When AIDS Come Home, Part I

Tom Fox looking in the mirror at his home, shocked by the amount of hair he is losing, resulting from chemotherapy, Atlanta, Georgia, 1988-1989. Michael Schwarz / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Michael Schwarz

Credit: Michael Schwarz

Tom Fox looking in the mirror at his home, shocked by the amount of hair he is losing, resulting from chemotherapy, Atlanta, Georgia, 1988-1989. Michael Schwarz / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Originally published 25 years ago, here is the complete text of Steve Sternberg’s groundbreaking story of one man’s fight against AIDS.

Tom Fox sat up as best he could and put his arms up for his mother's kiss. They kissed and hugged until he was exhausted and fell back weakly into the hospital bed.

"Are you afraid?" Mrs. Fox asked.

Tom shook his head. No.

"This is horrible, " Mrs. Fox said outside her son's hospital room.

"This is so horrible I can't believe it's happening." Inside, a chaplain was exhorting Tom to "go towards the light."

On this morning in July, family members were gathered in an intensive care hospital room in Eugene, Ore., to help Tom die. He had made the decision to go off the ventilator that forced pure oxygen into his AIDS-ravaged lungs. He knew he would never recover enough to go home to Atlanta, that even force-fed oxygen could not sustain him much longer.

"He's ready to see us all now, " Robert Fox Sr. said to his two other sons, Bob Jr. and John.

It was 8:30 a.m. Tom was lying on his bed, wearing his glasses, his clipboard on his chest. With the oxygen tube threaded through his vocal cords, writing was the only way he could communicate. His skin was sallow.

The nurse was ready to start the morphine that would deaden the pain, minimize the struggle.

"It's going to be all right when they take the tube out of you, " Doris Fox said to her son. "I'm going to give you the biggest hug you've had since you've been here. We're all going to give you hugs.

"I love you all very much, each one of you. You're all my favorite sons, " she said to Bob Jr. "I love you, " she said, hugging her husband.

"We've done very well, haven't we?"

"Three wonderful sons, " Bob Sr. said to his wife. He was crying openly, unashamedly, as the nurse busied herself with disconnecting Tom's heart monitor.

Tom appeared unruffled by the activity, and the unbridled grief. He asked for a cup of ice and, with difficulty, spooned some beneath the hose of the ventilator into his mouth.

Bob Jr. stood by the bed, stroking his brother's hair without looking at him. Eyes rimmed with red, he looked out the window at Spencer's Butte and the forest of fir trees outside the city.

"Do you need some relief, Bob?" Bob Sr. asked his son.

At 8:45, the doctor entered. He looked perfectly composed, powder- blue jacket, dark-blue tie, dark slacks. He unknotted the ribbon of tape holding the ventilator tube securely in Tom's nostril.

"Here we go, Tom, " the doctor said.

He smoothly withdrew the corrugated ventilator tube.

For an instant, it appeared to be a relief. "He may be feeling fine for a while and can even talk to you, " Dr. Matthew Purvis said.

"Handkerchief, " Tom said. He noisily blew his nose.

Doris, who was tearfully watching her son, broke her silence and laughed sympathetically for an instant. Over the past week, Tom had asked repeatedly whether he could blow his nose.

"It must be a relief to blow your nose, " his mother said.

"Beats that long catheter, " the respiratory therapist said.

"It's a big 'un, " Tom said. Then, "I can't breathe."

His chest heaved again and again, but weakly. He had no strength. "I can't breathe, " he said again. It was as he had predicted all along: a fish out of water, no fight left in him.

"He's asleep, " Doris Fox said, leaning over his head talking to him. "He's asleep now. I love you. I love you so much, son.

"Just relax and let it go. Slip on out, Tom, slip on out. We're all with you."

"He's letting go, " his father said through his tears.

Tom gasped for breath. His eyes were open, but he could not speak.

"Good night, Tom, " Bob Jr. said, his head thrown back, his mouth open, his voice a tortured sob.

"It's almost over, " Dr. Purvis said.

"Almost there, Tom, " Doris said.

The figure on the bed was motionless.

"It's over, " she said.

It was 8:55. The dying had taken barely 10 minutes.

