For the past five months, strangers have watched Ray Engebretsen die.

They knew about the stabbing pain in his throat, the raw sores in his mouth, the dark lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma, the constant weight of fear and depression that accompanied the AIDS that was killing him.

When the 37-year-old lawyer's mind began to wander, weakened by the combination of his disease and the tincture of opium he took for the uncontrollable diarrhea, they knew. When he was rejected for an experimental treatment program at the National Institutes of Health, they knew. When he and his companion began to plan a private memorial service, they knew that, too.

Yesterday morning, at 1:55, Ray Engebretsen died, and now the strangers who have come to know him are mourning the loss of a friend.

Every few weeks in the pages of The Washington Blade, the city's free weekly gay newspaper, Engebretsen revealed details, from the horrific to the mundane, so intimate even family members might shrink from sharing them.

"I wanted to help the community," Engebretsen said four days before the final coma, his voice on the phone as distant and tremulous as an old man's. By the next day he was too weak for visitors or further conversation. "I have no money to give -- I'm in abject poverty. I'm not well enough to be on any scheduled volunteer basis for anything. The only thing I really have to give is a good discussion on me."

So Ray Engebretsen opened his life, and his death, to the public.

"He became not a stranger any more, but a part of people's lives," said the Rev. Larry J. Uhrig, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, which has a largely homosexual congregation. "You say Ray Engebretsen and everyone knows who you mean. What the articles did was they served to extend his family -- a larger family is going to go through the process of grief."

Engebretsen's candor about the ravages of his disease extended to his religious faith and his feelings for his companion, who cared for him until his death. "There's no reason not to be honest at this point in my life," he said last week. But the man who left his parents' home in Sacramento at 12 shielded some parts of his life from public scrutiny.

He didn't want to talk about his family or his childhood for publication, although he did tell The Blade that "young gay boys with blond hair learn how to make money."

A varsity athlete, he graduated valedictorian from a Pentecostal high school in Oregon.

From 1969 to 1971 he served as a military police officer in Vietnam, where he earned several medals, including the Bronze Star. After he was injured, he spent seven months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Beyond that he had nothing to say about Vietnam.

When he was discharged, Engebretsen worked in the office of Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) while attending the University of Maryland and then George Mason Law School. In 1978, he started his own law practice, specializing in immigration and cases involving homosexuals. He loved motorcycles, was a familiar face at local gay bars. On Jan. 11, 1985, his birthday, he learned he had AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Two months later, he started talking with Lisa M. Keen, managing editor of The Blade, and on March 15 the estimated 75,000 readers of The Blade were introduced to Engebretsen in the first of nearly a dozen published interviews.

In each installment, he was sicker, weaker, closer to death. The 5-foot-10 man who had once been a strong, healthy 150 pounds dropped to 125, then 110, then 90. A face, hidden behind a beard because Engebretsen was too weak to shave, faded into a skin-swathed skull. Muscular arms melted away.

From the beginning, the community responded. When no article about Engebretsen appeared in The Blade the week after the initial interview, concerned readers called the paper to find out how he was. Dozens of people wrote to The Blade about Engebretsen, and Keen says she believes the series inspired more letters to the editor than any other feature in the paper's 17-year history.

Engebretsen also received letters from strangers, from former legal clients, from people he'd met once or twice who remembered him, from men he'd been involved with long ago. They sent prayers, diet suggestions, offers of help financial and emotional, a Buddhist mantra to chant and messages of gratitude.

"Your effort to combat AIDS is not only brave, it lends more dignity to gay people than I once thought we were worth," wrote one man. "Your battle shows me it is worth it and that we are worth it . . . I am sending this article to . . . my father who has a rather dubious opinion of gays and an even more dubious opinion of gays with AIDS. Despite his problem with homosexuality, he is a good man and a sensitive man and I know he will agree with me in believing your battle with this thing is what manhood and dignity is all about."

For the nation's gay press, the story of death from AIDS is far from new.

But even as the numbers of AIDS patients grow at a terrifying rate, there are still many who have not seen the effects of the disease up close -- even within the homosexual community. Now, readers of The Blade have.

"It has increased the awareness of AIDS, the need to use proper preventive techniques as much as any other single event in Washington, in my opinion," said Jim Graham, administrator of the Whitman-Walker health clinic, which serves the homosexual community. Graham introduced Engebretsen to Keen after she told him she wanted to follow an AIDS patient in the pages of The Blade.

"I have always thought that the surest way to have someone's attitude about AIDS change is to have their lives touched by a person with AIDS. People who don't have a person with AIDS in their lives have gotten one through Ray." In His Own Words

Engebretsen, March: "I'm not going to accept this. I intend on getting treated quickly whenever anything crops up . . . If I hang on long enough, they might find a cure."

Engebretsen, May: "It's getting harder and harder to keep the resolve to keep going. I still have it, but every day it's a bigger effort to keep that resolve . . . The symptoms of depression are setting in. I need to fight depression. It's beginning to get a foothold on me, I can tell."

