It took an advice column to bring her up to speed on about 40 years of medical developments.
It's never a dull moment for Amy Dickinson, the sage behind the syndicated "Ask Amy" advice column, which appears in local papers across the U.S.
She's spent years offering a guiding hand to the troubled, the confused, and the indecisive. And she's been known to give more of a firmly clenched fist when people are downright problematic.
A recent inquiry came her way that demanded a bit more than homespun emotional calculation. Some cold hard science drove the answer to a question based on some very outdated assumptions.
The plea for advice came from the mother of a gay man. After accepting him--with some effort--a new challenge arose. Mom coped with some paranoid worry.
It all began with a bombshell reveal on a Zoom call.
"Dear Amy: When my son 'Steven,' came out (a few years ago), I struggled at first. All I want is for him to be in a happy, secure, fulfilling relationship with someone (of whatever gender)."
"However, he recently Zoom-introduced us to his new boyfriend, "Adam." Adam is HIV-positive. My son announced this on the Zoom call (I didn't have time to process it), and then became irate when I asked some questions to better understand what that means."
"I remember the '80s, and actually had a close friend die from AIDS. My son claims I'm being ignorant, but I was alive during that time -- he wasn't!"
After spending some time mulling the news over, her head moved to logistics. Her pragmatic concerns about HIV transmission would indeed be very concerning if they were at all relevant in contemporary times.
"I'm scared of what will happen if they stay together and have children. Will they have to live the rest of their lives in fear that Adam will accidentally infect the children via a small cut?"
"It seems like the relationship is quite serious, and I'm trying to read up on ways to be supportive."
Her motherly anxiety has proved troublesome for her relationship with her son.
"My son is now threatening to cut off contact for a few months if I can't immediately get on board."
"I love my son, and Adam seems lovely, too, but I feel anxious about the risk of transmission."
"I'm not homophobic. I just need some processing time without the threat of, 'I'm going to cut you off if you can't understand that love is love,' constantly hanging over my head."
"Am I being unreasonable?"
Amy's answer began with the wide view before zooming in on the details. She couldn't help but notice some more general communication hangups at play with the mother and son.
"Dear Mom: You and your son seem to be playing a game of sorts. He tells you that he is gay, and your eventual reaction is that you only want him to be happy with a partner of 'whatever gender.' "
"Mom - I have news for you: he has chosen his gender, and it's not 'whatever.' "
"He then introduces you to lovely 'Adam' via Zoom and immediately broadsides you with perplexing health news."
"You quickly leap to the remote improbability that these two will have children and that Adam will infect their children. Whoa!"
Amy then followed with some alternatives to that unsustainable approach.
"I've got a pro-tip that will make your life much easier. If you don't know what to say or how to react to any given situation - respond only in generalities: 'Oh, I see,' or 'Wow - that caught me off-guard. I don't really know what to say.' "
"Give yourself time to process things, even if you feel pushed to react."
And then it was time to iron out some facts.
"This is NOT the 1980s. You can read more about HIV, treatments and risks on the CDC website: CDC.gov/hiv/basics."
"With antiretroviral therapy, people with HIV can reduce the viral load enough that it is considered to be undetectable. That is a life-saving medical advance."
Amy closed with some characteristic perception, undoubtedly a horrifying thought for this mom.
"You should ask your son (as carefully as possible) about his own health -- this might be his way of trying to tell you that he also has HIV."
The moment proves that advice columns continue to serve a helpful purpose for some folks. Perhaps the enlightenment will lead to a healthier relationship--or even a few hours spent reviewing the advancements of science of the couple decades.