Robb’s Life Chapter 50 – Robb Dussliere’s Funeral and the Final Episode of Robb’s Life

Robb Funeral 15

The last video shot during our year-long series was a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the headstone.

Robb Dussliere’s funeral was held on April 23, 1996. A week or so before he died, I was at home, knowing I would have to shoot this story, and suddenly I envisioned a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the Dussliere headstone. It would be the last piece of video I would shoot, and then I would dissolve to a backward look at his life until his baby pictures.

I sat at my kitchen table and cried my eyes out, knowing that this would be the final shot after our year together. It broke my heart.

The most memorable part of the funeral service was when Jacob, Robb’s nephew, says he has the movie “Batman Forever.” The other kids laugh because it is such an inappropriate comment considering the circumstances, but such an honest comment from a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening. When I said, “I’ll bet Uncle Robb liked that movie,” (past tense) Jacob replied, “He does.” It is so poignant, because he doesn’t realize Robb is gone. Robb would have seen the humor in it.

Robb Funeral 9

Father Levitt at the graveside service.

After the graveside service, on a beautiful spring day, I waited until everyone left, reluctantly walking to their cars and slowly driving out of St. Mary’s Cemetery in East Moline. I don’t think anyone wanted to say goodbye to Robb.

I sat the camera in the grass, kneeled behind it, and as I zoomed slowly in on Robb’s name, the tears flowed. The pressure in my face was tremendous as I tried to keep from crying out loud. Later, when I got back to the editing room and was reviewing the video from the service, I got to this shot and I could hear myself crying on the video, picked up by the natural sound microphone.

One of the saddest days of my life. I used part of the final interview with Robb in this last piece, asking him how he wanted to be remembered. I am so happy he is still remembered, and I know he would be happy, too. Thank you all for watching and honoring this fine young man with me. He would be 54 now, probably still making us laugh instead of cry.

This was the last official story in the Robb’s Life series on WHBF-TV.

Robb’s Life Chapter 46 – A Tribute to Hattie Dussliere

The last time I visited Robb before he passed away, he was sleeping and his mom, Hattie, was watching over him. As his body shut down, Robb slept more.

A week or so earlier, I had interviewed Robb for the last time, because it was obvious that he could go at any time, an observation that he made, too. During the interview, I asked him to talk about his mom.

Having lost a child 16 years earlier, I had an idea of the pain Hattie and Lorney were experiencing, but my daughter died at only 6 weeks old. I can’t imagine how I would have recovered if 34 years of memories were in my head.

This is the story that aired on April 15, 1996 — a tribute to a wonderful mom, looking at her dying son through the eyes of love.

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

Lorney-Dussliere-1

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.

Lorney Dussliere 8

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 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

Robb CT 3-4-96-2

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.

Robb’s Life Chapter 38 -A Checkup at the Doctor’s Office

Robb Feb 28 1996-3

Robb made everyone laugh, and he thought the world of nurse Sandee Millage.

By the end of February 1996, Robb had lost six pounds in a little over a week, so he went to Dr. Katz’ office. Dr. Katz wasn’t in, but his nurse Sandee Millage was there to see him.

Robb’s fatigue was worse and he was visibly going downhill. His mother, Hattie drove him to the doctor’s office at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport, across the river from his house in Rock Island, Illinois.

Despite feeling badly, the opening shot in this story still makes me smile. I was carrying the heavy camera gear and walking backward down the hall, so Robb began clowning around, motioning people behind me to look out. I remember squinting with one eye through the viewfinder and trying not to laugh.

Robb Feb 28 1996-5

The twinkle in Robb’s eyes was replaced with concern.

Robb was able to smile and joke a little bit during his checkup, but there is one moment in particular, when he looks up at Sandee when she takes a blood sample, that the illness is mirrored in his eyes. The haunting “sick” look is so different than the twinkle he had in his eyes 10 months earlier, when the series began.

 

Robb’s Life Chapter 37 – A Crumbling Spirit and Hateful Politics in February 1996

Robb Feb 21 1996-4

A weary Robb puts groceries away. In February 1996 he was losing most of what he ate.

Twenty years ago this week, Robb Dussliere was losing hope. He was fighting fatigue, losing weight, and not keeping very much food down.

He was also horrified by the presidential campaign, and some of the hateful rhetoric from Republican candidates like Pat Buchanan. In February 1996, Buchanan was Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rolled into one. Because he was too tired for a lot of activity, Robb spent more time on the couch watching TV, especially the political coverage.

It’s ironic that Pat Buchanan’s hateful speech at the GOP convention in 1992 was the last straw that turned me into a flaming liberal. Now, as I went to Robb’s house to record this week’s feature, we sat and watched some of the coverage on CNN and both agreed that we didn’t like much of what we were seeing.

Robb Feb 21 1996-2

Robb peels an orange while Buddy looks on with great interest.

Buchanan lashed out at gays in the 1996 campaign. Robb was the first gay man I had ever really known, and after spending 10 months working on this series with him, the Buchanan rhetoric that disgusted me four years earlier now made my blood boil.

It was now impossible for me to hate someone just because he or she had a different sexual orientation. Hearing words of intolerance like this coming from a candidate for president did not go over well.

But most disturbing of all was how, week by week, I was seeing Robb’s spirit crumbling. When I began the series the previous April, Robb and I were cordial and friendly, shaking hands when I left each shoot. But by the time I shot this story, I could not leave without giving him a hug.

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