“When I got there, I just stood in the doorway and thought, 'Who is that?'" says Jeaneen. “My mom—I couldn’t recognize her. I mean, she was probably 85, maybe 80 pounds, and she was lying there and I was—and it—seeing that was so heartbreaking”—she stops, apologizing, unable to hold her tears back even now. “It was such a shock to me that I couldn’t even move.
“And then I went in there and jumped into the bed with her and held her.”
Sharon says that’s why she’s alive. “I’ll never forget how wonderful it was to have her warm body next to me, and she was just saying, ‘Mom, I love you. I want you to get well so we can go home and I can take care of you.’”
The next morning, Jeaneen left the hospital briefly to take a shower. At that point, as Sharon writes in her 2006 book, Sacred Living, Sacred Dying, she had a near-death experience during which she was offered the option of living or continuing on into the tunnel of light, and she made the choice to come back to her daughter. By the time Jeaneen returned, Sharon knew she’d be home before long.
Her family, her doctors, everyone was stunned that AIDS didn’t take her then. Bowers, who’s now at Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina, says, “I’ve never seen anybody who wants to live more than Sharon.” She had only three T cells.
“Yeah, I call them Hope, Love, and Laughter,” Sharon half jokes. “They’re always with me.”
Living back in Southern California now, Sharon has a T cell count of 205, barely above the AIDS line, “but at least out of the danger zone,” she says optimistically. The best news is that the viral load in her blood is undetectable, an indication that the drug cocktail she’s on is suppressing the HIV. (Imagine a train heading toward a cliff: The T cell count tells you how far away you are from death by AIDS; the viral load, how fast you’re going, explains Monica Gandhi, MD, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.) Hoping at some point to get off medication, Sharon follows a regimen that includes acupuncture, visualization, meditation, and stress reduction—all in an effort to increase her energy level so she can go out on the talk circuit again to share her story.
“So many factors go into rebuilding an immune system,” says Susan Wellborn, a holistic nurse practitioner at the Center for Special Immunology in Fountain Valley who cares for Sharon now and is amazed by her spirit. “I’ve been in this business long enough to see that the patients who do well are not depending just on medicine but are taking care of their whole being.”
In her characteristic “bright-side only” way, Sharon will tell you how AIDS has been a blessing, making her who she is today—and with her 58th birthday on November 30, she couldn’t be luckier. Hard at work on her next book, she’s finally found herself in a loving relationship with a man she met almost seven years ago. He ran the copy shop where she went to do her xeroxing. “The first thing that moved when I saw her,” says Hector Parra, “was my heart.”
On their first date, before they went out, she tried to sit him down at her house: “I have to tell you something.”
“I don’t want to know about your past,” he said.
“You have to know my past,” she insisted. “I’m not going out with you if you don’t let me tell you about it, Hector.”
They wrangled back and forth like this until she finally said it: She had AIDS.
All he replied was, “Oh, okay.”