THE ROOM WAS ROUND, its curved walls newly hung with dry wall. Near the door stood a table with two chocolate cakes and a blueberry pie, fruit, coffee and lemonade. Off center in the room, sitting on a plank bench, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross urged everyone to eat the cakes and pie she had made for the press conference. A dozen reporters, mostly from small towns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, formed a semi-circle around her. Television lights flashed on her glasses.
"This is a natural evolution of my work," she began. Her voice was very soft and heavily accented with the throaty, rolling r's and staccato t's of her Swiss-German heritage.
"We have always worked with the neediest people -- first with dying grown-ups, then with dying children. This time reminds me very much of when I started to work with dying patients 20 years ago at the University of Chicago. Nobody wanted to touch dying patients. Everybody said, 'That's crazy.' Now hospices are springing up all over the country like Chicken Delights."
She got the chuckle she was after, and smiled in response. The lines around her mouth and above her eyebrows are still fine, her face still taut, though she is 59. "Then we worked with Vietnam vets, to make them feel whole again," she continued. "And parents of murdered children, and of children who committed suicide. Now we want to build a foster home for children with AIDS, starting small, maybe with 15 children. If it becomes an enormous epidemic, I hope we can start centers in other states. I can take them in my own house if this gets too small."
She was interrupted by questions on the mechanics of her plans: zoning, health permits, costs. "We are almost a self-sufficient farm here," she said. "We have our own eggs, firewood, sheep, vegetables, hundreds of cans of home-grown food in the root cellar. And we will have highly polished swing sets and wooden toys, to reduce the risk of injury and infection to the children."
"Some people claim that AIDS is divine retribution," a reporter said. "Do you agree with them?"
"Wait until it's their family, and see how they feel then." The very soft voice hardened. "Let them study what Christ teaches, to love thy neighbor as thyself, and not spread fear and shame. This is not just a disease of homosexuals, but a tragedy for all of society."
Kubler-Ross leaned forward to look closely, searchingly, into the faces of her audience. "Peo- ple with AIDS are the loneliest, most isolated, most rejected people in our society today. And these innocent little babies are being abandoned, doomed."
After the press conference, she took a cup of coffee outside and pointed out where the last of three round buildings would be built to finish the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Center near Headwaters, Va., in the Appalachian Mountains. She intends to bring the participants of her internationally popular workshops and training sessions here, so she no longer will have to travel thousands of miles around the world every year. She gestured toward the fields where a separate facility for AIDS children could be situated.
Then she lit a cigarette. "If you ask me why I smoke," she said to forestall the inevitable question, "it's because I am not afraid to die."
EVEN IN THE mountains the late summer heat was as thick as tar. The white clapboards of the farmhouse glared too brightly to be looked at. A black kitten, a St. Bernard puppy, a pair of turkeys and a flock of chickens dozed companionably throughout the yard under the shade of lilac and forsythia bushes.
Inside the farmhouse, the kitchen was dark and cool. Betsy kneaded bread on the long wooden dining table. She is tall and slim, with slanting eyes, creamy skin and a gracious, dignified manner. Two years ago, with one semester left to get a law degree, Betsy learned she had cancer. She moved to the center last spring, after attending one of Kubler-Ross' Death, Dying and Transition workshops and hearing that the center needed a cook.
Liz came in, her black hair damp with sweat from pulling onions, and flopped onto the faded living room couch. The garden was her responsibility this past year; the year before, when she first came, she had been the cook. Liz, 32, is a social worker who lost her job in a state mental hospital several years ago when the patient abuse suit she filed against her employers was dismissed. After that Liz subsisted on odd part- time jobs, trying to rediscover a purpose in life.
She moved to the center in 1984, shortly after Kubler-Ross bought the 250-acre farm. After six or eight months Liz began to draw a salary of a couple hundred ollars a month. The pay of volunteers depends in part on how long they have been at the center. Room and board are provided.