One by one, everyone passed by the head of the bed, kissing Tom on the forehead.

"I could never be so brave, " John said.

"It's hard to leave him, " Doris said. "I want to look at his lesions. He wouldn't let us look near the end."

She uncovered his legs. "They're like leather."

"So hard, " his father said. "There'll be a cure someday."

"Not soon enough, " Doris said.

I. Living High - and Then a Diagnosis

Tom Fox died of AIDS on July 11, 1989. He was 33. The week he died, the government tally of AIDS cases reached 100,000. A total of 42,353 were diagnosed before him. By the time of his death, nearly two years later, 59,391 Americans had died of the disease. But the government case registry doesn't include anonymous victims of the epidemic: parents, brothers, sisters, friends.

Tom Fox and the people who cared about him all suffered.

He grew up in a middle-class home in a middle-American city, a baby boomer on the whip end of Woodstock and the sexual revolution. He was part of the mainstream and self-consciously apart from it.

He was a 1970s non-conformist - one with a sense of humor. He was ever ready to play the eccentric: wearing a circus bow tie and tails to read announcements in his 12th-grade English class; becoming "Pierre the French Fry Guy" at the McDonald's where he worked after school; or serving meals in the college cafeteria as the left side of a two-headed woman.

Anything seemed possible in the years after the pill unshackled sex from reproduction. Gays, buoyed by gay liberation demonstrations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, laid claim to the sexual freedom they felt heterosexuals now enjoyed.

When Tom Fox moved to Atlanta in 1979, the city was emerging as a center of gay life in the South. For Tom, Atlanta was a safe place to explore his newly acknowledged homosexuality. AIDS didn't yet have a name. He would not hear of the disease for three years. But the virus was already spreading; people would not know for years they were infected.

Tom was one of them. He fought the disease for 21 months. He couldn't beat it, but something happened during that time that neither his parents, nor his brothers, nor Tom had expected.

Without really noticing, they had grown into a constellation of strangers living concentric lives, coming together as father, mother and sons on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Two years inside the AIDS epidemic taught the Fox family something about Tom and something about one another. Courage comes when it is needed, even to those who thought they had none.

On Monday, Jan. 5, 1987, four months before Tom's 31st birthday, a nurse swabbed his arm with alcohol and guided a needle into his vein.

He hated needles. He winced, jammed his eyes shut and turned his head away.

Without his knowledge or consent, the nurse was about to send his blood to be tested for exposure to the AIDS virus.

It was part of the routine of admission to Psychiatric Institute of Atlanta, the local mental hospital Tom hoped would help him reclaim his life from marijuana, tranquilizers and amphetamines.

He knew he needed help when he found himself preparing to touch a match to the dry needles of his weeks-old Christmas tree. He was trying to use the tree as a wick and set his house on fire.

The act was a fevered gesture as much as anything else - a reckless, futile attempt to tell his housemate and lover, Paul Hunter, that their lifestyle of buying and selling drugs was ruining him.

Paul ignored him, and Tom sought help alone. By chance, he happened by the Psychiatric Institute and, without realizing the doors were locking behind him, wandered inside. He was admitted, and a nurse took his blood.

Two weeks later, the psychiatrist treating Tom for drug dependency stopped by his room and handed him a laboratory form in triplicate. It said Tom was infected with the AIDS virus. After a pause, the psychiatrist asked if he was OK.

"Fine, " he said. He was lying. The psychiatrist departed.

Fear didn't approach what Tom felt as he heard a doctor pronouncing what amounted to a death sentence, one that would not be carried out in an instant but stretched excruciatingly over months, or years.

"Slowly but surely, I started losing it, " Tom said.

He was released from the hospital in another two weeks. He was serious about his newfound sobriety, although his determination to stay alcohol-and drug-free was tinged with desperation. He knew the virus was biding its time in his blood.

He had not experienced any symptoms or infections of AIDS, and the doctors were saying perhaps he would not. It would be another year before doctors would report that the overwhelming majority of people infected by the virus would become ill at some time in their lives.

Tom still believed he had a good chance of beating the virus - if he learned to take care of himself.

