IT TOOK JUST TWO PHONE CALLS TO TURN Mary Fisher's life completely upside down. In July 1991, Fisher's ex-husband called to tell her he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. She immediately went to her own physician for a test, and two weeks later—from a crowded terminal at New York City's LaGuardia Airport, with her two young sons playing nearby—an anxious Fisher phoned her doctor for the results. When he told her that she too was HIV positive, she began sobbing. "My whole world just did a 180," she says. "I thought I would never see [my sons] again. I couldn't believe it was really happening to me."
Fisher, 44, does not fit the profile of the typical person with the virus. A heterosexual woman, a mother and a member of one of Detroit's most socially prominent families (her father, Max Fisher, is worth around $400 million and is honorary chairman of the Bush-Quayle '92 National Finance Committee), Mary Fisher had not even thought herself at risk from the AIDS virus. But now she is preparing to teach others, members of the charmed circles she has traveled in all her life, that when it comes to AIDS, wealth and privilege are no protection. Next week-lie will go to Houston to address the Republican National Convention and appeal to the party for compassion toward AIDS sufferers. Fisher, whose second husband, a painter, probably contracted the virus while using intravenous drugs before their marriage in 1987, says she wants the party faithful to help lift what she calls "our party's suffocating shroud of silence" surrounding AIDS.
At the moment Fisher received her devastating news at the airport, she and her brother. Phillip, were on their way to join their parents for a vacation aboard a yacht oil the South of France. Her sons, Max, now 4½, and Zachary, now 2½, were flying to Detroit, where they were to be met by relatives. "I can recall just hugging my children and not wanting to let them go." Little Max didn't understand what was happening and kept saying, "Mommy, I'll miss you, but it's OK." As her brother now recalls the scene, "I saw her crying hysterically. When she told me, I thought she was just playing a bad joke on me. [But when] it sunk in, I joined her in crying."
The hardest part, according to Fisher, was still to come—breaking the news to her 84-year-old father. Telling her mother, Marjorie, would be less difficult: Man had a I ready informed her of the results of her ex-husband's AIDS lest. Mary entered her father's stateroom on the yacht and, recalls Phillip, "just cried. The first thing she said to him was 'I'm sorry.' He was at first mummified, in shock. Then they hugged for a while. And he said, 'You know, we're behind you 150 percent.' "
After talking with her parents. Fisher cut short her vacation and flew back to the States to have Max tested. She had feared she might have infected him during pregnancy, but he is free of the virus. (Zack is adopted and therefore not at risk.) Then she returned to her home in Boca Raton, Fla., to break the news to her friends. Two of the first people she confided in were former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, family friends and godparents to Max. "I was just totally destroyed when Mary told me," says Betty. "She's never wavered in her support and love, and neither has he," says Fisher. She discussed with Betty her desire to go public with the news. Ford, who had struggled with a similar dilemma in 1978, when she spoke out about her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, urged Fisher to move cautiously, telling her, "You can't take it back once you say it." Fisher followed that advice until last February. Then, inspired in part by the example of Magic Johnson and in part by her need to help other people, she told her story to a reporter from the Detroit Free Press, which published it on the front page. The response to her announcement—from both friends and strangers—has been, she says, overwhelmingly sympathetic. Still in good health, she is now almost totally engaged in good works related to AIDS: She is consultant to the National Commission on AIDS, raises funds for local AIDS organizations in Florida and Michigan and has just created the Family AIDS Network, which, she says "will create support systems for the people who take care of others—families for families."
Her own family has always provided her with all the support she needed. Her father, Max, made his multi-millions in real estate, banking and oil and has for years been a major fund-raiser and behind-the-scenes adviser for the Republican Party. Mary, the second of five children, attended suburban Detroit's prestigious Cranbrook Schools and for less than a year, the University of Michigan, which she left to work at Detroit's young public television station. After 5½ years as a TV producer in Detroit, she got involved in Republican Party politics. In 1974 newly installed President Ford made her the first woman ever to serve as a member of a While House advance team.
She left that job when Ford left office and, after a short-lived first marriage, discovered that she wanted to paint. In 1984, Fisher's mother checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment for alcohol dependence. Says Fisher: "We all went there, as a family, to be there for her." In the course of their family counseling, Fisher realized she too had a drinking problem and while in treatment began drawing. Now the living room of her modern lakeside home, where she moved to be near her parents' Palm Beach winter residence, is a studio filled with easels and her vibrant paper works, which sell for up to $5,000 apiece.
What with her children, her art and her activism, Fisher maintains a hectic schedule. She tries to make sure she sleeps and eats well, and she exercise's and meditates. She has not told the boys the extent of her tragedy: "I don't feel that it's healthy for my children to be awaiting something that could be years away. What I do with my children is try to create a loving atmosphere for them and to help them show compassion—to cuddle and to love and to hug." The children also see their father frequently. And she tries not to dwell on her future: "What am I going to do because of this?" she asks. "Am I going to go to bed and just pull the covers up, or am I going to try to help other people?"
Though she hasn't yet written her speech, Fisher knows what she wants to tell the GOP faithful in Houston: "That we're in the middle of an epidemic and we all must care for those affected. Be compassionate and then turn that compassion into action." She has a slightly different message for her sons, for whom she is keeping a journal. "Max and Zack," she writes, "Each night, I rehearse for the day when I must give you over. That is why, as I reach for the day's last kiss and hug, you always hear me say the same four words: 'Sleep with the angels.' "
DON SIDER in Boca Raton
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