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Group Efforts: cultivating life after death

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The gladiolus was Scott Smith's favorite flower. Ric McDonough planned to put some in the garden of the northwest-side home he bought with Smith when the two decided to settle down after dating for 12 years. That was seven years ago. Though Smith was HIV positive, McDonough, who is not, envisioned a long life with his partner. On the day of their big move, Smith dragged out two large lawn chairs and placed them under a tree in their new backyard--a sign that he was ready to sit back, relax, and take whatever curves life threw at them. Seventeen days later he was dead.

"He was a real trouper," says McDonough. "I really had no idea; it happened so quickly. One day he couldn't get up the stairs--that was when I began to realize that he was having pain that he couldn't handle."

McDonough wanted to fulfill the promises he'd made to Smith. Once, in Maui, Smith told him that he wanted his ashes scattered there. But three years after Smith's death, McDonough wasn't ready to part with his lover's remains. One warm summer day, he looked up from the deck he was constructing for the house and noticed that something was missing from the garden--he still hadn't planted any gladioli. "I really felt that there was no special place to come and remember him," he says. "Then I kind of thought of it as a larger thing--there was no place designated for these people who we've lost to this disease."

With two friends who also wanted to create a memorial, he founded the AIDS Living Remembrance Project (ALRP), which is working to establish a garden in Chicago to honor AIDS victims, survivors, and workers. Modeled after an AIDS memorial garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, it would be a place where the public could talk about and reflect on the lives of AIDS-affected friends, relatives, and others. In July 1997 the City Council passed a resolution in support of the project, and groups like Friends of the Parks have endorsed it as well. ALRP is eyeing a location in Burnham Park between McCormick Place and 31st Street. But the city won't designate the parcel as home to the midwest's only AIDS memorial garden until it receives a finalized design for the site. ALRP is now working with the design firm Bauer Latoza and the Chicago Park District. "So far it looks promising," says ALRP board member Kate Hoch.

Initial plans include contemplative and wildflower gardens, a children's area, and a plaza. "What San Francisco has that we'd love to consider are dedications," says McDonough. "One of the concerns is that it can be very exclusionary, and I don't want anyone to feel that only if you have money can you be remembered there." ALRP also wants to include an area to display the AIDS quilt. "Both projects want to bring to the forefront that AIDS is still with us," says Modesto Tico Valle, executive director of NAMES Project Chicago.

Bauer Latoza and ALRP will present their plan for the Burnham Park site to the city in the fall. The garden will be developed in phases as funding becomes available.

"We want everyone to come to the garden and talk about who they've lost," says McDonough. "In that conversation I see all sorts of possibilities--not only can we watch the stigma disappear, but it also brings about a sense of relatedness."

The first annual Forget-Me-Not Brunch, a fund-raiser for ALRP, will be held from 11 to 2 Sunday at the Three Arts Club, 1300 N. Dearborn. There'll be a silent auction, and cabaret singer Deion McBryde will perform. Tickets are $50; call 773-870-0020. --Leah Bobal

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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