DUXBURY, Vt. — Doug Folsom bought a gun, left a recorded message telling his wife to "hang tough," climbed into the hammock outside his family's Duxbury home and pulled the trigger.
That was more than a month ago, on June 6.
The suicide followed two years of watching his young wife and 3-year-old daughter, Angela, wither from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He lived with the fear that 4-year-old Nicolette, who so far has managed to escape the disease, would test positive.
"That poor man, watching his little girl and his wife just go through this deterioration. This forced him to kill himself, something he said he'd never do. So he was forced to leave me," said Jennifer Folsom, her body frail from fighting the disease and struggling to keep her family together.
She studied a framed photograph of the couple taken years earlier. Both are smiling, Doug's arm is tossed over her shoulders. The picture rests on a table within easy reach of Jennifer's chair, surrounded by tissues and bottles of medication.
"I have a very strong attitude of 'Try me.' His whole attitude was 'Why me?' He danced as long as he could. The wind was just taken out of his sails. I feel bad for him. He didn't deserve that."
AIDS has been a relentless enemy since Jennifer was diagnosed in February, 1988. The doctor gave her the test results in his empty office after closing; he was concerned, she said, about how his staff would react to an AIDS patient.
"I drove home. It was a long ride," Jennifer recalled. "All I could see was gloom and doom and death. I thought of suicide. I went into my room and I didn't ever want to come out."
It seemed incredible that a blood transfusion during an emergency appendectomy in a Massachusetts hospital in 1979--before blood supplies were tested and purged of the virus--probably carried the AIDS virus into her body.
Angie, she said, contracted the virus during the pregnancy or later from breast-feeding. Nicolette is tested every six months, and Jennifer prays her healthy, older daughter will remain free of AIDS.
"Here I am, this white, middle-class housewife living in Vermont, trying to make a living. How dare this disease come into my home? It's AIDS. I eat and drink and sleep AIDS. But I'm not afraid of it anymore," Jennifer said.
Jennifer told her parents she was suffering from AIDS, but told others that she had cancer: "We weren't sure how people were going to react," she said.
She and Doug worried that business would fall off, that people would be afraid to come to their auto-body shop. The health insurance bill, which runs about $560 monthly, continues to be the first bill paid each month, and she is left with about $10,000 in other unpaid bills.
Her nightmare had been that Nicolette would be harassed when she starts school next year--a fear the school nurse put to rest by telling Jennifer, "There will be no discrimination here."
Jennifer lives day to day, and the past week had been a bad one. She was wrapped in a blue-and-white afghan and tired. She had lost 10 pounds in the last month and was worried about Angie's lesions and weight loss.
Angie, damp from a bath and refusing to be moved off her mother's lap, was struggling to breathe with a feeding tube up one nostril and a pacifier wedged stubbornly in her mouth.
Jennifer glanced distractedly out the living-room windows, overlooking a faded yellow motorboat parked in the side yard and a small, neat vegetable garden. Wind chimes blew in a breeze along a second-floor balcony.
"I lie in bed and there are days I don't even want to get up. It's hard dealing with family life and self-worth, knowing that I can't care for my own kids and my husband," she said, breaking down. Then quickly regaining control, she said, "I have such a strong gene in me that wants to go on. I hope I can hang on.
"I went to a party this weekend at my sister's. And I was sitting there exhausted and I thought . . . 'I'm 29 years old. I just can't be doing what a normal kid would be doing.' "
She wants to tell her story, she said, so people will realize the AIDS epidemic exists in rural areas of Vermont.
"Vermont does have AIDS," she said. "The children of this generation need to be taught now because we don't know if there is going to be a cure."
She wants to "live with dignity and not have people whispering behind my back. I'm not ashamed of who I am. (AIDS) invaded my home without permission. I'm just hoping that by me going public, somebody else can be helped."
For her own help, Jennifer relies on her family. Her parents visit daily to help care for the children, her brother has taken a leave of absence from his Washington job to help Jennifer wade through the red tape of locating financial assistance, and other sisters and brothers help out.
"We've also gone through the anger and the hurt," said Jennifer's mother, June Kenney. "It's not right to see your daughter so sick when she's so young. They should be going on picnics and dancing."