August 3, 2012
Oppressive temperatures were hitting the century mark, adding to the surreal scenery surrounding me. The air was thick with dust and it was unnervingly still, portending the violent storm that would sweep through in just hours. Before me, in the bright afternoon sun, was a sea of AIDS Memorial Quilt panels carefully assembled on the mall in Washington. They seemed to stretch forever. In the distance the dome of the Capitol rose above the colorful sea of fabric. Behind me, a volunteer somberly read the unending list of individuals claimed by HIV/AIDS.
This summer, The Names Project has organized viewings of the complete quilt. At this location on the mall, 8000 quilts were displayed over 10 days. Each day, 800 individual panels are lovingly unfolded, displayed, and refolded by a small army of volunteers as part of the Smithsonian Folk Art Festival. The AIDS Memorial Quilt -- now at 1.3 million square feet and 50 tons -- can no longer be exhibited in any single venue. All 48,000 panels can be viewed this summer in Washington, but it will take 60 distinct displays in over 50 venues. The enormity of this quilt -- imbued with grief and love -- is simply overwhelming.
I stand looking out at the vast array of panels and slowly walk down the aisles between groupings. Some have three-dimensional adornments; others have photographs of happy young men with haircuts or clothes that seem oddly dated; many are full of humor reflecting the tastes, desires, and loves of those who passed. Each one is poignant. The experience brings a flood of feelings which compress my chest and fill my throat. I always resist the urge to cry but ultimately the tears flow, tapping into what seems to be an unending well of grief. I bend down to respectfully straighten a corner of a panel which has been picked up by the wind and blown askew. The music of a distant carrousel is oddly out of place as it drifts across this field of sadness.
For me, HIV/AIDS is deeply personal. I survived as a young gay man in New York in the 1980s, not yet knowing I too was infected, losing most of my friends. Years later, both my partner and I were informed of our status. We put up a good fight, sometimes just hanging on until the next medication was released. More than once, our families were told to expect the worst. We always pulled through, at least until 2004, when my partner didn't come home from the hospital. By that time, HIV had become not only a personal focus but a core of my professional life as well.
I ask the reader at the microphone to include the name of my partner who passed. I realize all the volunteers, lovingly tending the panels in the 100-degree heat, are young. They have probably never known a time without AIDS. As his name is read, I view the vastness of this fabric, the Capitol in the distance, and weep.
The quilt creates strong bonds among the living. I am visiting this sacred place with a colleague who reveals her own personal losses to AIDS. She tells me she and her siblings made a quilt panel, which we look up on a large monitor under a Folk Life festival tent. Each panel has been meticulously cataloged and photographed. She recounts the healing she experienced by making a panel. I realize it could channel my grief, as well.
I am reminded of my sister, who was coincidentally there when I got the phone call about my status (there were no testing protocols at that time) and who has been an unflinching ally on this unwelcome road. The ultimate acceptance by my parents, now gone, and the loving support of my current partner fill me with gratitude for the affirming love I have received.
The heat is nearly unbearable. My colleague says that I am looking very red and asks if I am alright. As I survey the quilt one last time, I experience profound gratitude. I am grateful for the inspiration of the quilt itself and for the profound statement it makes about the terrible toll taken by this virus. I am awed by the power of this fabric to take on stigma, and I recall the impact of its display on the Ellipse at the White House in 1988, after years of official silence.
Mostly, I am aware of the alchemy represented by the quilt panels: material confirmation of the power of love to soothe grief. Every piece of fabric captures the unique essence of each life lost. By infusing tenderness into these panels, the survivors not only transform their pain, but create a living testimony to their partner, brother, or son, as well as to the healing power of love. The people we have lost are remembered and, through the quilt, we have a path toward healing.