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Faces of AIDS: Life and Death at Bonaventure House

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In the summer of 1990, the director of Bonaventure House, an "assisted living residence" for people with AIDS, asked me if I would take some pictures for an annual report. I knew almost nothing about AIDS or Bonaventure House, but once there I was drawn immediately to its strong sense of love, faith, and community. For the next 18 months I spent one to two days a week there, attempting to document some of the reality of living with AIDS. These pictures would not exist but for the great personal strength of my subjects, many of whom allowed me into their lives at their most vulnerable moments. I owe them much.

The Last Few Comforts of Home

Bonaventure House is a 30-bed residence built by the Alexian brothers, a religious order founded to care for the dead and dying during the Black Death of Europe in the 14th century. Since opening in 1989 it has housed 139 men and women, of whom 82 are now dead. It's a secure and caring environment where people are allowed to be as independent as possible for as long as possible. When independence and recovery are no longer possible, it offers what for most of its residents are the last few comforts of home, and the opportunity to die in dignity, among a community of loved ones.

After a death, relatives, residents, staff, and volunteers participate in the balloon ceremony, a rite of transition that helps them to put closure on a relationship lost. They offer their remembrances and release balloons into the air. It's a freeing of the spirit, a ritual of letting go.

Eight Months in the Death of Robert

When I first met Robert in August of 1990, he was still relatively healthy and strong. He was 41. He had eight months left.

Robert, who had made a good living selling real estate, was a detail person. He settled his financial affairs, arranged a living will, and purchased a vault for himself at Rosehill Cemetery. He labeled the drawers of his dresser so that when he became too weak to care for himself, the volunteers would know not to put his socks in his underwear drawer. As his condition worsened he seemed to relish smaller and smaller things: a poem read to him by a friend; the smell of the air in spring, his last.

For some residents, Bonaventure House is their only home, and its community their only family. Robert was one of these. His closest living relative, a sister somewhere in the south whom he loved very much, never came to visit him. She has two kids. She was afraid. He never complained. She sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers when he died.

Paul Merideth's "Faces of AIDS: The Bonaventure House Project" will be on exhibit March 28-May 23 at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington; 744-6630, 346-3278). An opening reception is scheduled for next Friday, April 3, 6-8 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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