When nurses came up to Janet* during a recent hospital stay and whispered, "How did you get that?" She said, "In a fun way!"
Which goes to show that she's a much different person from the woman she became after learning she had HIV at the age of 56, almost 10 years ago. At that time, she was devastated and afraid, and became withdrawn.
She believes she was infected when she first started seeing her then-boyfriend six years previously. She was divorced and, "wanting to better myself," she attended a college evening class. That is where she met her boyfriend. They started "going together" and found out that they had a lot in common. Not much later, they purchased a house together and began a new life.
But after a few years of being together, he got very sick and was put in the hospital. His doctor told her that he had AIDS and that Janet should be tested right away.
Janet was HIV-positive. Her boyfriend had only 20 T-cells, she had 800. He died two years later after a long illness.
"The thing is, he knew all along, because he had risky behavior and the other person had died of AIDS a month before I met him. But he was in denial. I believe he would be alive today if he had gone to get tested and started meds." Because of that experience, Janet urges people to test for HIV as early as possible. "You can have a long and productive life even with HIV."
Janet felt she would be alone for the rest of her life. She didn't even think she was going to live much longer. But in reaching out to community organizations and social groups for help in dealing with her HIV and depression, she began to come out of her shell and overcome her fears.
Still, after her boyfriend's death in 1997, she thought she would never find another love again. "I didn't want anyone. I felt like I had been cheated -- why did this happen to me?" But she was meeting wonderful people, most of them gay men. They became her fast friends and a very important source of support. Then, in 2000, on a field trip with her social group for people with HIV, she met Robert.
"We met in the planetarium, and he always says 'it was in the stars.' We had lunch and he sat with some other men. I thought he was so very handsome. It was my job to send out membership materials to people, so I always went up to newcomers to introduce myself and welcome them. I went up and talked to all of the men at the table. Later, under the sky show, in the dark, he sat next to me. He said, 'I just wanted to hold your hand.'
"The next day, a Monday, I sent everyone a letter thanking them for coming to the event and telling them about the next trip, asking them to join us for that and to call me if they had any questions. On Friday he called and asked me out for Saturday. He came over on Saturday and every weekend after that. It was wonderful."
Although they hit it off, Janet says, "I think what he liked was having someone interested in him, and I liked having someone interested in me too. I never thought I would ever find anyone who would want me and he felt the same way."
That was November 2000. They were married in March 2001. "I asked him to marry me because I wasn't about to let him go. He was mine. Not only was he good looking, but he was kind and gentle, loving and generous. He did things that endeared him to me."
Although they met in a big city, Robert was from a chapter of the social group out in a rural area. They bought a home there, in a small town of 5,000 people, close to a larger town with HIV social events.
"We enjoy being together and doing things together. He is my very best friend, and I am thrilled to be with him. We love our home and what life has to offer us. We're surrounded and comforted by our family, children and grandchildren.
"They keep me busy and give me my biggest reason to keep healthy. Between my children and my husband's children, there's lots of love flowing. I can't worry about HIV -- I just get up everyday and enjoy life.
"I have joined a women's HIV group in the city, a very small, intimate group. There's a real variety of women and their histories of drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution and jail. I feel blessed that this never happened to me. I am so amazed at everything they have overcome."
Janet believes, "We can all get compassion and understanding from other people who feel the way we do. No one can understand except those who live with the same thing. Along the way, you may even find someone to share your life. If you come out to events, it makes you feel good and you can speak openly with no fear of stigma. But remember, people still need to be educated on this disease. I know that even if you don't find a partner, there are good people who want to be your friend. Talking about your meds and how they make you feel is very helpful. Find a good doctor and follow your medicine routine -- you don't have to die of AIDS."
Janet is the only white woman attending her women's group, and there's only one other white man besides her husband attending groups. She believes there must be other white women with HIV in the area, perhaps too wrapped up in stigma to take advantage of support groups, for themselves or maybe to help someone else.
"I wish women would come out more because we can talk about our issues. I think women need to know that their life isn't over. They need to know they can still have a valuable life. I think some women hide. I did too. I gave away everything I had because I thought I was going to die.
"I'm happy, and I want people to know, you can have a good life. There is a chance for you to find love. You don't have to be alone." She hopes that others with HIV will come out and find friendships with people who can share their hopes and dreams.