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At age 3, Juan Franco Jr. is too young to know what AIDS is.

But he's not too young to sense what AIDS has cost him.

The disease has wiped out his family.

First, his father, Juan, 39, a longtime heroin and cocaine addict, died of AIDS complications in January 1994.

Then his little sister, Irene -- the bubbly baby born with AIDS and the yellow skin to prove it -- died last summer. She was only 18 months old.

Finally, on Saturday night, the real fighter in the family, his mother, Blanca, 23, lost her battle for life in Columbus Hospital. But not before she had made funeral arrangements for three-quarters of her family.

"You want to talk about somebody who's strong?" asked Andres Garcia, Columbus Hospital president and family friend. "Blanca planned everything from the beginning to the end, from her husband's funeral, to her baby's funeral, to her own. And, in between, she did volunteer work for the community when she wasn't too ill."

Mrs. Franco counseled other people who were HIV-positive, encouraging them to come out of denial. She also became the most powerful advocate for a local harm-reduction and needle-exchange program, speaking at community meetings to share her personal pain.

"She said if they had had needle exchange (earlier), perhaps her husband would not be infected, she would not be infected and their baby would not be infected," said Isidro Oyola, a family friend and an HIV counselor with Project Reach.

All three are gone now, leaving only Juan Jr., who has not contracted the virus.

"Juan senses a lot," said Oyola, the boy's legal guardian. "He saw the ambulance come many times to pick up his father and his little sister, and the last time they picked them up, they didn't come back."

In life, Juan Jr. will become a symbol of the deadly disease.

"As long as I live, whenever I see Juan Jr., he will be a reminder to me of the tragedy of
AIDS and what it did to his family," Garcia said. "People can say whatever they want to say about people bringing the disease onto themselves, but AIDS has other faces besides the stereotyped people who get infected."

One face of AIDS belonged to little Irene.

She grew only one inch in her 18 months. When she turned 1, she got a new black velvet dress, one that was made for 3-to-6-month-old babies. She was buried in that dress, which still was too big for her.

Irene had frequent bouts with pneumonia and spent much of her life being fed through a tube.

"That baby was ill from the day she was born," Garcia said. "But even though she was real sick, she would smile at you -- a smile that would break your heart."

It also hurt when Garcia went to the baby's funeral, along with only a handful of other people.

"I had to carry the casket by myself," he recalled.

Neither Garcia nor Oyola had kind words about Juan Franco Sr., describing him as selfish for continuing to infect people, even after he knew he was HIV positive.

"Whatever anger Blanca and the family didn't have toward him, I have it," Garcia said.

But he and Oyola had nothing but the highest praise for Blanca Franco, who was to be buried today in Elmlawn Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda, next to Juan Sr. and Irene.

She was very bright, learning English in about six months after she came here from Puerto Rico. Circumstances forced her to grow up quickly. She tended to a dying husband and an infant daughter attached to a feeding tube, while caring for her little boy and preparing for her own death.

"That was a 23-year-old girl making down payments on her own burial plot, like others make a down payment on a dress or a piece of furniture," Oyola said.

Although she knew she had been infected by her husband, Blanca Franco loved him until the end. She also thanked God for all the time she had with Irene. In her last days, more of her thoughts turned to her surviving son.

"She knew that her son would live the life she never lived," Oyola said. "That's all she cared about. She wanted him to live her dream for her."

Oyola and his wife, Nelly, plan to adopt Juan Jr.

When he's old enough, they plan to tell him how much his mother loved him, how she made sure he would go to a loving home, how she died with dignity and how she prayed he would become a man of character.

They will encourage him to finish school and be the best he can be, reminding him of his heritage when needed.

The Oyolas also have established the Juan Franco Jr. Educational Trust Fund to help him realize his own family's unfulfilled dreams.

"I'm a religious person," Oyola said. "I say God may have a mission for Juan, if he spared him from all that. I can see Juan fulfilling that mission."

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