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DIANNE KLEIN

AIDS in the Age of Innocents

July 13, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

The grown-up part of them knew that it would happen, of course, but then when it did they got kind of scared. Somebody's mom died today, one of their own, the first death since their club formed. She had AIDS.

Xavier, 7, drew a picture of himself and his friends in the group. "I am sorry that your mom died," it said. He gave it to them and they said thanks.

Emilie, who will be 9 next month, sketched another picture for her mother, Denise. It shows her and her father dripping oversized tears. Her mother is propped up in a coffin. She, too, has AIDS. She is 39.

These children understand very well what the face of AIDS looks like today. It is Mom or Dad, or sometimes both.

This is the open secret here at the AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County; the children don't often share this knowledge with their "other" friends. These are the ones who might freak, or if not them, then their parents. Too many people think that AIDS makes you bad.

This so-called education process is what has brought these children together. They are fortunate to have each other, they suppose. But if God granted them a wish, they would wipe this all away.

They used to be part of an ominous mathematical projection; now they are counting down. Soon they will join this new wave of child orphans of AIDS.

The realization affects them in different ways. Jessey, who is 10, has grown up on double time. She is articulate, brainy and precise. She corrects her aunt, her legal guardian now, about the status of her parents' health.

Her mother has AIDS, while her father, now legally blind, has HIV.

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But Jessey, who gets all A's, has been having trouble in school. She will not put up with a lot. She has a thing about fairness. She calls people on it, teachers too. Her aunt has had many talks with her. She tells her, "Jessica, life is not fair."

Jessey says she is angry with her parents for not telling her about their illness when they had the chance.

"I am still angry for having to find needles and razor blades all over the place," she says. "I got to the point where I had to tell them that I wasn't going to take it anymore."

That point for Jessey came when she was 4 years old. She called her aunt to come take her away. When she did, her aunt found a syringe in Jessey's Cabbage Patch purse.

"Confused is where I am," Jessey says. "I think, 'Why them? Why not somebody else?' "

The same thought translated another way to Xavier. When his parents told him that his father was in the hospital because he has AIDS, Xavier thought that was pretty cool. After all, Magic Johnson has HIV!

Xavier's attitude has changed since.

The Kids Club is for children age 6 to 12, and it meets for eight consecutive weeks. The first session was earlier this spring, and the second has just started today. A dozen kids whose parents have the disease belong and, in a separate group, there are half as many adults. There is another group for young adolescents, age 12 to 14.

A bereavement group is starting soon. This is, all of it, territory that nobody wanted to chart.

Mark is 35 and his daughter, Jessica, is 11. She says that she doesn't really have a best friend, except for her dad. He is divorced from Jessica's mother, who now has other children of her own. Mark has had custody of Jessica for years. They are two parts of a whole.

"The most difficult thing that I have ever done is tell Jessica," Mark says. He is talking about the AIDS that is stealing away a life that he loves.

"I am telling her things that we shouldn't be telling our kids at 10 years old. You want to keep them small and pure," he says, but he can't go on without tears.

Mark told Jessica a year and a half ago, when she was 10 years old. First, he told her that he was gay, but Jessica already knew. Then she asked if he had AIDS, and Mark lied and told her no. The truth simply weighed too much then.

When he did tell her a short while later, both of them cried. Jessica and Mark do that a lot these days. Jessica worries about who she will live with after her father is gone. She would like to stay with her father's companion of eight years, but she is afraid that something will keep them apart.

Jessica looks down, her lips trembling, her face flushed. "I just have a whole bunch of feelings," she says. Her father strokes her hand.

Mary Herzog and Ronald Aguilera are the facilitators of Kids Club. There is no teaching manual that they can consult. They probe childhood anxieties gingerly, through play and through talk. It is working, getting better, because the children always want to come back.

Their parents or guardians need each other too. Isolation would make it easier to die.

"We joke about things that other people don't," says Emilie's mother, Denise. "That's all you have left, your sense of humor."

And, of course, they talk about their kids. There is guilt over childhoods shanghaied by this dreadful disease. But there is joy in the closeness that it can bring. There is a longing for prom dresses that they will never see, or grandchildren, or husbands or wives. There is resentment, too, and anger, fear.

There is a maddening impatience with a society that alternately denies the seriousness and scope of the AIDS epidemic and yet fears "the innocent" might succumb if they so much as kiss the damned.

"If people could listen to our kids. . ." Denise says. "I think we are doing a great job with them. They are more compassionate, caring for others."

If any good can come of this epidemic, perhaps it will be that. The faces of these children, and their parents, are those of us all.

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