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What my mamma taught me

I have a confession to make about Mother’s Day. I have never given this day the attention that many other children do. I know people who mark it on their calendars months in advance and plan something special. But for me, growing up in a family of all boys, my mom kept her expectations low.

With a wife and new daughter of my own, Mother’s Day now makes me look back over the landscape of my life, and I see my mother’s influence. That still doesn’t mean I’ll send a Hallmark card. But I am very much aware of the lessons my mamma taught me.

We grew up about 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. My parents wanted their sons to know we were living in a rapidly changing world. And if we believed the suburbs were a hedge against the fearful future, we couldn’t be more wrong. My parents believed the keys to the future rest, not in the fences we erect to keep people out, but in the bridges we build to allow others in.

In the early ‘80s, I had just started high school. My mom befriended a man named Terry through her work as a nurse. He was fast becoming a family friend. He was contemporary and cool — qualities, I believed in my teenage wisdom, my mom severely lacked. My mom was trying to hang onto a world that looked more like the world she knew. That world was familiar. It was safe. It was also rigid.

Through Terry’s friendship our family was changing from the world of Pat Boone to Bono. He was having a profound effect on my family, which I considered a very good thing. Then, in an instant, he was gone.

We learned afterward that Terry went to the hospital and died alone. He died alone because he didn’t think he was worth being cared for, or even worth being loved. He died of a disease that had no name at the time. It was still a few years before most Americans would hear of AIDS for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, our safe suburban life was about to be pushed into the real world, a place where Pat Boone definitely did not have the answer.

My mom, a Democrat, along with my dad, a Republican, were deeply disturbed by Terry’s lonely and agonizing death. With my dad’s loving support, my mom set out to do something about it.

My mom joined AIDS Project Los Angeles. This woman from the suburbs and six gay men met in a house in West Hollywood to develop the first “Buddy” program. They became leaders on the front line of AIDS.

The Buddy program did exactly as its name suggests. You took care of someone. You made a friend. You built a bridge.

Little was known about the disease. Could you catch it from touch, being close to someone who had it? It didn’t matter to my mom or the other “buddies.” They held the hands of those dying from this awful disease. They talked, and perhaps most importantly, they listened. They were with these men as they took their last breath.

For my mom’s efforts, she received AIDS Project Los Angeles’ highest award, the Humanitarian of the Year. She got her own float in the gay pride parade. Certainly a first in my neighborhood. I proudly joined my dad and brothers to watch as she was honored at a big gala. There she was, with three sons, none of whom was gay, speaking out for not just gay people, but all people. What started with seven people in West Hollywood would ultimately grow into an organization that reached millions.

So on Mother’s Day, I look back over the landscape of my life and witness my mom’s influence. This suburban mom dared to step out of her safe world of Pat Boone and into the unknown and frightening world of AIDS.

Now my wife and I are new parents. We stare into our daughter’s eyes every day with sheer wonder. I want to teach her the lessons my mamma taught me — to care for one another, no matter the risk.

More than sending a card, that is perhaps the best way to honor my mom this Mother’s Day.


DANIEL CHRISTIAN is pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, Calif.