HIV-positive Mary Fisher tells GOP about 'our' disease


August 16, 1992|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer !

BACA RATON, FLA. — BOCA RATON, Fla.--It's Sunday -- 2 in the afternoon, to be exact -- and the blazing sun is bouncing sparks off the water shimmering in the pool. There's a Sunday-afternoon stillness outside. And the view through the soaring glass walls of this spectacular house is peaceful, almost bucolic: lush green grass, electric-blue skies and motionless, high banks of pearl-colored clouds.

Inside, however, the pace is quite different.

For one thing, a newspaper photographer is at the front door. For another, an ABC "PrimeTime Live" crew sent by Diane Sawyer is on its way. Then there's a reporter setting up a tape recorder in the living room and, somewhere in another room, there are sounds of a fax machine faxing and a phone ringing.

At the center of all this activity is the woman everyone wants to talk to: Mary Fisher, a 44-year-old mother of two who is scheduled to speak Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. Dressed in khaki shorts and a simple white blouse, her long, blonde hair framing a fine-boned face, Mary doesn't fit the image of a high-powered Republican speechmaker.

But she's clearly smart and on top of the press blitz going on in her home right now. Still, for all her sophisticated handling of the news media, it seems fair to say this is not the life Mary had in mind a year or so ago.

Back then, before the unexpected detour that would alter her life's course, Mary Fisher had come to a happy place in her life: the emotional and practical details of her divorce were coming to a satisfactory resolution; her children were happy and healthy; and she felt herself to be on the verge of an important breakthrough in her career as an artist.

"I was feeling really good about myself," she says now. "I felt I was getting to one of those plateaus where you say, 'Things are great just the way they are.' "

But, as is often the case, fate -- or whatever you choose to call it -- had its own separate script for Mary Fisher's life.

The outline of this script was delivered to Mary on July 17, 1991, as she stood at a pay phone in New York's LaGuardia Airport. She was off to join her parents, Max and Marjorie Fisher, on a Mediterranean cruise aboard a chartered yacht. Her two small sons were to fly off on a different plane to Detroit to stay with relatives.

But first she had to make the phone call to her doctor in Palm Beach, Fla., that would determine her future. The blow was swift and precise: "I'm sorry," the doctor told Mary. "The test is positive."

It confirmed Mary's worst fears, fears she had carried around with her since the day, two weeks earlier, when her ex-husband called to tell her he had been tested for HIV and the result was positive. He urged her to be tested, too.

She was. Two weeks later, standing in a phone booth, Mary's world -- a world of immense wealth and privilege which by and large had shielded her from much of life's capricious cruelty -- was shattered. She was on the road to AIDS now, and the terrain ahead was dark and frightening. She felt panic about herself and about whether her son, Max, then 3 1/2 , might also be infected with the virus. Zachary, then 1 1/2 , was adopted, so there was no worry there. But as it turned out, Max was luckier than Mary: He tested negative for the deadly virus.

The irony

"In those first several days I felt as though I was surrounded by this fog or film or something," Mary says now, sitting on an oversized sofa in her sun-drenched living room. The room has been turned into a studio and the colorful art she creates is everywhere. "I'm told maybe that

feeling is shock. There was this wish to get rid of this fog and this feeling of just screaming with this pain and this fear and this anger and this 'What do I do?' stuff -- moaning there wasn't anybody or anything that was going to change it."

She stops and laughs. Her laugh, like her voice, is reedy and musical. "I mean, I couldn't call Mom and Dad and say, 'Somebody, help me fix this.' I was immediately face-to-face with the fact that nobody could do anything to fix this."

The immense irony of this last observation is not lost on Mary. She is, after all, the daughter of Max Fisher, an immensely wealthy and powerful financier and philanthropist from Detroit. A lifelong Republican, Mr. Fisher has been a political power broker and major contributor and counselor to presidents for more than 30 years. Max Fisher is the kind of man who knows how to get things done. And at first, after the initial shock, he approached his daughter's illness that way.

"OK, so what do we do?" he said to Mary when she broke the news to him on a yacht anchored in the deep blue Mediterranean water near France's Cote d'Azur.

"I don't think he was sensitized to the disease," Mary says now. "I don't think he realized there wasn't anything he could do."

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