The day after his release, two of his best friends organized a celebratory Sunday brunch for Tom and Paul at their house in Grant Park, just a few blocks from where the two men lived.

Usually, they would simply open the liquor cupboard in their large kitchen so that guests could mix their own drinks. On this Sunday, they cleared the cabinet, placing mixers and every bottle of liquor they owned in clear view on a kitchen table - and then roped off that section of the kitchen, as if to keep Tom from trespassing.

His friends viewed it as a joke, an affirmative acknowledgment of Tom's change of life. Tom felt his friends were not taking him seriously, that they were "tempting me and laughing at me."

And there was something more. He worried that if his friends were having trouble accepting his emancipation from a life of drug abuse, they would have even more trouble accepting that the triumph might be short- lived. That at the precise moment Tom Fox had tried to take hold of his life, he found himself at the mercy of a capricious virus.

As the party wore on and the celebrants grew giddier, he slipped away, lay down in an empty bedroom, and cried. And tried to figure out how he had come to this point.

Tom Fox was born on May 21, 1956, in Greenville, S.C., to a father who was a speech and drama teacher with unyielding determination and dreams of shaping the age of television, and a mother who wanted to raise a family.

Tom's eldest brother, Robert Jr., had been born the year before. He would take after his father, immersing himself in sports and fraternity life the way his father immersed himself in his career. He would have another brother soon, John, who would so emulate Tom that he would someday pull strings to live in the college dormitory room his brother had vacated upon graduation.

Even before Tom got to kindergarten, he felt that he was somehow different from his brothers, that he would be different from the way his parents wanted him to be. The first inkling came not long after his father had finished graduate school and the family had moved to Lincoln, Neb., where Bob Fox Sr. had gotten his first job in television.

One evening, Tom was watching a ballet on television with his parents. On the screen, a male dancer gracefully partnered a ballerina, and to Tom's surprise, he found himself watching the male. "I didn't have a word for it, but I knew what it said about me. Of course, at 4 you do not know anyone else who is like that, " he said.

Not long after the AIDS virus began keeping time inside him, he complained that his parents encouraged his homosexuality, implying that they should share responsibility for his plight.

He recalled how at Christmas Bob Jr. got a soldier's camouflage playsuit, cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and a two-holster gunbelt. His brother would dress up as a cowboy and gallop on his rocking horse for hours, sometimes until he fell asleep.

Tom got picture books, puppets, a toy showboat with tiny scripts and scenery, a toy spinning wheel, a kitchen set, a Ken doll.

"That probably had something to do with why I'm the way I am, " he said.

His mother's recollection was strikingly different.

"But that's what you asked us for, " she said.

Growing up, Tom was the jester who entertained his family, but the surface cheer in the household masked a fear of the emotional deep, as if anyone who acknowledged it risked drowning. At home, Tom lived the life of an amiable stranger.

Often he made his most important statements with gestures. Tom didn't tell his parents he was homosexual; he contrived to show them - first by taking a noticeably gay friend to a family Thanksgiving at an uncle's in Greenville and then by inviting his parents to stay with the two of them at their Atlanta apartment. "We had the typical reaction, " his father would say. "We were disappointed in him."

Without exception, Tom's friends remember Robert Fox Sr. as an occasional balding presence sleeping on the sofa, head thrown back, mouth dropped open.

More often than not, he was away from home, busy building a career in educational television. He took little time with his three sons, they said. No heart-to-heart talks; not once while they were growing up did they see their father cry. He entrusted their rearing to his wife.

Doris Fox looked beyond the rifts in her family. She knew how deeply her husband felt and where the love for his sons lay hidden. She knew how her husband would express what he couldn't bring himself to say with a touch, a hug.

But some things, the unpleasant things, often escaped Doris Fox's notice. Tom secretly nicknamed his mother "Daffodil, " to reflect her attraction to the sunnier side of life. Her children did little to change that. They believed she was fragile and often kept things from her. She could be forgiving to a fault.

Once, a friend gave Tom a hit of LSD as a 15th-birthday present and Tom took it, even though his parents had planned a birthday party for him. "I ended up 30 miles out in the country, with some people who were spending five or six days out there, with no way to get back, " he said.

