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Life lessons, posthumously

B.C. Jones had only been in Los Angeles
a day, but it was along enough to figure out that his 29-year-old son, Rob, was going to die.
Sunday, October 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

That afternoon, after arriving from Columbia, B.C. visited his son at L.A. County Hospital. Rob, who had full-blown, untreated AIDS, was tethered to IVs and breathing only with the help of an oxygen mask. Thick stubble peppered his chin and his hair was matted and greasy.

But they had an enjoyable afternoon catching up on B.C.’s work as a business writer for the Columbia Daily Tribune and chatting about the new teaching job Rob’s friend had taken. When B.C. left Rob’s bedside that evening, he promised to come back in the morning to read poetry to his son.

B.C. went home to Rob’s dank, run-down apartment. Over the course of the next two weeks, B.C. kept himself busy with little tasks when he wasn’t keeping Rob company at the hospital. He defrosted the freezer in Rob’s apartment, bought groceries, took one of Rob’s cats to be euthanized. And he began to go through Rob’s belongings. As he did, he uncovered dozens of poems Rob had written. They were scribbled on stationery, small scraps of paper, index cards or paper napkins, and others were buried in the pages of journals Rob had kept since high school.

B.C. and his wife, Carol, had an idea of what their son’s life as a gay man was like. But the journals shined a light into the dark corners of Rob’s existence, which was filled with drugs and lust, self-loathing and crippling doubts.

“To read these journals, we just found out about a whole other life,” B.C. said. “We couldn’t understand why, when he was so positive in junior and senior high and then the university.”

Almost as soon as he started reading, B.C. had the idea to make his son’s writing into a book. It took six years, but “Senseless and Sensitivity” will be released next week by independent publisher iUniverse. B.C. considers Rob the true author of the book, which is filled with his autobiographical poetry and excerpts from his journals, interspersed with an account of how B.C. eventually came to make sense of Rob’s difficult and, at times, self-destructive life.

B.C. wants the book to be useful for other parents, and at the urging of his publisher, has added a chapter to the end of the book on how to cope with losing a child.

One of the most moving parts of “Senseless and Sensitivity” recalls B.C.’s time in Los Angeles when he first realized he would lose his own son. Less than 24 hours after he arrived, B.C. received a phone call at 3 a.m. to learn that nurses were wheeling Rob into intensive care. While waiting for a cab to take him to the hospital, B.C. wrote, “I sank to my knees and pounded the bed with both hands, sobbing till my ribs ached. … The crisis was not over, but the grieving had begun.”

Writing the book became an outlet for B.C.’s deep sadness and the painful self-reflection that followed the death of his son. However difficult the journals were to read, they were a gift, offering the father a way to communicate with a son whose distance would never be bridged. But, at the same time, they evoked the kind of questions about the nature of fatherhood and parenting that, if they are lucky, most parents will never have to confront.

B.C. is a tall man with a full head of bright white hair. Watery blue eyes pierce through large, thick-lensed glasses. He hunches slightly when he walks and speaks slowly in a quiet voice. He has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in American history, as well as a doctorate in American studies and a law degree from the University of Florida. He has written several books, although “Senseless and Sensitivity” is only his second to be published. At 72, he doesn’t seem like the kind of man with the energy to write a gut-wrenching memoir of a dead son.

Rob was born in Ohio on July 9, 1968. B.C. moved his family to Fayette when he took a job teaching at Central Methodist College. Rob was the valedictorian for his graduating class at Fayette High School.

He attended MU on a curator’s scholarship, majoring in theater performance. In his junior year, he became the director of the Corner Playhouse, a position he held for two years before graduating in 1990. Shortly thereafter he moved to Chicago to become an actor. Though he never actually pursued any acting jobs, Rob did decide to tell his family, in a long letter, that he was gay.

Even from the beginning, B.C. and Carol were supportive of Rob’s sexuality, but they were disappointed with other aspects of his lifestyle.

B.C. and Carol had given Rob some money to get settled in Chicago, but, B.C. said, Rob never got a real job. He spent whatever money he made, working off and on as a telemarketer and as a bouncer in bars. Although they spoke on the phone often, and Rob visited at Christmas and family reunions, they mostly lost contact with their son.

Rob’s poetry and journals reveal not only what he was doing in Chicago, but how he felt about it. B.C. learned from Rob’s words just how sensitive a young man he was. His happiness was easily shattered by others. He had a poor self-image; some poems reveal a morbid self-hatred.

B.C. stayed in Los Angeles for two weeks. He visited his son daily, to read and talk to him as Rob moved in and out of consciousness. Upon his return to Missouri, B.C. told Carol — who had been vacationing in England and knew nothing of her husband’s trip to Los Angeles — that Rob had lapsed into a coma from which he would never emerge. Neither his parents nor his older brother Mike were there when the end came — a decision that racked B.C. with guilt for months.

Back home, B.C. immersed himself in his son’s poems and journals, gathering them around him in his cluttered study with the big bay windows and light blue walls. Soon, the handwritten spiral notebooks became shaggy with bookmarks as B.C. noted especially poignant verses or prose.

[photo]

Courtesy of B.C. Jones

A selection of Rob Jones’s poetry

“Writing the book helped me learn more about Rob,” he said. “I came to realize I maybe wasn’t the best father.”

He began asking himself the most painful questions about his role in Rob’s life. Did his parenting lead to Rob’s self-destructive acts, to his shocking promiscuity? Was he as loving and affectionate as a father should be? Was he too stern?

B.C. began to recognize that his own upbringing as a Quaker was at the root of many of his parenting choices.

“One thing I heard a lot of when I was young was that children should be seen and not heard,” he said. “And I was so ignorant of homosexuality that I thought if the father was too affectionate, it could create homosexual tendencies.”

“Senseless and Sensitivity” is a powerful expression of sadness, grief and guilt. B.C. describes the process of transforming a parent’s worst experience into a work of art as “sublimation” — shaping his deepest emotions into something that might be beneficial to others. It is a raw, honest book that is sympathetic to Rob without excusing the brutal disregard for his own health.

In the foreword, B.C. writes that the book “diverted me from my certain bereavement and reminded me that human experiences, expressed through the arts, are rich enough to justify a positive approach to life.”

Though he makes no excuses for Rob’s life, and explicitly rejects the most damaging aspects of it in the book, B.C. rediscovered what was good and pure about his son — his acting talent, his sensitivity, his desire to do good things in the world for other people. And in the process, he learned some things about himself.

“I changed a lot of my thinking in relation to other people,” he said. “In general I’ve come to have wider empathy for people who are homosexuals, people who are physically impaired, and people with emotional problems.”

In “Senseless and Sensitivity,” B.C. Jones had a chance to walk through his son’s life. Along the way, he concluded that, regardless of his own shortcomings as a parent, Rob made his own choices. And he’s found the strength to separate Rob’s life from his own.

“Children don’t ask to be born,” B.C. said. “It’s their life. Even if they follow a self-destructive course, it’s still their life.”


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