Special Reports

'I don't want my baby to die'

Barbara Bryon waved away the nurse who offered to find a priest for last rites. Her unborn daughter wasn't due for more than three months - and she was in labor. It looked grim.

"God hasn't told me he's going to take her," Barb told the nurse. "He'll let me know when it's her time."

When Dori was born, she weighed only 1 pound, 4 ounces. Barb kept vigil at the hospital beside the tiny baby with arms as slim as cigarettes.

"The first time I saw her, I just fell in love with her," said Barb, now 42. "She put me in a whole other groove, though. I knew I had to be a special mom for a special baby."

When Dori was 2, Barb found out her former fiance had AIDS. On Barb's 23rd birthday, she learned both she and Dori were HIV-positive.

"This whole blanket of sadness came over me," Barb said. "I wanted to die. I wanted to die because Dori was going to die. (But) my mom said, 'Barbara, she's not gone yet. She's laughing. She's thriving. She's living. So you keep up with her. Remember your faith in God.'"

She devoted every moment to her only child. As an R&B singer, she'd performed at venues such as the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, but she stopped working to care for Dori when she was sick. Now she sang for her child, soothing songs to comfort her when she was afraid and funny off-key tunes to make Dori forget her hospital room.

She learned everything she could about AIDS, arguing with doctors about the best treatment for Dori and searching for ways to explain the disease to her child.

"I let her know we had a mean virus and that we both had to eat well and that the virus kills people sometimes, but that some people live with it forever," Barb said. "I would not let death be a part of us."

But inside, her own resolve was ebbing. Dori's HIV had progressed to AIDS, but Barb's hadn't. Her guilt grew when children in Dori's fifth-grade class learned she had AIDS and taunted her.

Soon, the guilt began to drown Barb.

"I don't want my baby to die," Barb said, eyes moist. "I gave her this ... disease. Why was she getting sick and not me? I wanted to her to be like other kids, but she wasn't. She kept having interruptions in her life like shingles and the stigma of AIDS. ... I'll live with the guilt for the rest of my life. If there's a hell, that's it."

One afternoon, Barb, who has been diagnosed with manic depression, decided Dori would have a better life without her. She took an overdose of Halcion, a sedative, wrote a goodbye note to Dori and called her mother to ask her to pick Dori up from school.

Barb suspected that her mom, who died in October 2000, must have noticed something in her daughter's voice and called paramedics. The next thing Barb remembered was being taken to the hospital and having her stomach pumped. In a hospital psychiatric unit, she began to face her demons.

"I had to confront Dori's death," Barb recalled. "And I realized she had a future - and she needs me."

She vowed to stay alive - and stay healthy - so she could help Dori through whatever was ahead. Most of all, she wanted to be with Dori to comfort her as she died.

In the three months since Dori's death, Barb has spoken often to groups of medical workers and AIDS volunteers about living with HIV - and recounted her daughter's story.

"Sometimes, I wonder, 'Am I still a mom?'" she said. "But when I talk about Dori, I know that I am."