Robb’s Life Chapter 45 – A Tribute to Lawrence “Lorney” Dussliere

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Lawrence (“Lorney”) Dussliere holding his son’s hand while Robb sleeps in the hospital.

Robb was dying in March and early April, 1996. Throughout the year we had been documenting Robb’s life, his parents had been by his side every step of the way.

You might think that this is no big deal. They are the parents. They should be supportive, right?

Unfortunately, many parents abandon their children when HIV and AIDS enter the picture. This is one of the reason Robb worked so hard on the DeLaCerda House during the final months of his life — to help support homeless people living with HIV and AIDS, people who were often homeless because they had lost jobs and had no one left who was willing to take them in.

Lorney and Hattie Dussliere demonstrated the best of human nature during a personal crisis; the protective qualities of parents who understand that love is unconditional.

Robb’s favorite performer was Elton John. As Robb approached death, I began looking for a way to pay tribute to his parents. I listened a lot to Elton John’s great album, “The One.” On that album is “The Last Song.” One day, as I was listening to the CD at home, the lyrics of “The Last Song” became very clear. It was about the love of a father for his AIDS-stricken son.

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A father in pain, still able to muster a smile, demonstrating incredible love and support to a son. 

This video instantly sprang into my mind, almost fully created. I sat down in my home and cried like a baby. I was doing that more and more over Robb, it seemed.

Even 20 years later, as this blog post is being written, parents still abandon their HIV-positive children. This tribute to Lorney Dussliere is still relevant.

After Robb passed away, Elton John came to perform a concert in the Quad Cities. Lorney and Hattie managed to get a VHS tape of “Robb’s Life” to him. During the concert, as they sat in the crowd, Elton John performed “The Last Song” and dedicated it to the Dussliere family.

I invite you to stop for a moment, listen to the lyrics, and you will understand why Robb’s parents have my undying respect and love.

If you would like to help keep Robb’s legacy alive, please donate — even a few dollars — to the DeLaCerda House. Go to their web page and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 43 – The Secret about Robb We Kept from the Public

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Robb’s partner, Kevin, gives him a foot massage as the nurse prepares a morphine drip during Robb’s final weeks.

Robb Dussliere had a secret during the year that I documented his life with AIDS. I helped him keep the secret from the public.

Robb had a partner named Kevin. In our first meetings, as we discussed the documentary of his life, Robb asked me to keep Kevin’s name and image out of the series.

Kevin was in the Army National Guard, and in those days he could be discharged if he were “outed” as gay. Another factor was his family. Kevin’s parents did not accept his sexual orientation. He believed that they would not only feel anger but also humiliation if he were publicly identified, and he wanted to save them — and himself — from that sort of backlash.

As a journalist, this posed a dilemma, but I did not wrestle with it for long. The main story, after all, was Robb’s life with AIDS and his mission to educate the community on how to avoid the disease. In 1995, the concept of two men living together and being partners triggered a lot of anger. Kevin’s role in Robb’s life could distract from the more important message.

Last year, when this blog was launched to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Robb’s Life, I contacted Kevin, and we decided that for his parents’ sake, we would continue to conceal his complete identity and use only his first name.

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Nurse Pam explains the morphine delivery system to Kevin.

Through most of the series, Kevin was not around during the video shoots. He showed up in one story when Robb was renovating the shelter for homeless AIDS clients, but I shot Kevin from behind so his face was not visible. As Robb was dying (watch the video on Chapter 42 of this blog), you can see Kevin’s hand massaging Robb’s foot as Robb lay in pain, waiting for morphine. In that story, the nurse, Pam, is showing Kevin how to set the machine for Robb’s morphine drip.

I only saw Kevin once after Robb’s funeral, the day they dedicated “Robb’s House,” part of the DeLaCerda House. But during the past 20 years, I have wondered what was happening behind the scenes, if the brave young man on TV was going through emotional agony when the camera wasn’t rolling. Perhaps I wanted to be reassured that Robb had been as brave off-camera as he was when I was around. Kevin could answer those questions.

Kevin said he and Robb met at a euchre tournament hosted by JR’s, a local night club that catered to gays.

“We chatted a couple of times and he asked me out,” Kevin recalled. “I was 26.”

Robb told him on the first date that he was HIV-positive.

“I had just come out,” Kevin said. “He was the first person I had dated. I was scared. Here was a very nice guy, I’m looking for love, but he’s HIV-positive.”

Robb had been an executive in the company that owns the Village Inn restaurants. When the company discovered Robb was HIV-positive he was let go. Robb filed a lawsuit against the company that was settled out of court. By the time he met Kevin, Robb was living on welfare.

Despite the health issue, they embarked on a relationship that Kevin describes as “eye-opening,” a relationship that he credits with changing him forever.

“It may have saved my life,” Kevin said. “I learned so much through Robb. He helped me grow; helped me take charge of my own life.”

By the time they met, Robb had already lived for a decade with HIV. He had passed through the fear and anger, and he had seen what AIDS did to two of his previous partners. Robb had cared for them. He was well aware of the road ahead.

