The new lost generation
As we scramble to care for thousands of men, women, and children with AIDS, a new problem looms: What will happen to the uninfected children when their parents die? David Handelman reports.
April 1993
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark

Five-year-old Noel (left) and eight-year-old Angel have both lost mothers to AIDS. Recently one foster parent died of the disease, and the second tested HIV-positive.

In January 1991, a few days after her fortieth birthday, Laura Jimenez came home from her job at a greeting-card company to the Bronx projects where she'd lived for almost twenty years. Entering her eighth-floor apartment, she went to the kitchen window and gazed out at the picturesque view of the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges and, in the distance, the Long Island Sound. She slid the window open and, using a screwdriver, began removing the black metal bars that guard against children falling out. The task took her four hours. Then she climbed out on the ledge and sat, pondering whether or not to jump.

Two months earlier, Jimenez had gone to the hospital trying to find out what was wrong with her body. She'd been waking in the middle of the night covered with sweat. Then she started getting her period two or three times a month, with abnormal amounts of blood. Like many mothers, she gave her own health problems low priority; besides, she thought, it was probably just the first stage of menopause.

But when she finally had herself checked, she discovered that she'd contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to AIDS. She'd never known anyone else who had it -or at least who admitted having it. "It was the furthest thing from my mind," Jimenez says today. “I never used drugs in my life, I wasn't gay, so I figured it couldn't touch me."

Because the disease had first taken hold among a gay male population, the warning signs peculiar to women -like Jimenez's abnormal bleeding, as well as others like cervical cancer, repeated vaginal yeast infections, and infections of the fallopian tubes- were only just being identified. But Jimenez's T-cell count  -a reliable indicator of the virus in both sexes- was 190 (normal is 600-1,400), which meant, the doctors told her, that she'd probably been infected for six years. She cried, she screamed, and then, she says, "I thought about my family."

Jimenez, a cute, compact woman who first married at 16, had devoted her life to her three kids: Phillip and Lisa, now in their twenties with kids of their own (and whose abusive father Jimenez left when Lisa was three days old); and Matt, today a sunny-faced 10-year-old. (Matt's father, whom she'd been with for four years, left her when she became pregnant.)

After getting counseling and medication for herself, she took Matt, then eight, to be tested. Much to Jimenez's relief, Matt tested negative. (All babies born to HIV-positive mothers initially test positive for antibodies to the virus, but by 18 months, two-thirds become HIV-negative, having lost their mothers' antibodies.) After talking with a psychiatrist, she decided not to disclose her illness to the boy; she was unsure how he would handle the weighty information and wanted to protect him from the fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the outside world.

Unfortunately, those problems didn't stop at her front door. Her second husband, the only father Matt knew, had also gone for testing and didn't have the virus. Though Jimenez would later trace her infection to the man she'd dated for three years before meeting Matt's father, her husband suspected her of cheating on him. He began calling her whore and slut and refusing to have sex with her; he told her (wrongly) that she would transmit the disease to him on their bed sheets. He started to drink heavily, and their battles grew fierce. When the school psychiatrist reported that Matt had been getting in fights at school because of what was going on at home, Jimenez kicked her husband out. “I felt so alone," she says.

And a few days later, she found herself on the window ledge. The AZT she'd been taking to boost her decreasing immune-cell count was giving her diarrhea and muscle spasms and exacerbating her depression. She stared out at the bridges for a long time, feeling worthless, dirty, no good, and sorry for herself. She thought: Everything has been taken away from me. My life is gone.

Then she thought about Matt. “I was going to be cheating him out of his mother, out of a life," she says today. “I realized, maybe I could live with it.” It took time, but Jimenez picked herself up, joined support groups, found a boyfriend, stabilized her T-cell count, became a speaker for the People with AIDS Coalition, and worked toward the creation of a multiservice center for women withHIV in East Harlem to be called Iris House, in memory of an exprostitute activist who'd died from AIDS.

But Jimenez started hearing and seeing horror stories of another sort. When a mother she'd met who had AIDS became too sick to care for her kids, the state took them away; even when the woman got out of the hospital, she wasn't able to see them. Another young mother Jimenez knew suddenly suffered kidney failure, which turned out to be the last stages of the previously undiagnosed disease; the woman died too soon to make any arrangements for the care of her daughter and son. The children ended up with their grandparents, but three months later, the daughter, 13, hung herself, leaving a note saying that she wanted to be with her mother. The son, 10, unable to get along with his grandmother, moved in with an aunt, his family and his future in shards.

