Ricky Ray says he doesn't know whether he has a few weeks or years to live, but the 14-year-old with hemophilia and AIDS wants to spend the time married to his 16-year-old sweetheart. A December wedding is planned. Both sets of parents have given their blessing.
"I'm real happy for them, to be honest," Ricky's mother, Louise Ray, said Sunday. "I think Ricky having AIDS has made it a little different. If he didn't have AIDS I think I would have made them wait. But with AIDS, it's not a normal life or a normal life expectancy."
If she refused to let them marry and Ricky died, Mrs. Ray said she would feel guilty that she had kept the two apart. "I think they deserve whatever amount of time they have, whether it's two months or six months or 10 years."
Ricky's bride-to-be is Wenonah Lindberg, a neighbor he met in school almost four years ago. They have been best friends since.
Ricky is one of three brothers with hemophilia who are all believed to have contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, through tainted blood-clotting agents.
He was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in March, and an AIDS-related infection that already has caused temporary blindness in his right eye could invade his brain or spinal cord.
His uncertain future made him decide to marry, he said. "I could have two years or two months or two weeks, or I could live to be 140."
Ricky said his fiancee has stuck by him throughout his medical ordeals since the Ray family moved to Sarasota in 1987. The Rays had fled from nearby Arcadia after an arsonist destroyed their home following a highly publicized battle with the DeSoto County School Board to keep the boys in school.
Ricky is the oldest of the Rays' three sons. A daughter, Candy, 10, is free of AIDS.
Wenonah, the oldest of five sisters, said she decided to marry Ricky because they talk openly with each other and enjoy each other's company. It doesn't matter whether she's cooking for him or they're watching a video together.
The fact that Ricky could die from AIDS doesn't matter either, she said as both families gathered at the Rays' home.
"I'm just happy to be with him for the time that I have with him," she said as they sat on a sofa and held hands. "Even a little bit of time is worth it."
Wenonah said she doesn't worry about contracting the HIV virus because she and Ricky plan to learn safe-sex practices from the National Hemophilia Foundation, the local health department and their doctors.
The teen-agers set a Dec. 13 date for their vows.
Ricky gave Wenonah a gold pre-engagement ring this spring and proposed the day before Mother's Day.
He and his father, Cliff, 33, had picked out the diamond engagement ring in advance.
Because Ricky is younger than 16, the legal age for marriage in Florida, he will have to petition a judge for permission. If that permission is denied, Mrs. Ray said, Ricky, Wenonah and their parents would have a ceremony in Texas, where the marriage would be legal.
They would then return to Sarasota for a Dec. 13 symbolic ceremony.
The teen-agers want to be married near the end of the year so that they can begin a new year together, Mrs. Ray said.
Wenonah will be 17 in October; Ricky turns 15 in January.
They said they may start a family in a few years using artificial insemination through a sperm bank because Ricky's body fluids can transmit the AIDS virus, but for now are focusing on plans for the wedding, setting up house and staying in school.
When Wenonah's father, John, a 42-year-old disabled Vietnam War veteran, and her mother told a few acquaintances about the wedding plans, Wenonah began to hear from some who said the marriage would be a mistake.
But she politely and firmly tells those who try to talk her out it that she's comfortable with her decision.
Louise Ray, 33, whose family has been in the headlines for more than five years, said she has warned Wenonah that some people and news reporters may say and write things that she won't like.
"There are people out there who are going to say a lot of bad things, that they're too young, that she's too old for him, or that she's marrying him because she knows he's going to die and she'll get money (from a $1.1-million settlement by the School Board in Arcadia that tried to bar the brothers) . . .
"On the other hand, there are going to be people thinking this is the greatest love story of the century and how wonderful it is. Fortunately, the reaction of both of them has been that they don't really care what other people say."
The families were bombarded with media attention Sunday, the day the story of the wedding appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Mrs. Ray said the families decided to go public with the wedding plans so that the story would appear first in the mainstream media rather than in the tabloids.
"We realize people may say we're terrible parents and that Wenonah's parents are terrible for putting her in that predicament, but it's our lives and we have to do what we think is best," she said. Mrs. Ray said she and Wenonah have had long discussions about what the 16-year-old is getting herself into.
"I've been real honest with her. I've explained that her sexual life can't be, per se, normal," Mrs. Ray said. Even using condoms doesn't guarantee the disease can't be transmitted, she said.
Ricky and Wenonah already have discussed serious subjects that many other couples find difficult to address, including death.
Wenonah's mother, Debbie Lindberg, 39, recalled a conversation she recently overheard:
"Ricky looked at her and said, "You know, you'll probably be a young widow.' Wenonah looked down and started crying, and Ricky said to her, "I want you to get remarried again. I want you to have another life after this, and if you don't find somebody, I'll come back and find somebody for you.'
"That shows real love, a true love . . . that most people getting married don't have," Ms. Lindberg said. "And it shows how adult these two young people are. They're not your normal kids."
Ms. Lindberg said she has no qualms about the union.
"I don't have any of the fears most people would have. I believe my daughter could contract the HIV virus just dating out there," she said. "I know how responsible Ricky is, and I know how much in love they are. I'm very excited about it," she said.
Ms. Lindberg remembers the day Wenonah met Ricky.
"She came home and said, "Boy, Mom, that Ricky Ray is fine.' "
The only argument Mrs. Lindberg remembers between Ricky and Wenonah was over where they would live after they get married. The solution: Each family plans to convert its garage into an apartment for the young couple, who will alternate staying in the apartments and sharing meals with the families.
"They'll have own space, their own locked door and their own home," Ms. Lindberg said.
Both teen-agers already attend classes at home and plan to continue. Ricky receives homebound instruction from the county school system, and Mrs. Lindberg teaches Wenonah.
"They're both very firm about continuing their education," Mrs. Ray said. "They realize how important it is."
Her future daughter-in-law has adopted the positive attitude that the rest of the Ray family maintains, Mrs. Ray said. "I think she kind of deals with it like we do. She knows what can happen, but you live a day at a time. You enjoy that moment, and you make special memories."
_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.