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AIDS QUILT // Pieces of Life

The bands of light rising in the morning sky signaled it was time to prepare the quilt. It was time for healing.

Volunteers unfolded the 38,000 sections of the giant AIDS Memorial Quilt on the lawn of the National Mall on Friday morning, in the shadows of the capital's monuments and museums, and then interspersed boxes of tissues throughout the quilt's grid of walkways.

As the day wore on, people from all over the country weaved through the patchwork of color and cloth that stretched a mile from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. Mothers cried for sons. Teachers asked pupils if they knew what the letters HIV stood for. Men and women searched for panels honoring their lovers, brothers, sisters.

Standing before the panel she sewed for her son Steven, Cathie Powell of Satellite Beach choked back tears. But as painful as it was for her to look at the 3- by 6-foot panel, she said the quilt served as a balm in her grieving process.

"I personally found it was more difficult than his funeral," Powell said, clutching a photo of her son, who died last year at 28. "But we made (the quilt) bright and cheery, because we wanted to make it a celebration of his life."

That is one of the threads tying together the diverse panels. Most are made of beach-towel colors and happy pictures, juxtaposed with touching poems and messages.

That is what links the bright pink panel with the Piglet stuffed animal, sewn for a little girl in Michigan, to the glittery green panel for a man from Texas who wore a cowboy hat.

"The panels are a celebration of life, and life is colorful and happy," said Bob Hodgson of Arlington, Va., whose partner died last year. Hodgson sewed a panel with plaid fabric from his partner's chairs and bright yellow from a tablecloth.

"But there is also a sadness. . . . This is a huge part of the healing process," Hodgson said.

Like many of the 750,000 people who are expected to visit this weekend's display, Powell and Hodgson were awed by the enormity of it. With its walkways, the quilt would cover 21 football fields.

It has grown exponentially since its first display in Washington in 1988 and now bears the names of 70,000 people who have died of AIDS. This weekend, the first time in four years that the full quilt has been on display and maybe the last, organizers say, it will be the centerpiece of dozens of events sponsored by several groups, designed to again focus attention on the epidemic.

Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, joined poet Maya Angelou and others on Friday to read aloud some of the names displayed on the quilts. Late Friday afternoon, President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton strolled through sections of the quilt.

Today, actor Elizabeth Taylor is expected to lead a candlelight march from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

The Names Project, a San Francisco-based foundation that coordinates the display, estimates that the quilt represents about 11 percent of all people in the United States who died of AIDS.

They want the quilt to remind Congress and the White House that there still is no cure for people with AIDS. As of June, an estimated 343,000 Americans had died of the disease.

But organizers and people who visit the quilt are careful not to let it turn into a math problem. One of the goals of the display is to humanize the epidemic and prevent it from becoming a jumble of statistics.

"The quilt puts a face on an enormous tragedy that seems incomprehensible to most people," said Bob Gross of San Francisco, who lost his partner Duane Puryear to AIDS five years ago.

Gross sat on the ground Friday morning near a panel Puryear had designed before his death at age 26 _ about 10 years after he was infected. The panel now travels around the country to teach school children about the risk of contracting HIV.

Puryear's panel is simple _ black letters on white fabric _ stating, in part: "I made this panel myself. If you are reading it, I am dead."

Underneath the bright sun, hugging his knees to his chest to keep warm in the crisp fall air, Gross started talking about the quilt's ability to "make you feel close again."

His voice trailed off, and he wept openly.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

AIDS quilt on display

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, bearing the names of more than 70,000 people who have died from AIDS, will be displayed through Sunday in Washington, D.C.

Represents: 11% of all U.S. AIDS deaths

Number of panels: More than 38,000

Countries contributing panels: 40

Each panel: 3 ft. by 6 ft.

Quilt size: With walkways, it covers 21 football fields

Weight: 42 tons without walkways; 48 tons with walkway

Walkways: 21 miles of black fabric cut in 6-ft-wide-strips laid between panels

Volunteers: 130 teams of 8 people unfold the quilt

Visitors expected: 750,000

Cost: $1-million to display

Transportation: 10 railroad cars to carry

Source: The NAMES Project; research by BRENNA SINK