“I've seen all this,” Jimenez says, “and I can't do that to Matt." She knows that no matter how healthy she may feel on any given day, her time is limited; that even though she's refastened the safety bars to the kitchen window as securely as she can, it's impossible to guard against her son becoming a sad new statistic-an AIDS orphan.

Renell Grant, with 12-year-old Phillip, has cared for three foster children with HIV and two orphans.

Epidemics have always created orphans: tuberculosis, influenza, each left children behind. But over the last century, as public health improved and family size decreased, the trend has been toward fewer children needing foster care or institutionalization. In 1920 there were an estimated 750,000 orphans in America; by 1953 the number had dropped to 66,000.

In the last two decades, however, this trend has started to reverse: the result of teenage pregnancy, widespread drug abuse, homelessness, and now AIDS. Although the initial impact of AIDS in the United States was not on families, the future could have been foretold by looking at Africa, where transmission has always been primarily heterosexual. In Uganda, for instance, by 1991, an estimated 600,000 to 1.2 million children had been orphaned by the disease.

In 1989 the New York City AIDS Task Force -a group of doctors, social workers, and planners from various public and private agencies- began meeting to coordinate ways to contain the spreading epidemic. Everyone had noticed the increasing number of cases among women: AIDS had in fact become the city's leading cause of death among women between 15 and 44. (Women today comprise more than 10 percent of the nation's reported cases and 16 percent in New York City.) During the discussion, someone commented, "We'll probably have a lot of orphans, too."

The word orphan caught the attention of task-force member Carol Levine, then executive director of the Citizens Commission on AIDS. "My ears said, Now? Orphans in the late twentieth century?” she says. "And I realized -of course.” Levine knew that most women infected with HIV were their children's sole parent; if the fathers weren't dead or dying themselves, they were absent due to drugs, crime, or divorce. America was witnessing the creation of a whole new lost generation: the uninfected orphans of the storm called AIDS.

There was no system in place to deal with the myriad needs of these children. Infected adults and children could (at least theoretically) seek out and qualify for health care, mental-health treatment, public assistance, and other social services. Once foster parents conquered their fears of infection, they might even prefer to take in a child with HIV, whose benefits can be up to $1,280 a month, compared with a healthy child's average of $400. Kids with the virus even received hugs from officials such as Barbara Bush who otherwise did little for AIDS awareness. Uninfected children, by contrast, were, usually isolated and increasingly neglected at home as their moms (and perhaps siblings) grew sicker. By the time they were brought to officials' attention, these children had already experienced the trauma of losing a parent and a home and, if their parents' illness became known, harassment and stigmatization at school and in their neighborhoods.

In response, Levine founded the Orphan Project, and for its first task she commissioned David Michaels, an associate professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York Medical School, to scientifically estimate the number of youths affected. Their findings, published last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were alarming. According to Michaels, by the end of 1992, 24,000 American children and adolescents -59 percent black, 23 percent Hispanic, 18 percent white- had already been orphaned by AIDS. By 1995 that figure will exceed 45,000; by the year 2000, more than 80,000. In New York City alone, where there are 49,000 children currently in foster care -nearly half of the national total- there are already nearly 10,000 AIDS orphans, and that number will triple by the end of the decade.

These numbers don't begin to reveal the hard truths of the lives affected. A report on healthy adolescents in families affected by AIDS by Dr. Barbara Draimin of the New York City Human Resources Administration's Division of AIDS Services (DAS) revealed "loss and instability to a degree usually associated with war-torn nations."

Consider the case of five-year-old Noel. He and his brother, Joel, one year older, were both born HIV-positive and abandoned in New York City's Metropolitan Hospital. In 1988, when Noel was 10 months old, he and his brother were taken in by a gay male couple, John Glover and Louis Arce, who had been together for more than a dozen years and who would soon begin the adoption process for another HIV-positive three-year-old AIDS orphan named Angel.

Noel is no longer HIV-positive; Joel still is. The boys' mother died last year. In the meantime, Glover suddenly got sick and died, and Arce tested positive. Now Arce has been forced to make arrangements for his brother and sister-in-law to take whichever children survive him. So by the time Noel is an adult, AIDS will most likely have taken his mother (and probably father, whereabouts unknown), his adoptive parents, his adopted brother, and his only biological brother. In his therapy, Noel has taken to drawing pictures of gravestones and playing with a Barbie doll, who he says is "mean and awful.” Right after his mother's funeral, which he didn't attend, he described it in detail: He said she was wearing a lavender dress in a beautiful coffin covered with sparkles.

