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I stood dumb struck on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument. This can't be right! Did every single one of those handmade panels really represent a person who had died of AIDS?
"Hello!" Chloe hollered in my ear. "Didn't you hear me? We're going to walk down to the quilt now and find our moms," she informed me, a bit quietly this time.
We walked for what seemed like hours before we found our mothers mingling with some friends among this sea of people.
"Chloe, I can't comprehend this," l said, trying to control my quivering voice. "This isn't fair!"
"I know," she said breathlessly, "I'm speechless."
I needed to be alone while I looked at the AIDS quilt, so I told my mom where and when I would meet her and I was off. Long, black tarps sectioned off different portions of the quilt. Boxes of pink tissues lined the walkways. Slowly I walked, feeling hot, stinging tears run down my cheeks. I didn't know anyone who had died of AIDS-related complications and yet sharp sobs of anger and frustration overwhelmed my body. I stopped to grab a couple of tissues and continued walking, this time staring down at my sneakers. I couldn't look anymore. I hadn't gone but a few steps when I felt a warm arm around my shoulder and, before I knew what was happening, I was pouring out my feelings to a stranger. After a hug and a warm friendly smile, this young man who smelled of spicy cologne and classic, pink bubble gum, had departed. I stood alone again. Feeling much stronger after this emotional support I began to read one of the squares.
Brian, it started, maybe you never noticed me but I used to sit in the back of your English class. You were always more popular than me and I always thought you were funny. You never really know what you truly appreciate in life until you lose it. Your humor was important to me. English class just isn't the same anymore.
The panel was signed, Love, Joel. A single tear dropped onto Joel's simple words. I didn't know if I could handle this anymore. Katie, pull yourself together I kept repeating until finally I moved on.
I read square after square, each one different and having a new meaning to me. I could hear names blaring from the loudspeaker. "Ryan White, George Smith, Carey Owens ... " Occasionally, I could hear someone read the name of a loved one. His voice would crack or I could hear her sobs. When this happened, a new speaker would take over. The names kept coming.
So this was my long weekend in the nation's capital? This was sad and depressing. I felt confused. I had never experienced anything like this before. I needed to sit down and think. Looking behind me while protecting my eyes from the sun, I viewed the green lawn where I had started.
I started back, my feet feeling like cement blocks. I reached the clearing and laid out my sweatshirt and deposited my knapsack beside me. I reached into the bag and took out my notebook. My hand cramped as I wrote; my feelings poured out onto the paper. I wouldn't let myself forget these moments.
Glancing at my watch, I realized my mom would probably be searching for me. I reluctantly closed my sacred writings and carefully slipped the notebook into my backpack. Pulling my lead-like body from the ground, I solemnly shuffled back to meet my mother. When I found her, a high-pitched male voice came over the loudspeaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you would please start folding up the quilt it would be greatly appreciated. We need to hurry so we can gather in front of the White House. We will then start the candlelight AIDS march. Would everyone please help!" His voice quickly clicked off.
It felt like a dream in slow motion as I looked out over the quilt and saw many people slowly folding this touching masterpiece. Young and old alike slowly took a corner and tossed it up into the air. It fell to the ground gradually, like a parachute about to land. From there they carefully folded it up.
Everyone came from a different background and yet all united that day. AIDS is not racist, sexist or biased. It can kill anyone and deep down everyone seemed to know that.
Twenty minutes later the huge orange moving trucks came. They contained boxes to store this monument of healing away until the next day. People rushed frantically trying to shove the huge sections into boxes. Cameras were everywhere interviewing people and getting live footage for the news.
"Katie, let's go!" Chloe pulled my arm. "We're going to be in a march!" I felt a shiver of excitement run through my spine! March? Like on television? I started running toward the Ellipse. All around me volunteers were passing out candles and programs. In the distance I could hear a choir. Then I saw them, all the supporters holding candles just as I was. Stretched out in front of me was a sea of small, flickering lights. I joined these people.
More and more people were pushing up behind me. There were thousands of us. I could see the choir more clearly now. It was all men. Their voices harmonized together like thick chords on an acoustic guitar. I closed my eyes so I could remember the sounds of the singers. I never wanted to forget this beautiful music. Very slowly the crowd started moving forward toward the street in front of us.
Thousands of us began to walk down the middle of the busy street. Above us people hung out of their windows cheering and waving candles in the cool air. The crowd started shouting, "Fight back, fight AIDS!" Tears welled in my eyes. This time they were not sad tears, though. They were tears of hope. Tears that said that people would come together to cure this terrible disease. I turned my head to look behind me. All down the street and rounding a wide corner, candles burned. It was the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed. Each candle meant another person cared. Proud because I was out in the night standing up for what I believed, I raised my head up and started taking more deliberate footsteps. I wanted everyone to see where I had marched, hoping they would choose to follow the same path.
In the distance I could see a long pool of shallow water. Soon 90,000 participants were circling around it. I glanced beside me and gently grabbed a little boy's sweaty palm. My wax-covered hand squeezed his small fingers. I looked straight ahead and saw thousands of dancing candles reflected against the slowly rippling water. It reminded me of layers of heat rising from the top of our wood stove. The crowd started humming a simple tune. I closed my eyes and blew out the dying flame of my candle. n