A Sad Sisterhood

updated 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Although she shares a common tragedy with all who suffer from AIDS, Ah Gertz is not typical of the more than 14,000 American women who have been diagnosed with the disease. Overwhelmingly, black and Hispanic women bear the brunt of the epidemic; they account for more than 70 percent of the nationwide total of women with AIDS. For every white woman between the ages of 15 and 44 killed by AIDS, 10 black women in the same age group die. Indeed, AIDS is now the leading killer of young black women in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. In contrast, seven states—South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Idaho, Nevada and Vermont—reported no female AIDS deaths as recently as 1987. Yet, as the following profiles show, the scourge has spread just about everywhere else—and few women can afford to assume they are not at risk.

The price for casual drug use was the lives of two of her children

In the late 1970s, the relationship soured between Laura Cantrel and the father of her four children, a nightclub manager she never married. "I got involved with people who were shooting drugs," says Cantrel, a high-school dropout who worked on and off as a waitress at a New York City after-hours club. "Once in a while, I would party with them...stick a needle in my arm. It didn't last long. I thought I got out in time."

But two years later, her fifth child, year-old Jason, "started getting these funny pneumonias. He was having a lot of diarrhea and sweating a lot." A series of tests showed that Jason had AIDS. So did Laura. Cantrel, eight months pregnant, gave birth in January 1983 to a son, Octavio, who immediately showed signs of the disease. Both boys soon entered a hospital in the Bronx. Jason became so thin "you could actually see his heart," says Cantrel. "He was so tiny that to pick him up, I'd have to put a pillow on my arm."

On Nov. 28, 1984, Jason's third birthday, Cantrel gave a small party for him at the hospital. "I took him a funny clown and a rattle and a cake." Two hours after she left him that day, the call came that he had died. "My son was the first person I'd ever seen dead," says Cantrel, weeping. "His body was still warm. I picked him up and wrapped him in his blanket and kissed him goodbye." On Feb. 1, 1986, the day after Octavio's third birthday, he too died. With his favorite stuffed toy, he was buried next to his brother.

Cantrel, 33, has her own health to look to now. She has survived bouts of pneumonia and hepatitis, as well as a long guilt-inspired drinking binge. "When my children died, I thought it was a punishment. Now I know it must have happened for a reason." She lives today in eastern Pennsylvania with 30-year-old Bob Davis, a cook, and her four children, who range in age from 16 to 11. Cantrel sounds optimistic about her own survival. "I want to live now. I plan on being a grandmother."

Cantrel's younger daughter, Lillian, 13, is more cautious. "Every night, I give her a hug and kiss and tell her that I love her," she says. "It scares me that when everyone else wakes up, one day she might not."

Triple tragedy: An entire family hit with AIDS struggles to find a future

For seven years Jennifer Cupp and her live-in boyfriend tried to have a baby. Month after month, they had no luck. So a year ago, when the 28-year-old Tampa secretary discovered she was pregnant, she rejoiced.

The celebration was short-lived. Cupp's boyfriend, now 32, was continually wracked with "colds," and before long he lay withering away in a Tampa hospital bed. Last October, Cupp's live-in, who, she says, admitted to heterosexual promiscuity, was diagnosed with AIDS. Within days, Cupp learned that she too carried the virus. Faced with her own struggle against unpromising odds, Cupp was forced to confront an unbearable decision. "I can't bring a baby into the world with AIDS," she remembers thinking. "It wouldn't be fair." Cupp visited two abortion clinics. "But I couldn't do it," she says. "I could feel her moving inside me. I heard her heart beat. She had hiccups. I just couldn't do it."

And so baby Glenda was born on March 28, 1990-HIV positive. And together, mother, father and daughter, all carrying the virus, lived as a family—but only briefly. Knowing AIDS would sooner or later kill him, Cupp's boyfriend embarked on a desperate last partying spree. "His attitude," says Cupp, "was, 'I'm dying, so I'm partying, I'm doing what I want.' " In the end, what he wanted did not include Cupp or Glenda; two months ago, the couple agreed to separate.

Now, save the emotional support of her sister Rita, 41, Cupp goes it alone. "My family won't have anything to do with me," she says. "None will help with finances or even baby-sitting." Where she once earned $1,000 a month, Cupp, too exhausted from her illness to work, lives off a monthly $167 welfare check and the benevolence of local churches. "I rely on God," she says.

Indeed, Cupp hopes for a gift from Heaven—"that Glenda will live long and be happy." By all appearances she is a happy, healthy 4-month-old. But Cupp accepts that her child is probably doomed to an early death. When strangers coo and cluck over Glenda, "Sometimes I feel like saying, 'She has AIDS,' " says Cupp. "I wonder if they'd be so happy to wipe her drool or give her bottle if they knew."

After the ordeal of rape, a coed learns that her assailant had AIDS

A year ago, at age 21, Christina Lewis was a pretty, popular sorority girl. A political science major at the University of South Florida in Tampa, she lived off campus in a two-story town house. All in all, life was happy. She had even overcome the trauma of having been a victim of date rape a year before. "It was a friend of a friend kind of thing," says Lewis. She went out with the man, a marine who had served in Africa, and when they went to an apartment later that evening, says Lewis, her date "was pretty drunk. I was a little drunk, but not enough not to realize that I didn't want what was happening to happen." She left after the incident; she never even learned the man's last name.

As a result, she did not know the true horror of that night until she donated blood in May 1989. The following month, she received a registered letter saying she was HIV positive. At first she told herself it was all a mistake, but denial soon gave way to darker thoughts of suicide. Slowly, however, she began to accept the reality of being infected. "It was very rough to tell the other men I had been involved with," she says. She concluded she had been infected by the marine because none of the other men with whom she had slept tested positive. She never heard from the marine again and has long since lost contact with the friend who introduced her to him.

