Has something ever happened in your life that made you stop and realize you had achieved some personal growth — that you had changed over time without realizing it? It happened to me 20 years ago today – on March 13, 1996, when I visited Robb in the hospital.
Robb checked into Genesis because of severe headaches and a continued inability to keep food down. When I arrived, his sister Peggy was there, keeping him company.
After she left, before his parents arrived, Robb and I were alone. I interviewed him, and that is when he told me he was no longer going to fight with AIDS. The disease had won. The fight was over. Now, the mission was to remain comfortable.
He was telling me this and had to stop to vomit into a container — I think they call them “kidney dishes.” I turned my head. I didn’t want Robb to be uncomfortable, and I hate throwing up worse than almost anything, so it was tough seeing him go through it.
After he threw up into the container, I took it from him and started to carry it into the restroom to wash it out.
“You don’t have to do that,” Robb said. “The nurse will do it.”
But I told him that was okay. I went into the restroom and poured the contents into the toilet. I felt strangely clinical, not squeamish or repulsed as I would have expected. As I was pouring it out, the realization struck me — my education was complete.
Eleven months earlier, one of the first stories I shot with Robb involved him cooking dinner, and when he asked me to join him, I froze, thinking that perhaps I would catch HIV if I ate with one of his forks. At the time, I told myself to shut up, and I forced myself to eat with him, but it was not easy. On that evening in April 1995, I had only seen Robb three or four times. Now, after all we had done together since then, I didn’t even hesitate to take the dish he had vomited in — with my bare hands — to empty it, unafraid.
Knowledge is a powerful thing. It chases ignorance, fear and intolerance away. I washed out the tray and took it back into the room. At that moment, I focused on Robb and the story I had to shoot, but later, I spent some time contemplating the changes Robb had been guiding me through in a very quiet way.
From April 1995 to April 1996, during the year we spent together, Robb went on an amazing journey, but he was not the only one. I believe that every person in his life was changed by the experience of knowing him, and watching the brave way he faced his illness and his death.
The video I was shooting represented my own journey. I would never again fear AIDS, and I would never again be able to dislike anyone because they had a different sexual orientation. You can take the boy out of the intolerant South, but you can also take the intolerant South out of the boy. All it takes is the knowledge that human experience provides. This was Robb’s gift to me, and he did it just by living his life, with me on the other side of the camera.
The story you see on TV is not always the complete story, and that’s the way it was on March 13, 1996 — the day Robb Dussliere decided not to fight AIDS anymore.
If you would like to keep Robb’s legacy alive and support men and women who are homeless while fighting HIV and AIDS, please go to the DeLaCerda House’s website — at www.delacerdahouseinc.org — and click the Donate button.