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‘If there is a heaven, my father is in it’ — Son discovers his dad, the first person to die of AIDS in Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Michael Painter has written a book, "The Unexpected Son," about his father, who is believed to be the first AIDS victim to die in Utah.

Patti Young and Mike Painter met at a Latter-day Saint singles ward in the Avenues during the spring of 1974, dated in the summer, and married in the Salt Lake Temple that fall.

It wasn’t what you would call a storybook romance. Frankly, it wasn’t romantic at all.

Sure, Mike brought flowers to propose on Temple Square, but there was no kissing or hand-holding. But she couldn’t think of a reason not to marry him.

Mike was a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had served a two-year mission in Montreal (where his mission president loved him), had a college degree and a good job. She had been engaged before and felt it was time to tie a knot.

There were, of course, some subtle and not-so-subtle signs of what was to come. At one point during their courtship, when Patti asked if something was wrong, Mike acknowledged he wasn’t attracted to her.

The day before the wedding, Mike disappeared, came back and canceled it, then said maybe he could go through with it, but discarded any honeymoon plans. On the actual day, he was hours late for the ceremony but did kiss Patti over the altar.

That night, the groom locked himself in the bathroom, while the bride slept in the bed alone.

As they drove to Wyoming for an open house in Patti’s hometown, Mike asked for an annulment, saying he had made a mistake.

Still, he wanted a son, so 10 months after the wedding, they had sex for the one and only time.

On June 9, 1976, Ryan Michael Painter was born.

Seven years after that, Mike died of AIDS, believed to be the Beehive State’s first victim to what was seen then as a mysterious plague.

(Photo courtesy of Ryan Michael Painter) Mike Painter holds his son, Ryan, who is clutching his favorite Clifford stuffed animal in 1978.

Then and now

The first cases of what would later become known as AIDS were reported in the United States in June 1981, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent organization providing information on national health issues.

Since then, 700,000-plus people with AIDS have died, including more than 1,000 in Utah.

The Utah AIDS Foundation was established in 1985, when the Utah Department of Health reported a total of 17 people living with AIDS in Utah.

“At that time, the state and most citizens were unprepared to address the HIV/AIDS issue,” the site explains. “The need for public information and for assistance for persons living with HIV/AIDS forced a community-based response.”

Part of its mission is still to inform Utahns about HIV treatment and prevention, which has sharply decreased the number of deaths. Even so, nearly 3,000 Utahns were still living with HIV in 2019, with 119 people newly diagnosed.

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, which continues to bring attention to the global crisis with this disease. This year’s theme is “Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Resilience and Impact.”

Finding Dad

(Photo courtesy of Ryan Michael Painter) Ryan Michael Painter dyes Easter eggs with his father, Mike Painter.

Ryan Michael Painter can’t remember his father’s smile or smell. He doesn’t know if his dad was right-handed or left, or, as he writes in his self-published memoir, “if his mustache brushed across my cheek when he kissed me good night, if when he combed my hair, he was gentle...”

For years, Ryan has sought to “swap out my jumbled collection of smells, textures, and sights for concrete facts,” he says in the introduction to “The Unexpected Son.”

So he interviewed his mother endlessly, as well as consulted a journal she kept between 1980 and 1984. He quizzed relatives on both sides. He sought out neighbors, fellow Latter-day Saints, high school friends — anyone and anything that would give him clues about the man who had become a kind of ghost haunting his childhood.

“He isn’t in the leather chairs, the snow-painted Christmas trees, the empty Diet Dr Pepper bottles, the hospital bed or the dust rapped in sunlight as it pours across these sterile locales,” explains Ryan, a KUTV film critic. There are photographs, he adds, but they “feel forged.”

Three years into the marriage, it was Christmas and all seemed well. A new house, new baby, Patti’s parents visiting, and reassurances that life was moving forward.

Within two weeks, Ryan writes, “Mike moved out of the house.”

By the next year, the couple divorced.

How far did his dad have to run, the son wonders, to be himself?

“He couldn’t be him, not where he was known and admired. So my father went to great lengths to appear as the person that people wanted him to be,” the book says. “... He had a Rolodex for one world and a black book for the other. A double life is really just two half-lives, never intended to converge.”

