Rhaynetta's Cause

Even through her own struggle with the disease, Rhaynetta Cheatham has worked tirelessly to bring AIDS awareness where it's most needed: Miami's black community

Those closest to her worry that she'll give up. She talks as though she won't, but she doesn't hide her desolation about the loss of her husband. "You get one love like that in your lifetime," Cheatham affirms, nodding, lifting onto her lap a glass-covered framed photo of the two of them standing on a porch, him reaching his arms around her waist from behind. "I ain't gonna train another one. You have to break 'em in, you know. I got lucky with that one." She stares straight ahead, forearms resting on her once-ample thighs, fingers laced.

Later in the day Cheatham has to drive her rusting, temperamental Buick to the beauty-supply store to pick up the hair extensions her friend will braid into her real hair to make long strands. She chooses eight packs at a dollar apiece. Paying the clerk, Cheatham accidentally gives him an extra ten-dollar bill. Her coordination is off, and the clerk is frowning uncomfortably. "Hey, my name ain't Imelda," she jokes, rolling her eyes and bringing a smile to the cashier's face.

Outside, pausing at a stoplight on Biscayne Boulevard, Cheatham spots a tall, down-and-out man with a caved-in chest and a toothless grin panhandling the captive cars. Before he gets to her, she leans out the window and yells, "Go to Camillus House!" He looks toward her with a look of pure innocent indignation, strands of greasy hair stuck to his forehead and jaw. But his tormentor is no mere commuter. "Go to Camillus House!" she calls again, waving him away.

She knows this man from her time doing homeless outreach, Cheatham explains. "We bought him two sets of teeth," she recounts with a mix of distaste and amusement. "He sold 'em both for crack."

Three days later, Cheatham will take her place at a round table under a tent on the shores of Biscayne Bay. She'll hear Ruth Shack, president of the Dade Community Foundation, introduce her to the assembled guests at the Mothers' Voices awards luncheon. "I can tell you this is one extraordinary woman," Shack will declare. "She has the spirit of a warrior and the pragmatism of a mother's strong voice. Rhaynetta Cheatham is often controversial and always honest."

With the help of the woman sitting next to her, Cheatham will rise and step to the podium. "I don't feel like an extraordinary woman," she'll say a bit hesitantly, casting about for the old dynamic style that has fallen prey to the infection in her brain. A few times she'll grasp for words or phrases that won't come. "Y'all are embarrassing me. I'm not used to this," she'll protest unconvincingly. Then she'll conclude softly: "This award is for every person with HIV who didn't have one person in their family they could go to."

"I didn't want to die miserable. God is something I could put in place of all those feelings and fears that come to the surface.

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