Dori is finally free

After fighting AIDS for 20 years, she dies with grace and escapes her illness and the rejection of others

December 31, 2003 

It was absolutely still, the moment Dori died.

In that instant, at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, her spirit was free. Soaring, as in her best dreams, above faraway lands like Puerto Rico and Egypt. At last, in that moment, she was healthy like other 20-year-olds, no longer bound to a schedule of doctor's appointments and pills. Her body no longer hurt. And HIV no longer traveled her veins.

She could no longer be hurt by the rejection of others afraid of people with AIDS. She was released from an uncertain future. She had always imagined this was how it would feel when she died.

Free. Soaring.

It was the moment I'd always feared, the reason I'd once been afraid to love her. She'd asked me many times to be with her when she died, and I was - a last promise kept. She died with the grace with which she had lived, sent off in love and peace.

She was prepared for it. And in the months before she died, she helped others get ready for it, talking often and openly about her death.

Last winter, for reasons no one could explain, her feet and ankles became swollen and painful. Then food started getting lodged in her throat, requiring surgery.

At the hospital, Dori reached for my hand.

"Lind, I want you to know I'll never leave you. I want you to know that when I get to heaven, I'm going to ask the Big Guy if I can come back and visit you and my mom," she said, pausing to brush my hair out of my face. "And also, promise me you'll cut your bangs. They're always in your eyes!"

We recited our mantra: "Together forever, no matter what."

Soon after, I had a dream about her. We were standing in a hallway talking. But Dori Bryon was nearly as tall as me, and her face looked full and healthy. Her brown hair was thick, curly and shiny. Her eyes were clear. Her jeans didn't hang from her body. We laughed as she talked confidently about friends and school.

But at home, she was a tiny island in her bed, propped up watching "Amazing Animal Videos" on TV. Her cheeks were sunken. Half moons rested under her eyes.

Her mom, Barb, and a hospice nurse cared for her around the clock. Barb put a baby monitor in her room so she could hear if Dori needed her. After a lifetime of living with AIDS, Dori was tired.

A hospital bed replaced her own. A portable toilet sat next to it. Her knee was bruised from when she got out of bed on her own and fell. Her wheelchair barely fit in the bedroom, so it was parked near the front door.

I crawled in bed to cuddle with her, not wanting to let go.

"I'm so tired," she said. "I think this one might be the big one."

Beside her, I started to cry. She put her hand on my head and gently stroked my hair. "Just let it all out," she said.

Her rage against AIDS dissipated. She was at peace. I tried to memorize her feet as I rubbed them, those tiny size-5 feet, which I had rubbed so many times over the years. Her thighs had shrunken to the size of my forearms. Her ankles were half the size of my wrists.

We celebrated her July 11 birthday early this year at her hospice nurse's suggestion, in the hope that she wouldn't be too sick to enjoy it.

Her family, friends and AIDS volunteers packed my house. Even a beloved former social worker drove up from California for her "celebration of life" party.

Dori, too weak to hold a pen herself, dictated to a friend the thank-you card she wanted to send me: "When I'm with you," it said, "nothing can harm me. I feel I'm free."

A few weeks later, my dad died. Grieving and exhausted, I just couldn't be there for Dori. It was one of the darkest times of my life. I couldn't think about losing her.

On my first outing alone to go shopping in the days after my dad's memorial service, I ran into a friend of Barb and Dori's. I asked how Dori was, and she told me she thought Dori was about to die.

In the middle of clothing racks, I started to cry and stammered, "I just can't hear this right now." She grabbed my hands and we fled the store. She apologized as I cried, not realizing how raw my grief over my dad still was.

The next time I saw Dori, she and Barb took my hands and together prayed that God would ease my grief about my dad.

Dori and I never did say goodbye. Instead, she promised she'd never leave me and that we'd be together again in heaven. I promised her my love would go with her on her journey.

