Mary Fisher is the granddaughter of Papaharry and Flohoney Switow, the great-uncle and great-aunt who had been like an extra set of grandparents to me. Mary’s mother, Marjorie Switow, had grown up in Louisville in our rowdy, extended family. Marjorie’s first husband had abandoned her to raise two young children, Mary and her brother Phillip. Mutual friends subsequently introduced Marjorie to Max Fisher, an accomplished businessman and Republican Party leader from Michigan. In 1953, Marjorie married Max and moved her children from Louisville to Detroit for a new life with their adoptive father.
As the decades passed, I’d see Mary occasionally at family events and was generally aware of her life’s course: growing up in affluence, graduating from a fine prep school, working as a television producer and then as the first female “advance man” at the White House during the presidency of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford. After both Ford and Mary had left the White House, she pursued a promising art career, married a fellow artist and was raising two sons with him in Florida.
I did not know in July 1991 that her marriage had faltered, a mean divorce had occurred, and Brian, by then her ex-husband, had called to tell her that he’d tested positive for HIV. When Mary went in for testing, she learned she also had been infected (although, fortunately, her sons were not). In the following months, Mary’s mother Marjorie quietly sought my counsel, which I gladly shared. I knew Mary’s treatment was in the hands of superb physicians and I wanted to respect her privacy, so I never contacted Mary myself.
I watched with pride in early 1992 as Mary went public with her status in an interview with newswoman Diane Sawyer, and as she became an advocate for AIDS awareness and prevention. She delivered, and epitomized, a message that was hugely important: If a straight, white, suburban, Republican mom could get the AIDS virus, so could you.
When we first started saying that the 1917 Clinic’s slogan was “Birthdays are our business,” it had a fingers-crossed, whistling-through-the-graveyard feel to it. Now, we say it like we mean it. When we get a patient through to a big number—whether that’s a birthday or a CD4 count—we make a fuss.
In spring 2013, we marked two milestones I sometimes doubted I’d see: my distant-cousin Mary’s 65th birthday and the “silver anniversary” of the 1917 Clinic.
For Mary, we baked a cake with enough candles to bring out Birmingham’s fire brigade.
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