phone home” or please e-mail his Dad, Clifton Spires Jr. at: email@example.com
Thank you for your concern. I have not elaborated on my son Rick’s being a missing person because, yes, it is a painful topic and I also think it’s better to make a simple statement about it and then if someone cares enough to ask, to tell the story, which is emotionally exhausting, especially after so much time and so many tellings.
Please forgive me if I get cryptic and leave out some complicated details. I’ll try to tell things in a way that you can logically fill in the blanks.
My oldest son is Patrick Wayne “Rick” Robertson. He was born Feb. 25, 1972, in Ellisville, Mississippi. My name is not on his birth certificate as his father, although it has since been established legally that I am his father. He grew up in the small rural community of Ovett, Mississippi, moving back and forth between the homes of his biological mother, Alice Faye Smith Robertson and her parents, George and Vida Smith. The reason for this is because, as Rick put it, Alice Faye lived in a state of mind called “Margaritaville” and was not always able to take care of him.
By age 11, Rick’s grandparents, whom he loved tremendously, died and he returned to live with Alice Faye. By age 13, he says he knew he was gay and was sexually active with local boys who were wanting to experiment but who had a tendency to “kiss and tell.” He grew up well-mannered, handsome in a Glen Campbell sort of way, did all the right things, track, baseball, choir and was the nicest boy in the Methodist Church. He also got himself up in the morning, fixed his own breakfast and lunch, dressed himself and went to school, because Alice Faye was sleeping in. In the evenings, she would be working an evening shift. Like Topsy, he “just growled.”
By Rick’s senior year, Alice Faye found herself a husband, the latest in a series of relationships. He was about six years older than Rick and there were immediate stepfather-stepson problems from the beginning. It probably didn’t help that Rick developed a smart mouth and called his mother’s husband “Skippy” to his face. Alice Faye was caught in the middle and eventually had to make a Sophie’s Choice. And her choice was her marriage over her motherhood. Rick was kicked out and spent the next 18 months — – this is around 1990 — – drifting around the south and Midwest, doing what a gay teen-ager had to do to find food and a place to stay. This is what he told me; he was deeply ashamed of it.
Through a complicated series of events and coincidences, Rick ended up on our doorstep in Lamoni, Iowa, where my wife Joy and I were working for a church college. Since the early 1970s, I had been plagued with a feeling and recurring dreams that I had another child out there somewhere. You have to understand, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was kind of a freewheeling traveling entertainer, doing the whole hippie trip, complete with leather fringes, long hair and a “far out” dialogue. Catch any member of the crowd in the movie “Woodstock” and you’ll get the picture.
By 1992, however, I had been married to my second wife, Joy, for 10 years and was the father of a nine-year-old son, Jonathan. Joy had two miscarriages after Jonny was born and we had pretty well resigned ourselves that it would put her at too much risk to have another child.
When Jonny was born, the “missing child” dreams had faded away. But in Iowa, they were recurring and Joy started having them, too. And in September 1992, this handsome young southerner shows up on our doorstep and says, “Hi, uh, Dad.”
Turns out the missing kid was real and yep, he was mine. We took to him, he took to us, and we all legalized the relationship by signing adoption papers (he was of age and didn’t need anyone’s permission).
We eventually decided to return to Ohio, where Rick got a job in Columbus and the rest of us settled in my parent’s home town, Wellston, a little city of about 6,000, about 90 minutes south of Columbus. Rick immediately charmed his way into a retail sales job and everything seemed hunky dory until we got the call from him letting us know he was in jail for stealing from his employer.
Bail was arranged, but then he started missing court appearances. He was living with a nice young fellow named John, whom we liked, and there was talk of them going through a commitment ceremony. But then Rick was arrested again for failure to appear in court and we learned from John that there were other problems — – alcohol, drug abuse, domestic violence (John was the victim) — – and we realized that our son was a very troubled, possibly emotionally disturbed young man. We refused to post bail and I mistakenly tried a tough love confrontation with him, which Rick mistook for rejection. He got a friend to post bail, despite our urging that the friend not do it, because Rick would surely run away and get in more trouble.
Bail was posted, and if nothing else, it proved we knew our son. He made one more court appearance in September 1996 and then he vanished. His trail led to Lexington, Ky., where the man he was traveling with was arrested for drunk driving. A telephone pager that belonged to John but which was in Rick’s possession was found at a burglary scene in North Carolina. We may have tracked him to a video store in Jacksonville, Fla., but the person who answered the phone and said his name was Rick was not our Rick. (We wonder if maybe Rick had someone else answer the phone and pretend it was him.)
We used up all the money we could spare trying to track him down, but the trail is cold. We can hardly believe that after all this time he would (a) not try to make some kind of contact with us or my parents, with whom he developed a close relationship, similar to that he had with Alice Faye’s parents; or (b) not slip up and get arrested again.
On Sept. 25, 2000, Rick will have been gone four years. I’ve always heard you could have a person declared legally dead after seven years, and so the fourth anniversary kind of represents a “hump” for us. I’ve only recently started letting myself even think about the possibility that he might be dead.
We’ve gone through all the stages of grief and it’s been hard on our family life. Jonathan, seeing what Rick’s disappearance did to his parents, immediately took control of all the anger in the world and wouldn’t even let us discuss his brother in his presence. Joy went into a form of denial, refusing to participate in any kind of search for him because she didn’t want to think about it. I also denied my feelings by doing what I usually do, looking for something to do. It became a challenge to me — – “I’ll show you, kid, you can run, but you can’t hide from your old man!” That sort of thing.
What we want out of life at this point is some kind of closure, I guess. We’ve forced ourselves to move on with our lives to a degree, because we had a teen-age son who needed our attention on him. But if Rick is dead, we want to know so we can bury him. If he’s in jail, we want to know where, so we can figure out what the proper role for parents of a jailbird is. If he’s mentally ill, we want to find help for him. Our worst fear, because Rick has been known to be promiscuous, is that he has developed AIDS or some other STD. If he’s sick, we want to care for him.
As I tell this, I sometimes feel like someone reading it might think we’re fools for not just moving on and let him stay missing. His ex-boyfriend John, with whom we have stayed friends, says Rick does not want to see us, although he’s basing this on his last meeting with him, in 1996, at the peak of the troubles. But just like I “knew” that I had another son out there, I “know” now that he may have had time to cool off and might be willing to talk now.
And I’m having dreams again. At first, Rick would appear in my dreams as angry, always saying, “What are you doing here?” Now, he’s older, sadder, and very, very tired, but always looking at me with the same nervous, hopeful eyes as when we first met.
My oldest son is 28 now. I’m 49. My wife is 41. His younger brother is 17, a high school graduate and three inches taller than Rick was when we last saw him. My father died in January 1999, suffering from Alzheimer’s, but in his moments of clarity, asking about Rick, who came to stay with him one night in the hospital so my mother could get a good night’s sleep. My sister, who was fond of Rick, is now a widow. My mother keeps Rick’s picture in the bedroom with those of her other three grandsons and often takes me aside to say how much she misses him.
But it isn’t enough to make up for the hole in my life that is my missing son, Rick.
If you have any influence with the powers running the universe, you can probably guess what I would want you to do.
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994, have been in a committed partnership since the early 1980s and have been legally married since 2015.