"I wound up getting home at 2 or 3 in the morning, and they were still sitting there waiting."

Tom discovered airplane glue in the sixth grade, when his brother was building model planes. Before long, he started sniffing it. Once, he passed out briefly on the edge of his bed and fell to the floor. His head hit with a horrible thump. In an instant, his mother was at the door demanding to know what was going on.

"You know what it is, Mom, " Tom said. "It's the glue."

"What glue?"

"You know there's the pipe that runs from the glue factory to the glue warehouse?" he said. "It runs through my room and there's a leak in it."

His mother did not ask again.

Later, Doris Fox would say that Tom's decision to admit himself for drug rehabilitation was the biggest shock of her life. Then her youngest son surprised her by admitting he had a drug problem, too.

The disclosures had a profound effect on her - she withdrew for almost a year, staying in her house and going out only when necessary.

She felt her failure to intervene was emblematic of her failure as a mother.

If Tom didn't confide in his family, he did in his friends. The family had moved to Bloomington, Ind., when Tom was 12. He met Elise Nakhnikian when she was a new girl at Bloomington South High School. When the two were 16, Tom asked her to marry him, not because they were in love but because they understood each other so well.

Tom and Elise performed in Edward Albee's "The American Dream"; rigged the light shows for a high school band called "Old Raw Charlie"; and became ringleaders of "Bozos On The Bus, " kids who dressed like hippies and lived on the same school bus route.

In the evenings, they would go to Tom's house, down to his basement room with a waterbed, telephone and rough murals of the band members painted on the walls.

Tom told Elise he was bisexual.

"After that, " she said, "we began comparing notes on boys."

Three years after Tom met Elise, she moved to Greece to spend a few months with a girlfriend and her friend's grandmother. Tom felt a little lost without his dark-haired friend and their irreverent after-midnight telephone calls.

But he had begun working at McDonald's to make money for college, and he had met a girl from a different high school.

Even as they began dating, whispers were circulating.

"Oh, Tom Fox. Isn't he queer?"

"No, " Bonny Barr said, "he's not - he invited me to his prom."

He gave her a white orchid with five pink rosebuds.

Later, Tom went to visit Bonny at Texas Woman's University in Dallas. On a whim, they got their first tattoos in Fort Worth near the stockyards. Tom got his initials - for Thomas Henry Fox - superimposed on his arm, Bonny a yellow rose of Texas tattooed on her hip.

And they spent an evening in a motel room, making love. Tom didn't seem to enjoy it.

Tom met Joe Yusca at Indiana University when Tom was a freshman. Joe was a law student and resident adviser who was in charge of the dorm's camping club. Tom joined and encouraged other friends to join, too.

One weekend it was camping, another weekend canoeing or caving. Tom liked Joe Yusca - too much to suit Joe. They would stay up late and Tom would fall asleep on the floor of Joe's room. But then it went further.

Tom began, unbidden, to clean Joe's room and do his laundry. The attention made Joe uncomfortable and he began to pull away.

It made Tom sad; he thought this, finally, was what he was looking for.

'Heterosexuality for me was just a front, " Tom once said. "When I was young I thought for years that other men were like me - they liked men instead of women - but they had to pretend to like women because that was just how it was. I thought we were all playing the same game, pretending."

After graduation, Bonny moved to Atlanta and began working as a nurse on Crawford Long Hospital's cancer unit. Tom moved to Atlanta in the fall of 1979 at Bonny's invitation.

She had written that Atlanta was a great city for gays. On his first visit, she took Tom to Backstreet, a gay bar on Peachtree Street, which at the time had a mammoth suspended tropical fishtank, whirling lights and music. Men were dancing with other men. Tom and Bonny kicked off their shoes and danced.

His first apartment in Atlanta was near the corner of Piedmont and 13th, in Midtown, for $175 a month. His first job was working as a Halloween temporary at the Atlanta Costume company. His first gay encounter came at Backstreet, his second night in town. He met a man who told Tom he was a maintenance man.

They went to the man's house together, and it didn't seem like a maintenance man's house. It was elegant, with rich draperies and a heavy bed. The man confessed that he was not a maintenance man after all; he was a doctor at Emory University.

