Mother dying of virus seeks family for 7-year-old boy

December 29, 1992|By Joanne Wasserman | Joanne Wasserman,New York Daily News

MEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Rosemary Holmstrom and her son, C. J., wer watching Magic Johnson talk about the AIDS virus on television when the bright, active 7-year-old asked his mother a natural and innocent question.

"Do you know anyone who has the AIDS virus?"

"Yes," Ms. Holmstrom answered, knowing that sooner or later she had to tell him. "I have the virus."

At first, C. J. stared in disbelief. Then, she says, "He looked so sad. His eyes welled up, and he cried."

And then, mother and son fell into each other's arms.

Now, Ms. Holmstrom, more desperate as she weakens from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is racing to find a family for C. J. before she dies.

Warned by her doctors that her condition is worsening, she wants to know who'll raise her son, to be sure that they'll love and nurture the boy -- and that they'll be willing to wait until she's ready to give him up.

She can only do this on her own. The foster-care system is no help.

"I feel like I'm on a crusade," says Ms. Holmstrom, 34. "I'm doing this for C. J. and other women in this situation. I'm not the only one."

So much of their lives seems normal. Ms. Holmstrom and C. J., who is not infected with the AIDS virus, play Nintendo and wrestle, do homework, make roast beef for supper, walk their two dogs. They live in a bright, attractively furnished apartment in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, where C. J., now 8, has a room full of toys and games. A license-plate collection hangs on the wall next to his loft bed.

But behind the trappings, there's the specter of death, and the two cling to each other in Ms. Holmstrom's bed on bad nights.

"I have to constantly reassure him that I'm not dying today, that it's going to be OK," she says.

As for what C. J. understands about his mother's crusade, she says, "He knows I'm looking for help, but I don't think he's able to process much more than that."

New York City has thousands of mothers with AIDS. And already, according to the Orphan Project, a foundation-supported research group, thousands of children have been left motherless by the disease.

By the end of the century, the group estimates, more than 55,000 people will have lost their parents to AIDS, including more than 30,000 children. And little has been done to help families plan for their children after the parents die.

"There is this large and growing population of children who need assistance," says Carol Levine, project director. "The epidemic has unfolded so fast that there hasn't been time to plan."

The lucky ones have someone they can be placed with. If not, Ms. Levine says, "there is a crisis at death," and the children slip into foster care.

Until passage of a new state law, terminally ill mothers and fathers surrendered their children before a guardian could be appointed. The new law allows parents to retain their rights while a guardian is appointed. But there's still little help for a mother searching for the right parent for her child.

A mother like Ms. Holmstrom.

Ms. Holmstrom was 22 when she met her husband, Clarence, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1979. He was an immigrant from Finland, 15 years her senior. She remembers him as "a very kind and gentle man."

Both had been heavy drinkers. She also took narcotics and had lived on the street.

"My life was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," she remembers, admitting to shooting heroin "once or twice" more than 20 years ago.

Clarence and Rosemary were married in 1984. Clarence Jr. -- C. J. -- was born later that year. Their life was good until the summer of 1985 when Clarence Sr. became ill. Misdiagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, he died within six months. Only then did Ms. Holmstrom learn her husband had died of AIDS.

She was tested and discovered she was infected with human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

Ms. Holmstrom thinks her husband contracted the disease from a blood transfusion in the late 1970s.

She also thinks he passed the disease to her, but she acknowledges she may have gotten it through her drug use.

For five years, Ms. Holmstrom carried the virus without &r symptoms. In 1989 she became a secretary in the financial aid office of Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn. She worked until last December when, for the first time, she developed skin rashes common to AIDS patients.

At the advice of her doctors at the AIDS clinic at Lutheran Medical Center, Ms. Holmstrom quit work and began treatment. Frightened, she also cashed in a $5,000 bond she had bought to pay for C. J.'s college education. She spent the money on a vitamin regimen that turned out to be useless.

"It gave me the illusion that everything was going to be OK," she says.

In the meantime, Ms. Holmstrom says, she realized that she was homosexual and developed a relationship with a woman who she hoped would become C. J.'s guardian.

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