Mike had friendships, dates and relationships with men, eventually settling with a boyfriend, Bryan, who seemed to “make my father happy” and didn’t treat Ryan “as a character he’d like to see written out of his story.”

The former spouses, meanwhile, became friends, sharing a child and the occasional meal.

The gay father always maintained a connection with his young son, coming regularly to the nearby condominium, doing his share of child care (often on weekends while Patti worked at LDS Hospital), paying child support and taking him on outings.

On separate birthdays, Mike gave him a boombox and a bike, and said he hoped to baptize the boy into the church when he turned 8.

“I need to believe that [my mother and I] brought him a little peace,” Ryan writes, “and a morsel of joy.”

As he lay dying

In the spring of 1983, Mike had surgery for a nasal septum reconstruction but never seemed to recover. This went on for months, and included weight loss, fatigue, fevers and, finally, hepatitis.

At this time, few understood the nature of AIDS, and fewer still expected to see cases in Utah.

Mike was admitted to the hospital in August and again in September. Some health care workers whispered about his condition; others refused to be near him.

He was hooked up to a lot of machines that Patti gently described to their young son. Ryan told his dad that he loved him, and Mike cried a little. Patti told him that he had been a good dad and that he was a good person. Her bishop was nervous about coming to the hospital, given the rumors about AIDS and contagion, but her stake president (a Latter-day Saint regional leader) arrived to say that the “the church had let him down,” Patti wrote in her journal, and that the “time was past when something could be done [for him physically] on this earth.”

It wasn’t a formal “blessing,” but she considered it one anyway.

Mike’s bodily functions began shutting down, kidneys and lungs first. Blood pressure plummeted.

On Sept. 14, doctors called the family members and Bryan together to tell them that Mike had acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and that he probably would not recover.

Within days, Mike was gone.

Patti went to tell Ryan, and the prescient 7-year-old said, “He died, didn’t he?”

The obituary was vague about the cause of death, Ryan writes, focusing instead on his religious background.

There is a Painter family story that not long after Mike’s death, he appeared to his younger sister in a Latter-day Saint temple, asking her to pass on the message that he was fine. He had to do it several times, they say, but eventually got through.

“There was never any question in my mind,” writes Ryan, who, at 44, has begun to find peace. “If there is a heaven, my father is in it.”

A mother’s love

(Photo courtesy of Ryan Michael Painter) A young Ryan Michael Painter, in his new blue Easter suit, with his mother, Patti.

How does Ryan’s mother feel about her personal life being splayed in such detail and so publicly in his book?

“It’s not me anymore, but somebody who was in her 20s,” the Sandy mother says. “I’m approaching 70 now.”

She was young and naive, Patti says, and, to her knowledge, she had never before met a gay person.

“I had seen a couple of movies about gays so expected them to be in neon lights on the street,” says Patti Lamb, who has been married to David Lamb since 1987, “not just normal, nice people.”

She doesn’t regret the marriage — or any of the wrenching experiences — because it gave her Ryan and helped her become whom she is.

And it didn’t destroy her faith, either. But Patti is pleased that the church is in a “much better, more realistic” place in its treatment of LGBTQ members.

She is planning a small funeral for her father who died Tuesday at 91 and invited a gay nephew to lead the music.

“He has been estranged from the family but has recently been able to reconcile,” Patti says. “He said he was grateful to be asked.”

Her son, who is not gay, needed to write this book, the proud mother says.

“My biggest hope is that writing this book brings healing for Ryan,” she says. “For so long, he was mad at his dad, mad at me, mad at himself and mad at the church.”

(Photo courtesy of Ryan Michael Painter) A young Ryan Michael Painter in 1978.

It took decades for him to finish the book and to come to terms with the various parts of his life, she says. He was afraid to uncover the relationship he had with his father.

“For the better part of a decade, I could tell my mother’s half of the tale, but had avoided trying to understand my father’s part in this story,” Ryan writes. “Not because it is impossible to speak for the dead, but because I was afraid of what I might find if I dusted off my father’s shoes and walked the streets of his past.”

And, after all that, what did he find?

“There is darkness,” he concludes. “But where there is love, there is also light.”

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