By 1981, Tom was involved in a gay clogging group called The Buffalo Chips, more than a dozen clean-cut mustached cowboys who pounded stages in Atlanta, Chicago and at the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair.

In 1983, he met Paul Hunter at the Texas Drilling Co., a now-defunct gay bar in Virginia-Highland, and Paul took Tom home. Tom was attracted to Paul's looks, his sexual abandon and his steady supply of marijuana and methadrine. Paul liked Tom because to Tom "no one was a stranger; he would talk to anybody."

Soon the two men had bought a house together and began selling drugs so they could afford to buy them, Tom said. Then, one day, someone came by to make a purchase and all three men got high - and tumbled into bed.

For four years, this was The Life.

Until Tom concluded it was destroying him and entered Psychiatric Institute of Atlanta.

In the time before AIDS, Tom would not visit the same doctor twice because he was fearful that the doctor would get to know him and nag him to stop taking drugs and take care of himself.

Or, worse, tell him that he had AIDS.

Once he had gotten used to the fact that he was infected, he felt as if some of the dread had dissipated - at least, now he knew. Now he could try to change things. For the first time since he was a child, Tom settled on one doctor who had visited him at the Psychiatric Institute, Ronald White, tall, young, bearded, with a hint of kindliness in his eyes.

Dr. White worked out of an office in Atlanta Hospital, a small building on Juniper Street in Midtown. At the end of August 1987, the doctor asked Tom's permission to test certain white blood cells to monitor the activity of the AIDS virus.

It was an afterthought, an abnormal blood test at the end of an otherwise unremarkable physical exam. The cells are called helper T lymphocytes, and they are primary targets of the AIDS virus.

When the virus is active, T cells begin dying.

Tom got his test results a few days later in a telephone conversation with his doctor that, to Tom, was so low-key - so absolutely normal - it almost seemed surreal.

"I hate to tell you this, " Dr. White said, when Tom called his office for the results. "It came back a little low."

"How low?"

"About 60, " the doctor said.

Tom shuddered. He had already learned the parameters of normal: from 1,000 to 1,500. It was the first in a thousand bits of medical information he would cling to in his effort to stay alive.

"Could it be a mistake?" he asked.

No, the doctor said. He had thought of that and had had the test double-checked.

Distantly, Tom heard the doctor say he would prescribe AZT, the only drug that directly attacks the AIDS virus. It costs $600 to $700 a month.

"We can't leave you like this and do nothing, " Dr. White said.

As Tom put down the receiver he felt as if he had been "sucked into a tunnel" where he was alone and infinitely vulnerable.

He forced himself to think: "Maybe it won't get any worse than this."

Tom had lived for the past eight months wondering what would come first.

Pneumonia? ("One of my friends had pneumonia; he was like a fish out of water, and that's the way he died, gasping for air.")

Kaposi's sarcoma? ("Kenny's face is a purple mask of KS under pancake makeup. I asked him how he looked in the beginning and he said, 'Like you.' ")

Cancer? Dementia? Blindness? Tuberculosis? The diagnosis would come on Oct. 2, 1987, a date that Tom would remember as if it were his second birthday. His ordeal began about a week earlier, with what felt like a cold or the flu, a mild temperature and a slight cough. It began in the evening. Soon, Tom's temperature had reached 103 degrees.

His back ached as if somebody had punched him in the kidneys.

Suddenly frightened, he called Dr. White.

The doctor said Tom's fever was too high to be caused by the AZT he was taking and suggested that Tom come to his office first thing in the morning.

At his office, Dr. White listened to Tom's shallow breathing through a stethoscope. From the sound of it, he believed Tom might have Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, one of the most serious afflictions related to AIDS.

It has killed almost half of U.S. AIDS patients.

Dr. White asked for a chest X-ray.

Tom's lungs, normally clear, looked grainy as an old photographic negative.

"I think we know what this is, " Dr. White said. Tom had moved from the ranks of those infected with the virus to those afflicted by it.

Tom cradled his head in his hands and began to cry.

His temperature soon reached 105 degrees. This would be Tom's first night in the hospital. No one thought to call his parents. No one would.

Tom didn't want to worry them.

