A Mother's Farewell

January 30, 1994|By MARY GAIL HARE

Catherine Williams died of AIDS early this month, comforted by her "belief in the inherent decency and compassion of so many people."

Many of those people were strangers who responded to the plight of a dying mother searching for a loving family to care for her only child.

Her story, told in The Sun last March, generated a flood of calls and letters offering everything from prayers to money for the mother and child.

During the months she battled several AIDS-related infections, Ms. Williams, 37, remained steadfast in her belief in humanity despite the few who tested it.

"Those who suffer from this disease mercifully meet people at their best and sadly at their absolute worst," she said.

About 75 people attended her funeral in a small Western Maryland church and listened tearfully as her brother read the words of gratitude she had written shortly before her death.

After writing several personal messages, she finally addressed a letter to "everyone else."

"Every time, I pick up my pen to write this letter, the phone rings or the door opens and you are there," she wrote and thanked everyone for the constant concern.

A single mother, Ms. Williams urged everyone to "keep caring," especially for the 5-year-old child she called "the joy of my life."

Although her Elizabeth is also infected with the AIDS virus, she has few symptoms. Her mother always knew: "I'm not going to survive and Elizabeth is going to last longer than me."

During the service, the "beautiful blond-haired child," whom Ms. Williams called "the sparkler who brightens my life," smiled sweetly and waved to familiar faces in the church.

During her final months, Ms. Williams told her daughter repeatedly, "God calls all children home," as she prepared Elizabeth for their "permanent separation."

"She won't understand permanent loss until she experiences it, but she knows mommy is going away permanently," said Ms. Williams in an interview last spring.

When the hospital called to say her mother had died, Elizabeth accepted the news peacefully, said the child's grandmother.

"Catherine had prepared her for a year," said Ms. Williams' mother. "Elizabeth said she knew her mother was with Jesus and that they wouldn't see each other again until Jesus came for her, too."

As he celebrated the funeral liturgy, the priest asked the participants "to hone in on one time when you and Catherine had a sharing of the heart."

For me, that time would be the interviews when Catherine and I put together the story of her search for a home for her child. Fear of leaving Elizabeth orphaned led her to me.

Elizabeth's father suffers from cancer and asbestosis and, is unable to care for "a child, who looks perfectly healthy but is medically fragile," said Ms. Williams. She also felt her aging parents and bachelor brother would encounter many difficulties raising a young child.

After hitting several roadblocks at state and private adoption agencies, she found she couldn't further her search without making her story public. She brought her plight to The Sun.

To ease the stress, trauma and damage to the child's health her death would cause, she hoped to find a loving family to adopt the little girl; she wanted a relationship with them while she was alive.

She also wanted to spread awareness of a situation which she said was becoming all too common. By the year 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there may be as many as 80,000 children orphaned by acquired immune deficiency syndrome and about 20 percent of those infected with the AIDS virus.

The first day I met her, Ms. Williams was coping with the side effects of recent therapy.

"God gets you," she said with a laugh. "I used to have pretty hair and beautiful skin. Now, I have a cranial prosthesis [a wig] and blotches.

"Clothing is such a trial when you have all this swelling," she said as she modeled her outfit.

She could inject her keen sense of humor into any situation. She maintained an optimistic, realistic attitude and a strong will to live.

"I'll try any treatment they give me, but a cure will come too late for me," she said. "I have to operate on a realistic level. I haven't given up, but there won't be a cure in time to save me."

After a meeting with a Buddhist leader, she even tried exotic medical alternatives.

Despite the illness which sapped her strength, she remained steadfast in the quest to find a loving home for Elizabeth. She battled bureaucracy and simplistic solutions to a complex problem.

"This disease can be a horrible, humiliating thing, but once you know you are going to die, you aren't afraid any more," she said.

To protect the child from discrimination, Ms. Williams who lived in a small Frederick County town, used her former name and "Elizabeth," her daughter's middle name, in the story.

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