Words That Won't Wait

ESSAY

January 22, 1995|By Janita Gaulzetti

I'm writing my mom's eulogy. Only she's not dead yet.

I work on it in the shower, or while I drive to work. Line by line, it occurs to me and interrupts my other thoughts. It has begun to write itself.

My mom is very much alive. But she is HIV-positive. She received infected blood during a transfusion 11 years ago, but she didn't find out the terrible truth until 1988. The Red Cross sent her a letter explaining that the donor of the blood she received had tried to give blood again. By that time, all blood was being screened for the immunodeficiency virus. The Red Cross urged her to get tested.

She waited four long weeks for the results; they were positive.

When my mom told us, we were young adults. We knew what AIDS meant, and we protected ourselves from it. But it was too late to protect her.

I can't recall where or how she told us. Maybe that's because it happened so long ago, before Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe, Elizabeth Glaser and thousands of others who helped educate the world about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Or maybe I can't remember because there is no language for a parent to tell her children that she will die of AIDS. And no language to describe the memory of your mother telling you such a thing.

Whatever words she used, they don't matter now. What does matter are the words I will speak for her eulogy, to honor her courage and to remind others of how she touched them.

Most people acknowledge, even accept, that their parents will die during their lifetime. In fact, we had faced that truth with my mom for another reason. A year before she became infected, she survived ovarian cancer. After a hysterectomy and a year of chemotherapy, she was clean. She had beaten it.

Ironically, just four months before doctors confirmed that her abdomen contained only scar tissue, not cancer, they filled her veins with blood carrying HIV, human immunodeficiency virus.

My mom's current health, which is good but temporary, stands )) as a testament to the greatest achievements of medical science. And its greatest failings.

Even when she battled cancer, there was always the hope that she would win, that she would recover. With HIV, there is no hope. The death sentence has been spoken. Never again will we enjoy the silence of unpredictability. Instead, I hear the words for my mom's eulogy running through my head.

The knowledge that my mom is HIV-positive has been good to my family in the only way that the limits of finite time can be. My brother, sister and I might not spend as much time with her if we didn't believe it was important to make the most of what time remains. Fate has forced every member of our family to do things differently. So we do.

For example, I never thought I'd see my 63-year-old mom on television, talking about condoms. I'm sure she never expected to, either. A local TV station had asked to interview her about the rising incidence of the virus among heterosexual women; the station had gotten her name from an AIDS support group she was involved in. She called me to ask if I was ready for her to talk about AIDS so publicly. Was I ready? She was ready. That's all I needed to know.

Now she talks a lot about AIDS. She volunteered to speak at her church in support of World AIDS Day last year. She also answers phones for an AIDS prevention project. Because she built a career as a nurse and hospital administrator, she takes great pride in helping to educate callers about prevention.

As I write her eulogy, my mom plans her funeral, pointing out passages in songs she'd like played. It may be unusual to discuss such details with your family, but that's the kind of person my mom is. And if it brings her peace to talk about the arrangements, we'll do it. If she wants us to play Mary Chapin Carpenter's "I Feel Lucky" that day, we will. Because we do.

In facing my mom's death, our family is able to celebrate a life in a way most families never can.

No wonder those words for the eulogy keep invading my head. They are words that will keep her in our minds and hearts long after the funeral. They are words we'll remember every Mother's Day and on her birthday.

They are words we will wish we had said sooner, before it's too late.

Maybe that's why I'm writing this eulogy now. You should hear what people will say about that day, Mom. You should hear. And you will.

JANITA GAULZETTI is a marketing director and free-lance write who lives in Royal Oak, Mich.

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