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Stupid Little Games


Morse family photo

The happy couple by all outward appearances - but Mick probably already was infected..



By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Dr. Natalia Gil smiled as she delivered the news to Jane Morse. The results of Jane's first AIDS test were negative.

Jane let out a long sigh of relief and hugged her young doctor. The knot in her stomach loosened, and some of the tension in her muscles relaxed. But the relief did not last long, not with her list of problems.

Her husband, Mick, had AIDS, a disease she knew little about - except that he would die from it. She could barely read or speak Spanish, so, here in Bilbao, Spain, it was hard for her to communicate with doctors or read books that would help her learn what to do. Mick insisted that the news of his illness be kept an absolute secret. That meant carrying on a charade around the household.

Jane told her children that dad was sick - a problem with his lungs - but that if he took his medicine, he would be all right. And take medicine he did: AZT, the drug that has prolonged the life of many AIDS patients; and antibiotics to fight off the forms of pneumonia that bedevil a weakened immune system.

Under this regimen, Mick Morse could return to his job as headmaster of the American School. Even more than usual, he buried himself in his work and retreated into his reading. To Jane, he seemed more contained, more reserved, more unemotional than ever. He should be pouring out his fears and sharing news of his illness with those who loved him and respected him, she thought. Instead, Mick chose to keep it locked away, to repress, to deny. That was his way. It was the Morse Code.

Over the next three years, from 1990-92, Jane would be tested for AIDS every three months - 12 times in all. No one told her she had to. But she insisted - time after time after time. The ritual of testing became almost sacramental for her, a ceremony of doubt, fear and renewal that assumed a liturgical form.

She would return to Las Cruces hospital and walk into a large facility that specialized in bloodwork. She took a number and waited for her name to be called. Then she would enter one of several smaller rooms, standing on line until a technician drew her blood. It was like waiting for communion - only it was her body and her blood.

Although "HIV" was marked clearly on her file, some technicians did not wear gloves while drawing her blood.

"Shouldn't you be wearing gloves?" she asked. The technician did not understand.

The hospital workers were much more careful with Mick's blood. She noticed that his files had a red sticker on them. An AIDS alert, she guessed.

It took two weeks for the test results to come back. The waiting was agony. To keep herself sane, Jane played what she called "stupid little games" with herself. She would make these deals with God.

Today, God, if I place the clean glasses right side up on the shelf, rather than upside down, you will keep me healthy.

She made up what she called her "walk chant," a mantra recited to the rhythm of her footsteps:

I am healthy.

I am strong.

God made me healthy.

God made me strong.

She often worked with first-grade children in the American School. She loved the little ones, and the work would keep her mind off her test results. When bad thoughts returned, she would crumple up paper and point the wad toward the wastebasket. "If this goes in," she would tell herself, "I'll be fine." Talk about a pressure shot. If there was any doubt, she'd move closer. She never missed.

Mick would be the one to call the hospital for Jane. He spoke five languages, and his Spanish was excellent. Jane could never understand Mick's nonchalance, as if he knew she couldn't be infected. But then again, it had been so long since they had - what was the expression she heard? - exchanged bodily fluids.

Her fear was real, and it would return in three-month cycles. Relief after a negative result, followed by the demands of maintaining the daily deception and caring for her husband, followed by an anxiety attack, usually at night. She'd wake up coughing. Or with a sore throat. Or with night sweats. Wasn't that a symptom of AIDS? Sometimes, she would just sigh, a long, deep expulsion of breath that would let out all the "bad air."

"Time for another test," she thought.

In the face of her fear, she kept herself busy. Going to the library, learning what she could about AIDS and HIV infection. Cooking macrobiotic foods, so Mick and the children would eat healthily.

She separated Mick's dishes and glasses and eating utensils from the others, and made sure everything was washed to the point of sterilization. The burden fell on her, since the children were still in the dark about their dad's illness.

Mick often suffered from diarrhea. Jane dutifully separated his soiled underwear from the laundry and made sure they were promptly washed.

The bathroom was especially tricky. Jane stored Mick's hand towels, tooth brush and razor in a safe place.

Jane remembers the day that their son David, then a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, came to Bilbao to rejoin the family during his semester break.

Jane walked by the bathroom. The door was opened.

"Hi, mom," said David. He was wearing soccer shorts.

"Hi, sweetie," said Jane.

What she saw next almost made her heart stop. David, his face lathered for a shave, was holding his father's razor to his throat.

The SERIES: This is the third installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 4, The Cruel World


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