Visiting the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The squares are bigger than you could even imagine. They command the room, the space. What a powerful source of memory, of honoring those who we have lost to AIDS.

As I have written about a few times already , I have been exploring the many squares on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and have been remembering especially two men who were important to my Mom, to our community, and to my perception and experience with the death tolls from AIDS. Almost as soon as I learned, via their website, that the Quilt is stored and the foundation headquartered here in Atlanta, I called, left a message, and asked to visit--especially to see the two squares I had been pouring over, Craig's and Parnell's.

Richie, a veteran of the NAMES Project Foundation, called me back after the MLK holiday weekend, and I planned a visit for today. This morning I spent some time crying, touching the quilt, reading the many lovely words, poems, thoughts contributed to each of their squares, and learned more about these two men via the wonderful memorial that this Quilt provides. It provides a way to remember, in a very communal and large-scale way, yet allowing for quite private and personal time with those who are being remembered. Richie pulled up the information on these two squares, 2744 (Parnell's) and 5508 (Craig's), so I could see where they had traveled, where they had been requested, and where and when they were each on display.

I learned that the demographic who has been contributing the most new squares--they receive on average about 400 new squares each year--are nieces. Girls my age, who have memories, however clear or unclear, of their uncles who died while we were young, and who have now reached the age in which remembering them properly has been an important part of grieving, or becoming an adult, of understanding how this illness has devastated families. I am exactly that generation, that demographic, though I have to consider myself an honorary niece only.

I made a donation in honor of my parents, who have been caring, compassionate examples for my brothers and me, and in honor of Craig and Parnell, obviously, and for each of their families. The wonderful (small) staff gave me a book of some quilt squares, and a calendar I have already poured over several times. I felt so welcomed, and depending on how much longer I am in Atlanta, I want to help quilt squares together as they need me. Seeing a modest and hard-working organization and staff like that also reminds me that I am in the right field; non-profits, working to educate and engage the public, and ensuring that life has been well-spent by taking care of the issues that matter most.

Take a moment to drink in how enormous each panel of this quilt is. Each square is intentionally 3 feet by 6 feet, about the size of a human grave. I was not prepared for the commanding presence, and for how much more meaningful seeing each component up-close truly is.

On loss, the human experience

I've been thinking a lot about loss today, about sorrow, and grief, and the things that can tear our lives apart. My Uncle Rick died last night, at the age of 52, of complications from a pulmonary embolism. Not only was it very unexpected, but he is the first of my aunts and uncles to pass away, of my father's siblings and their spouses; everyone is trying to come to terms with it, especially my uncle's children and his wife, my dad's sister, Sally.

On top of that, I have just finished reading Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic by Erskine Clarke, a book whose massive chronology of white and black plantation families in Liberty County, Georgia, contains a century's worth of deaths, from every imaginable cause, during the nineteenth century.

What's more, I was reviewing the Boston Globe's photography page, The Big Picture, which had an extremely touching and heart-wrenching photo report on Afghanistan; it never fails to overwhelm me when I think of the soldiers and civilians who live everyday in the war zone and endure danger, injuries, and deaths of their loved ones and friends on a daily basis, in fact never knowing if they will be the next victim. War punches me in the gut if it catches me in the right moment and I'm feeling emotional.

Just in case I wasn't already at the edge of my emotional capacity and about to topple over the edge, one of my e-mails from the State Department tonight was on the recent conference that was held in Washington, D.C., the Historical Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia. Seemingly harmless, you'd think, right? As I listened to Hilary Clinton talk about the legacy of the war in Vietnam, and the tragedies that struck thousands on both sides, I was reminded again of the fragility of human life; the only resolution, to my mind, is empathy  and consideration for one another--we are all going through the same cycles of joy and grief, love and heartbreak, gain and loss in our lives, and what is life if we cannot comfort each other and share our burdens when they grow to heavy?

Secretary Clinton was also announcing that the historians of the State Department had completed processing "an exhaustive record of United States policy regarding Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1975," meaning these records are now available for scholars, students, families, and parties interested in continuing the dialogue we must have with ourselves, with that era of our recent military and diplomatic past. "They have compiled more than 24,000 pages of official documents, many thousands of messages, memoranda, intelligence reports, military assessments, and transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations among key policymakers," she reported. Who knows what will be made of all these documents, but it is one more step in coming to terms with, as Ms. Clinton said, "the lessons of that era," for both Americans and Vietnamese.

I leave you with a bit more from her remarks at the conference; she is optimistic to say the least, idealistic to say the most, and I embrace her words  for both of those characteristics:

I also hope that our commitment to a shared future, despite our shared history, can serve as an inspiration and even a model to others, because there are so many countries who are being held back because they cannot overcome their past, who refuse to search for common ground because the ground behind them is littered with the bodies and the blood of previous generations. In today’s world, it is more imperative than ever that we seek to end conflict and to look for ways that we can connect based on our common humanity. We will not agree on everything. We will have different political systems. But we have to look for a way to find that common ground and to work toward common aspirations that fulfill the potential for peace, progress, and prosperity.