Dr. Jennifer Havens, a child psychiatrist at New York City's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, recently set up a Special Needs Clinic for disintegrating families like Noel's. "In many of these families, there is already chaos before the death," says Havens. "They're in trouble; HIV just pushes them one step further." She and her staff treat uninfected teenagers who have suddenly been forced into the role of parent; kids who are HIV-positive; families who are trying to stay together after the death of a parent; children who are coping with the loss of a sibling to HIV. Their job is complicated by the stigma attached to AIDS. "Kids are told not to tell anyone,” says Havens, "so often they don't even talk to us at first."

Barbara Draimin's study found a similar pattern of trauma and isolation. Many of the adolescents were acting out and suffering scholastic problems. Draimin found that many of the children had no best friend; of the rest, not a single child had told the best friend about having a parent with AIDS -even in one case where the best friend's parent was also sick with the disease. More than half of the families did not have a viable custody plan in place for the kids.

In New York City, where the disease has hit hardest, pilot programs are finally being launched to get help for families before parents die. The Informed School Project aims to bend the rules of confidentiality by letting certain teachers, principals, and counselors know about a parent or child's illness in order to provide more support for the child. And the Child Welfare Administration (CWA), which previously moved children into foster care only when parents were abusive, neglectful, or deceased -and gave parents no say in their children's futures- recently started an Early Permanency Planning Project. Dying parents can now meet with and approve of foster parents and, under the provisions of a New York State law passed last July, share guardianship without giving up all parental rights. (In most states, terminally ill parents have only two options: to write a will and hope that after they die, the family court approves of their choice, or to assign guardianship before death, giving up all rights to the child.)

But none of these programs comes close to meeting the need. CWA commissioner Robert Little warns, "If we said, 'Come one, come all,' we'd be overwhelmed." And typically, when a parent dies, the Division of AIDS Services considers the case closed, meaning all of its particulars have to be learned by new caseworkers.

In the context of this exploding crisis, Laura and Matt Jimenez's story is actually one of the less horrific. Laura is dedicated, informed, and drug-free; she has pursued financial aid from DAS and is receiving support; she's been taking part in the Manhattan borough president's monthly discussion group for women with AIDS; she found a lawyer through the Upper Manhattan Task Force on AIDS who helped her write a will; she sees a therapist and a doctor through Mount Sinai's Infectious Diseases clinic; and her children are healthy and supportive. With luck and proper treatment, she may be able to care for Matt for several more years.

"Our study tells us how many of these kids there will be," says Carol Levine. "The next question is, What happens to them? Our anecdotal evidence is that they go to their grandmother's or aunt's or into a previous foster-care home, but there hasn't been any long-term study to see if those situations can be sustained. And my guess is that a lot of older teens, who are harder to place, end up on the streets, in shelters, and in trouble. So the real answer is, we don't know."

Elizabeth Alvarado and her sons: "I don't know what the future holds for them."

Both Raymond, four, and his half-sister Kioney, five, have ended up in the bustling four-bedroom apartment of Raymond's grandmother, Renell Grant, located in the Bronx projects near Yankee Stadium, where she's lived for 22 years. Also here is Phillip, a 12-year-old orphan with AIDS, and so were Damein and Rasheen, who came to live with Grant when they were five months and three years old, and who both died of AIDS within a few months of each other in 1990, at ages six and nine. Grant, a five-foot-tall 43-year-old who radiates solidity, has had various jobs -as a school crossing guard, as a clerk/typist at Metropolitan Life Insurance, as an auxiliary police officer- and has begun to study nursing, but for now she's devoting herself to this lost generation.

Grant herself went into foster care at age seven. At 17 she married a much older man and had her first two of four children. She later fought for and was awarded custody of her five younger siblings. "I have a heart for children,” she says, and it's clear from the way her brood takes to and obeys her that she's a natural.

In 1985, through her former foster agency, Grant took in Phillip, then five, who'd been living in Kings County hospital since he was born. Nobody wanted Phillip; HIV-positive, he already had respiratory problems and sinusitis. “I had to carry him out, because he was terrified,” recalls Grant. "He'd never had that warm, nurturing setting that a child needs.” After Damein and Rasheen arrived, the crack dealers in the building found out about all of Grant's AIDS babies and repeatedly hassled and threatened her. "In the beginning," she says, "even my own kids didn't understand."

