"Three Little Words," which appeared in the Times in 1996, told the story of Jane Morse. She and her husband, Mick, seemed like a typical American family: Father, mother, three children . . .
Joy and renewal
David Swett steals a kiss from Jane after their May wedding in St. Petersburg. Meghan, left, David and Erin Morse, her children from her marriage to Mick, who died of AIDS, share the couple's happiness.
|Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg.
Jane Morse Swett continues her work as an advocate for cancer and AIDS patients at the office of Dr. Jeffrey L. Paonessa in St. Petersburg.
The original 29-part series, "Three Little Words," is available at http://www2.sptimes.com/3words/
Everyone appears to be sweating except Jane. She wears an ivory dress with beads and lace up top and a soft chiffon skirt. She stands beside a handsome man, who seems dazzled by her, in front of a trellis decorated with flowers and balloons. Friends of the family sing and play guitar and flute. The setting isn't perfect. The traffic on Park Street provides background noise, and the humid air is filled not with cherubs but with little bugs.
|Jane Morse Swett and David Swett after their marriage by "Rev. Al" Hall, the chaplain of the Catholic hospital where Jane works.
They stand in front of Jane's friend, the "Rev. Al" Hall, the non-denominational chaplain of the Catholic hospital where Jane works. The jocular reverend has a grand open face, like a smiley jack-o'-lantern. The bride and groom exchange vows, laughing more than once during the ceremony. They kiss. The crowd applauds.
What I've wanted most of all in the last few years was to find someone to share things with, to truly love me, to be crazy about me. My Aunt Joan -- my wise, precious auntie -- thought I might be getting a little desperate, that maybe as I approached the big 5-0 (not yet, I've got a few months to go), and as I begin to detect a few little signs of aging, that I'd hook up with the wrong guy.
I did the kinds of things women do to meet guys. I went to church, I hit the gym, I took classes, I traveled, and, hey, I went to bars. And there's where it happened. In Ybor City, where they have all those dance clubs and tattoo parlors and novelty shops and a place called Club Hedo (short for Hedonism).
That's where I met David Swett. My friend Colleen and I were in Ybor as part of a singles group and arrived a bit early at the Club Hedo. At first I was put off by the man and his friend at the end of the bar who seemed to know the barmaid. (David called her by her first name.) But we chatted -- he owned a commercial printing business -- and I got my first sense of the character traits that would, very soon, endear him to me: intelligence, honesty, directness, compassion and a sense of humor.
|The couple become the center of a "love sandwich" on the dance floor. From left: Jolinda Elijache, Amy Timmer and Marcia Williamson.
I didn't know how to tell him about my past. ("Hi. My name is Jane. My husband died of AIDS. Oh, and what's your sign?") But he made it easy. Over the next months we began to share more and more of our lives and experiences. He told me the story of someone close to him who had a crisis of sexual identity. He expressed it in such a sympathetic way. "Well," I said, "now I've got a story for you."
The wedding party poses for photographs while the guests walk across the street to Saffron's restaurant and celebrate the bash of the year. The food is Jamaican and Brazilian, the rum punch is cold and sweet, the music is sultry and soulful, the dancing -- well, some of it is downright dirty. Sweaty bodies lock like herringbone. Jane's son, David, climbs onto the stage and joins the band. "Rock me, baby," he sings, his voice all rum and gravel, "rock me all night long." The girls scream and swoon. Jane and her new hubby seize the dance floor and become the center of a "love sandwich," squeezed in by a long line of beautiful women.
Jane tosses her bird-of-paradise bouquet toward her friend Colleen, but it is intercepted by Jane's daughter Meghan, who hands it to Colleen, but by the look on her face, Colleen thinks that this doesn't count, that the magic now won't work.
David Swett removes his bride's garter -- with his teeth. Consider it the public beginning of the honeymoon, which will take them to Hawaii and then to Fiji. A recent movie says the Fiji Islands are so far away that you can't go any farther without heading home again. It is a gorgeous paradise of palm trees, cottages, blue water and soft sand. In one photo, they wear honeymoon garlands and headdresses of orchids and hibiscus.
At first, I didn't want my fiance to read "Three Little Words." He knew about the newspaper stories, and I told him all about what happened to me, but a little voice told me it would be better for both of us, and for our relationship, if he got to know the flesh-and-blood me before he got to know the story me. Several weeks after we were engaged, he read it and gave it to his family to read, and there were tears and new understandings. It brought us all closer together.
It was a strange experience being the subject of a story, knowing that people were seeing us so exposed and vulnerable. I was not a political figure or a person caught up in a scandal. I was a woman who made a decision to sacrifice my privacy -- and my family's -- hoping something good would come out of it for others. I could never have anticipated the consequences.
Jane and her friend Karen head to Tyrone Square Mall to get their nails done. Both work in cancer clinics and it has been another challenging week, so it's time for a little girl talk and pampering. Jane picks out a favorite color, Rio Red, and winds up sitting under a nail dryer across from another patron. The woman gives Jane a startled look, as if she had met someone from high school. "Jane?" she says. "Jane Morse?" She wants to talk about the story.
So do hundreds of others from all walks of life and all around the world.
In 1997 Jane is on a ski vacation with her fiance. They are in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in a line waiting to get fitted for skis. A woman keeps staring at Jane. "You look so familiar," she says. It turns out she is from Tampa and reads the St. Petersburg Times.
