In June of 1987, a small group of strangers gathered in San Francisco. Their goal was to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS and to help people understand the devastating impact of the disease. This meeting of devoted friends and lovers served as the foundation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In the fall of 1987, the first display of the Quilt was held in Washington, DC on the mall in front of the White House, and had a total of almost 2000 panels. I attended this memorial service along with thousands of others. I remember people coming up to the display and asking those of us in attendance about the quilt and what it was. I will never forget that when we mentioned that it was a living memorial for people who had died of AIDS, some of these folks turned around, whisked their children away, afraid that maybe the quilt was somehow infectious. This display made it impossible for government and health officials to ignore the disease any longer. (When the general public in the United States first became aware of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980's, the most significant groups of people infected with the AIDS virus included gay men, i.v. drug users and hemophiliacs -- the first two of these being populations that were seen by some high ranking government officials as dispensable.*) The Quilt became a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic. As of early 2017, more than 52,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels — each panel the size of a human grave -- have been sewn together by friends, lovers, and family members. The Quilt weighs 54 tons, and if it were laid out end to end, it would cover 364 NCAA basketball courts. The quilt is the largest piece of American Folk Art in the world and is too massive to be displayed in one place. Thus there are small displays such as the one at Holderness, held throughout the year across the United States (US) and the world.
On September 11, 1994, my oldest brother Pete died of complications associated with AIDS. He was 56 years old, married to the same woman for more than thirty years, and had two children in their twenties. This diagnosis came as a complete shock to everyone in our family, even his children. He had been sick for a quite a long time and due to his health had been sent back to the states from Japan where he had been living for many years. Medical care was better in the US; the climate was better in Arizona. They tested Pete for everything else, but not HIV -- no one was testing a heterosexual 56-year-old man. I do not know when he found out that he had AIDS, but I do know that when he told his wife he asked her not to tell anyone and she honored that request. I never asked how he became infected, to me and my other four siblings, it didn’t matter. The saddest part of all of this is that none of his family knew he was dying until he only had a few weeks left to live. At this time, in 1994, there was no medical procedure or medication regimen that could help anyone diagnosed with HIV. Pete became very ill, very quickly. I flew out to Arizona to see him before he died, but I never knew if he was aware I was in his hospital room. If not for his name on the door of his room, I wouldn’t have recognized him. He had wasted away to nothing. He died two weeks later. I flew out again to Arizona for the funeral. On the plane ride back I decided to make a panel for the AIDS quilt. I had seen the display of The Names Project on the national mall in Washington, D.C., and I remember so many of the beautifully designed panels. I struggled with the fact that I had so little artistic talent. Then I decided it didn’t matter. I was going to honor my brother's life.
I worked on the quilt at home for about four months. Choosing the material I would use, took me many trips to the fabric store. I wanted the material to be perfect. Then I decided I didn't want Pete's quilt to lie directly on the ground, so I decided to buy another fabric for the back of the panel and stuff the whole thing with filler. While creating this at home, I would take it out of the closet, work on it for a few hours and then put it away and swear to myself I would finish it soon. The problem was that every time I sat with the quilt, I was on an emotional roller coaster. I mourned his death over and over again. Within my mourning, though, I had a sense of sitting with my brother. Through my memories, I connected with him. Pete was 19 years older than me. In my family, there were 21 years between Pete, the oldest child, and David, the youngest. Pete was more like an uncle to me growing up, but in our adult life, we had grown closer as siblings. So these hours I spent working on Pete's quilt connected me with my brother in ways I could never have imagined. When I finished Pete's quilt, it was time to head to a dedication ceremony where I would turn the quilt over to The Names Project organization. There I sat with about 50 other quilt makers, as it was time to bring mine forward I felt another tremendous loss. I was saying goodbye to my brother once again. It was an honor to hand my quilt over to Cleve Jones, the creator/founder of the AIDS quilt. I follow Cleve Jones' life now on Facebook and feel as if he is an old friend.
When I ordered the blocks to have on display this week at Holderness School, I asked for the section that I had made for my brother, and I also asked for panels that had an association with New England. The Quilt will be hung and displayed in Weld starting on Thursday, November 30 and will be taken down on Monday, December 4. I hope that everyone takes the time to stop, read, and appreciate the stories of loved ones memorialized in this beautiful display.
* author's opinion