Then on September 3, 1988, her natural and adopted families converged. She got a call from Columbia-Presbyterian hospital: Her son's ex-girlfriend, a drug user, was giving birth to his baby, and she'd given the doctors Grant's phone number. (The son, who'd fallen in with the building's drug crowd, was in jail at the time for dealing.) Grant went to the delivery room, taking the mother a nightgown and slippers. "The woman was stoned out of her mind," she says. Grant witnessed her grandson Raymond being born and testing positive for cocaine and HIV. Child Welfare was notified.

The police told Grant that the mother had abandoned a one-year-old daughter (fathered by a different man) back in her apartment, a crack den. She rushed over. "It was a pigsty; there were no lights; people were smoking in the dark -all you could see was the flames." The girl, Kioney, was wearing Pampers and a rag. Malnourished and autistic, she also had an inner-ear infection, a rash, and showed signs of abuse.

Grant took Kioney and Raymond in as foster kids; both of them are now HIV-negative. As a foster parent Grant qualifies for $1,200 a month in government support payments for Phillip and another $1,200 for Kioney; for Raymond, healthy and bright for his age, she gets $300. Grant shuttles them in cabs to doctors' appointments and family counseling at the Rose Kennedy Center in the Bronx and to Columbia-Presbyterian's Special Needs Clinic.

When I visit, Grant, who's wearing a T-shirt from the AIDS Quilt project, is also baby-sitting four grandchildren, all under the age of five. The building's hallways are filled with anarchic graffiti, but her apartment, while toy cluttered, is clean and bright. There's a color TV in every bedroom. The kids sit, wearing long johns in various colors, watching Phillip play Super Nintendo. As soon as they see my notepad, they grab my pen and make me do tracings of their tiny hands.

Quiana Vidal, 15, with her mother, Lillian: "When people ask me," says Quiana, "I say she has a heart condition, or cancer. I can't really trust anybody."

Kioney, whose autism has rendered her hyperactive and nonverbal, runs back and forth in the limited space, yelling and staring at herself in mirrors. Raymond sits quietly and makes drawings; when Whitney Houston's “I Will Always Love You” comes on the radio, he absently lip-syncs the whole thing.

"We don't know where their mother is,” Grant says. "She's probably dead.” Grant wants to legally adopt Kioney, but hopes that her son, now out of jail, working in construction, and living with a woman and new child, may soon have a stable enough existence to take Raymond in.

Phillip wanders in and out of the room. He's small for his age and has been getting into fights at school. Grant disclosed his HIV status only to the assistant principal, but when Phillip recently bit another child who'd been choking him, school officials panicked, and Phillip's illness became common knowledge. Now Grant needs to find him another school. Asked what he remembers about his adopted brother Rasheen's death, Phillip says, "The nurse called, we told Mommy. We all went to the funeral. The next funeral, I didn't go. I was scared, I got bad dreams." Grant adds, “He drew pictures of himself in a coffin, covered himself with black, went to sleep with his toy pistol to guard himself."

Laura Jimenez, with her 10-year-old son, Matt: "I want him to remember his mother bringing him happiness."

She inserts a tape in the VCR that was made on December 18, 1990, when the whole family went to Montefiore Medical Center to visit Damein, who would die two weeks later. When the tape starts playing, all the kids stop running around, drawing, and playing. Unasked, they sit themselves quietly in front of the TV. Phillip stands uneasily in the back of the room.

On the screen, Grant is pushing Damein around in a wheelchair; the five year-old's face is mostly obscured by an oxygen mask. Phillip silently stares at the shadowy figure. Raymond goes up to the screen and kisses it. When the video ends, one of the children cries, “I wanna stay there, I wanna go in there. I want you to take me there!"
Grant's voice is patient but firm. "You can't do that. That's then, this is now. This is reality."

"Hey little kung-fu warriors, calm down!" pleads Lockhart McKelvy to the noisemakers in the hall outside his office at Beth Israel hospital, on the border of New York's Lower East Side. The bearded 35-year-old social worker shuts the door and resumes discussing his work with children from families with HIV. They're mostly Latinos from the neighborhood, but also from the Bronx and Harlem; one is a 13-year-old from a white family in Westchester whose father has just come out of the closet.

McKelvy's work is part of the recent interagency response to the crisis; children are referred here for counseling when their parents end up in hospital AIDS wards. He says it's important to get the kids to identify positive things about their parents. "You try to get them back where they were before their loss, not make any major character changes. Kids can get stuck developmentally."

