The AIDS Memorial Quilt, displayed in its entirety for the last time, on the D.C. Mall in 1996
The thirty-something clerk from the company's Central Files Department took the seat across the desk from me with the slouched shoulders and grim facial expression of a defeated warrior. Darkened lesions were scattered on his face, his eyes slightly sunken.
"I've got it, Lezlie. It's official. I'm going to die."
Paul had AIDS. He had just come from San Francisco General Hospital where he had been diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia, an opportunistic disease caused by a yeast-like fungus that attacks the human lung when the body's immune system is compromised. It was the one manifestation of HIV/AIDS that provided its own public announcement via lesions like the ones dotting Paul's pale, gaunt face.
"What do you want to do, Paul?" I asked. "Are you telling me you are unable to continue working?"
Paul shook his head emphatically.
"No. I need to work. Please don't make me quit. I'll go crazy if I don't have something to do with myself every day."
My head started an all-to0-familiar throbbing behind my eyes. That's where the stress of those past several months made itself known to me -- daily. As the manager of the regional office's Administrative Services, I had more than 100 people in my organization. The majority of those were entry-level workers, and, since we were in San Francisco in the early 1980s, a good percentage of them were gay men.
In order to handle all the challenges the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic posed in this cosmopolitan workplace, I read everything I could get my hands on about the disease. Looking back from this 2011 vantage point, it is jarring to remember how little was known about the transmission of AIDS. Conjecture within the ranks of my employees was rampant. People were parking themselves in my office door every day expressing their fear of contracting the disease by working next to the Pauls of the world. Hysteria was bubbling just below the surface in the offices.
Paul's face broke my heart. Not his tell-tale lesions, although they were ominously ugly. It was his fear that was written all over it. He was fragile, physically and emotionally, and I was determined not to add to his suffering by having a knee-jerk reaction to his diagnosis.
That's when I decided to call Cleve Jones, the co-founder in 1983 of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I invited Cleve to come to our offices to make a no-holds-barred presentation to the members of our team. That was one of the most productive and enlightening calls I ever made.
Cleve and I worked together with my leadership team to develope a workplace that was educated, sympathetic and nurturing for Paul and those who would follow him. Paul passed away within a few short months. Sadly, he was the first of many.
In 1985, my long-time goal of working in the company's Public Relations department was realized. I was transferred in to handle Community Relations in the Arts, the Latino community, the African American community, and the AIDS community. Through our work, millions of dollars in grants were awarded to AIDS service providers, and I became the company's regional face against AIDS.
In 1987, the brother of a man I was dating was diagnosed with pneumocystis. He suffered and fought gallantly, but, of course, lost the battle and was gone within six months. After facing the unrelenting grief suffered by that family, I decided to volunteer as a grief counselor during the weekend that the now gigantic AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display in San Francisco. My boyfriend's family had completed their panel in honor of their lost loved one, and I wanted to be there in the most meaningful way I could find.
Nothing could have prepared me for the gut-punching impact the sight of that magnificent work of public art had on me. Now that I knew first-hand what the families of these memorialized victims of AIDS had endured, the sheer number of panels on that convention center floor hit me like a brick.
My job was to walk among the panels on the floor to watch for persons who are overcome with grief and unable to recover. If they were alone on the quilt, I would walk over to them, take their hand or put an arm around their shoulders and just be there with them. Some would start talking, telling me all about their loved one. Others would bury their faces on my shoulder. Others just stood there, staring at the panel on the cold concrete floor.
I have given away untold millions of corporate dollars over the years of my career in Community Relations, but that never came close to matching the feeling of relevance I took home with me from my weekend on The Quilt.
#1 - NYTimes.com
#2 - AP File Photo | DANNY JOHNSTON