Any reprieve is prelude to the next complication. Tom's second crisis began just hours after doctors pulled him through the first. His Saturday began with paroxysms of severe diarrhea.

Tom was too weak to go to the bathroom. Nurses strode in and out of his room to change his bed linen four times - and still he could not control himself. In frustration, he decided to try to make it to the bathroom, 12 steps away.

He planned it in his mind like an expedition. He gingerly eased his legs out of bed, leaned on the pole that held his bag of intravenous antibiotics, and took two or three hesitant steps toward the bathroom.

At that instant, his control failed him again.

"It's so horrible, " Tom said. "I'm standing in the middle of the room with an I.V. pole, crying because I'm such a mess and I'm afraid someone will find me."

Someone did - Dr. White.

"Don't be embarrassed, " the doctor said. "This is what nurses are supposed to do. If it happens again, let them know."

Tom had learned a brutal lesson of AIDS: that the disease, at its most efficient, attacks the blood, then subtly begins chipping away at self-esteem.

Doris Fox and her husband were spending a few days at Hilton Head.

She was trying to telephone Tom, thinking they might visit him in Atlanta on their way back to Bloomington.

But she could not reach her son.

Somehow, with a mother's instinctive knowledge, Doris Fox sensed something was wrong. Since Newsweek had put AIDS on its cover three years before, the disease had seeded her dreams with nightmares.

One day, after reading the article, she had even called Tom to ask whether he and his live-in lover were taking precautions.

He had said they were, and had for two years.

His mother had mailed him the article. He had taken it into the office and shared it with co-workers.

His mother had continued to worry about him. Now, no matter when she called, day after day, Tom never seemed to be home. Every day, Paul, his roommate, answered the phone and made excuses. Or the answering machine was on.

After returning to Bloomington, Mrs. Fox called back. "I said, 'I want to know what is going on. Where's Tom?' " Paul lied once again.

"He told me such a harebrained story - that Tom had gone to some woman's to get the dogs' ears clipped. I knew that had already been done."

With that, Paul panicked.

He called Tom and told him to call his mother.

When Tom reached her, he said he hadn't called earlier because he hadn't wanted to worry her.

"I'm in the hospital, " he said. "I have AIDS."

"AIDS, " Doris Fox said. "I just knew."

John knew the instant he saw his mother sitting on a stool at the kitchen cou nter with her head buried in her hands.

Even walking upstairs to the kitchen from his basement bedroom, he could see she was upset, almost in despair.

"Tom has AIDS, " she said tiredly, her voice heavy with emotion.

His father came in at that moment and muttered something like, "It's terrible" or "Poor Tom, " but did little else.

He did not rush to comfort his wife or son. He did not cry. He did not call his terminally ill son. He betrayed no emotion at all. The contrast between his father and his mother struck John instantly.

"His son had been given a death sentence, and it struck me how unemotional he was, " John said. "All I could think about is how incredibly hard it would be on Mom because she would have to live through this without his support."

Deep down, there was something more - an anger that had simmered for years at this man who traveled 125,000 miles a year, three or four days a week, and devoted more effort to being a breadwinner than a father.

"He always had trouble being there when we needed him, " John said.

"My father. I never knew him."

Tom knew better.

"My father is devastated, " he said, "but he's pretty good at hiding his emotions."

Tom was scheduled to be released on Oct. 19, 1987.

That day was Black Monday - the day of the stock market crash.

His mother flew to Atlanta to be with him when he was discharged from the hospital, knowing he would be weak and need help at home. But there was something she had to do first - conquer her fear of her son.

"When I knew I was going to have to go to Atlanta and face that child with AIDS, I was scared spitless. I talked with my doctor and I talked with my counselor because I knew I was going to have to walk into that room, and I was scared to touch that child, much less kiss him on the lips. And I knew I would have to. It's terrible. It's like my child had the plague or something."

Her doctor told her not to be ridiculous - that she was perfectly safe even kissing her son.

But that did not mean there was nothing to worry about.

An ominous shadow had appeared on a routine predischarge X-ray of Tom's lungs. "A tumor, " Dr. White decided.

