Vincent was a giver. All his life he believed in, and put great thought into, giving gifts to his friends. Perhaps that is why he got so upset in ninth grade about the O. Henry short story, The Gift of the Magi, which tells about two gifts that went considerably awry. Writer Elizabeth Stone first remembers Vincent as an Italian kid she taught in a Brooklyn school, railing at the ending of the stupid story by O. Henry.
After that year, Stone heard nothing from the young man except for unilluminating Christmas cards. Then, 25 years later, in 1995, she received a carton filled with a decade's-worth of his personal diaries, along with a letter he had written before he died of AIDS, asking her to make the journals into a book. With A Boy I Once Knew, a poignant new memoir that combines the story of Vincent's life with her own, Stone fulfills his request.
What begins as a bewildering bequest turns out to be a true gift for the author. Stone doesn't protest the time and energy she gives to the reading of the journals, a labor of liking that turns into love. Vincent's emotional growth in his approach to death sends a powerful and timely message to the author, who never dared to deal with the deaths of her own grandmother and father. With the death of her mother approaching, the diaries could not have come at a better time for Stone.
Reading Vincent's words, Stone relives his last decade, shuddering at the risks he took in living an unfettered gay life in San Francisco, knowing the inevitable outcome. But in his last few months he moved to a self-acceptance and apparent truce with his illness, and with the deaths of his friends in the gay community. Through his acceptance, Stone learns to come to peace with the realities of her own life. As a result of my time traveling with Vincent, I knew the terrain, and I knew what to do for my mother and for myself with surprising clarity, she writes.
In the end, Stone, better able to manage loss and grief, knows that there is a terrain beyond mourning, and that relationships can evolve and grow not only in the face of death but beyond. A gift indeed. Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.