Carol Lynn Pearson Pens a Moving Memoir on Her Gay Husband's Death from Aids

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

If I could get rid of homosexuality, I would," says Carol Lynn Pearson. "I would change all homosexuals into happily functioning heterosexuals." Pearson's sentiments sound like those of a righteous homophobe, but they are the words of a gentle woman whose husband, a homosexual and the father of her four children, died of AIDS at age 42. Her 12-year marriage and her husband's subsequent illness cast Pearson, a poet and Mormon, into a complex drama in which she was not only riven with self-doubts but forced to reconcile her deep feelings for her husband and a religion that regards a homosexual life-style as an excommunicable offense.

Carol Lynn Wright was immediately enchanted with Gerald Pearson when they met at Brigham Young University in 1965. Pearson seemed to radiate the warmth, buoyancy and easy charm she felt she lacked. Their courtship was so chaste it might have been played by Van Johnson and June Allyson. Gerald called her "Blossom" because she was forever unfolding. She was smitten with his "blond brightness" and said so in her diary. It was months before Gerald reached for Carol Lynn's hand at a drive-in movie.

Eight weeks after Gerald proposed marriage, he confessed he was not a virgin. When he revealed that his previous lovers had been men, not women, Carol Lynn felt oddly relieved. "I didn't consider it a threat," she says, "as much as a mistake for which you repent and go on. He said that phase was behind him. I was too innocent to know that homosexuality is not something you dismiss, that I would have to deal with it for the rest of my life."

The wrenching account of Carol Lynn's life with Gerald is told in Goodbye, I Love you (Random House, $15.95). Pearson says that she wrote the book "to try to help the many families that are ripped apart by homosexuality. I want people to understand it is an authentic and deep-rooted phenomenon, rather than just a bunch of guys playing dirty."

A gracious woman, with a kind face and eyes as blue as bachelor's buttons, Pearson, 47, bears the tranquillity of one who has stored her grief in the past. When Carol Lynn was 15 her mother died of cancer. Her father, an undemonstrative but hardworking social worker, raised his five children on an Indian reservation in tiny Gusher, Utah, then in Provo. Pearson describes Provo as a town where one rarely saw a Democrat, let alone a homosexual, and her childhood as sheltered and emotionally detached. She found a second family in the BYU drama department, where she earned an M.A. in theater. By the time she met Gerald, the son of a Salt Lake City utilities worker, Carol Lynn had won an array of academic honors, spent a year abroad and returned home fully expecting her life to be as tidy as a toast point. In 1965 she and Gerald were cast in a BYU production of The Skin of Our Teeth.

Carol Lynn was not disturbed that Gerald was less anxious to marry than she or that he occasionally included his roommate on dates. Nor did it bother her when Gerald seemed amazed her skin was so soft the first time he kissed her; she merely warmed at the compliment. "Gerald really liked me in a worshipful way," she says. "He was as innocent as I. He went into our marriage with full confidence that he was doing what he wanted, to have a family."

Shortly after their 1966 wedding Gerald impulsively borrowed $2,000 to publish a collection of Carol Lynn's poetry and launched her career. Four more volumes—which have sold more than 250,000 copies—followed, along with nonfiction works, screenplays and stage musicals, enough to support their growing family. "If I had married some normal guy and lived happily ever after," says Pearson, "I probably would have just written a poem now and then for a magazine. Of course, no one would choose to live with the negatives in our marriage."

After eight years together Carol Lynn learned that Gerald had been seen in a Salt Lake City gay bar. His stinging revelation that he could no longer bury his homosexual urges left Carol Lynn "just devastated, with a sense of inadequacy," she says. "I felt old and ugly and hated to look at myself in a mirror." She fasted and prayed that Gerald would change, but he urged her to try to accept him.

There followed four turbulent years in which the Pearsons, at Carol Lynn's suggestion, moved from provincial Provo to Walnut Creek, Calif., a more open-minded community northeast of San Francisco. Gerald adapted easily, finding work in a seafood restaurant and spending more time away from home. For Carol Lynn, the move was more unsettling. "The homosexual community frightened me," she says. "I knew there were excesses. I thought that Gerald, this naive Mormon boy who trusted everybody, would be at the mercy of any unconscionable stranger." Gerald attempted to integrate Carol Lynn into his new life. "He really felt that if I tried hard enough, we could maintain the marriage and he could have all of San Francisco," she says. "I don't know any woman who could handle that."

The marriage came to an end in 1978 after counseling failed and Gerald took an apartment in San Francisco's gay district. "That cute little apartment was where he could have his men friends. It was the enemy," says Carol Lynn. "After seeing it I came home and cried and cried." The Pearsons told their children of their divorce plans, but not of Gerald's homosexuality, a disclosure Carol Lynn hoped to postpone. She didn't have to. Her eldest daughter, Emily, matter-of-factly remarked one day that she and her siblings knew their father was gay. "What surprised me most," says Carol Lynn, "was that it was no big deal to them. Kids are pretty resilient. They accept odd bits of information. Their relationship with Gerald was so strong that it was not thrown by this added piece of news."

As Carol Lynn settled into life as a single parent, her relationship with Gerald gradually turned sisterly. When he performed with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, she watched with a blend of sorrow and pride; on one occasion she sat next to his new boyfriend. Whenever Gerald fell in love, he would share his giddy expectations with Carol Lynn. Twice she allowed him to bring a lover along on his frequent visits. Yet each relationship seemed to falter. "He would never have said, 'Boy, has this been a mistake,' " she observes, "but I saw him become quite disillusioned. Toward the end he said, 'It's tough to be gay and to know that most men are jerks.' "

Gerald's illness began with a lingering fatigue following a case of shingles. He was hospitalized for pneumonia in early 1984 and recovered. Carol Lynn invited him home and in June, after he had developed a rare form of tuberculosis, Gerald returned to the family.

His children hovered around, telling jokes to cheer him. Carol Lynn read Gerald poetry, sang lullabies, massaged his fragile back and investigated every possible cure. In the last week she changed his linens and diapers, and curled up beside him to comfort him through one torturous night. When she finally notified the members of her Mormon ward that Gerald was dying, their warmth helped her endure the final ordeal. "People who don't even drink coffee have a hard time understanding homosexuality and AIDS," she writes, "but they don't have a hard time understanding suffering and need."

In the final days of Gerald's life, Carol Lynn sent her children to stay with a friend. Daughter Emily called home, but her father was too weak to respond. Her last words to him were, "Goodbye, I love you." He died on July 19, 1984 and his ashes, mixed with the wildflower seeds he had ordered by catalog, were scattered on Mount Tamalpais overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Two and a half years later Carol Lynn continues to live in the simple two-story house where Gerald died. The Langston Hughes poem that begins with the words "Hold fast to dreams" hangs on the kitchen wall; the male and female bronze nudes Gerald bought to celebrate their first wedding anniversary recline on a desk in the living room. Since returning from a 14-city promotion tour, Carol Lynn has been deluged with letters, phone calls and flowers from readers. "The positive response has been a miracle," observes Pearson, who fretted that her revelations might provoke the Mormon hierarchy. Conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch called with his blessing, and a man Pearson has never met sent seven boxes of IBM computer equipment to her door. Another stranger called to propose marriage. She laughs shyly when she recalls the offer.

Life has toughened Pearson in spirit, but not in manner. "I was able to survive because I had good children, and Gerald and I continued to love one another. There was anger and pain, but there was never hate," she says. "I believe that families can learn to live with a contradiction." Pearson maintains that if there is a single message to be derived from Goodbye, I Love You, it is this: "The highest law is the law of love and compassion."

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