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AIDS: Partner pushes to remember those lost
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2012-04-25

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In lieu of a gravesite and headstone, Philip D. Luing now has a permanent memorial marker honoring the life of his former partner, Jeff Lalonde, who died of AIDS complications in 1994.

Luing, 54, who lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, published From Particles and Disputations: Writings for Jeff, a compilation of notes and letters he wrote to Lalonde during their 12-year relationship.

"Jeff and I both specified in our wills that we didn't want to have a funeral and be buried; rather, we wished to be cremated, be remembered at a memorial gathering, then have our ashes scattered on the coast of Oregon, where we'd hoped to retire. About [ seven ] years [ after Lalonde's death ] , as a part of my Master's thesis project at Columbia College of Chicago, I made hand-bound copies of the book and gave them to Jeff's two sisters, who were the only surviving members of his immediate family. Both of his parents died shortly after he passed away."

The book was released this year and is available at online bookstores. It is Luing's "proper memorial" to Lalonde.

"I'd always wanted [ the letters ] published, so it could be Jeff's memorial, but after many years of sending out many, many query letters to publishers, it became clear that wasn't likely to happen," Luing said. "For one thing, it's too short: only 98 pages. Plus, it's not an easy fit into any genre for marketing. It's not a collection of poetry, and it's not what one would expect of a memoir or diary.

"Eventually I decided against publishing it and instead just posted it on a Website until recently. However, the site wasn't widely visited, nor was its permanence assured since the site would only last as long as I was around to maintain it.

"As the topic of same-sex marriage and the value of same-sex relationships has grown into a national discussion among the general public, I've sorely wanted to contribute my experience with Jeff to that conversation, to show why these relationships command recognition. The advent of e-books has opened up opportunities for non-traditional books, such as mine, to get out, be seen and perhaps build enough of an audience for a publisher to risk a hard copy book. I had an opportunity to publish it as an e-book, and now it's out there taking part in the conversation."

Luing said organizing the writings into a cohesive book was, for him, a way of working through his bereavement. "I was off kilter for almost a decade after Jeff's death," he admits.

Luing didn't start dating again until four years after Lalonde died, and his dating career was short-lived as he soon found his present partner: singer/songwriter Charles Stephen Hughes. The two have been together since Nov. 14, 1998. "He's been incredibly generous and understanding of my need to memorialize Jeff while building a life with him," Luing said.

Luing, a research administrator at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine ( Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences ) said he truly wants the book to be published and distributed as a traditional hard copy.

"I'd like for it to be passed down to future generations," he said. "The initial responses [ to the e-book ] have been very appreciative. For me, of course, the words are so informed by memories that I can't read it the way other people do. I wasn't sure how readily a reader could infer the story based on the words alone, but so far it seems that hasn't been an issue. Some have said that the chronology is nice to have at the end, but that it wasn't a necessity."

Luing said he's been surprised that there is a considerable audience for the book among straight women, interested in gay romance. "I think [ the book ] would appeal to anyone who might enjoy an intelligently told love story with a sad but transcendent ending," he said. "I'd say it's more of a love story than an AIDS book."

Still, Lalonde and Luing have battled the disease. Luing learned he was HIV-positive about 26 years ago.

"I don't ask why I am alive and Jeff is not," Luing said. "I assume that's due to the happenchance of our genetics. He was more physically fit, nonetheless the disease found a foothold in his body. I concentrate more on the how, how do I respond? My response to having survived longer than Jeff is to memorialize him properly and to demand recognition, honor and respect for the love that we shared and the relationship that we built."

Incidentally, the letters HIV/AIDS don't appear in the book, except in the chronology at the end.

"Except for the first few years we weren't in denial," Luing said. "We were active in a couples support group at Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) , educated ourselves about medications, etc. It's present in the book in that we adapt our relationship to its effects on our lives, our physical beings, but I wanted my writing to be about the two of us, the connection of our spirits, and I didn't conceptualize HIV as having infected our spirits."

Luing said his favorite part of the book is the chapter titled "Sext—At the Apex of Life."

"The book is structured as a 'book of hours,' which traditionally is the litanies that monks and nuns would recite as the day progressed," Luing said. "When I organized the writings after Jeff's death, I found they fit with the metaphor of the passing day. It starts with 'Matins—Young and Silly in Love,' and then comes 'Lauds—First Reflections' when we started thinking about the relationship and asking ourselves what exactly it meant to us.

"After that stage, we got hit with a double-whammy. The next couple of chapters represent two stages of significant strains placed on the relationship. First, as with all relationships of any length, the initial sense of euphoria and infatuation gives way and we begin asking ourselves who are we in this relationship, and how does our re-emerging sense of self fit into this new arrangement, this existence as a couple. That's a time of challenges that all couples have to struggle through and resolve if they are to grow into a steady, mature relationship. The strains inherent to this stage were exacerbated for us by our testing HIV-positive at a time when the life expectancy for HIV was thought to be six months to two years. We knew we'd been in a monogamous relationship for over three years, so we were getting tested just to get the official word that we were out of danger. Instead we were told we had basically outlived our life expectancy. We didn't get counseling; instead, we tried to reassure each other while at the same time sliding into a pattern of acting out our unspoken anxiety by numbing ourselves with pot, alcohol and cigarettes.

"After a couple of years of that roller coaster ride, we did pull ourselves together between one Christmas and Valentine's Day, quit the cigarettes, pot and alcohol, and commenced the chapter 'Sext—At the Apex of Life.' It was a wonderful time of mature commitment, positive outlook, good health and general happiness. That period was followed by [ the period ] when Jeff started showing symptoms of HIV progression, entering the chapters that truly called on all we'd learned of commitment and the resilience of love."

The Luing-Lalonde love affair clearly still lives, some 30 years after it was formed.

"It's been a time of incredible change—technologically and socially," Luing said. "I remember when my electric typewriter at work was replaced with the first wave of PCs. I remember when what was to become the LGBT community began pulling off its cloak of invisibility and making itself known, how incredibly liberating that was to start to find books and plays about our lives, even to have our own newspapers. I [ also ] remember falling in love—but that, I think, has not changed all that much. It still pretty much happens the way it always has.

"I learned a lot about how to make a relationship work [ from Lalonde ] , and it's certainly made my present relationship much easier to navigate. It also helps that I'm generally much more at ease with myself; that happened somewhere around age 50."

The heart on the cover of the book is a valentine Luing made for Lalonde of shirts. "If you unbutton the shirt and look inside you'll find the poem from Feb. 14, 1988, that starts out, 'My love, may you find my love, even if this Valentine's Day you find me hidden in the tatters of my old, most favorite shirt, serious behind one of my serious faces … .'"

So what would Lalonde say if he knew the writings were turned into a book?

"I know he'd be pleased," Luing said. "I was a member of the writing group NewTown Writers for almost 20 years. When Jeff was alive, I fashioned some of my writings into a spoken cantata for synchronized voices, which told an imagined story. It was entitled 'Elements of Love' and was produced by NewTown Writers in 1992 for Pride Week. Theater critic Larry Bommer reviewed it for the Chicago Tribune and also, at the end of the year, named it one of the best theater events of 1992. Jeff was very pleased to have those writings for him presented publicly."

See www.philipdluing.com more more information on the book.


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