Austin American Statesman

Learning From Angels
Documentary chronicles family's struggle with life and death in face of AIDS


American-Statesman Staff

It's stolen her husband, her son and her brother. It's forever altered the way she commemorates birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has robbed Gerri Briggs of almost everything she holds dear. It likely will take her life.

But it hasn't taken her spirit or her dignity, qualities Briggs shares next week in a premiere of Angels Watch Over Me - Jim, Gerri and Jason's Story, a compelling documentary that chronicles the struggle of a young family destroyed by this life threatening disease.

"The video is about a lot of things, about our family and how we found out we had HIV (the virus that is linked to AIDS) and about the will to survive," says Briggs, 28, who now lives in Houston and works as an AIDS educator. "It's about how to make the best of every situation.

"There is so much people can take away with them from this video," says Briggs, who has tested positive for HIV "I hope out of this tragic, awful mess that people can also see the silver lining."

The documentary, which will premiere July 30 at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, is the latest of a series of educational videos filmmakers Cindy Pickard of Vanderpool and her son, Andy Pickard of Hunt, have produced about grieving and bereavement.

"It's a fabulous film that will be very popular with school groups, teen groups and hospitals that are providing education in the community," says Leslie Kussmann, president of Aquarius Production Inc., a Boston company that is distributing the film. "It has a universal message that will touch everyone, that no matter how young or how old, everyone has the potential to be vulnerable to getting AIDS. It's important that people understand that."

The Briggs family, Gerri, her husband Jim and baby Jason, were living in Austin in 1989 when their picture-perfect world turned upside down. That's when they learned that their infant son, who constantly was running a fever and had to be hospitalized, had AIDS. They knew the only way their baby could have AIDS was if they gave it to him. And the only way they could have been exposed to the virus was by heterosexual sex.

Cindy Pickard, whose organization, Rites of Passage ACA, helped care for Jason during his illness, says the hour long Angels Watch Over Me is "a love story in the truest sense."

Through photos, home videos and interviews, the documentary follows Gerri and Jim Briggs through the stages and passages of their lives - high school (where they were both honor students), their wedding, Jason's birth, their tests for HIV, the death in 1991 of their beloved 2-year-old son, the following months of despair and grief, Gerri and Jim's decision to separate, their decisions to become AIDS educators and Jim's death in November 1994, at age 30.

"I feel very strongly that this video has a message for everyone, not only about AIDS but about life and death," says Pickard. "In a time of cynicism, materialism and violence, it offers a message of hope and the dignity and resilience of the human spirit."

Mimi Perry, Jim Briggs mother, is featured in several video segments, an appearance she says was "to remind people to appreciate what they have before they lose it." "I think that's really important," says Perry a Marble Falls school teacher.

I think I did appreciate what I had, but I really appreciate what I have left."

Shortly after Perry's grandson, Jason Briggs, died of AIDS, Perry's daughter died of stomach cancer, and her son, Jim, died of AIDS.

In another tragic coincidence, in between the deaths of Jason and Jim, Gerri Briggs older brother died of AIDS-related illness.

Briggs, who will attend the premiere, describes her health as "pretty good." She has not suffered any of the opportunistic infections that plague AIDS patients. A private person, she says sharing her story with others has been difficult. But Briggs says she "opens her world to others" so that people can see how AIDS has destroyed her family

"It's hard," she admits. "It brings up stuff I have to work through, memories I'd sometimes rather forget."

The day of the premiere, Gerri Briggs would have celebrated her seventh wedding anniversary. A week later, her son Jason would have turned 6.

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