On the wall of McKelvy's office is artwork done by his younger patients in play therapy: In one drawing of Captain America by a boy whose cousin died of AIDS, the superhero's teeth are clenched with rage. "For a lot of these kids, language is not a big part of their lives," ' says McKelvy. "The families hit, throw, scream; the TV blares. I try to put into words this anger, rage, sorrow. Girls are more apt to use words and be depressed; boys are more apt to act out."

Sometimes when the words do come out, they're alarming. He once asked a group of adolescents what they thought about the origin of AIDS. "Almost all of them believe the government had something to do with it, maybe even created it,"  McKelvy says. “I grew up with the idea that government is there to take care of us; they're growing up with the idea that government is not to be trusted, at all.”

McKelvy is also dismayed by the lack of support for these kids in school. "Many teachers are still frightened by the disease. Often there are only one or two guidance counselors for several schools. The principal of a local junior high told me that out of his 625 kids, 500 knew somebody with AIDS. I mean, we're looking at a war! Between violence, jail, and AIDS, these kids are losing adults left and right.

"We don't know what will work for them; they're gonna be handicapped for the rest of their lives. How do you instill the life force? The will to be a productive person? We can't give up on them -therapy works. There should be more of us."

The strain of AIDS on families is perhaps most readily apparent in teenagers like Eugene, 18, and Mercury, 17. Their mother, Vivian, a woman who'd never used drugs, found out she had the virus in 1988 when her two-year-old son Sha-Ron tested positive during a regular checkup. A daughter born later that year died before her first birthday. When I spoke with Vivian on the phone, Sha-Ron, six, was bedridden, his T-cell count down to 36.

Eugene and Mercury are both healthy. She says she told them about her illness two years ago; Mercury wanted to know, "Is it contagious?” Eugene, she says, "didn't take it that bad.” But their grades have fallen below average -at 18, Eugene is still a junior in high school- and they get into a lot of fights.

She grants me permission to interview her sons. I phone Mercury, who tells me, "I'm trying to watch her, make sure she eats right, takes care of herself” -acting like the parent. Eugene seems less understanding. "The doctor says if she dies it wouldn't be for like three or four years," he says. "My mom don't seem sick to me. She don't do much, the way I see it. She makes me walk her dog, and if I don't do it, she punishes me. Somehow I don't believe her, because she still acts the way she usually acts."

I ask him what he knows about his sister's death: "She couldn't breathe the air around our apartment building where we used to live.” I ask him when he found out that Sha-Ron had HIV. "This is the first time I'm hearing that, for sure," he says. "Does that mean Sha-Ron can get AIDS?"

A reporter's nightmare: It was not my place to give him this information. After advising him to talk with his mother, I call a psychologist who knows the family. "Oh, Eugene definitely knows," she says. "He told us the same thing two years ago when we interviewed the family. He's in a serious state of denial. There's a lot of anger there." (Sha-Ron died shortly after this conversation, on January 16, 1993.)

It makes sense that young people like Eugene would not want to think about what their futures might hold. Teenagers are the least likely to be adopted when a parent dies. If relatives don't want them, their best hope is a group home; many teenagers simply disappear onto the streets.

But Quiana Vidal, a 15-year-old Queens resident, has responded to her situation with a fierce resolve. Her mother, Lillian, is a 35-year-old former drug user who told Quiana of her infection shortly after her diagnosis seven years ago. At first Quiana rebelled, playing hooky and smoking, until her mother told her it would only make her sicker. Now, her mother says, "She's doing wonderful."

Well, in some ways. "When I think about my mom, I get headaches,” Quiana says. "Sometimes I can't do my homework. I don't sleep too well, I have circles under my eyes, a lot of stress. I cry sometimes at home, and if my mom catches me, she tells me it's better for her to die, because she'll be in peace, she won't suffer any more. Sometimes I think my mother must be terrified and that makes me scared."

Quiana has been left back in school twice because of the time she's spent helping her mother, shuttling back and forth to her grandmother's when her mom goes in the hospital, and changing apartments. The only person she has discussed AIDS with is her school psychologist; she'd once seen her mother tell a man whose response was to run to the bathroom and throw up. "Now when people ask me,” says Quiana, “I say she has a heart condition or cancer. I can't really trust anybody.” Quiana doesn't have any close friends in school. "They all want you to cut classes, smoke, take acid," she says. "I'm afraid that most of them are sick, because they shoot drugs, and sex is very popular, too."

