Late last week, Jack Ghizzoni gave his mother Audrey a goodbye kiss. Then he and his fiance hopped into a car and started driving to their new home, San Francisco.

Everything changed for Audrey Ghizzoni the moment her son left home. She knew it would. She had had six months to think about it. And she had spent six months dreading it.

"I think it will be very difficult and very depressing," she said, as she lay bedridden in the back bedroom of her home in North Arlington. "Jack has done so much for me. He has done so much more than most kids would have done. But they have their own lives to lead. Is it fair to hold them back from doing what they want to do?"

When Jack graduated from college 16 months ago, his mother was in the same bed -- and doctors were calling it her deathbed. Jack agreed to move back into the family home for what he thought would be a few months, tops, to help his father John care for 61-year-old Audrey.

But Audrey has confounded her doctors, her family and the Hospice of Northern Virginia. She is terminally ill with emphysema, yet she has not gotten appreciably worse in months.

"I may live another two years," she told me last week. If so, that would be three years longer than Hospice officials expected when they admitted her to the program in 1986.

Jack Ghizzoni had originally planned to wait until his mother died before moving to San Francisco. "But six months ago, he just decided to do it," Audrey said. "They're just going to go. I won't see them again, probably."

She stirs in bed and adds: "I took too long to die."

Ever since Audrey was accepted as a patient by the Hospice of Northern Virginia, the Ghizzoni family has allowed me to interview them from time to time. The purpose has been to report on how a family copes with terminal illness, so that other families in the same situation might learn from this family.

Audrey's unexpectedly long survival has made the strain on the other Ghizzonis that much greater. By living at home and shouldering much of the burden of caring for his mother, Jack has helped to blunt some of that strain.

"A lot of it will fall on John {her husband} now," Audrey said. "It'll be tough on him because he gets tired. Some nights he comes home from work, and he'd just like to go to bed. But it'll all be up to him. I mean, I can't even get out of bed to go to the bathroom any more."

Audrey does have an option she has had since May 1986: to move into the Hospice's nearby headquarters. That would assure her of 24-hour attention, and would relieve John of having to be with her every second (and of having to arrange for a friend to come over every time he needs to go to the grocery store).

"But the thing is, I don't want to be there," said Audrey, referring to Hospice headquarters. "I don't want to cause John any more trouble than I've caused him already. And it would be trouble if he had to come see me every night."

Audrey readily admits that her spirits may decline sharply in the wake of her son's departure. That may in turn cause a sharp decline in her will to live.

"I think a lot of what's keeping me alive is my desire to be alive," she says. "I mean, it doesn't bother me too much being restricted to bed as long as I have some kind of life. But with Jack going, it'll be even less of a life than it has been."

Still, Audrey Ghizzoni is a fighter. And on the night of July 4 she had to fight as she has never fought before.

A friend came over to visit and brought her dog along. The friend and the other Ghizzonis went to a neighbor's back yard to view the fireworks that were being exploded on the Mall. In the middle of the show, the dog who had stayed behind with Audrey got spooked by the noise.

"He started cowering and barking," Audrey says. "He was going crazy. And we were in here behind closed doors. Then, all of a sudden, I got an asthma attack."

Asthma attacks can be fatal for patients with as little lung power as Audrey now has. "I sat on the side of the bed gasping for breath," Audrey recalls. "I kept feeling like I was passing out. I felt that if I passed out, that would be it.

"I fought so hard to stay conscious. And no one was around who could hear me. It was terrible."

After an hour, John and Jack Ghizzoni returned. They removed the dog and called an emergency nurse for Audrey. By 3 a.m., her condition had stabilized. But it was "extremely difficult to be all alone, and to think that I was dying," Audrey said.

Before he left for California, Jack told his parents that his wedding will take place next spring. "If you'd told me last year that I'd be here for that," says Audrey, "you know what I would have said."

But seeing next spring is no cinch for a woman who can't draw a deep breath. "And it will be different in the meantime without Jack here," says his mother. Her tone of voice says that "different" won't be the same as welcome.