When we first entered the room we didn’t understand what we were seeing. The accessible entrance is off to the side and back a bit. We saw that the room had large quilts hanging from the balcony above, effectively making a smaller room within the larger one. I rolled through a space between two quilts and then looked up.
And was punched in the gut.
These were quilts that were made, spanning about 10 years, to note the deaths and commemorate the lives of those who died during the AIDS epidemic. They were made as it was happening. The emotion and sentiment that rose from the words written in memory were those who were in the midst of a keening, angry kind of grief. I rode around and the first person, of many, who I recognized was Robert.
A pain struck my heart when I realized that I had forgotten Robert. I hadn’t thought of him for years. But seeing his picture, reading the words written to celebrate his life and mourn his loss, I was flooded with images in my mind. I remembered particularly the effort that Robert went into to plan a birthday party for Phil, his lover – they weren’t allowed to marry in those days.
We all knew it would be Phil’s last birthday. Phil a wonderful, gentle man, with a wicked sense of humour and who had loved Robert passionately. He pretended that he didn’t know of the party. He knew how much it meant to Robert, and he fought to live until his birthday. And he did.
But the party had to be moved to the bedroom. Phil was too weak to leave his bed. But what a party we had. It was joyous. We partied as if it were the last party before the end of the world. Because we all knew that’s exactly what it was. Phil, in his bed, looked like he was on a raft sailing to the edge of time. He was so small. His smile huge in a face of skin and bone. He took presents he would never use and thanked people. He understood that each gift represented, for each of us, a wish we had for his future, a future in which he would live and thrive, a future he didn’t have but that we would give him if we could.
Phil died days after the party.
Robert a year or so later.
They were both gone.
In front of me was a picture of Robert, on a quilt that kept his memory alive, and warm, and real. I called Joe over to see the photo and the words written beside it. We stood together for a moment and then backed up to the middle of the room and turned, there were names and photographs of so many people, so many very young people. For a second we were back in time, back in the midst of death after death after death after death after death.
When we left the room within a room. When we left the room draped by sorrow and loss and lives celebrated long before they should have been, we entered a different world. A world that believes that AIDS isn’t what it is and doesn’t do what it does. A world that refused to acknowledge the reality of AIDS then and a world that refuses to acknowledge the reality of AIDS now.
It’s World AIDS Day today.
And I remember a raft at the edge of time and a party at the end of the world. And I remember what that meant then and what that means now.
It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got to give.