John-John dies of AIDS, at 11 still speaking of hope

March 12, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

John-John was 11 years old and still speaking of hope when he died the other day. He knew death was coming. He told his grandmother, Ethel Jackson, "I just talked to the angels. They said I'm gonna be all right." He meant they'd look out for him. He meant they were waiting for his arrival. They'd been waiting since John-John was born.

His mother, Zena Cummings, strung out on drugs the last 13 years of her life, had passed on to John-John the virus that leads to AIDS. She was HIV-positive when pregnant. Zena died in August, at 31, with John-John soon to follow, and with a 16-year old daughter named Kia who has a son of her own.

"I just try to get through the day," Ethel Jackson, 54, was saying last week, as a man from March Funeral Home arrived to remove mourning chairs from her living room. "I pray to God. Jesus Christ strengthens me. I try not to dwell on the sadness."

Her granddaughter and great-grandson live with her. She's a former nurse's assistant, retired now because of heart trouble. The house is an immaculate rowhouse on a handsome street not far from Loch Raven Boulevard, with cards and balloons still taped to a dining room alcove from John-John's last birthday, in January.

"When you love someone," Ethel Jackson said, "you ask God for strength and you keep going. You look at someone like John-John, and you see how he's going through it. He was a typical boy who loved to play. He loved to sing. He loved the Orioles and he tried to play Little League but was too weak. And he knew that he had HIV, and that he'd get sick and die."

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says he's not alone. A look at hospitals with large inner-city clients found that 1 percent of women of child-bearing age in Baltimore are known to be HIV-positive.

"Currently," says Vicki Tepper, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, "we know of about 250 children under the age of 13 who are infected in Baltimore. And the number is growing."

Tepper was John-John's psychologist over the last four years. He was 7 before he was diagnosed HIV-positive, though there were signs of sickness throughout his brief life: upper respiratory problems, ear infections, dehydration. His nose would bleed. His grandmother took him to Sinai Hospital, where a doctor suggested an HIV test. It was positive.

"I said, 'Oh, no, he's not,' " Ethel Jackson remembers now. " 'Let's test this again.' But it was still positive. And I thought, how will I take care of him? It was a very frightening time."

She tried to make his life as normal as possible while knowing his dying already had begun. By now, she knew the worst about her daughter Zena, who was living on the decaying streets of lower Park Heights Avenue for the drug traffic.

"She saw John-John only in and out," Jackson says. "He was left here for me because she knew I would do it. Both her kids became mine. I taught them about God. That's what got John-John through this. He could pray. And then Zena was here for her last year, and John-John saw her dying."

The grandmother tried to be as open and rational as she could about John-John's troubles. There would be no hiding from his friends. If she kept her composure, maybe her grandson's friends would, too.

"Oh, the children," she says now. "The children are smart today. They know about HIV. You'd be surprised what they know. They never shunned him. Not his friends, and not Kia's friends. They came in and played tapes with him and bought things for him. The adults would slip him money. He loved spaghetti. They'd invite him to dinner in their homes, and he'd eat with them."

Such talk suggests we're learning not to shun the sick, not to demonize them. Vicki Tepper says there's still much of that, but those around John-John took their cue from Ethel Jackson. Because she was matter-of-fact, so were those around her.

But John-John's ordeal worsened. His kidneys failed, and he needed dialysis. He needed to keep his weight down for the kidney troubles, and needed to keep it up to fight AIDS. At 11, he was 4 feet 6 and weighed 55 pounds.

"The worst time," his grandmother said, "was when he became frightened of the dark. He was so afraid, he'd walk the halls. He'd dread when night came. He'd watch the clock. For about a month, he wouldn't sleep. We put in night lights. He wanted to talk. He wanted me where he could see me. That was the hardest time. I still had to go to work in the morning. And, even though he wasn't sleeping, he'd get up and go to school."

By now, John-John was being treated at University of Maryland Medical Center. His grandmother says the staff treated him like their child. They got Jack Voigt, then an Orioles outfielder, to visit him at the hospital. Several months later, the end arrived.

"John-John knew," Ethel Jackson says. "He paid attention to his body. He said he had a pain in his side. He said, 'Mama, call the doctor, it's time to go.' In the emergency room, he said, 'Something's happening to my body. I'm having a hard time breathing.' "

He died, Friday before last, of congestive heart failure and fluid on the lungs. He outlived his mother by about six months. His grandmother keeps track of the dates. She is left now with John-John's 16-year-old sister, Kia, and with Kia's son, Darquell Brown. Darquell is a year old today.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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