Randy Shilts visits a hospital ward for AIDS babies in this book’s introduction, finding not the purgatory of writhing, screaming babies that one might expect, but a series of eerily silent rooms: With no one to respond to their cries, the babies had simply stopped making sounds. It was a scene similar to this that motivated the author and his small lay Catholic community in Northern California to adopt a number of AIDS babies (a growing problem, for in New York City alone, one out of every 61 mothers is HIV-infected).
Tolbert McCarroll and friends in the “Starcross Monastic Community” wanted to give AIDS babies the chance to respond to the excitement of each season during their short lifetimes. We follow Melissa, who showed “no response to the human face” when she was first adopted but soon was singing with gusto in fields of apple trees and laughing at a large blue jay perched on the tree above. The joy we feel about Melissa is profound because it rises above so much sadness. On Melissa’s birthday, for example, her mother, destitute and dying of AIDS, manages to send a dollar bill and a card with the hopeful inscription, “One dollar for one year!”
The darkest side to this book comes not from the infants’ deaths, however (Melissa, for one, is still alive), but from the ardent opposition Starcross members faced from national, state and local governments. Officials in Sacramento, for instance, wrote an apparently mindless, heartless letter revoking Starcross’ license to raise children (it was later reinstated), while the U.S. government struck a theme of protection rather than compassion. Rather than becoming embittered by past mistakes, though, McCarroll goes on to detail changes sorely needed to help America care humanely for new generations of AIDS babies. Current programs moving children from hospice to hospital overemphasize the medical aspects of a child’s life, McCarroll writes, for “it is the ultimate right of any child not to die among strangers.” McCarroll also calls for a modification of today’s adoption laws, written for healthy children and requiring delays of up to two years before a foster home can be arranged.
Despite political struggles, McCarroll is able to imbue this book with a spirit of celebration, for he is clearly heartened by what he sees on the Starcross farm. Regardless of what lies beyond its borders, it is a haven where butterflies are “kind enough” to linger around Melissa’s cart and normally “haughty” cows tolerate raucous frolicking between infants and their calves.