A DELIVERY MAN HAS ARRIVED AT the door of the ramshackle, ranch-style house in Sarasota, Fla., two large pizzas in hand. He looks across the living room to 14-year-old Ricky Ray, a frail wisp of a boy with pale skin, bleached blond hair and a hacking cough. “Hey, congratulations, son!” he shouts. “But listen, I want to talk to you before you get married. A little advice, you know?”
Ricky, who is suffering from AIDS, grins broadly. After five years of unrelieved bad news, something joyous is finally happening. Pending a county judge’s permission (required for those under 16 seeking to marry), he is going to wed his 16-year-old girlfriend, Wenonah Lindberg.
It was in 1986 that Clifford and Louise Ray discovered that their sons, Ricky, Robert, now 13, and Randy, 12—all hemophiliacs—were carrying the AIDS virus. When word got out in the small town of Arcadia, the family was harassed, the boys banned from public school and their home destroyed by fire, forcing the Rays to flee to nearby Sarasota. Last year Robert was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and four months ago Ricky found out he had toxoplasmosis. The disease, caused by a parasite that attacks the central nervous system, meant that Ricky too had AIDS. But he has never been one to surrender. Last week Ricky announced that he and Wenonah were engaged. The wedding is set for Dec. 13, “because that’s before Christmas,” he says, “and so we can start a brand new year, start fresh.”
The couple met four years ago when they registered at Gocio Elementary School, right after Ricky moved to Sarasota. For the first 18 months, “Wenonah was like my very best friend,” he says. Then they began talking on the phone every day, visiting each other, going out to movies and renting videos together. She started cooking for Ricky and caring for him when he fell ill. By February, when Ricky discovered that the toxoplasmosis, which had caused lesions in his eye, could quickly spread, he and Wenonah concluded there was no time to waste. “With it being so easy for [the infection] to get into the spinal cord or brain and kill me, we decided to do it sooner,” he says. “Because of my situation, we want to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with each other.”
Both teenagers have the blessing of their parents. “Marriage is condoned by God. It’s the right thing,” says Clifford, 33, an unemployed corrections officer. “I got a call today from someone who said my whole family was sick. It just makes me more determined that I’m going to stand tougher behind my son.” Says Wenonah’s father, John, 42, a disabled Vietnam veteran who serves as chaplain for the local VFW chapter: “There’s an understanding and love and togetherness between them. I know a lot of adults that don’t have half the maturity they do.” And to those who have criticized the Rays for going public about the engagement in newspapers and on television talk shows, Louise offers an impassioned defense. “From the beginning we’ve told people that we were doing this to educate. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there with AIDS and lots of teenagers who think, ‘I’m never going to have a normal life, I’ll never get married, no one’s ever going to love me.’ That’s just not true.”
Ricky and Wenonah plan to practice safe sex after taking classes offered by the Sarasota Health Department. Both the Rays and Lindbergs have offered their garage apartments to the bride and groom, who plan to live on the $300 monthly trust payments Ricky receives from the $1.1 million settlement his parents got in 1988 after suing the De Soto County School Board. Meantime Ricky and Wenonah, against all odds, are nurturing their hopes and dreams—including plans to start a family after they finish high school, either by adoption or artificial insemination. “She understands she might be a young widow, then again she might be stuck with me for 40 years,” says Ricky. “I’ve always known the end of this is death, but we also think there may be a cure.” Whatever happens, Wenonah is certain she’ll have no regrets. “I love him,” she says. “Even a little bit of time with him will be worth it.”
MEG GRANT in Sarasota