Calm Within the Storm
03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
A PAINTING OF A LUMINOUS DESERT scene hangs on the wall in Alison Gertz's bedroom; she can see it from her wrought-iron bed. Above the sand hovers a huge, solitary eye. "That's God," says Gertz. "I put it there so I can be reminded that God is watching over me."
It has been four years since the 26-year-old woman came down with pneumonia and learned that she was HIV positive. And it has been a year since she has been able to venture much from her Manhattan apartment. She is fighting off MAI (mycobacterial infection), an AIDS-related illness, and some nights she has to take morphine. But through it all, despite a low time at the holidays, when she contemplated suicide, Ali Gertz has reached a state of transcendent calm. "I guess I've become more spiritual because of this whole experience," she says. "I learned that I could heal myself if I learned to love myself and know that I was a good person."
Strangely, even as her strength ebbs, her enthusiasms seem to grow stronger. The main one right now is Something to Live For: The Alison Gertz Story, which stars Molly Ringwald as Gertz and Martin Landau and Lee Grant as her parents, airing Sunday, March 29, on ABC. "I'm really excited about this movie," she says, rushing along in a breathless torrent of words. "I got to meet Molly Ringwald. Molly wouldn't let me watch a lot of the scenes as they were filming because she was too nervous. But my mother said she couldn't believe how much like me Molly sounded. Martin Landau is so like my dad that my mom told him, 'I'm going home with you.' "
Sitting on her bed with Sambuca, her cat, and Sake, her Pekingese, and surrounded by the flowers she received for her recent birthday, Ali sounds less like a woman living with a dread disease than like the carefree 16-year-old she was in 1982 when, she believes, she was infected with the AIDS virus during a one-night stand with a Studio 54 bartender.
"Do I think of that night often?" she muses. "Once in a while. I mean, that night was really a shock to me. He was so coked out, he just couldn't have an orgasm. I mean, yeah, enough fluid entered me to get the disease—but the sex was terrible." Six years later, after her condition had been diagnosed, Gertz learned that the bartender, who had shown up at her door with champagne and roses on a night when her parents were away, was bisexual and had died of AIDS in 1986. "He died all by himself," she says. "I wasn't in touch with him at the time, but I found out later. His mother wouldn't even pick up the body. I cried when I heard that."
Whatever the future holds for Ali Gertz, she doesn't have to face it alone. Her parents, Jerrold, 68, a shopping mall administrator, and Carol, 59, live a block away and visit their only child constantly. "My mother spends at least 12 hours a day here," says Ali. "She has never worked so hard in her whole life. My dad comes every morning to walk the dog and make me tea and breakfast. There's some bitterness in my mom—and some sadness in my dad—about what happened to me. But they give so much, they glow."
For a time, Ali too gave generously of herself. When she learned she was HIV positive, she went public with her story (in PEOPLE, July 30, 1990) as a way of warning other young people about the dangers of AIDS. "After the pneumonia, I started lecturing at colleges and on TV shows," she says. But further complications—"night sweats, chills, fevers, pain"—put an end to her campaign. "The morning is usually a little better, and then after lunch, forget it, it's nap time," she says.
During quiet times Gertz has sought consolation in her work with a channeler—a medium who guided her on her spiritual quest—and in reading the works of new age minister Marianne Williamson. This move toward belief has given her new hope. Ali is down to 112 lbs. from 133 before her illness—and her clothes hang loosely on her 5'8" frame. Her bedroom table is crowded with medicine bottles. She clings fiercely to the dream of a better life. "I hope in the next few years there will be a cure," she says. "I hope so, because there are so many things I want to accomplish. I want to get back to my painting. I'd like to do some traveling. To India. Someday I'd like to meet the Dalai Lama."
Her vision of the future includes a life very like the one she has thus far missed. "I plan on getting pregnant one of these days—when I'm better," she says. "When it's safer. I think I'd be an excellent mother. I'd like to live in a house in the country and have a million cats and lots of dogs. I'd like a pug and a chocolate lab. I just can't wait to have kids."
Then she pauses and slows down. "I believe strongly in reincarnation," says Ali Gertz. "But I'll tell you, after this life, I think I'm going to lake a little rest period before I come back."
MARY HUZINEC in New York City