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Essence's gift

CONGRATULATIONS are certainly in order for Essence magazine. Its December cover story, normally devoted to such earth-shaking subjects as "10 hot holiday looks," deals with a deadly serious subject: AIDS.

At first glance, it's hard to juxta pose the picture with the words. For the woman on the cover, with the cafe au lait skin wrapped in a hot little red evening dress, appears to be your standard cover girl. But the words tell you that she's "young, educated, drug-free, and dying of AIDS." Wisely, there are no other words; anything else would have distracted from the seriousness of the subject.

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Turning inside, the reader discovers that the young woman, Rae Lewis-Thornton of Washington, is much like the typical Essence reader: a young, single black woman who lives in a major urban area and is or aims to be an upwardly mobile professional. Even the way she discovered that she carried the human immuno-deficiency virus that causes AIDS smacks of how straight-laced she is: She found out when she went to donate blood to the American Red Cross. It was 1986, and she was 24.

Ms. Lewis-Thornton's story will probably sell more condoms -- and thus, eventually, help prevent more needless deaths -- this holiday season than all of the public service television and print advertisements combined.

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For Essence to carry this story is courageous and critically important since the women and children most at risk of contracting the disease are members of racial minorities. Her story puts a very human face on the plague; many young, black women will read her story and think: "My God, that could be me."

Ms. Lewis-Thornton was shocked to learn that she carried the virus. A magna cum laude college graduate, at the time, she was very active, professionally and socially. She had a promising future as a political organizer.

Today, at the age of 32, she is still beautiful, but her body -- now wracked by full-blown AIDS -- no longer has the energy to work. Only those close to her know her pain and suffering. Outsiders don't see her miserable night sweats. They don't see the fire that burned through her brain and the nausea that gripped her stomach when she tried to take AZT, the medicine designed to hold off the symptoms of AIDS. They don't see those severe bouts with diarrhea she had to endure, a condition brought on by another AIDS drug, ddI.

As a man with AIDS, until reading her story, I had no idea what women with AIDS go through: having menstrual periods that last anywhere from one hour to 22 days!

Fortunately, Ms. Lewis-Thornton says she's no longer trying to find out who infected her. That would be a waste of spirit and time. She says that she was not sexually promiscuous, but dated just as many other young women do.

It was a terrible blow, but she is back -- with a vengeance. She is telling her story. She visits schools and speaks to the youth of America about safe sex. She has gained control of her life again. She is no longer angry at God. The way she puts it, "I went within myself for the answers. I surrendered to God. I just let go. It was then that I found the answers. The first step in the healing process was to move beyond the shame and stigma of having AIDS."

Ms. Lewis-Thornton has spoken to more than 70,000 high school students about AIDS.

In addition to the admiration of strangers, she now has a loving and caring new husband, Kenny, a man who sees her as someone worthy of his love.

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But the symptoms of the disease continue. Her immune system is impaired, her T-cells had dwindled to a paltry 66 at last count. There are days when she cannot get out of bed. And yet -- and this is what brings my spirit ever closer to Rae Lewis-Thornton's song -- she is pressing on. She will not give up the fight for life: "Of course, I am dying. But I will live until I do!"

Congratulations, Rae Lewis-Thornton and Essence. Showcasing this indomitable spirit is a Christmas gift for all of us.

H. B. Johnson Jr. is a Baltimore playwright and poet who writes occasionally on living with AIDS.

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