“When we met, Robb felt he was living on borrowed time already,” Kevin said. “He had such a positive outlook. He wasn’t scared. He was always able to give that sense of humor, and made others relax and get through it.”

Kevin admits that Robb’s humor may have been a coping mechanism, but it was not an act.

“His overall mood was never scared or down or worried,” Kevin said. “He was very straight-forward.”

I was very glad to hear Kevin say this. In the 20 years since Robb died, I have considered him the bravest person I ever met. His calm demeanor as his life was ending may have had an impact on me when I lost a lung and was near death in 2009. Since that time, I have lived with a shortened life expectancy, and Robb’s image has come to mind countless times. I have found that I, too, have a calmness about the possibility of dying, and when I have revisited¬†the video of Robb discussing his illness in such an honest, fearless way, the feeling of a bond has grown stronger. So it was true — the Robb I saw through my camera lens was the real person.

Still, as Kevin and I both got a little emotional during our recent phone conversation, I felt bad for bringing up the memories and emotions and making him relive it. He put my mind at ease.

“I like talking about Robb,” Kevin said. “He was a happy, positive person. That’s my memory.”

Kevin remained HIV-negative. In the next couple of weeks, you will read a few more of his comments about Robb’s final days, but I am happy to report that Kevin found love again and is living very happily in Texas.

Robb Cracks Up 7-19-95I admitted to Kevin that I felt some guilt during the past two decades. During the taping of Robb’s Life, I was a single parent with two teenage daughters living at home, working as news director of a TV station, doing Robb’s Life as an “extra” activity beyond my normal work hours, and trying to maintain a social life, dating a woman I had become engaged to in February 1996. I never took the time to take Robb and Kevin out to dinner or to invite them to my house. Part of my reasoning at the time, besides being so busy, was the notion that as a journalist, even though I was emotionally involved in Robb’s story, I still needed to keep a slight bit of objectivity and detached professionalism. I felt that the rules of journalism dictated that I shouldn’t get too close.

By the time I realized Robb’s life was ending, and the opportunity to really be his friend was slipping away, Robb became too sick to leave the house. It left me with a regret that I have felt all these years.

Kevin responded to this admission by giving me a precious gift that left me in tears.

“It never came up,” he said. “Robb thought the world of you.”

Our conversation ended with Kevin saying that Robb embodied the old expression, “To know him is to love him.”

“Everyone who met him loved him,” Kevin said. “I was lucky enough to be the one he loved back. He was the most amazing person I have ever known — the most giving, most positive person I have ever known.”

Robb’s Life Chapter 42 — Managing Pain and Making Funeral Plans

Robb Funeral Plans 3-28-96-3Twenty years ago this week, Robb was running out of time, in terrible pain, and wanting to tie up a few loose ends while he was able to do so. Father Donald Levitt, who was at St. Mary’s in East Moline at the time, came to Robb’s house to plan the funeral service.

Robb was now in a hospital bed that replaced his couch in the living room.

At this same time, his pain grew intense, so the nurse showed how to use the system that delivered morphine, which boosted his spirits dramatically.

My favorite part of this episode has always been when Robb smiled at the camera and said, “Morphine is my friend.” It was great to see him smile after being in terrible pain.

Robb had not eaten anything in a week. Morphine was managing the pain. He was settling in for the end.

All this time, since April 1995, I had helped Robb keep a secret. It is a request he made as we began shooting this series. There are a couple of visual hints in this story if you are paying attention. In a couple of days, I will reveal the part of Robb’s Life that we kept from the public.

You can help support Robb’s legacy and help homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities by donating to the DeLaCerda House. Just go to their website at www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 41 – A Visit from Brother Jim

By the third week of March, 1996, Robb’s condition was deteriorating fast. The family was alarmed. Robb’s brother Jim arrived from California for a visit and the family got together at Lorney and Hattie’s house for a reunion.

It was difficult seeing Robb on the couch, hardly moving, not smiling, so different than he had been a few weeks ago. He managed to cuddle his new niece, Allison, the daughter of Robb’s brother Rich and his wife, Angie.

Robb also managed to sit up for a while and flash me a goofy grin.

You can keep Robb’s legacy alive by donating to the DeLaCerda House, a nonprofit providing housing and support to homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities. Just go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 39 -A CT Scan and Suspicions of Wasting Syndrome

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Robb suspects wasting syndrome, but gets a CT scan to rule out Kaposi’s.

In early March, 1996, Robb suspected he had wasting syndrome, which happens when the body begins shutting down. But to rule out Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer that is common in AIDS patients, he went to Genesis Medical Center for a CT scan.

Robb had been having trouble breathing, especially while lying down. He looked very thin and was continuing to lose weight, but he maintained a realistic perspective. He wanted to know exactly what was happening, staring good and bad news in the eye without blinking. He knew so much about AIDS that he seemed to view his own illness in a clinical way.

As the end approached, Robb was teaching me about courage in a way that I may not have thought deeply about at the time, but as the years have passed, I have been amazed at how calm and centered he remained through it all.

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.