The AIDS Quilt: Celebration of Life

Today I saw the Aids quilt for the first time. It was a nearly perfect
autumn afternoon with a gentle breeze and crystal blue sky. After church
I went down to the Mall with a couple of friends. Beginning on the west
side of the Washington Monument at 15th Street, the patchwork of memorial
panels stretched on the length of 24 football fields down the mall to 3rd
Street in front of the Capitol.

As it turned out, the pieces beginning at the Washington Monument represented
the first panels to be completed moving chronologically toward the most
recent at the Capitol end. The earlier ones were generally more austere
and less personal — many were simply painted on sheets of canvas or broad
cloth. The further east I walked the more interesting and creative the offerings
became.

So many characteristics wove in and out of the panels. Symbols were everywhere,
and of all, the rainbow was most common — along with red ribbons and pink
triangles. Many had religious images, crucifixes, Stars of David, crosses
and verses, and one with the Episcopal Shield and the Kyrie elesion complete
with notes on the staff.

Language was important. Besides the obvious prominence of the name and
dates of birth and death, there were personal messages from loved ones,
poems — Edna St. Vincent Millay, Paul Monette — newspaper clippings —
time and again chronicling of the death in some local metro or community
section, breaking new ground, an accidental activist — pages from journals.
In one a man reflected on an average day in his life, a day very much like
today. The choice of language also, some in Spanish, one in Hebrew, another
in French.

Titles spoke of accomplished lives. M.D., D.D.S., D.V.S., R.N., Esq.,
and Ph.D. among others. Some panels were dedicated to the unknown and one
to the infants of the third world.

I saw one for Ryan White, Jonathan found one to Paul Monette.

As I walked the distance of the Mall, I encountered five separate stages
where people announced the names of the dead: my dear brother Kyle; my faithful
lover Peter; my little baby Micah. The litany of names echoed across the
Mall. Weirdly, I would zero back into the tolling of the names when Randy
was called out. It humbles me to realize the advantage of being a little
younger, shier about sex, opposed to promiscuity, isolated in central America
or central Kentucky, I know that after experience the AIDS quilt, I am more
aware than ever of the horror of AIDS, more ready to speak out — no one
deserves to die like that.

Eventually it’s all just a massive blur. I remember only a few. Two which
remain with me were those of a couple. The panels were sewn side by side.
Both men were from Atlanta and had died in 1987, one in April, the other
in November. Under their names were strips with short phrases — lives summed
up simply: “He loved plants. He loved animals. He loved his friends.
He was an accomplished pianist. He belived in the goodness of everyone.
He always smiled.” It made me cry.

There was another panel for a woman who was born in 1926. The message
read: “Who would have believed that you, a grandmother, a straight
woman, could get this disease. They diagnosed you only two weeks before
you died. The made us swear an oath of silence. They were wrong — we were
wrong. The oly way to end this epidemic is to end the silence. We love you!
Elizabeth & Sarah.”

Like the myriad of panels with photographs of the dead, the impression
of intensely personal memorials is the ultimate message. These panels are
not simply fabric, not even works of art, they are rather works of love.
An lest I leave you with the notion that they are all sad — many are humorous.
My personal favorite was a panel expressing a life which loved architecture
and building. The man’s name was constructed from Lego blocks. It made me
laugh gently.

As I left the Mall, I was filled by the reality that I had just traversed
a holy shrine, a place of celebration and not, despite the current status
of the epidemic, despair. For the love of God was evident, the presence
of God palpable, the promise of God — even to the least of these, my brethren
— true.