Three Little


Epilogue: The Dance

The dance

Times photo - JOANNA B. PINNEO

Jane gets a lift on the dance floor from her son David. The occasion was a Christmas party in Jane's honor at the home of Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa.

Special To The Times

The doctor's annual Christmas party would have a bittersweet feel in 1995: Jane Morse would soon be leaving her job as office gatekeeper.

She had taken night courses in paralegal work and was hired by two young lawyers to help build a practice. It meant new adventure and more money. It also meant moving on from work with cancer and AIDS patients.

She had cherished her time with them. It felt so good, through all the tears, to be a rock for those facing their own mortality. The members of the support group Jane founded wished her well with hugs and laughter. But there was also worry. "Who is going to return our phone calls and answer our questions now?" asked a woman, recovering from breast cancer. Jane embraced and reassured her.

"What can I do to keep you here," Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa had asked her.

"Marry me," she said. It was a joke.

The young doctor paid tribute to Jane at his Christmas party. He went all out, hosting the festivities at his palatial white house on the bay. A misty rain and distant thunder could not dampen the holiday spirits.

People danced all night to a country-rock band called Stalled on the Tracks.

Jane laughed when she heard the name. It reminded her of where she had once been: out of gas, with no means of escape, the train bearing down on her. But things had changed. Now, she said, she felt like the Little Engine That Could.

The lead singer was nine-months pregnant, due any day. She delivered a raucous version of I Feel Lucky.

At age 47, Jane was feeling lucky too. Dressed in a copper sequined top and black skirt, she sparkled in the evening light and danced poolside with the doctor, with the husband of a friend, with her son David.

Many people who watched Jane on the dance floor now knew her story, that her husband Mick had died of AIDS. They also knew that she was about to share her experiences with a much wider audience. Some wondered why.

Jane wrote of her reasons in her journal. She was at peace with her decision. As she had expected, telling the story had released so much of her anger. It was as if she were suffocating in a smoky room and someone had finally thrown open a window.

Jane also thought she had learned some tough lessons, which might enlighten others, especially other women. The AIDS story had relevance, not just to gays or IV drug users, but to everyone. If her husband, the father of her three children, could get it -- anyone's husband could.

Jane had to learn, as a woman enslaved by her family's secrets, the meaning of determination, independence and resourcefulness.

"Suicide was a fleeting thought," she writes, "very fleeting -- but I do recall thinking one evening -- why get up in the morning and start this struggle again? But I love life -- I love my children and I have an intense desire to experience all there is. I want someone someday to love me."

The party heated up. Jane's son David, now 24, grabbed the mike. With the band in full groove, David belted out Shout by the Isley Brothers. About a dozen guests formed a conga line and snaked across the deck and around the pool. Palm trees swayed in a stiff breeze. It was not Carnival, but have another drink, squint your eyes, and you might have been in Rio.

The band got mellow. The keyboard player, his voice lilting, sang The Dance by Garth Brooks, a powerful ballad about how suffering is necessary to live life to the fullest.

Three women stood alone on the dance floor. It was Jane and two of her closest friends, Karen Sweeney and Carol Ann Bryant. The three held each other close. They were hugging, crying, and swaying all at once. They sent off an amazing energy, like vibrating honeybees.

This was familiar territory for Jane: at the center of a tight circle of women.

She had strong, dependable men in her life: her son David, her uncle Ralph. She loved men, shone in their company, and longed for a soul mate. Yet, in her most trying moments, she found her greatest comfort in the arms of supportive women.

She remembered falling into the arms of the young woman doctor who reported the results of her first AIDS test in Spain. She remembered the embrace of her old friend Jackie Timmer, the first one she told of Mick's illness. She remembered breaking down in Carol Ann's arms, when she didn't think she could go on another day. And how comforting were the arms of Aunt Joan after Jane's final AIDS test.

Here, again, tears streaming down their faces on this misty December evening, her friends held her up. And she held them up, too. Maybe this was Jane's greatest strength. She knew how to be a friend.

Jane woke up too early the next morning, the excitement of the party still ringing in her head. Erin, now 17, climbed into bed with her mom. It was a sweet, childlike gesture. Meghan, now 19, couldn't resist. She climbed in too. A slumber party.

"How are my precious little darlings this morning?" said Meghan, imitating Jane.

It was a tender moment in a cozy apartment, decorated to the brim for Christmas. On her own, Jane had created this place for them, surrounding them with knickknacks from Spain and Brazil. High on a hutch, a picture of Christ the Redeemer watched over them.

There were photos everywhere, reminders of friends and family from all over the world. But none of Mick. The only shrines to him burned in the hearts and memories of the children.

Approaching Christmas Day, the weather turned colder. Jane found herself taking a brisk walk on St. Pete Beach. It was not far from where Mick's ashes had been scattered. The sunset turned the sky red, her favorite color. She strode against the wind, the blood singing in her veins.

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