A Tale of Triumph : She was a parent's dream. Church-goer, choir and college. Then they found she had AIDS. Together, mother and daughter forge a new path through the pain--and bring comfort to others along the way.


The pain never stops.

It slashes into every moment of Marilyn Chamberlain's life, cutting so deep that she falls silent trying to explain it.

"There are no words," she finally says in a voice beyond emotion.

Nor is there cure or comfort for this kind of pain.

It is the consequence of loving another person more than you love yourself. It is what happens when a mother learns that her only child may die before she's had much chance to live.

That part is not unique. Many thousands face incurable illness.

But the story of how this mother and daughter overcame their terrors, and of what they are doing to help others, is what makes theirs a tale of triumph.


The phone rang in Marilyn Chamberlain's well-appointed Los Angeles office in January 1991. Her daughter, Lynn, a senior at Tuskegee University in Alabama, said she felt sick and wanted to come home to see their family doctor.

"Nothing obviously wrong," the doctor told Lynn, "but stay in town until the test results come back."

Lynn went home to relax.

Marilyn went back to running the successful human resources firm she'd founded in 1984 with clients such as the Rapid Transit District and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency on her roster.

Life had been good to the pair so far. Marilyn had worked hard to pay for what she considered essentials: private elementary and high schools and a college education for her daughter.

When Lynn announced in high school that she wanted to become a lawyer, her mother worked even harder to ensure that law school would be possible. As it turned out, Lynn would never get that far.

The doctor asked the mother and daughter to return. While waiting for him in an examining room, Lynn peeked inside the medical chart on the table.

"She dropped to her knees, screaming and crying, 'I'm going to die, oh, God, I'm going to die,' " her mother remembers.

She doesn't remember much after that.

"The doctor came in, told us Lynn had full-blown AIDS," and while the daughter wept the mother "fainted dead away." On the way home, they stopped at church to pray. "We were both crying hysterically. All I could see was that life had ended for us. There was no hope. No help. No cure. No future. I was on that thin line between sanity and insanity. Nothing mattered any more."

It took a while to figure out how Lynn had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. She'd had her share of teen romances. But as she puts it, she'd "never had a real, adult relationship" until she came home the previous summer and met a guy even her mother could love.

He was, both Chamberlains agree, intelligent, kind, witty, polite, tall, handsome--and devoted to the aspiring young lawyer.

"I trusted him completely," Lynn says.

But the AIDS specialist Lynn visited focused on her boyfriends.

Lynn said, "There's only one."

Is he gay? the doctor asked.

"Oh, no, he's very masculine."

Could he be bisexual?

"No, no. I'd have known. He likes women," her mother remembers Lynn saying.

Interview over, the pair left with no more hope than they'd arrived with. But Lynn had become suspicious. She searched her boyfriend's house while he was out and found medications hidden beneath his underwear. When she confronted him, he admitted that he had AIDS, that he'd had it for two years before he met her, that he was bisexual--and had no explanation for why he had not told her.

Lynn managed to drive home somehow and told her mother.

Then she took to her bed and refused to talk further about him, or anything else. No sound came from behind her closed bedroom door except moans, sobs and wails, her mother says.

Marilyn, isolated in her grief and rage, took the gun she kept under her mattress for protection and drove to his apartment. He wasn't there, so she sat outside in her car, waiting. "I thank God he didn't come home that night," she now says. "I would have shot him dead for sure."

For the next two years, except for churchgoing and doctor visits, Lynn quite literally stayed in bed "waiting to die."

Church had always been Lynn's second home. She'd been going there since childhood, still sang in the choir, and had such good friends that she considered some to be her brothers and sisters. But when she confided her health status, they spread the word to others, stopped calling her and disappeared from her life.

"For Lynn, rejection by her friends was almost as bad as the disease itself," her mother says. "It broke my heart."

Lynn was asked to resign from the choir. "My daughter might catch something by sitting near you," the mother of a choir member explained. And even though their minister preached about the unkind way Lynn was being treated, "it did not change one little thing," Lynn's mother says.

Marilyn closed her office and moved her business to their home. "I had to earn enough to pay the mortgage and buy food. But everything else came to a halt. If my daughter was going to die, I would die right along with her. That was my attitude."

She tried to find help, but friends, family, ministers, even some doctors turned away. "People think anyone with AIDS has been bad, that they've done IV drugs or prostitution. That's so stupid. Just look at the good life Lynn has led."

Nights were the worst. That's when Lynn would pace her bedroom floor, weeping and asking God to let her live. Marilyn would tiptoe down the hallway, listen at her daughter's door, then go back to her own room "where I'd cry uncontrollably until I literally passed out from exhaustion. I'd ask the Lord to take this disease from her and put it into me. To let my daughter live. She's so young, and I have lived a full life."

