In this season of peace and compassion, Shirley Abbott awaits hers. On Christmas Eve three years ago, her son Dean slipped away after a long twilight struggle with AIDS. He was 36. And last April, a week after Easter, her son David died of complications from the same disease. He was 33.
Peace on earth, indeed. In the years of his dying, David Abbott would ask his mother: Why is God letting this happen? It isn't God, his mother would say. It's man, it's science, it's the drug companies, it's politics.
But, in the seasons when humanity turns most fervently to God, her faith is tested as few other people's. Her sons were good men, productive members of the community. Dean was a city policeman, an 11-year veteran of the force. David was a salesman for a wholesale grocer. Each felt compelled to hide his sickness over the years; each feared not only the loss of jobs, but being shunned by the community.
"Dean was very courageous," his mother was remembering in the hours before the arrival of this Christmas. "He'd been trained as a policeman, and it helped him face the death that was coming. Toward the end, he was very ready and accepting. He'd finally gotten the courage to tell his superiors, and they'd been wonderfully accepting, and they kept him in the department.
"And he said they'd convinced him there was something much better than this life coming for him. He couldn't wait to see what it was. That helped me to know that he was finding a certain peace."
Dean died at 7:30 on Christmas Eve three years ago. His mother was there, with a nurse and a friend of Dean's. Then she went home to wrap some presents, and she got a phone call. Dean was gone. Another son Dennis drove her back to Mayfield, to Dean's home, and when she got there, Shirley Abbott, hysterical, beat Dean's chest, hoping somehow to revive him. Then she picked up his frail body and held his head in her hands.
David broke his own news to his mother when Dean was still alive. For two years, beginning in 1990, she watched both of her sons dying. David had known he was sick since '84, but held the news from his mother.
"David watched Dean's entire death process," Shirley Abbott said. "He knew what was going to happen to him. He tried to hold back his emotions, but he was terribly stressed out. He said, 'I'm not afraid to die, but I know how it's gonna happen, and it's not nice.'
"But he'd gone back to the church and made peace with God. He'd go to communion every day. Last Christmas, we went to Mass. What am I going to do this Christmas?"
In his dying months, David had lost his job with the wholesale grocer, filed a discrimination suit, and settled out of court. His mother says he was too weak to have fought it any further.
"His friends knew," his mother said. "But in the gay community, they know not to broadcast it. There are still people who don't want to accept this, who want to shun you. . . ."
She knows this at close range. Shirley Abbott is now retired from her job with Social Security, where she heard appeals for medical benefits. While working there, she watched people attempt to distance themselves from AIDS patients.
"I remember once," she said, "where a man came in with AIDS, and he was coughing. When he left, one of the women in the office got up and sprayed with a can of Lysol. She said, 'I can't go in there.' And the judge in the office said, 'I don't blame you.' And these were people who knew that I'd already lost a son to AIDS."
She moved in with David in the last months of his life. He lived in Towson. Shirley Abbott slept on a sofa bed and cared for David, and prayed with him.
In the final days of his life, he asked, "Why doesn't God take me?"
"It isn't your time yet," his mother said.
The night before he died, David lay in bed at St. Joseph Medical Center and raised one hand. "There's Dean," he said. "Dean's coming." His mother held his hand. A priest gave the last rites of the church. David died at 3:25 in the morning, a few days after Easter.
"How will I get through the holidays?" his mother asks now. "David would say, 'Do something. Make it happen.' They were both so brave. They helped me so much. But the world is not so accepting. My friends, I don't even know who they are. A lot of them stopped talking to me.
"So I'll remember the happiness of my sons. Dean used to call himself Santa Claus. He'd be the one to hand out the presents every Christmas. And when I learned he was dying, I screamed, 'Not my son. Who's gonna give the gifts out?' "
There should be one universal gift for this season: compassion. For all those who suffer while the world turns away, and for those like Shirley Abbott, who wishes merely to have her share of peace on earth.