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sheilas-letters
*AIDS Memorial Quilt*

As published in:
The Millennium Edition of Whatcom Writes!
Mary Gillilan, Editor
Sunporch Productions
Bellingham, Washington

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, also known as the Names Project, was begun by a small group of volunteers in San Francisco in 1987. It began as a testament to the courage of those who had died of AIDS and to those who cared for them. Later it became a political statement that could no longer be ignored by the politicians who refused to vote for AIDS research. At that time AIDS had been identified as a worldwide plague that killed everyone who contracted it.

The quilt is made of individual panels or squares. The panels are sewn into larger sections for blocks. When the quilt is put on display outdoors, six foot wide walkways are laid down in a grid-like fashion with squares left open along them. The panels are placed inside the squares.

Any kind of fabric may be used. Some are made of cloth with names stenciled with spray paint. Others have personal items of the victim attached. Many are works of art in which the creator has put her heart and grief. Each square is a story within itself telling something about the victim and the creator of the panel. Some of the people dying of AIDS created his or her own panel to be submitted after death. Anyone may create a panel for someone who has died of AIDS.

My interest in the AIDS Memorial Quilt began when I ordered an AIDS bracelet with Clair S. Cowles name engraved on it. She married a bisexual man who contracted AIDS and gave it to her. She died on October 1, 1987, but not until she became pregnant. Both Clair and her baby died of AIDS

About a year or so passed before the quilt came to the Seattle Convention Center in November of 1991. I knew there wasn't much a single individual could do to stem the tide of a deadly epidemic that was sweeping the globe. But I could do something. I made two quilt squares. One for Clair and the other for LYnn, whose friend Robbey, had died of AIDS. Then I volunteered to work on the quilt at the "Names Check in".

I came early and walked around. I saw people crying but I'm Marine Corps so that didn't bother me. I walked through the display, there were quilt squares spread from wall to wall and across the floor, and continued to observe the grief around me, but still remained emotionally detached. I was assigned to work in a small area behind a curtain near the quilt, and as I checked people in to read the names of those who had died of AIDS, I listened to the list of names being read by individuals who had lost friends and relatives. Again, I was unmoved for I had lost no one close to me. On a break I went around the curtain to see how things were going. I looked up and read one panel. I felt as though a sledge hammer had hit me, then backed into the wall.

All the quilt said was GOOD-BYE DAD. I was a parent with two children. Some children had lost their father and in their grief all they could do was say good-bye. It wasn't enough.

In October of 1992 I paid my own air fare and accommodations to Washington, D.C. to volunteer on the quilt. I worked on it for three days while it was on display. On the last day, Marine Corps or not, I found the grief overwhelming. I was exhausted and it looked like it was gonng to rain so I left to get my jacket from my car.

The rain began to pour down on us before I reached my car. I ran back to the quilt as fast as I could. The whole quilt was wrapped up and proctcted from the rain by the time I got there. Quilt volunteers and visitors worked side by side to protect the quilt. After it was put away I asked if there were any wire cutters left that I could take home as a souvenir. These wire cutters were used in a variety of ways in the construction and display of the quilt, and had been given to the project by different groups supporting the project across the country. Each cutter had the name of the organization on it to remind us of the backing we had from people all over. I was told that the cutters were all put away. I was disapointed as I had spent over a thousand dollars for the trip and I would have nothing tangible to show for my efforts.

I was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. I went over to the walkway. With thunder and lightening overhead I reached down to pull on the walkway. Laying on the grass were a pair of wire cutters. I picked them up and read the name tag. It said "SEATTLE NAMES PROJECT". It felt like God had placed the wire cutters on the grass for me to find. To me, this was a small miracle.

In March of 1993 I returned to Washington, D.C. to volunteer at the quilt and to take part in the March on Washintgton. I joined people from all over the country to protest the lack of monies allocated for AIDS research. I volunteered to serve as a quilt monitor. My duty was to protect the quilt from being damaged by visitors.

During the display Perry Watkins came over, we shook hand then we talked for a minute or so. He was always very friendly and a nice person to talk to. I had met him at Western Washington University when Sherry Harris and he spoke. Sherry was on the Seattle City Council and I had worked on her campaign. Perry was retired from the Army. The Army had known he was gay from the first day Perry was drafted. The Army denied his request to reenlist after eithteeen years. He took the Army to court and they had to reinstate him.

About a year later Bellingham hosted the quilt. I helped to set it up and served as a quilt monitor.

I continued to see Perry in Seattle and would read about him occasionally in the newspaper. The quilt was going to be displayed in Washington D.C. in October 1996 and I had already sent in my application to volunteer.

I went into a favorite Seattle eatery one day of that spring, and after ordering, I opened the newspaper. Perry was dead of AIDS. I felt a deep sense of sorrow over his passing. He was the first person I had known who had died from AIDS. It also made the conquest of AIDS a personal matter.

I made a panel for the AIDS quilt for him. My previous panels had taken only a few days to finish. Perry's took several months. It was very difficult for me to do. I felt that death had cheated me of saying good-bye. Finally with the deadline approaching, I finished it in time for the quilt display.

There are no pretty words to describe what this virus does to its victims or the families who love them. The Names Project allows me to remember the ones who have died, while we struggle to solve the riddle of this disease.

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