The turnaround began after Marilyn had combed through magazines and newspapers for more than a year, calling AIDS organizations to ask for help getting her daughter out of bed. But this was not a problem they were equipped to handle.

One day she was referred to Ann Copeland, a Culver City woman with AIDS who lectured on the subject and was starting a group called Women at Risk.

Marilyn called, explained her daughter's situation, and Copeland said she'd telephone Lynn.

Two days later, Marilyn came home to find Copeland sitting in her living room, chatting animatedly with her daughter.

"It was amazing. A miracle. They were sitting there making plans for Lynn to accompany Ann at her next speaking engagement. She had somehow mobilized my daughter, showed her that she was not alone, and got her to start helping others.

"Lynn began getting up in the mornings with a smile on her face. She had an interest in life. She cared about how she looked. Ann called every morning and night to encourage her and to make more plans.

"There will never be enough glowing words to explain the good that woman did for both of us," Marilyn says. (Copeland died last month of complications from AIDS. Her story, and Lynn Chamberlain's, were told last year in a Times story on the changing face of AIDS.)

Lynn soon joined a speaker's bureau and started booking engagements on her own, hoping to educate young people about the virus and how to avoid it. She volunteers her services to churches and public schools. She has also been hired by the National Football League to attend team training camps and inform the players about HIV.


And now for the triumph.

Marilyn decided to change careers. She wanted to help people one on one, as Copeland had helped her daughter. "What if I open a home for troubled teenagers?" she asked Lynn.

"Why not open a home for people with AIDS? Nobody's helping them."

The mother cringed. "I couldn't deal with it," she says.

"I know what you're thinking," Lynn told her. "We'll be seeing a taste of what is going to happen to me. But I can take it. In fact, I'd like to help you."

Marilyn refinanced her home and spent her savings to buy and furnish a large foreclosure house with five huge, light-filled bedrooms, a pool, a patio and a tiny backyard on El Segundo Boulevard in Gardena.

"I furnished this as if it were my own home," she says proudly, showing off the overstuffed sofas and chairs she bought at auction. And the cheerful bedrooms, each with different decor. And the large closets, each hung with clothes neatly laundered. And the TVs and VCRs she has purchased to help entertain residents.

"It's the kind of place I'd want for myself or Lynn. It is not an institution. It is not a hospice. It is a very well-kept home, with lots of love and good food, a place where people enjoy life. They just happen to be people with AIDS."

The home is licensed for 10. Since it opened in December 1994, 46 people have come and gone, not counting the nine current residents. All are referred there by Los Angeles County, with which Marilyn has a contract.

"They are the loveliest people, all races and all walks of life. I have had teachers from L.A. Unified and professional people as well as street people and prisoners transferred here from the jail hospital. I have cared about each of them. And they have returned that affection with great dignity."

She plans healthy meals that few can resist, she says, because nutrition is so important. "They come here thin and pale, and every one of them gains from 10 to 20 pounds and starts to look more healthy."

Unfortunately, it is an illusion. "They are all gravely ill and on powerful medications. And no matter how well we take care of them, not one so far has lasted here more than 10 months. Most leave in semi-comatose condition and die in the hospital within a few days."

Marilyn works at the house seven days a week. She plans the menus, does the marketing, takes care of clothing, oversees the around-the-clock staff of six to make sure that medications are given properly, that the house is kept spotless, and that bed linens are changed at least twice a week or more frequently for very sick people. And she still finds time to oversee the Abernathy Outreach program she has started in South-Central, to counsel and distribute food to people with AIDS.

Lynn, who is activities director at the home, helps her mother and takes the residents on outings. "We desperately need a van," she says. "Sometimes everyone wants to go out and my car's too small, so we have to leave half of them home."

But Lynn has not been feeling well these past few weeks. She has no immune cells left, her mother says. And she's on a new medication that costs $600 a bottle. "Who can afford such medicine, except maybe Magic Johnson?"

Marilyn has had health problems too. Found to have ovarian cancer a few months back, she has just finished chemotherapy and radiation. "My prognosis is good," she says serenely, "and I'm back working at full capacity." Both say they have found fulfillment by opening their house and their hearts to people with AIDS.

"Someone asked me recently how I measure their love," Marilyn says, grinning.

"I answered, 'From the smiles on their faces.' And when there's a meal on the table and everyone asks for seconds and thirds. That's pure love. And when I walk in the door after being out sick for a day, and everyone wants to hug me and they're all worried about how I'm doing instead of being worried about themselves. If that's not love, what is?"

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