How Nellie Oleson Became an AIDS Activist



“I wanted you to hear it from me, not on the news. I’m really sorry I lied to you,” he said softly. He explained that he was trying to spare me the worry and the pain. He admitted he had known it was AIDS for some time, before most of his doctors, in fact. In the early 1980s, few doctors were very knowledgeable about AIDS, whereas Steve had kept up with all the medical research from the first moment the disease was even whispered about in the gay community. In fact, when he initially got sick, he had a sinking suspicion what it was. There was no blood test yet, so he went to doctor after doctor until he got a proper diagnosis.

I cried like a maniac at the news. He went on about fighting it and experimental treatments. He tried to reassure me, telling me not to be so upset, that “it wasn’t really a death sentence.” But the reality was that the average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 was nine months. There was no “drug cocktail” to suppress the virus, no combination therapy, no protease inhibitors or any of the medical advances we take for granted today. Good Lord, there wasn’t even AZT yet. People with AIDS didn’t get better. I was going to have to watch my friend die.

I told him I would be brave, but when I hung up the phone, I lay on the bed, facedown in the pillow, and screamed and screamed.

I was twenty-four years old. Both of my parents were still alive, I wasn’t old enough to have lost friends in Vietnam, and I was born in an age when epidemics like diphtheria and polio were distant memories. Death was something that happened to very, very old people. Not your friends. Not people you depended on. And I was already in mourning — I had lost Auntie Marion the summer before.

Marion had liver cancer. She remained very brave and dignified, right up until the end. When the medical transportation service came to take her to the convalescent home, she sighed and said, “Well, I guess I’d better go shave my legs.” She had already done her hair and didn’t want any part of her looking unkempt when the nice men loaded her into the ambulance. She refused to have a private room. She though it presumptuous, and, besides, she loved to talk to people. She remained beautiful; her skin was so perfect that staff at the facility would ask why this much younger woman was sharing a room with those two old ladies. She was seventy-seven.

Ever polite and considerate, on the day she died she waited until the senior nurse came on duty in the morning. She looked up, smiled, and said, “Oh, good. You’re here.” She then closed her eyes and stopped breathing. She wouldn’t have thought it right to die in front of young trainees; it might upset them.

As much as Marion had tried to prepare us, I was devastated. The person I could count on to know right from wrong, who had taken such good care of me all those years on the Little House set, was gone.

Now Steve. He was more than my friend. He was also a mentor and protector. He gave me great confidence as an actress. Like Katherine MacGregor, he, too, had studied acting extensively, but rather than telling people what they were doing wrong, Steve took great pleasure in letting me know when I had it right. He was nine years older, but he treated me as an equal. When he was just starting out on Little House, a reporter asked him how it felt to play opposite a girl of no more than seventeen. The guy was digging for dirt. But Steve had nothing but good things to say about me: I was a breeze to work with, and I had impeccable comedic timing. He didn’t have to say that. Neither I nor my publicist was in the room, and I wasn’t going to get him fired. But he said it anyway, and he told me he really meant it.

Steve was thirty-two when he was diagnosed with AIDS. The idea of anyone dying at thirty-two struck me as obscene. And for it to be my friend was downright unforgivable. He kept telling me not to, but I cried every day.

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