After administering local anesthetics, he pierced Tom's back with a long needle to drain some fluid from around one lung for testing. But the needle point pierced the lung itself and the lung collapsed. To reinflate it, doctors inserted a thick tube in Tom's chest. "It looks like a fishtank hose, " Tom said.

The crisis was not over.

Tom's lungs stopped for the second time, but this time he was peculiarly conscious of what was happening to him as the doctors worked around his body. He became aware that half the room seemed bathed in white light and gazed enthralled at the glow.

He felt suddenly weightless and contemplated drifting off into the brightness. But he had a sense that drifting off meant giving up.

Not just yet, he decided.

A noon deadline had passed and the telephones were momentarily silent, giving Tom Fox a break from the drudgery of selling classified advertisements over the telephone. One week ago, Tom had been discharged from Atlanta Hospital, still weak from his first episode of Pneumocystis carinii, and now he was back at his desk at The Atlanta Journal- Constitution.

He was wearing the lightweight plastic headphones of a telephone operator and sitting at the rounded desk and computer pod he shared with four other classified salespeople.

He had become a PWA, a "person with AIDS."

Kathy Bell, 28, who had sat next to Tom for three of his eight years at the paper, was doing something she never thought she'd do. Talk with someone who had AIDS. Sit next to someone with AIDS. Touch someone with AIDS, and without a qualm, although she conceded she washed her hands a little more often for hygiene's sake.

"I'll be dead by December 1988, " Tom told her matter-of-factly, not long after his diagnosis. "The average PWA lives 14 months, and December will be 14 for me."

"Some people with AIDS live a lot longer than 14 months, " Kathy said. "You shouldn't even be talking like that."

Tom said death from AIDS was no stranger to him - he had even begun scribbling a list of friends who had died of AIDS on the back of the program for a friend's memorial service.

He kept the list under the keyboard of his computer at the office and would take it out each time he had a new name to add. He took it out often.

He called it his list of "PWDs."

"People who're dead."

Tom's death still seemed too far off to worry about; he had more pressing concerns. His life had changed. For people with AIDS, diagnosis can be a secular milestone as profound as being born again. But the immediate concerns are temporal. Staying sane. Eating well. Making sure the medical claims are in order. Staving off the next infection. Finding the people who will stick by you.

Two days before Tom was discharged from the hospital, Paul had told him that he was "severing" their four-year relationship because he wanted nothing to do with someone who had AIDS.

The two men stayed together mostly because neither could afford to take over the mortgage of their Grant Park house. But Tom had his own reasons for holding on to the house. "I must admit I have hopes that one day he might support me in my trying times, " Tom confided at work to Kathy.

Tom's family also was having difficulty accepting his diagnosis, he said. One day, out of the blue, his mother - terribly distressed - called to tell Tom that his favorite uncle had barred Tom from the family's annual Easter reunion at the uncle's house in Greenville.

Tom spent the holiday at the Alabama home of a friend from Atlanta who also had AIDS. The friend's mother, Patsy Ruth, remembers Tom's bitterness at being excluded from his extended family.

"Well, Patsy Ruth, " he told her, "I thought I'd come visit. Seems like the only home I'm welcome at any more."

After he moved in with Paul, Tom had lost touch with a lot of people from his past. Bonny, who had married and moved to Oregon, was one. She had smarted because she no longer heard from him except when he sent her Christmas cards. He needed to reach out to her now:

Dear Bonny:

I have been thinking about you since I received your Christmas card and have been meaning to write but you know how it goes sometimes. Seems everything happens at once and I have been pretty busy. . . .

I was so sorry to hear about little Jacey Jo - what a sadness to lose her after everything you had been through. Much of what I feel like saying could seem so trite, only that I share your grief and do understand the depth of your loss. . . .

Well, doll, I guess I must confess some bad news here. Ol' Tom is somewhat under the weather these days, although I am doing pretty well.

Back at the beginning of October I was diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. . . .

Please do believe that I am doing OK. . . . I am trying to get the world to see that this is an illness and not a death sentence. I may die, but at least I have lived my life as I wanted to. . . .

Keep in touch. . . . Let me know about that little one on the way. I would love to see you sometime.

As ever, Love Tom