But not with her -she's still a virgin, and after one experience with pot, she's sworn off drugs. "Whenever I have sex, I'm gonna do it wisely," she says. "After I'm married. And I want to become a lawyer. I want to do special things for kids, get them off the streets, and get the bad people off the streets who are selling these drugs. I want to make my mother proud of me."

Lillian has planned that after her death, her mother will care for Quiana in Manhattan. If that doesn't work out, she'll go to her father and his new family in Florida. He left when Quiana was three, but she's spent the past few summers with him.

If people ask about her mother, Quiana says, "I'll just say, 'She's passed.' It's not much to say. I want to live for myself."

In his inaugural address, President Clinton asserted that "but for fate we, the fortunate and the unfortunate, might have been each other.” This is often forgotten when it comes to AIDS, which still carries the stigma of otherness. In the prevailing view, adults who contract HIV through sex or drug use are seen as somehow guilty and deserving of punishment; only children and those infected through transfusions are deemed worthy of our compassion. Mothers with AIDS who do make it into the media, asking, "What will I do with my baby?" are typically white and of "unsoiled" backgrounds. I, too, made sure to find a woman like Laura Jimenez, whose serial monogamy could not be held against her.

With heterosexual transmission on the rise, cases like Jimenez's will become more common. But for now, women like Lillian Vidal, impoverished IV-drug users for whom a positive HIV test was a wakeup call, are far more typical. These women have struggled against incredible odds to get clean, motivated solely by a wish to have a say in their children's futures. How will we as a society deal with these women and children?

"People want to block drug users out," says Elizabeth Alvarado, a dark-haired, slight 27-year-old who grew up in Spanish Harlem and recently completed a 20-month drug-treatment program that took her 10 weeks to get into. "They don't want to see us at all. We need more help.” She has two children, ages seven and five, currently being cared for by her mother; she's too sick to take them on full-time but sees them on weekends. "When I think about their futures, I get really emotional,” she says, her eyes welling with tears, "because I don't know what the future holds for them. The last time Junior visited, he didn't want to leave. I told him, 'Mommy's sick, she needs some rest.' And he said, 'Mommy, I'll take care of you! I love you!' That broke my heart."

Last year, Laura Jimenez made out her will. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done,” she says. "I've been through two divorces-those were a breeze in comparison. To see what you want done with your child after you pass on, that really screwed me up emotionally.”

She stipulated that Matt's natural father not have any kind of custody, because "it wouldn't be good for Matt.” She assigned guardianship to her older sister Carmella, who's in her fifties and financially stable. But Jimenez also is hoping that her daughter, Lisa, will be able to finish school (she dropped out after a year of college when she had her baby), get a job, and qualify to be Matt's caretaker.

Jimenez hasn't told Matt yet -not about his future guardianship, about her illness, nor about her likely impending death. "The psychiatrist asks me if it's necessary to tell him,” she says, “and I say no. People are vicious enough. I want to protect him. His father walked out on him, another man hurt him emotionally. I want to wait until I get sick; I don't want to bring him unnecessary pain or fear. He's a happy child, and I want to bring him happiness. I want him to remember his mother bringing him happiness."

Jimenez walks me over to Matt's room, which is painted deep blue and plastered with Mickey Mouseabilia. (She hopes to save up enough for the two of them to go to Disney World: “I want to dance with Goofy!” she says.) She looks fondly at the cartoon characters. "Next year he's gonna want naked girls, right?” she says. Matt wrinkles his nose in confusion and distaste.

But Matt's a sharp kid. And it seems likely that he's figured out his mother's situation without being told. For his class's current-events discussion one week, he clipped a New York Times article about Carol Levine and the Orphan Project. He told his mother he found it a "very sad story." And after he saw Jimenez cry during a song in church, he asked her, "Did the devil create AIDS?'' It's clear that, despite all her determination and fact-facing, Jimenez is not without her own bit of denial; she has a lot riding on the hope that Matt lives untainted by the Big Secret.

"People gotta open their eyes and stop this stigma,” she says. "It's not a gay disease, a prostitute's disease, a junkie's disease. It has no morals, no discrimination. It attacks a person and sucks the life out of them."

As for herself, Jimenez says, "If I can see Matt reach 18, enjoy my grandchildren another eight years, I'll be satisfied with that. I was a hardworking woman, did what I had to for my children, tried to raise them the best way I knew how. I'd like to be remembered as a good person. I'm not giving up yet." .