I received a phone call last week from a woman named Ruth Campbell claiming to be Ryan’s mother. I couldn’t make sense of it at first because Ryan’s last name is Greenwood, but after questioning her about it, the information she revealed left me speechless. Not knowing how to carry on with the conversation on the phone due to the seriousness of the issue, she suggested I visit her so she could further explain how she took Ryan into her care after his, as she put it, “heartless mother,” disowned him after finding him the night he was almost beaten to death by an unknown man.
Ruth lived alone in the suburbs of Iowa. She had dedicated her whole life to taking care of Ryan after the trauma he went through. When she first opened the door for me, I recognized her as the woman from the hospital when I first visited Ryan after his fall earlier this year. I assumed she was his mom because I’ve seen pictures of them together before. Ryan never really talked about his parents. He seemed to be very private about his personal life, something I strongly related to being the same way. She invited me into her humble home, and I ended up spending a total of five hours sitting on her living room couch, listening to the whole story.
When the Aids epidemic started back in the 1990s, and thousands of young gay men started dying, Ruth who, for reasons she still doesn’t quite understand herself, felt compelled to take in young, dying men into her home and caring for them until their death.
“It all started back in 1989, in a hospital hallway”, she said.
Ruth was staying with her dying mother at the hospital when she first saw a beat up, thin young man laying on a hospital bed. He seemed to be in serious pain and was mumbling words she couldn’t make up. She looked around for a nurse, but didn’t find one on the floor, so she snuck inside the room to check and see what he needed. Ryan thought he was dying, and so begged Ruth to call his mother. She was shocked to hear him say that because one would assume the nurses would’ve already called her, and that she’d be on her way to see him. When a nurse came in and asked her to leave, Ruth brought up the matter and when the nurse said that Ryan’s mother wasn’t coming, she got so mad and wrangled her phone number so she could speak to her herself. Ruth got a hold of her for only a few seconds. Ryan’s mom called her son a sinner for being gay. She said she wouldn’t even claim his body if he died, then hung up on her. Furious, Ruth entered the room, pulled a chair to his bedside, sat down and held his hand. He asked for his mom again, and Ruth had to deliver the terrible news; that his mother wasn’t coming. Days later, when Ryan’s condition improved, Ruth brought him to her house and cared for him. She wasn’t sure whether he would live with her at first, but then she decided to let him stay with her when she realized not even one member of his entire family wanted anything to do with him. It took Ryan a couple of weeks to get settled and reveal what happened to him the night he was beaten. Ryan, who was involved in prostitution, was meeting a client that night. When he showed up at the man’s house, he had a bad feeling about him and refused to engage with him in any way and decided to leave. Before he got the chance to do so, the man pushed him against the wall and started beating him senselessly. He then dragged him up to his bedroom where he chained and raped him. After hearing the entire story, Ruth took him to the police station and made him report the crime. However, the police didn’t do much about it, and the man was never found. A couple of weeks after the incident, Ryan was diagnosed with HIV, and so Ruth had to take care of him throughout his illness.
“Ryan’s condition started regressing at that point”, she said. “His body became almost skeletal. I still can’t believe he managed to survive when all the others died. Ryan was the only survival.”
Over the years, Ruth became known for taking in those dying with HIV. She buried more than twenty people whose families wouldn’t even claim their bodies. Before they died, they had to fill out their own death certificates because she couldn’t reach out to their families to get the required information. The last one to go was a twenty year old boy named Miles. Her and Ryan were washing him in the shower when he passed away. Ryan thought he’d be next, but a drug was finally discovered, and Ryan managed to get treated before him too was gone.
Learning about Ryan’s past was the best closure I could’ve asked for. And after asking Ruth why she waited until now to reach out to me, she simply said she wasn’t ready before. The main reason she got in touch with me was because Ryan had left a couple of things for me. A few photographs, a ring, and his grandfather’s watch. Ruth showed me around her house and the room Ryan stayed in before he moved in with Tye. The room was still intact, but Ruth was planning on getting rid of his belongings because she couldn’t handle being reminded of him anymore. She was nice enough to let me go inside and take whatever I liked, so I took Ryan’s favorite grey sweater.
We all deal with grief in different ways. In Ryan’s case, I’m sure inheriting a piece of clothing will make the grieving process easier for me. Sitting on the plane, I held on to it tight, and I could feel a connection I couldn’t access elsewhere. It’s like being cloaked in his love. Ryan was now incorporated into me. And I feel like wearing it will honor his memory as long as I live.