To Kubler-Ross, volunteerism is a matter of course. As a young woman during World War II, she worked nights and weekends to help thousands of refugees flooding into her native Switzerland from Nazi Germany. After the war she joined an international volunteer group to work as a cook, nurse and mason rebuilding villages in France and Poland. A visit to the Maidanek concentration camp, where she found hundreds of butterflies scratched by fingernails into the prisoner bunks, made a profound impact on her. Butterflies of every fantastic style and species now hang from the windows, the ceilings, and on the appliances in the farmhouse.
Several American Indian rugs also decorate the painted wood walls. Before Kubler-Ross came to America in 1958, with the American husband she met while both studied medicine at the University of Zurich, she dreamed that she had been an Indian. She pictured a specific mesa with distinctive rocks. Years later she traveled through the Southwest and found the very same mesa, the same rocks. In the 1960s while she researched psychophysiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Kubler-Ross described under hypnosis specific incidents of life as an American Indian. At about this time she quietly began researching life after death, research she later claimed scientifically validated her assertions. It was also at the University of Colorado that Kubler-Ross gave the first of her lectures on the care of dying patients that later, in the 1970s, made her famous.
Kubler-Ross parked her blue Pontiac Firebird under the ancient maple beside the farmhouse and walked into the kitchen. "How are you?" she said to Betsy as she hugged her. Then she noticed the freshly baked loaves of bread on the table. "Where did the wheat for those come from?" Betsy mentioned the name of a farmer up the oad. "I said absolutely, absolutely no more buying from him."
"But Elisabeth, we used our own money," Liz said.
"I don't care," Kubler-Ross replied. "It's not the money."
The farmer, who also works as a contractor, had done work on Kubler-Ross' new log house that she found unacceptable. There was silence in the kitchen.
"It's like talking to a wall," Kubler-Ross said.
"She can be pretty grumpy when she's home," Liz said later. "I've seen people come here that have her on a pedestal go away crushed, wondering how she can be any kind of spiritual person. But God, she works her butt off, and she doesn't have to. She could stay here and write more books. Instead she traipses all over, like to Alaska, just because she heard the suicide rate was so high there. She's always under pressure, so if she can't be a bitch at home, where can she be?"
ON A SEPTEMBER Sunday morning, Liz and some others at the farm sat on the front porch. Huge yellow onions, carefully spread on newspapers and hanging in bunches from ceiling hooks, were drying all around them. They talked about the nature of God, about the evolution of human consciousness and the possibility of World War III, about Kubler- Ross' philosophy of unconditional love.
Kenneth, who sat next to Liz, is tall and lanky. His face is narrow, with large and very clear eyes that are sometimes blue, sometimes gray. When other people talk he watches them with a puzzled, almost incredulous look. He can't explain why he moved to the center last May: something to do with a loveless childhood, perhaps, or an inability to shake bouts of depression. At 31, Kenneth is a recent convert to Catholicism. He said of Kubler-Ross: "She's as enlightened about God's plan as Mother Teresa or the pope."
Like Betsy, Kenneth came to the center after experiencing a Death, Dying and Transition workshop. Liz took her first workshop after she came to the center; Kubler-Ross requires all volun- teers to take one. Workshops consist of 70 to 80 people from a wide variety of backgrounds and often include terminally ill patients or their relatives. For five days and nights participants listen to lectures and share their personal despairs in what Kubler-Ross describes as "a rather intense, experiential manner." The workshop room is equipped with rubber hoses and phone books. "They beat the hell out of those phone books," Liz says.
A workshop costs $550, which includes room and board. The center is being built from Kubler-Ross' workshop and lecture fees, as well as from contributions and volunteered labor and materials. "I've never sent a bill in 20 years," Kubler-Ross says of the services she has extended to thousands of dying patients and their families.
Liz is training to work at Kubler- Ross' workshops. "I'll never judge anyone again after seeing into people's secret lives like that," she told the group on the porch. "You sit next to a clean-cut all-American guy, and you can't believe what a horrible load of pain he has been carrying around. I'm learning to do whatever work I need to do inside myself to just accept people. Everybody on this planet is a good person."
