BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — In the summer of 1989, Doris Fox received a phone call in her Bloomington home from a family friend, informing her that her 33-year-old son, Tom, would likely not survive the night.
“I told him I needed to talk to Tom, who told me the doctor wanted to just let him slip away and die,” Doris told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/10LtA1l ). “I told Tom that I wanted him put on a ventilator. I told him I was there when he was born, and I was going to be there when he died.”
Doris and her husband, Bob, had known for 18 months that Tom was engaged in an unwinnable battle against AIDS. They also knew he had recently left his home in Atlanta to visit friends in Eugene, Ore. What they didn’t know was that his health had quickly deteriorated during the trip.
Doris notified Bob, who was in British Columbia at the time. Within hours, they were at Tom’s bedside.
Tom was so weakened by pneumonia and lung cancer that he couldn’t speak, so he scrawled his thoughts on a pad of paper.
“Mom and Dad, I know I’m dying,” he wrote. “I want you to let me go.”
“No, Tom,” Doris said. “We want to hold onto you as long as we can.”
But Tom persisted. Six days later, after telling Tom how much they loved him, Doris and Bob finally gave in to their son’s wishes.
“When do you want the ventilator turned off?” Doris asked.
“In the morning,” he wrote.
That night, the Foxes arranged for a friend to spend the night with Tom while they tried to get some sleep.
“It was the most difficult night of our lives,” Doris said. “We barely slept at all. We knew our son was dying in the morning.”
The next day, Doris and Bob were at Tom’s bedside, along with their two other sons, Bob Jr. and John.
Doctors unhooked the ventilator at 8:45 a.m. For several minutes, family members took turns holding Tom’s hand, telling him it was all right to let go.
Tom’s lips parted as he gasped for breath, but his lungs were too weak to draw in air.
At 8:55 a.m., Tom died.
In August 1989, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a 16-page story titled “When AIDS Comes Home.” The story, written by Steve Sternberg with photos by Michael Schwartz, traced the final 18 months of Tom’s life, during which time he battled the ravages of AIDS.
The story came about after Tom, then working as an advertising account representative at the Journal-Constitution, approached Sternberg, told him he had acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and asked if he would be willing to chronicle the final months of his life. Sternberg had reservations about writing a story about a colleague, but finally said yes, feeling the story was an important one to tell.
This summer, the newspaper polled its readers, presenting them with a list of 30 of its best stories over the past 50 years and asking them to rate the ones they considered the most significant. “When AIDS Comes Home” received the most votes.
“It makes us feel good that his story has had such a lasting emotional impact on people,” Bob said. “People are reading his story again, or reading it for the first time.”
“This keeps Tom alive,” Doris said. “I’m proud of him for being willing to share his story. It’s helped a lot of people.”
In December, Doris and Bob Fox will fly to Atlanta, where the newspaper will honor them, along with Sternberg and Schwartz, in a special celebration of the story, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
For years, as Tom grew up in Bloomington, he kept his homosexuality a secret.
“I think he was afraid of how we would accept it, and afraid of what other people would think of him,” Doris said. “But I had my suspicions for many years. Even as a young boy, he wanted to play with play ovens while our other two sons played with soldiers and that sort of thing.”
Doris’s intuitions were right. Years later, when Tom finally told her he was gay, he said he remembered seeing a ballet at the age of 5 and being more attracted to the ballerino than the ballerina.
In 1987, when Tom was 31 and living in Atlanta with his partner, the Foxes went to visit him. They learned Tom had spent time in the Atlanta Psychiatric Institute trying to kick an addiction to marijuana and amphetamines.
“The first night, we could not sleep because his partner was a drug dealer, and the phone kept ringing every 30 minutes with calls from clients,” Doris said. “I felt sick inside. The next morning, I told him it was obvious that his lifestyle was not something we approved of, and it was then that he admitted for the first time he was gay. Frankly, I was terribly upset to hear that.”
After the Foxes returned to Bloomington, Doris phoned Tom.
“It doesn’t matter to us that you’re gay,” she said. “You’re still the same person.”
But that was 1987. The Foxes told no one about Tom’s sexual orientation.
“We knew if we told people, they would look down on us and say terrible things about Tom,” Doris said.
But two years later, when the Foxes placed Tom’s obituary in The Herald-Times, they wrote that Tom had died “from complications from AIDS.”
“We wanted it out in the open,” Doris said. “We wanted to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding his disease and death. We felt the need to be honest.”
Shortly after Tom’s obituary was published, the Foxes were approached by Dennis Hill and Vela Harrison, who asked them if they’d help them launch a Bloomington chapter of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays. They agreed, and more than 50 people attended the first local PFLAG meeting in the spring of 1992. Doris served as the group’s president for nearly 20 years.
“We had some bumps along the road,” Bob said. “Some parents said they sang hymns and read Bible verses to their gay children, hoping that would turn them around.”
At one meeting, a military father said, “I would rather see my son dead than gay.”
Doris looked him in the eyes and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I lost a son, and no matter how gay he was, I would love to have him sitting here beside me.”
The man stomped out of the room, dragging his wife behind him.
“I remember his wife looking back at me as they were leaving, and I could tell she wanted to stay and talk about her feelings,” Doris said. “That is one of the saddest things I ever saw.”
Prior to that, when Tom was still battling AIDS, the Foxes helped facilitate a South Central Mental Health Center support group for families and friends of people with AIDS.
“It was a wonderful group,” Doris said. “It lasted for several years until new, more effective medications to treat AIDS became available, and people no longer felt the need to meet.”
The Foxes often spoke about their experience with AIDS and homosexuality on educational panels, in IU classrooms and at community groups and churches.
For their work, they’ve received numerous awards, such as the Indiana Cares Super Star Award for HIV and AIDS Education, and the Celia Bush Making a Difference to the HIV/AIDS Community Award. Last spring, they were presented with an award from the IU School of Public Health Center for AIDS/STD Prevention for their 25 years of work with families and victims of AIDS.
The Foxes are now in their mid-80s and don’t do as much advocacy and education work as they used to, but they’re certainly willing.
“I still occasionally participate in a panel or give a talk,” Doris said. “It’s important to keep reminding people about AIDS. It hasn’t gone away.”
The Foxes can’t help wondering what might have been if Tom had been diagnosed with AIDS in 2014 rather than 1987.
“He would have found a lot more acceptance and support in Bloomington today than he did back then,” Doris said. “In those days, there was a much stronger stigma associated with homosexuality. Even my own brother wanted nothing to do with Tom and refused to come to his memorial.”
Bob says when the AIDS epidemic reached its apex in the late 1980s — when it was a virtual death sentence — Tom attended more than 135 funerals.
“But today, we personally know people with AIDS who’ve been taking medicine for years and who are living healthy and productive lives,” he said. “If Tom would have had access to those kinds of medicines, he’d still be alive today.”