In the fall of 1989, Lewis began to suffer from the stress of not telling her parents about her disease. She dropped out of school. She eventually confided in her two brothers, Terry, 21, and Patrick, 18, and last Christmas she went home to New Jersey steeled to face her parents. "But I just couldn't get the words out of my mouth," she says. As she left, Lewis asked Terry to tell them. "It was something beyond shock," says her father, Gary, who was at the time an executive with a defense contractor. He checked into his health insurance, but when the self-insured company learned that Christina had AIDS, he says, they fired him. Lewis, who has no symptoms but is taking the AIDS drug AZT, knows that by going public with the news of her disease she may well lose her job as a hostess at a local restaurant. Still, life goes on: She has dated two men, both "very understanding," she says. She next plans to move to Washington, D.C., and take up full-time AIDS activism. "I know how I can touch other people's lives," she says, "that's what I live for."

A wife suffers the consequences of her husband's secret sex life

Sitting at her kitchen table in Sparks, Nev., Natalie Silva, 46, thinks back to 1987. "I was married," she recalls. "I never thought AIDS would affect me in a million years." But that October, three months after she and her husband, Frank, divorced, he suddenly died of the disease. In his last moments, Frank told one of his doctors that he was bisexual. "I never knew," says Natalie, who had been married to Frank for two years. Soon after, she tested positive for the AIDS virus.

Furious that Frank had concealed his sexual history, Natalie sued and won a $300,000 settlement from his estate. That money has helped pay Natalie's legal fees and medical bills and support her three children from two previous marriages, Scott, 22, Carolyn, 15, and Doug, 13.

Told in 1988 that she had only five years to live, Natalie steeled herself against the grim prognosis with a favorite saying: "You either give up or you go on." So far, her only symptoms are fatigue and a low white blood cell count. In between vacations with Carolyn and cheering rowdily at Doug's baseball games, she also speaks about AIDS to health care, student and women's groups. "It took a lot of energy keeping it hidden from everybody," she says. "I get more power being up-front. I live for today. God doesn't promise anyone anything."

A tainted transfusion brings one death—and a widow's infection

In 1985, when Missy LeClaire married a strapping 6'4" merchant sailor eight years her junior, she envisioned a lifetime of shared vitality. But within months of their marriage, her husband, Jim, was reduced to a skeletal, feverish invalid, his health ravaged by the AIDS virus. Three years earlier, before Missy ever met him, Jim had received a transfusion of tainted blood after being injured in a car crash. In the spring of 1987, at age 27, he died in Missy's arms at their Washington, D.C., home. When she tested HIV positive, the then 36-year-old widow knew she had one experience left to share with Jim: her own premature death.

Not surprisingly, memories of Jim have shaped Missy's vision of her own end. "I'm not afraid to die," she says, "but I don't want to suffer." Nor does she want others to suffer on her account. "When Jim became sick he was totally dependent on me," she explains. "It was as though I was his lifeline, and that lifeline was tied around my neck, tugging and tugging and tugging." Once an accountant, Missy now lives on disability payments and help from her parents and brothers, who live in Maryland. Adamant that she not become a burden to her own family, Missy has signed a living will and insists on absolute openness about her condition. "If I get bad news, they get it too. That way there are no surprises down the road," she says.

For now her bad news is limited to the severe yeast infections and agonizing menstrual cramps common to women with AIDS—as well as the occasional, and so far beatable, lung and bladder problems. She says she's glad for what she's got: "Most of my friends get upset when they turn 40. When I get to be 40," which will be next April 12, "I'm going to have myself one big party."

Her life back on track, a former drug addict is stricken by her past

These days she lives like a college student, the bottom bunk in her dorm room decorated with a flowered bedspread and a giant pink teddy bear. But as a resident of a Bronx drug-rehabilitation center, 37-year-old Ann Nelson, a former addict who is HIV positive, faces a bleak future.

It was in 1980 that Nelson's decade-long relationship with the father of her four children began to disintegrate. "We had been together since I was 17," she says. "Then I found out that he liked a variety of women." For solace, she turned to cocaine, a practice that in time grew to a heroin and crack addiction that derailed her life. "I lost my house, and then we started moving from hotels to shelters," she recalls. "I was draggin' my kids through the streets at night, but I just couldn't stop the drugs."

Finally came a turning point. "You know how bad it got?" she asks, crying at the memory. "My son wanted this pair of sneakers, so I bought them for him. And then I sold them the very next day. And with that money, I got high." The son mentioned the incident to his teacher, who reported Nelson's drug use to a local child-welfare agency. "I waited and waited for my boys to come home from school that day," says Nelson, "but they never did. All I'd ever had to keep me from hitting rock bottom was my kids. This time they were gone."

With her children placed in relatives' custody, Ann made her way last year to the Bronx's Project Return rehabilitation home, where, after a drug test, she learned that she was HIV positive. "After all I'd been though on the street, at first I wanted to sock at something," she says. "I wanted this disease to stand in front of me so that I could tear it limb from limb. If I had broken my leg, it could heal. But this—this doesn't allow me to ever forget."

Nelson is not sure how she contracted the disease. "I didn't pick up any strangers, and I knew those men I slept with," she says. "I think it was the street, with all of those needles being passed around."

With the help of counselors, she is learning to make peace with her disease in the hope that she can serve as a lesson for her children. "When I say, 'Use condoms!' my daughter says, 'Oh, Mom, I already use birth control.' I say, 'It ain't about birth control. I want you to use condoms because you can get AIDS. And. I'm here to tell you it ain't no great party.' "

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