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Jane in Spain

Meghan and Mick


Morse family photo

Spain, 1989: Meghan, shown with Mick, and the other kids still did not know their father had AIDS.


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Mick's health took a turn for the worse after the family arrived in Bilbao, Spain, in the fall of 1989.

If you imagine the Iberian peninsula as a profile of a face, you will find Bilbao right on top of the head, in the middle. Despite its proximity to the sea, Bilbao is a carbuncle of a city, industrialized, over-populated and polluted. If the beauty and sensuality of Rio de Janeiro reflected the glory days of the Morse family, the unhealthiness of this place was the perfect setting for their darkest hours.

None of this is evident in the Christmas letter the family sent out that year, written by 13-year-old Meghan. It is bright and cheery, filled with hope and promise. David is playing soccer and getting top grades at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Meghan is almost fluent in Spanish. Erin, 11, is taking tennis lessons and doing great in school. Jane is taking art classes and trying to learn the language.

"Dad enjoys being boss," writes Meghan, referring to Mick's new job as headmaster of the American School. "He's been drilling nails in the walls to hang up pictures. He is also teaching 9th grade World History. He enjoys going on little weekend trips." Meghan signs off with a smiley face.

When Mick returned from one of those weekend trips, he was burning with fever. Jane helped him immediately into bed. What could be causing these fevers, coughing and horrible night sweats? In two weeks she would know. She would visit him at Las Cruces hospital, put on a surgical mask and hear the three little words that would change her life.

"I have AIDS."

Mick's medical records from Spain reveal the degree of his suffering. He complained of weakness and had trouble breathing. In just a few months, he had lost 26 pounds. Tests revealed tuberculosis and pneumonia. There were blue cancerous lesions on his skin. To fight these and other opportunistic infections, Mick's doctor prescribed five different drugs.

The records also show the depth of his denial. Mick demanded that his doctor keep a set of medical records "in which information about HIV infection did not appear." In the authentic records, Dr. Alfonso Alvarez notes that Mick refused to make clear how he became infected. "He denies the means of contagion except a sporadic heterosexual relationship," which certainly described the state of his marriage.

Jane's first two AIDS tests came back negative. But how many times would she have to be tested before she could be sure of her own health? As she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she felt totally alone, betrayed by a husband who insisted that his illness be kept a secret, hidden away in the deep black box that also contained the truth of his sexual identity.

"Maybe he got it from a woman," Jane would theorize, "when he attended that convention in the States."

Think of Jane Morse, at that moment, as Everywoman. Confronted by this plague of the new millenium, she is ignorant and fearful. She is in a new country where she barely speaks the language. She is uprooted from a community, thousands of miles from family and friends. There are no support groups for her. No therapists. There is not even much literature in English for her to read. She doesn't know how long her husband will live. Or how she will support the family after his death. Or if, after all these years, she has any marketable skills.

She wonders whether the AIDS virus is "hiding" in her body, in spite of the early negative tests. Can it do that? She is not sure of how vulnerable her children are to infection. She must bear the burden of cooking, cleaning, separating, sterilizing. And it all has to be done in secret.

One day Meghan found some literature on AIDS and cancer in her mom's bedroom.

"Why do you have these, Mom?" she asked. "We don't know anyone who has AIDS or cancer."

Jane lied to her daughter. "I'm just curious," she said. "Just improving my mind."

It was agony. Jane's mood swung up and down, up and down, like one of those huge pendulum carnival rides. If she kept busy, she could forget her troubles. Then she would swing back to a point of total frustration, higher and higher, until she was ready to crawl the walls, scream and holler, throw things across the room. She would break down into fits of crying. Even tranquilizers failed her.

On two occasions she confronted Mick, determined to tolerate his silence no longer.

"What the hell am I going to do?" she said, her voice rising. "How am I going to survive? How am I going to make it? What am I going to do with these kids?"

Mick kept his composure. "If you need to go back to the States," he said, "if you need to get out of here, then go."

"Don't you feel anything?" she screamed at him, almost in desperation.

Mick said nothing.

That was a low point for Jane. At times she wonders what he could have said to make things better. Perhaps if he just opened his heart to her, perhaps admitted that he was confused about who he was, or that he preferred men.

"I think if, somewhere along the line, if he had ever said, 'I am so sorry,' that would have helped a lot. But he never said one friggin' word."

THE SERIES: This is the 14th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 15, Ace of Spades


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