AT THE END, ALISON GERTZ, 26, FACED death the way she lived her life as a person with AIDS: bravely and surrounded by love. When Gertz succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia on Aug. 8 at her parents' summer home in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., her best friend, Victoria Leacock, was among the family and friends gathered round her bed. "Ali's mother and father were at her head kissing her, and I was holding her hand when she took her last breath," says Leacock, 28, a Manhattan filmmaker. "She came to at the last moment and looked into the eyes of her mother, who was saying, 'Baby, it's OK. I love you. You're allowed to go.' She was so caring, she fell badly about leaving us."

Gertz seemed a most unlikely candidate for AIDS when doctors diagnosed the disease in 1988. The only child of Jerrold Gertz, 70, a New York real estate developer, and his wife, Carol, 59, cofounder of the Tennis Lady chain of clothing boutiques, Alison grew up on Park Avenue. She had never had a blood transfusion or been an intravenous drug user. She fell victim to AIDS as a result of an early sexual encounter. She was 16 and wound up in a one-night stand with a man she would later discover was bisexual.

In 1988, Alison was hospitalized with a low-grade fever and chronic diarrhea and learned she had AIDS. "It was a big shock that Ali, of all people, got AIDS," says Leacock. "She'd had few partners and had been in long-term, monogamous relationships." Hoping that her life story might be a cautionary tale for others, Alison hit the talk show circuit and toured college campuses. She was the subject of a PEOPLE cover July 30, 1990. and last March her life story was told in an ABC movie, Something to Live For.

"Ali got into a lot of religions at the end," says her mother. "One of her friends brought back a Dalai Lama necklace from Tibet, and we sent Ali off with the beads around her neck." Carol continues, "Her ashes are going to be brought to the bay in Westhampton where she used to tool around in her little boat, the Ali Cat. We are going to lake her out in a boat and scatter her ashes where she had wonderful hours when she was a little girl." She adds: "She was never afraid of death, only of pain. And in the end, she went peacefully. She was not in pain."