Over the years, she talked about angels. She had a dream not long before she died about an angel with long, beautiful blond hair who said his name was Trevor and that he'd been the one watching over her. In her last days, I often wondered if he was in the room with her.

Moments before Dori died, her breathing became shallow, slowing to less than a whisper. And then she exhaled a quiet, final release of air.

Around her bed, her mother and Aunt Melinda and I held our breath, not wanting to take another until she did. Wanting her to inhale, but willing her not to. Not wanting her to come back only to go through all of this again.

For three days, her room had been crowded with people singing, telling stories, laughing, crying, touching and saying countless "I love you's." But now, in the quiet morning hours, it was her time to die.

Her eyes, which had been reflexively tracking around her room, past faces she loved, were fixed, gazing into a future only she could see.

Her jaw clicked as it moved forward and back into place. Once. Twice.

Still no breath.

I was surprised at how fast the color drained from her lips.


And in that instant she was free.

A few weeks after Dori died, Barb and I took a trip to Uwajimaya, a Japanese gift and grocery story in Seattle that Dori loved. We bought our favorite kinds of tea and some pastries to take back to Barb's house.

"We should have a tea party in Dori's room," Barb suggested.

While I boiled water in the kitchen, she lit candles and set up a table in her daughter's bedroom.

The hospital bed was gone, as were all Dori's medications, the portable toilet, crutches and all sign of illness.

Left in place were the things Dori loved - drawings by her cousin, a favorite angel painting, the TV where she won at video games, photos of herself and friends, her stuffed animal collection, a Ricky Martin autograph, a note from her friend Blayne Brooks and a beloved cross hanging on a slim chain.

In the middle of it all, surrounded by candlelight and listening to Dori's favorite music, we had a tea party and toasted Dori. Barb prayed and thanked God for giving us the gift of Dori and asked him to watch over her.

As we cried, we felt a warmth and tingling around our bodies. Dori was gone, but somehow still here.

It'll take the rest of my life to fully understand all she gave me and what I lost. But out of grief comes a certainty: I would do it all over again, every moment.

I miss her constantly, perhaps more now than when she first died. Because of Dori, I understand that pain and joy coexist. I feel them both inside me now. She said she wouldn't leave me, and she hasn't. She's often the first and last thought I have each day. I feel her with me when I'm in my car, on a walk, at home and when I write.

Over the years, Dori used to ask me to look out for her mom after she was gone. She asked Barb to do the same. She gave us the gift of each other.

As we finished our tea party, Barb turned to me and said, "Together forever, no matter what."

Linda Dahlstrom: 253-597-8438


"When I leave, I want to be remembered as not just someone who had AIDS, but also as a girl who had a kind and loving heart - who taught people some things ... maybe even people I didn't know."



"I'd rather die slow than fast. In my sleep, so I don't feel nothin'."



"When I'm with you, nothing can harm me. ... I want you to know that I'm never going to leave you - together forever, no matter what. I hope you and I will meet someday where the sun is always shining."



"Lind, I feel like I'm dying. I think it will be very soon.

Mostly I feel happy, but I'm also sad. I just want to be free.

The only time I feel free now is when I'm sleeping."

Dori & me: 'Together forever, no matter what'

For eight years, News Tribune assistant features editor Linda Dahlstrom was friends with Dori Bryon, who was born HIV-positive in 1983 and died this fall at 20.

With her blessing, Linda began chronicling Dori's life to, in her words, "tell people what it's really like to live with AIDS." Dori also invited News Tribune photographer Janet Jensen into her life.

Sunday: Dori and Linda's loving, but also trying, relationship.

Monday: After years of being shunned by peers, Dori finds acceptance in an unlikely place.

Tuesday: Dori's alternating struggle to defy death and to give in to the inevitability of it.

Today: Dying with grace, and how Dori taught Linda to deal with loss.

On the Net: To read all the stories in this series, go to our Web site at projects/dori.

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