Editors note: This commemorative column, dedicated to the late Martin Lloyd Polak, originally appeared as part of a much longer WND piece.
The first time I walked in a Dec. 1 World AIDS Day procession, a friend asked me to help carry a stranger’s panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Awed by the love and care of someone else’s tender remembrance, I agreed, although doing so made me feel worse, if possible, about my brother Marty’s death, still a new wound to me.
Holding someone else’s memorial quilt panel, rather than my own brother’s, I worried everybody would see what a terribly selfish sister I must be, supposedly “too busy” to commemorate my own flesh-and-blood’s passing. This would take years to rectify.
Most of us wore black and carried open black umbrellas, despite the sunshine. Somber and silent, we strode through the streets of downtown Philadelphia at lunchtime, the suit-and-briefcase set giving us quizzical stares. As my feet found a comfortable rhythm pacing myself to my partner, I held the banner high with my left arm, the umbrella with my right, and recall marching in a Day of the Dead parade several years earlier in El Salvador, somewhat accidentally as a tourist.
Disembarking from our plane, we were surrounded by a stream of Salvadorans carrying huge black wooden crosses bearing the names of dead family members and friends lettered in white, while, overhead, police helicopters followed our movements, and I feared we would be bombed or arrested for interfering in the internal politics of a foreign nation. My fright threatened to make me into a coward, afraid to take a real stand.
But this is my country, and the enemy is a disease called AIDS. Tears flooded my eyes and flowed down my face, because in my mind, I was in both places at once. I mourn my brother’s loss yet rejoiced at his flowering during his last months of life, when he became an AIDS educator in upstate New York prisons and migrant farms.
And aren’t AIDS casualties our own “Disappeared,” snatched from us through “Death by Inches” as we watch horrified and helpless while our formerly hale and handsome and hearty dear ones waste away before our very eyes?
These were my thoughts en route to Love Park, where the Love Sculpture is symbolically enshrouded, dramatizing the desperate stilling of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of creative voices by this disease, which is, in many respects, an equal opportunity destroyer.
By the time several processions converged near City Hall, we heard the stark beat of caissons and the names of the dead read aloud. Every story had a point in time when a different ending is set in motion, but there we were: those in the crowd infected with AIDS; those in the crowd who were activists or caretakers or buddies for the sick and dying; those who have had loved ones die in their arms; those among us known themselves to be dying; those of us nauseated not just by the ravages of chemo or other toxic treatments, but by politicians’ short attention spans and by pharmaceutical greed and managed-care lobbies that want us to be unwell on our lunch hours, not theirs.
Finally, my tears dried and I reached an emotional catharsis of sorts, enabling me to take my place onstage, bundled against the cold, listening to others speak before I would eventually read a poem I wrote for my brother entitled “Proud Flesh,” which refers to the raw red flesh that will not heal, a poem that begins, “BE BRAVE, HONEY, I pray into the phone, I LOVE YOU.”
Several years ago, three students from Moore College of Art, through a school-community service project, assisted me in making an AIDS Quilt panel dedicated to my late brother. It was like an old-time quilting bee with our cutting and stitching that spanned perhaps six weeks. These resourceful, talented young women – Nichole Tremblay McPhee and two of her friends – helped me translate my vision into actuality.
They showed me how I could make a fabric transfer of a portrait done in pastels of my brother from his college days, preserving my memory of him in his prime, when everything loomed before him as a possibility. He was in a fishing boat, with the heartbreaking message, “Be Kind,” and his name spelled out in royal blue block letters.
They then accompanied me on a bus to Washington, D.C., where we were awed at the Quilt’s vast magnificence, the names of the dead in bloom, their colors vibrant, like fields of flowers, literally stretching out farther than the eye can see.