Sue Caves hugged a weeping stranger standing beside her as they gazed at the cloth panel that Caves and three of her children made, her contribution to an enormous quilt in memory of those who, like her 35-year-old son, have died of AIDS.
When her panel was fastened to the 1,919 others yesterday, the quilt blanketed a two-block expanse of the Mall. "It's so wonderful seeing it all together, so much more moving than I ever imagined," said Caves, an elegantly dressed real estate broker from Long Beach, Calif.
"If we could get people to think of them as real people, not as statistics, maybe we could get the whole country mobilized," she said, blinking back tears as she stared at the black and white panel that said: "J. Michael Caves, 1951-1986."
For Sue Caves and for many of the estimated 1,500 people -- parents, lovers, brothers, sisters, friends and grandmothers -- who attended yesterday's sunrise ceremony, the quilt, which was picked up at dusk, is a source of solace and pride but, more importantly, a vivid expression of pain and loss.
Except for the sounds of weeping, the crowd was hushed during the three-hour unfurling of the quilt, which was assembled in a San Francisco warehouse from pieces sent by friends and relatives of victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. About 60 volunteers -- including Broadway producer Joseph Papp, Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose niece is commemorated in a panel, and parents such as Sue Caves -- took turns reading the 2,000 names on the quilt. Deane Dixon of Manhattan, N.Y., clad in a black skirt and sweater, read the name of her 31-year-old son, who died last month.
Spectators, including normally pushy reporters and camera crews, stood silently on the white fabric walkway that bordered the quilt, watching as four 8-person teams -- known as "unfolders" -- opened sections of the quilt like petals of a flower. Once they were opened, the 60 squares were attached to the walkways with plastic ties laced through nearly 10,000 metal grommets.
The wrenching tone of the ceremony was set by the first reader, Cleve Jones, 33, a San Francisco gay activist who conceived the quilt idea and founded the NAMES Project, the collective of volunteers that constructed, financed and assembled the quilt in a storefront warehouse.
Minutes after sunrise, at 7:13, Jones was escorted up a long white walkway to the podium that faced that U.S. Capitol. Squinting in the glare of the early morning sun, Jones, his hands shaking from fatigue and emotion, read a list of names, beginning with that of his closest friend, whose death a year ago moved him to begin the project. His voice quavered as he finished reading his list, and when he stepped off the podium Jones buried his face in his hands and wept.
Many of those who streamed across the walkways to see the quilt were gay men wearing small lavender triangles, symbols of gay activism reminiscent of the badges Nazis forced homosexuals to wear.
They were joined by suburban couples pushing strollers, joggers, tourists and a noticeable contingent of aging, conservatively dressed parents whose children have died of AIDS. One gray-haired woman wore a sweatshirt that said: "Catholic grandmother for gay rights." Another wore a pink T-shirt decorated with her son's name and the dates of his birth and death.
Among the parents were Betty and Jim Holloran, whose oldest son Jimmy, 44, a doctor, filmmaker and star athlete, died of AIDS last year in their Northwest Washington home. "After this we're going to the march in honor of our son," said Betty Holloran, who also worked as a reader.
The wildly colorful panels, which represent the dead from every state except North Dakota and South Dakota -- which have the smallest number of cases in the country -- incorporate a wide variety of objects or images special to those who were being memorialized. There is a sleeve from a U.S. mail carrier's uniform, cremation ashes, silk flowers, feather boas, a chef's hat and a baseball jersey.
Twenty-two of the panels were anonymous, two contained the names of a pair of brothers, and one, fashioned from a white sheet, had the following message printed by hand in black: "I have decorated this banner to honor my brother. Our parents did not want his name used publicly. The omission of his name represents the fear of oppression that AIDS victims and their families feel."
Some of those who came to see the quilt displayed symptoms of the disease, such as the purplish lesions characteristic of Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin cancer common to people with AIDS. Others were confined to wheelchairs or walked haltingly with canes.
Although Peter Gingrich, 32, a computer programmer from Tampa, Fla., has AIDS, he has no visible manifestations of the disease.
"It's overwhelming to see your friends out there," said Gingrich, staring at the quilt, which contains the names of several of his many friends now dead of AIDS. "It's scary for somebody like me, because I might be next. But I'm so happy to see that at least people are not forgotten."
The 3 1/2-ton quilt was not only a labor of love, it was also no small technical feat.
Nearly 500 volunteers, each with preassigned jobs, had arrived on the Mall from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. to set up the walkways, unload pieces of the quilt and erect booths for the sell of buttons, posters and brochures. Packets were distributed, outlining the materials used in the quilt, the number of grommets and the names and locations of celebrity panels.
At 2 a.m., John Wilson lay on the chill, damp grass helping to set up the grid of walkways while another volunteer held a flashlight. Four hours earlier, Wilson, a scenery designer who teaches drama at Stanford University, had flown in from California.
"To me this is the biggest piece of scenery the world has ever seen," said Wilson, who made three panels. "I'm here because I'm tired of all my friends dying, tired of being ignored."