PILLAGER -- For brothers Nathan and Nicholis Statz, the five-day Heartland AIDS Ride from the Twin Cities to Chicago isn't just going to be a long-distance biking adventure this summer.
It's one passage along a very personal journey that began the day their parents, Jim and Connie Statz, sat down their teen-age sons and told them that Connie had AIDS.
"Five days of hard riding is nothing compared to what I've seen my mom go through," said Nicholis, now 23. "It's not just a ride to me. I take this very personal."
Nathan was 17 and Nicholis was 15 when their mom found out she had AIDS. Connie contracted the deadly virus from AIDS-tainted blood products she received during surgery in 1981, but she wasn't diagnosed until 1993. At 46, Statz is a long-term AIDS survivor, having lived with the disease for almost 21 years.
Nathan Statz, 27, a chiropractor in Virginia Beach, Va., is training to ride in the Heartland AIDS Ride from the Twin Cities to Chicago July 22-27. He and his brother, Nicholis, are riding for their mother, Connie Statz, who is a long-term AIDS survivor.
"She's the strongest person I know," said Nathan, 27. "She's my hero. And she becomes most people's hero, too."
Before Connie was diagnosed she was given several different tests in an attempt to figure out why she was so tired and experiencing a rapid weight loss. When she told her boys that her doctor had even tested her for AIDS, they laughed. Why would their mom have AIDS?
"For about a week, we had a good laugh over it," Nicholis recalled. "There was no way my mom could have AIDS. That's a gay disease."
A week later, the test results came back. Doctors told Connie she had 18 months to live.
"She's the strongest person I know. She's my hero. And she becomes most people's hero, too." -- Nathan Statz, 27
"Five days of hard riding is nothing compared to what I've seen my mom go through. It's not just a ride to me. I take this very personal." -- Nicholis Statz, 23
"It blew us off our feet," said Nicholis. "It's something I would never wish upon anybody."
The family knew very little about AIDS back then. They washed their silverware and dishes separately from Connie's. They feared they would be ostracized from the Pillager community if anyone outside the family found out.
Soon after her diagnosis, it happened. A Pillager church, without their permission, announced one Sunday that Connie was in the hospital dying of AIDS. A classmate of Nicholis' called during the summer break and told him he could forget about having any friends during the upcoming school year because his mom had AIDS. The family received strange phone calls and at times had to take the phone off the hook.
Nicholis Statz posed with the two ladies in his life his mother, Connie Statz, and his daughter, Maija, 5 1/2 months. Nicholis, who works mostly weekends and nights as a certified nursing assistant at a Brainerd group home, is the primary caregiver for his mother, who has AIDS, and his daughter. He and his girlfriend, Kate Andrews, are living with his parents, Jim and Connie Statz. (Dispatch Photo by Steve Kohls)
Nathan had already left for college, but Nicholis was still at home and a junior at Pillager High School. He worried he wouldn't be able to find a girlfriend. He worried his friends would abandon him. That people wouldn't even want to touch or come near him. And mostly, he was protective of his mom and angry that she had AIDS.
"The thing that bothered me was how can you talk trash about someone's mom who is dying?" said Nicholis.
No one mentioned anything about his mom for the first few months of the school year, but Nicholis knew people were talking about her behind his back. Connie decided to speak to the entire high school in October of 1993 in order to explain the disease to students and faculty for Nicholis. She also brought in a doctor to talk about the disease.
"I had to speak so it was OK," Connie said. "So people weren't afraid."
When it was Connie's turn to stand up and speak about her battle with AIDS, Nicholis watched from the top of the bleachers, shaking nervously. She told students how she got AIDS and that her sons and husband did not have the disease. She spoke about how difficult it was to have AIDS.
By the end of her speech, Nicholis found himself surrounded by classmates and teachers. They hugged him, giving the teen-ager their full support.
Connie's battle with AIDS helped shape the men her sons have turned out to be. It has brought the family closer together.
Nathan is a chiropractor in Virginia Beach, Va. His mother's diagnosis strengthened his decision to go into medicine. In his chiropractic practice he works with many AIDS patients. People with AIDS feel shunned, so Nathan doesn't hesitate to give them a hug. He said he lets them know how he himself is affected by AIDS and that he understands what they are going through.
"Being able to help people in any way is something I wanted to do," said Nathan.
Nicholis works as a certified nursing assistant at a Brainerd group home. He's been his mom's primary caregiver, taking care of her when she's sick and making sure she takes her 32 pills a day. He and his girlfriend, Kate Andrews, have a 5 1/2-month-old daughter, Maija. They live with Jim and Connie Statz, and since Nicholis mainly works evenings and weekends, he takes care of both his mom and daughter, the two "ladies in his life," he said.
"He's constantly after me to take my nap and remember my pills," said Connie with a smile.
The brothers have named themselves "Team Connie," and will ride in the Heartland AIDS Ride July 22-27, in honor of their mom and her battle with the disease. They need to raise $2,500 each to participate in the ride, but they are pushing themselves to attempt to raise $20,000. Participants ride about 100 miles a day and Nicholis said he's pushing himself to make that distance in less than five hours.
Connie plans to be there when they take off from the Twin Cities July 22, cheering them on, and will be in Chicago when her sons arrive at the finish line.
"I'm just bursting with pride," said Connie. "I think this will bring them even closer together."
To donate to the Statz brothers so they can bike the Heartland AIDS Ride, pick up donation forms at Trailblazer Bikes in Brainerd or make donations online at www.BeThePeople.com. To donate online, you'll need the Statz brothers' participant rider numbers. Nicholis Statz is No. 1914 and Nathan Statz is No. 1915.
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