Lorna Horn visited her grandpa the other day.
They sat together in the sun-splashed living room of his home and talked about what they wanted to do on their next outing.
Sometimes they have a specific destination in mind, like the zoo, other times they take a ride on a train or a bus for the sheer joy of the ride itself.
It really doesn’t matter. What’s important to the little girl and to her grandpa, Les Sholty, is that they’re together at least once a week. Their relationship is a bond of affection so tight it is almost a palpable link.
Each speaks for the other, and their laughter, one soft, the other loud, blends with the sweetness of honey in tea.
Time is a factor in their glorious connection, and a clock in the room that bonged the hour seemed to emphasize that.
Sholty, at 81, knows he can’t live forever. He’s getting old.
Lorna, at 12, knows her days could be limited. She has AIDS.
Both face the consequences of their conditions, age and illness, with an equanimity of spirit that is full of enthusiasm for whatever life remains.
There is no morbidity here, no trembling search for eternity over a dark horizon and no false effort to cheer each other up.
There’s just Lorna and her grandpa, her small hand in his, sharing a soft drink, sharing the day, and sharing the hours bonged out by a clock on the wall.
I heard about Lorna through Sholty.
“You receive an enormous amount of information, pleas for aid, assistance or support of every kind,” he wrote. “This letter is for none of those. It’s about a shy child suffering from a terminal disease.”
Sholty wanted me to know with what compassion children and neighbors responded when Lorna’s parents disclosed to her classmates at Anaheim’s Cerritos School that she had AIDS.
There was no demand for her to leave school, no outpouring of hatred from the community, no massive effort to avoid casual contact.
“I didn’t have many friends before,” Lorna said to me that day at her grandpa’s house in L.A., her voice so whispery I had to strain to hear. “Now I have a lot of them.”
She’s a tiny, elfin child, not four feet tall and weighing only 42 pounds. Her skin is white, almost translucent, and her body so frail it could break.
Two years ago she suffered a bout with AIDS-related pneumonia that almost killed her. And as if God hadn’t placed an awesome enough burden on her small shoulders, Lorna also suffers from asthma and a congenital heart problem.
It was that problem that sent her into surgery shortly after birth, during which a transfusion with contaminated blood infected her with the AIDS virus.
Her condition was detected two years ago. It was Lorna’s choice to tell the world. “The kids made fun of me anyhow because I’m short and wear glasses,” she said that day at grandpa’s house. “So I figured what’s the difference?”
Children live in a world that requires immense bravery. Everything is new, and each step a challenge. The jungle is dark and the predators many.
Lorna’s world, which is the world of 6,200 children in the United States, requires a strength of spirit so powerful that no single word is adequate to describe it.
She evokes that strength in a manner that’s misleading. When I asked what she thought lay ahead, she remained silent for a moment, thinking. Her blonde hair glowed in the sunlight that streamed through a window.
“They told me I might die,” she said, looking toward her grandpa for the comfort his presence could offer. “But don’t we all have to die sometime?”
I wanted to say, But not so young! but instead let the question linger until it vanished in the bonging of the clock.
Lorna listened then said: “It’s just that I’d hate to leave my friends.”
Did she wish sometimes that the surgery in her infancy, the transfusion, had never occurred? The question baffled her. “No,” she said, “because then I’d have never known life at all.”
AIDS is a disease once regarded with casual indifference as a calamity that befell “others.” We know now that it’s among our children and our grandchildren too, and the clock that bongs in the house of Lorna’s grandpa tolls for a new generation of innocents.
As I left Lorna, I asked what she hoped her future would be. She replied with a realization that seemed somehow beyond her years and in a tone that clawed at the heart, “I wish I could play forever.”
Would it were so.