The conversation broke off as Kubler-Ross walked down the driveway and into the garden. Liz jumped up to join her, grabbing a basket as she went. While Liz held the basket, Kubler-Ross filled it with peppers, tomatoes and flowers. Kubler-Ross returned to her own house to cook, bake and can that night, dictating letters as she chopped and kneaded.
After Kubler-Ross left, Liz went for a solitary walk. Kenneth and the others had already drifted away. In the calm, cooling air of the autumn Sunday afternoon there was a lonely sort of tranquility arising from self- absorption.
"We're all here to work on something," Betsy said, "so there's a preoccupation with oneself." "It's not really a community," Liz said. "It's Elisabeth's property. She makes the major decisions and tells us what to do. It's a job here, a little different, but just like any other job in a lot of ways.
OCTOBER found Liz diggin potatoes. "God, is it only 4:15? Elisabeth will kill me if she saw me leave. She's such a damn workaholic." Liz forgot to wear her watch, and quit digging potatoes too early. The center's workday is 9 to 5.
Betsy already had a huge kettle of potato soup simmering, and was washing a mound of late season garden greens for salad. Kubler-Ross was coming for dinner, as she sometimes does, walking over from her house, and had told Betsy that other guests might join the farmhouse group. After dinner they would attend the community meeting that Kubler-Ross had scheduled in nearby Monterey to discuss her plans for an AIDS hospice.
Seven people sat down to dinner. All held hands while Kubler-Ross said grace in German. When she finished she peered quizzically at the steaming dishes. "It doesn't look like Japanese food," she said. "Thank God."
Kubler-Ross makes faces at the vegetarian meals Betsy likes to cook. Kubler-Ross buys 50 pounds of sugar at a time for her baking. Health comes, she believes, from ridding oneself of the spiritual negativity that fosters physical illness.
"Someone asked me if we were having police at the meeting," Kubler-Ross said.
"Please what?" Kenneth said, mocking her accent.
Kubler-Ross grinned and began to talk about her upcoming first trip to Africa, where AIDS is thought to have originated. She wants to learn how African healers treat AIDS. Although she has many medical credentials -- an M.D. degree from the University of Zurich, a psychiatric fellowship at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, an assistant professorship of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, honor- ary doctorates from more than a dozen colleges and universities -- she frequently condemns what she calls the "arrogance" of the medical establishment.
"Maybe the African healers know more than ours do," she said, "and I'm willing to stay in a jungle hut full of snakes for a night to be initiated into their teachings."
Most health care and counseling professionals acknowledge Kubler- Ross' seminal work with dying patients, and the famous five stages of dying she outlined in her 1969 best seller, Death and Dying are taught in college sociology classes across the country. But by the late 1970s, her shift from straight science to spiritualism had estranged her husband (they are now divorced) and eroded her support among professional colleagues.
Kubler-Ross claims to "know for a fact that there is a life after death." Death is merely a "beautiful transition" to a spiritual realm full of unimaginable love. Kubler- Ross bases many of her decisions on advice from her guardian angels in the spirit world, and has described visits from Jesus Christ. She is absolutely sure that, within the next decade, techical advances will produce an energy photograph of the separation of the physical from the spiritual that she believes occurs at death.
Kubler-Ross got up from the dinner table and patted her short, thin, indiscriminately gray-brown hair as if she were elegantly coiffed. "Do I look presentable?" she asked. She had on the same short-sleeved blouse she wore to the press conference a month ago, the same jeans, the same sandals. As she walked out the door, she said, "Be good and don't ask stupid questions."
Liz raced after her. "Dr. Kubler-Ross!" she yelled. "Is it true you dye your hair?"
OCTOBER twilight fired the reds and golds of trees along Monterey's main street into a spectacular blaze. Townspeople streamed toward the white frame church. Kubler-Ross had scheduled the meeting for 7 p.m. By 6:45 people lined the aisles, leaned against the stained glass windows, overflowed the choir balcony. "I've never seen this church so full," a woman said to her pew neighbor. "And I've been going here for 30 years."