Engebretsen, June: "My attitude toward it, more and more, is that I'm ready to accept the whole thing. It doesn't bother me that much anymore. It terrified me at first . . . no reason for it to."

Engebretsen, July: "Trying to face the reality. It's not in the abstract anymore. It's becoming very real. I asked the doctor. He said maybe days, maybe weeks, a few months. There are many times when I don't want to continue like this for a few months. In this shape I just really don't. But I'm not ready to stop either, so I keep plugging along." The Community Responds

Lisa Keen had no friends with AIDS when she began the series. "I didn't know what it was like when we started out," she said. "When we started the interviews, I didn't think he would wither away this slowly and this painfully."

For others, who know from personal experience what AIDS does, the course of the disease was familiar and the articles so painful as to be almost unreadable.

"My best friend is in NIH right now, so it's close to home," said Jim Bennett, 29, co-owner of Lambda Rising, the Dupont Circle bookstore specializing in gay literature. "I visited my friend this weekend. A couple of times I just lost it. He's going to die. You just don't expect anyone that age to die. I've already lost a couple of friends. And when I pick up the paper, I know it's going to be hard to read the stories. I really do feel for him.

"I think some people think, 'I'm tired of seeing that in The Blade.' The gay community is being bombarded with information about AIDS. I've heard several people, in a sense, wishing it wasn't there, but I'm glad it's there. It keeps us all in touch. It keeps our community aware."

And, according to leaders in the homosexual community, there are still some who would rather remain unaware.

"My perception is when it first appeared, there was a lot of interest," said Uhrig of the series. "But when they continued, when the reality was seeping through, there was a level of resistance -- 'I don't want to read about this.' "

Engebretsen's companion (who wishes to remain anonymous) said that until Engebretsen's AIDS was diagnosed in January, the two of them were trying as hard as anyone to deny the existence and threat of the disease.

"We both didn't really take it seriously until it happened to Ray. Once it happened to Ray, he kind of did a flip-flop in his thinking. He wanted to do something."

Engebretsen's background may have allowed some readers to discount his story's relevance to their lives, just as he and his companion managed to ignore all the talk about AIDS until it affected them.

In The Blade, Engebretsen was honest about his sexual history.

He described himself as sexually "very active," said he enjoyed "what some people would call kinky sex," and that he had had sex with "more men than I could delineate."

"I think there was a tendency in the gay community, not just regarding Ray Engebretsen but about AIDS in general, to say, 'I'm not a bike club member, I never did any of that anyway,' to distance and deny it," said Uhrig. "Almost a kind of holier-than-thou attitude: 'Well, no wonder you got AIDS, when you did that.' I think it was very normal to try to dismiss it, but people get AIDS who've only gone out and had sex once."

But, many readers agreed, as Engebretsen's story unfolded, such reactions dimmed.

"It really is a devastating disease, and the 'real' media didn't make it quite clear until very recently," said one Blade reader. "You just didn't really know what this disease was all about unless you participated in someone's death or read these pieces."

Before Engebretsen died, his companion said of the interviews, "They've been helpful to Ray, to be able to talk. I think he's been able to say things he couldn't have said any other way. He's kind of been able to self-analyze himself that way, and I know he's enjoyed that.

"What Ray talks about in the articles is not necessarily what I see at home and dealing with him. I would read the articles and then I had the opportunity to talk to him. The one where he talked about religion -- we don't talk religion, Ray and I, or we hadn't up until that point. A couple of the articles have been really, really touching to me personally." In His Own Words II

Engebretsen, April: "I could always take care of myself. I was proud of that machismo. I escaped from an uneducated, poor white family to being a professional. I got through the war, rode my motorcycle all over the country; I've done it all. And now, this tiny little virus, and I can't . . ."

Engebretsen, May: "He his companion hardly has a moment for himself . . . He's only 25 years old . . . He shows an awful lot for a 25-year-old. Most people at any age don't have the kind of love and commitment he has to my welfare . . ."

Engebretsen, July: "We felt the need to begin to attempt to say goodbye to each other . . . We said goodbye to everybody else, but not to each other . . ." Accepting the End

Chaplain Kenneth Bastin of Hospice Care of the District of Columbia met with Engebretsen regularly from May until his death and was with him much of Monday night.

"I think Ray saw the articles as one of his last gifts he could give," he said yesterday, "to make some sense, some redeeming sense, of the suffering he was going through. This is a way of pulling the pieces together, of acknowledging what matters and what doesn't matter, of finding meaning. I think Ray has always been a strong person, a person who was very independent, very self-willed in a good sense. He was used to looking out for himself and looking out for others, and this is the way he went out."

When Engebretsen died, "he went peacefully," his companion said yesterday.

"Lots of friends came by here last night and said their goodbyes. He knew they were there. At about five of 2, he just kind of faded away. He gave up."

In his final days, Engebretsen was still receiving supportive letters from caring strangers.

"Some of it's very, very moving and touching," he said last week. "I get a lot of 'Hang in there, baby' types of letters. I also get a lot of get well cards, and they perturb me. They make me mad. I'm not going to get well, you know.