Caring for the dying
Early edition: Ann Nash contracted HIV from her husband 15 years ago. Now that he has passed, she volunteers at a Tampa AIDS outreach center helping the terminally ill.
By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published November 22, 2006
TAMPA — Before the death sentence, Ann Nash was a housewife with two kids and an engineer for a husband.
A seventh-generation Floridian, she grew up Southern Baptist on a farm near Jacksonville and didn’t drive until she was 45. She looked like a Pleasantville or Stepford wife with caramel-colored hair shaped like a bell and a belle’s sweet manners, too.
But the Rockwellian veneer crumbled when her husband was diagnosed with AIDS. She knew that instant he had infected her.
Ann and John Nash picked out their graves and inscribed their names on a double headstone in a cemetery off Hillsborough Avenue. Then, Ann cared for John, changing his diapers, sleeping in the hallway between his room and his blind, ailing mother.
Ann buried both a month apart and began counting her days.
“The years when he was dying,” she says, “I felt like I was watching myself die.”
For years, she couldn’t talk about HIV, which carries a particularly severe stigma among her generation. But once she did, she couldn’t stop. She found her reason to live among the dying, and relied on God, carrying around a bookmark depicting the patron saint of bodily ills that reads: I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other.
That’s how she wound up cooking Thanksgiving dinner — the feast of gratefulness — in a Tampa outreach center for those with her illness. She serves without reward, gives even though she feels robbed, cries privately and prays often.
She’s 63, wears white Easy Spirit tennis shoes, loves to travel and cross-stitch and lives in a mother-in-law house behind her daughter’s Lutz home.
“She looks like someone’s grandma,” said Joy Winheim, a program director for Francis House, a Tampa AIDS and HIV outreach center.
Ann has been volunteer cook since January, spending about $2 per meal in a shoestring-budget kitchen that even saves soy sauce from Chinese takeout.
Eggs can’t be spared, and the pork chops she makes go straight from the package into flour without batter. She saves what’s leftover, labeling it “pork flour.”
Her parents divorced when she was a teen, and Ann and her sister were on their own after their mom sold everything. Their grandparents took them in.
Ann’s grandfather was the breadwinner. His carpentry jobs came sporadically, and the family often depended on the farm’s garden to eat. Ann never tasted real steak until she got married, making her a good fit for a penny-counting nonprofit.
She remembers watching her grandmother volunteer at cancer patients’ homes, scalding her hands with hot water and bleach afterward because she thought she could catch cancer. She was kindhearted that way, but rough at home, Ann’s sister, Joanne Foehl, 56, said.
Ann became the older sister her siblings relied on.
She met John, an aspiring engineer, at a Jacksonville technical school. She married at 20.
In a wedding photo, he has an arm around her back and she beams brightly in her white wedding dress. It was a happy life until John got sick.
He never disclosed how he contracted the virus. He was diagnosed in February 1989. She was diagnosed in March at age 46. Their 25th anniversary came in April.
He told her to leave him, once. Her sister asked why she didn’t.
“I still love him, and I couldn’t leave,” she would say. “I stayed. The damage was done. What could it have gained me to walk away? Would I have been a better person to have walked away? No, if anything, I would have been worse.”
She says this in a principal’s tone. She has sensitive ears that come with Southern sensibilities, but she said she has no problems overhearing Francis House clients talk about drugs or sex, even when their language gets too raw.
“You have to realize what you’re getting into,” she said.
Her children never saw her cry while her husband and mother-in-law deteriorated. She saved that for the shower.
“You won’t believe how many showers I took,” she said.
She never saw anyone die until her mother-in-law did, but it showed her she had a gift. She became an assisted living center’s live-in manager.
“Not everybody can hold somebody’s hands at their final breath,” she said. “That seems to be where God wants me to be: To take care of the sick and the dying.”
She worked for eight years until she tore her shoulder picking up too many patients. The mental and physical strain of the job, combined with the burden of HIV, was too much.
She stopped working and fell into a deep depression, broke, legally disabled, reliant upon her grown daughter and feeling like she had nothing left to give.
Despondent on the couch one day, she asked God the purpose for her life. The initial diagnosis gave her two years to live, but that was years ago.
Two weeks later, her sister, then a physical therapy professor, asked her to talk to her students about HIV.
Ann lost her longstanding fear.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she realized. “People can accept me for me or I don’t need them.”
She told everyone, even family members she hadn’t before. She told her widow’s support group.
Her testimony rarely led to rejection. Once she disclosed her illness to a man she had flown to see for
Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t wait to get her back on a plane, she said.
Unless the man wears a halo, Ann is convinced she will never remarry. “You have to accept it and go on,” she says.
She relies on her faith. She grew up Southern Baptist but felt the Catholic church a better fit. She became a member this Easter and always felt drawn to the religion that was her fathers. She remembers persuading him to spend $2 for a small Jesus figurine at Woolworth.It was the only thing that withstood a fire that charred her walls when she was a teen. She took it as a sign. It’s still up in her bedroom today.
This year, she visited a Catholic shrine known for healing in Lourdes, France. Her T-cell count has never been higher.
“We have found ourselves a God-send,” says Gregory Johnson, Francis House’s director.
When a local church offered to buy all of Francis House presents, Ann asked for just one thing:
A Sunday dress.
Ann heard about Francis House at church. She figured she’d volunteer shuffling papers. But a sister talked her into becoming cook.
They had no one else.
She works Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. until about 2 p.m. She often takes her work home, starting roasts and turkeys in her oven. She rinses green beans until they lose their canned taste. She cuts back on sugar. Some clients are addicted.
“The food is better than we had years ago,” says Frank Klosinski, 56, finishing pork chops, corn bread, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy. “We had to scrounge up whatever was in that pantry or get Meals on Wheels.”
Ann shops for most of the groceries. If she misses a day, the program manager takes a look at Ann’s monthly menu tucked inside a kitchen cupboard, gives up and orders pizza.
Ann laughs, knowing she has become indispensable. She’s never been sick, missing days only when her grandchildren need an emergency baby sitter.
There are many days, she said, she doesn’t feel like getting up, but she remembers the selfless mission God entrusted to her.
“If I can make a difference for somebody else,” she says, “that’s my purpose.”
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.