The phone calls to Jane begin before the series is more than three days old. A woman calls to say she does not know where to turn. Her husband has contracted AIDS and has infected her and now wants a divorce. The woman believes she will be left totally alone, with no family, no money, no insurance.
A day later another woman calls. After Jane hears her story, she invites her to visit the Morse family. She is 24 years old, born the same day as Jane's son, David. Jane meets a striking young woman, like a figure from an old French painting, with a sadness in her eyes that shoots out like a ray. Her father is dying of AIDS, and the daughter must help care for him, a process that lasts years until his death.
Jane sees in the young woman the same anxieties that she once felt. She surrounds the young woman with support and encouragement, assuring her that she can get through this. Jane introduces her to her own friends and invites her to become part of Jane's larger family, sharing holidays and special occasions.
The young woman comes to see in Jane a person who can play many roles for someone in need, that Jane can be mother, girlfriend, caregiver, matchmaker and counselor all at the same time. That she should read Jane's story, says the young woman, and become Jane's friend is an act of God's grace.
If AIDS can affect my family, it can affect anyone. Think about my son, David. It would be hard for any son to watch his father die of AIDS. I know he felt hurt and confused, but these feelings never detracted from his deep love for his dad.
AIDS is not an abstraction for David, something that happens only to gay men or drug users or people who live far away. One day I came across a school journal entry David had written and left in his room. He says it's okay to share it with you. Like his mother and father, David wrote, he knew what it meant to sweat the results of an AIDS test.
For when David was 16, his friends bought him a birthday present: the services of a Brazilian prostitute. This rite of passage was common in Rio -- and many other places in the world. Moral issues aside, the health dangers of such a practice should be obvious.
Contrary to what people think, AIDS is not easy to get. It takes, in most cases, an act of the will to engage in certain behaviors, such as unprotected sex or the sharing of needles. You don't have to be promiscuous, either. You can die from one bad choice.
As David became educated about AIDS through the illness and death of his dad, he realized that he too was at risk. Thank God his test was negative.
It is late March 1996, three weeks after the newspaper series has ended. About 300 people stream into a large hall at the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg. Jane wears a red suit, not only because it's her favorite color but because AIDS activists have adopted it as their own. She wears a gold pendant shaped like South America, with an amethyst marking Rio de Janeiro, the city where her daughter Meghan was born.
Jane can barely speak, her voice is so shaky and her body so tense. But, minute by minute, she seems to draw strength from others in the room: her family and friends, many people with HIV or AIDS, their families and loved ones, and their caregivers.
Charles Hall is there, the man who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and would carry on, until his death, a crusade against the state of Florida for the right to die. A woman is there whose husband has infected her with HIV, but such is his denial that he blames it on her. Another woman says, privately, she is sure she would be fired from her job at a school if it ever came out that her son died of AIDS. A young man, in the front row, is in the latter stages of the disease. It has taken his sight. He says, Jane thinks, the sweetest thing, that although he could not see her with his eyes, he could hear her and see her with his heart.
He and several others are patients of Dr. Robert Wallace, who has dedicated himself to the care and nurturing of AIDS patients. Jane thinks he is wonderful, and wanted him to sit on the dais with her. That night, with both calmness and passion, he answers questions about AIDS testing, confidentiality, promising treatments, the continuing stigma and public prejudice about AIDS.
This will be the first of many public appearances by Jane over the next two years. She usually begins them the same way: "My journey began in Spain, where my husband told me he had AIDS. I was scared to death. I was afraid that I might get it, and that my three children might get it."
She talks directly about those who read her story and thought ill of her. She reads from letters that call her naive, self-absorbed, petty, vindictive, superficial, cold and clueless. A nice man at a church meeting asks why she couldn't find more pity and forgiveness in her heart for Mick.
She says she did what she could to make sure Mick was cared for, to raise her children and become the breadwinner. She regrets that Mick could not reveal his true self to his family and friends, that his life was cut short, that he is not around to see how well his children are doing: David, the computer expert; Meghan, fluent in three languages; and Erin, the student-athlete.
When these events are over, Jane is inevitably surrounded by well-wishers, people who admire her spunk or think she has spoken for them. They shake her hand, they hug her, they share a laugh or a tear.
The best thing that happened to me from the series is that I found my voice. I traveled the road from victim to survivor to advocate. I've spoken to hospice workers, journalists, church groups and college students. Each time I do it, my knees shake a little less and my voice sounds a bit stronger. I feel I have something to say.
I want to become even more involved as an advocate for cancer and AIDS patients and their families. I want to work with hospice and the other support groups that help entire families when a member of that family is struggling through a difficult illness.
Some friends and family members and former colleagues still say they can't believe that my husband, Mick, was gay. I know how they feel. I slept with the man for more than 20 years and gave birth to our three children. But I'm not the first woman to marry a gay man, and I won't be the last.
I am now at peace with all this, of where I am and who Mick was. People dying of cancer or AIDS come into our office every day. They are rich and poor, old and young, black and white, straight and gay, and come from all walks of life. AIDS has touched the lives of so many people -- our relatives, our neighbors, our friends. If it has not touched you yet, it will.
AIDS took the life of my husband. That makes me sad, not ashamed. My children remember their dad not as a victim of a disease but as a devoted father, a friend, a scholar and a dedicated teacher. May they keep that memory for the rest of their lives.
As for me, I'm ready to make some new memories. I look ahead to years of companionship and conversation with my new husband, sharing with him the exciting things that lie ahead for us and for my children: graduations, weddings, and who knows, maybe even some grandchildren along the way.