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Healing begins after mother's loss of a son to AIDS


Carrying a poster with her son's picture, Ginny Henderso and her daughters prepared to march in the AIDS Walk in May.

Another woman spotted the sign and walked toward her.

"We hugged each other and cried, before we introduced ourselves," Mrs. Henderson said. "We didn't know each other. We knew we had shared the same experience. We knew what we each had been through."

The walk, during which the Hendersons raised $1,000 for AIDS research, was one of Mrs. Henderson's first public statements on her 36-year-old son's death from AIDS nearly two years ago. In William Henderson's last days and for months afterward, she couldn't talk about it with anyone but close friends and family.

Time and counseling have begun the healing process for her. Now, she said, she knows that Bill would approve of her telling the story. At a memorial service in January 1991, Mr. Henderson's friends all spoke of how much he had helped them.

"He was ready to help anyone he could, and I want to do that, too," she said.

At her home in Taneytown, she plays her son's cassettes constantly. She said the spirituals he loved are uplifting. The music doesn't make her cry.

"My life was torn beyond repair. You came along and gave me a song . . . " The gentle words of "That's When You Bless Me," her son's favorite gospel song, form a background to her story.

She found out her son had full-blown AIDS in February 1989, when he was hospitalized in Washington with pneumonia. "We walked down the hospital corridor, with our arms around each other, and we cried.

"If I am angry about anything, it's that he wouldn't get the test for AIDS. If he had gotten the test earlier, maybe we could still have him."

He called the test "looking for trouble," she said. After he was diagnosed, he changed his mind, she said. He spoke to several groups about the need for prevention and early detection.

In the early months of his illness, "Bill asked me not to tell anyone, to wait until he was ready. That created such pressure. I think the family all knew but we just didn't want to say it."

Five weeks after he was diagnosed, Bill Henderson was released from the hospital. Mrs. Henderson and her husband, Dean, asked him to come home to Taneytown. Instead, he returned to his apartment in Washington and his job as a furniture salesman.

"He wanted to get on with his life as much as possible, and didn't want to be a burden to us," Mrs. Henderson said. "He didn't let his fears overcome him. He had a strong belief in God and went to church all the time."

Through the AIDS hot line, she connected with another mother going through the same experience. "She told me she was doing the same things and harbored the same fears."

Although Mrs. Henderson said it was difficult to go to work and keep silent about what was going on, she couldn't bring herself to tell anyone at Dresser Pump, a pump manufacturing firm in Taneytown, where she operates the switchboard.

"I didn't know how they would react," she said. "I had heard the comments about AIDS and I just didn't know if they would be sympathetic. It was so hard for me to go to work and keep silent about what was going on."

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Mrs. Henderson knew her son's death was imminent.

"He was a fighter, but he had nothing left to fight with, no immune system," she said.

The three other Henderson children and many other family members filled the waiting room, joining in the vigil.

"One man told me he didn't know Bill but he knew from our presence that my son was dearly loved," said Mrs. Henderson.

The Hendersons' children made all the funeral arrangements for their brother, who died Dec. 21, 1990. They wanted to spare their parents, said Mrs. Henderson.

Still, she felt "very alone."

"This is different from cancer. There's a stigma."

She attended a support group meeting in the county without finding the help she needed. She never returned.

"Maybe I didn't give them a chance, but the compassionate atmosphere wasn't there," she said. "If I said my son had died of leukemia, there would have been instant compassion. I said AIDS and there was a silence."

She said she knew she was ready to talk when she took a plaque, awarded posthumously to her son for his volunteer work with AIDS children, to work with her. She told co-workers then, "Bill died of AIDS."

She said she would tell other parents in her situation:

"Be supportive and let him know you love him. Don't be a soldier. Cry when you want to. Say you are afraid. I am sorry I tried to be so strong."

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