Sitting on the curved wooden communion railing, Kubler-Ross introduced to the audience one of four physicians she had brought with her and turned over the microphone to him. He described current medical knowledge about AIDS and emphasized its low risk of contagion. The crowd listened politely. When the physician had finished, a man in the back of the room called out: "I just read that as of October 1 the Defense Department requires all recruits to take an AIDS test. If it isn't very contagious, like you say, seems like they could save the country a whole lot of money!" The crowd laughed and clapped with the spontaneity of people accustomed to speaking their piece.
Kubler-Ross took the microphone. "I only want to take babies 6 months to 2 years old," she said. "Their life expectancy is 11/2 to 2 years. They won't go to school with your children, or go shopping, or whatever. The only way you can have contact with them is to come to my center and change their diapers. And I don't plan to cost the county any money. Our staff will need housing; they'll spend money here. You'll probably gain money." Hoots greeted this remark.
A teacher in the local high school stood up. "I'm a born- again Christian," he said. "I believe with all my heart we ought to serve these helpless children. But not here. In New York City. Why import AIDS to our community?" There was prolonged applause.
A man with a long white beard stood. His voice was strident. "Why should we be guinea pigs, just because we live in the country? You're going to wreck our county." He shouted. "Aren't you the least bit ashamed about that?"
Kubler-Ross' soft voice didn't falter. "Two thousand years ago Jesus helped the lepers -- "
"But you're not Jesus!" a woman shouted.
"No, I'm not. I'm only wanting to do what He taught -- "
"Your support is all from California! Why don't you go back there?"
"Come to my house," Kub began, "and I'll show you letters from every -- "
"I don't want to come to your house!"
A gray-haired woman in a flowered print dress rose slowly. "This is God's house, but I think we've forgotten Him. He said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.' Have we lost our faith?"
Her words elicited a weak smattering of applause. A heavyset woman with short hair stood. "I want to ask a question that no one else seems to be thinking about. You say you'll be teaching these children to live until they die. Will you teach them to die in Jesus Christ? Or are you teaching them reincarnation? Are you bringing a cult in here?"
"I am a Christian and I'm not starting a cult." Kubler-Ross' voice was so soft there were demands for her to repeat the statement.
A male voice boomed from the shadowy depths of the church. "Will you still try to bring in AIDS children if this kind of opposition continues?"
Kubler-Ross smiled. "I am an eternal optimist. I believe that love will be stronger than fear. We hope that in time people will see there's no danger to the community."
A woman who had waved her hand for recognition since the beginning of themeeting finally jumped up. "Can you promise us that you won't want to expand beyond little children to homosexuals and other adults? Can you promise we won't get AIDS, that it will stay on your farm, that it won't affect tourism? Can you promise that our whole world won't be destroyed by your facility?"
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross answered, "I cannot promise you anything."
Mutters of frustration, resentment, anger, rippled through the crowd.
Kubler-Ross' voice hadn't changed its low pitch throughout the evening, but her mouth now had drawn into a thin line. She responded to a question that the noise of the departing crowd masked for most people. "No," she said, and her lips curved downward into a rueful smile. "I haven't received any threats. Not yet."
SNOW glistens on the dome of high pasture behind the farmhouse. In the middle of the field, at the apex of the hill, a single perfectly shaped tree breaks the horizon.
In the farmhouse everyone gathers around the woodteers wonder if an AIDS patient might one day join their group, arriving in the wake of a workshop as have most of the others.
"No problem," Liz says. "Of course, I guess we would want to be more careful about hygienic things. But I mean, if I die, I die."
"I know how it feels to be sick and rejected," Betsy says. "I wouldn't want to make anyone else feel that way."
"I wouldn't kiss an AIDS patient on the mouth," Kubler-Ross has said. "But that's just common sense." She has decided to delay applying for the necessary permits for the AIDS hospice for children until later this year. In the center's most recent newsletter, she wrote: "The battle that was described in all the prophecies has started; the battle between fear and love . . . In the final but subtle showdown where people really stand, it will not be their words but their deeds that will be counted."