Randy Rodriguez’s favorite color was deep, royal blue — a color that now occupies a 3-by-6-foot panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, part of which will be on display at the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville through World AIDS Day, Monday, Dec. 1.
Rodriguez died Nov. 30, 1994, at age 34 from complications related to AIDS. He’s one of 94,000 individuals represented by the 54-ton tapestry.
“Randy will always be in my heart, and the quilt becomes an expression of that love for the world to witness,” says Asheville-area resident Roberta Binder, who began a lifelong friendship with Rodriguez while working with him at a theater in Pennsylvania over 30 years ago. She refers to him as her “adopted son.”
The free exhibit, “A Celebration of Lives,” will feature 160 panels stitched together on 20 blocks of the quilt. It will be open for viewing from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Binder recalls the day she made the trip to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store to purchase the material for Rodriguez’s quilt panel and how she broke down in tears. Making the commitment to craft the piece, she says, was like receiving the phone call that Rodriguez had died all over again.
“And then it became, ‘He’s come back to life,’” Binder says.
She met Rodriguez when he was 19 and she was in her 30s. He took a liking to Binder right away, calling her Ma and following her to Maine when she left to run a theater there. He discovered he was HIV-positive just as he was leaving Maine for New York City.
Binder describes Rodriguez as having a mind of his own, very strong and a talented tenor. His panel is covered in photos of his younger, healthier self. He appears confident and boyishly handsome.
There is one photo, however, that shows a different side. He is rail-thin, resting his head on a stuffed animal. He curls a bony hand around his head as if to protect himself. The photo was taken two weeks before he died, and it was the last panel Binder stitched.
For months, she met with Pam Siekman and a handful of others at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Together they recounted stories of their loved ones. They laughed. They cried. They quilted.
“As I worked on it, it became more and more joyful,” Binder says. “Once you do that panel, you discover what a gift of love [it is] and [that it’s] healing and a permanent honor to the individual and to you.”
Making a quilt for a loved one is like getting a bonus visit with them, Binder says.
“Through the entire process, I was able to put that visit together on my terms and decide when I was fully ready for it to happen,” she says. “The making of the quilt was a commitment to examine the relationship with my beloved, enjoy it, remember the wonderful moments, feel the deep level of healing and finally release him to the ages.”
Siekman, chairwoman of the Memorial Quilt Exhibit, stitched a panel for her best friend. “It’s a vehicle that portrays [a] very personal part of some person’s life,” she says.
Siekman also sees the quilt as a nonthreatening way to educate people about AIDS.
“You hear people say thousands of people died of AIDS — it’s a huge number,” she says. “But when you stand before the quilt panel, it’s no longer a number.”
Life, love and death
Donald Charles Ator was the kind of father who smelled nice, dressed well and made a mean broccoli pasta salad. He was funny, gentle and gave the best hugs, according to his daughter, Sara Wilcox.
Ator had AIDS, and he died before his daughter graduated high school. Wilcox, now a co-pastor at Land of the Sky United Church of Christ in Asheville, later discovered that her father was a recovering alcoholic and had contemplated suicide.
Ator’s struggles are now memorialized in the words of his partner, cross-stitched into a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt — one of the panels that will be on display at the Renaissance: “The road has been difficult, just as it has been difficult to face life and confront death without fear. Take care of those who, like I, fought to accept and understand a reality which is bigger than our ability to comprehend. Give strength and consolation to those that are less strong than I, and who continue to endure in silence this cross of suffering.”
Wilcox, along with her sister, mother and her father’s sister, will be celebrating Thanksgiving together and making a visit to see their loved one’s quilt panel.
Soon after Wilcox was born, her parents divorced, and her father came out as a gay man, she says.
“The relationship that my mother and father shared and the ability to transcend a situation that disrupts everything everyone knows was one of the greatest lessons I learned about what deep abiding love looks like,” Wilcox says.
She believes the quilt tells a story of life, love and death, and that each panel is only a small piece of a much larger story — a story of love and compassion. It’s a testament to our interconnectedness as human beings, she says, and our need to grieve real suffering and make something beautiful out of it all.
“It also calls people to realize that silence perpetuates the suffering. People live with AIDS today in a way that my father never could,” Wilcox says.
Keeping the vigil
As of December 2013, the estimated number of living HIV infection cases diagnosed and reported in North Carolina was 28,101, according to a report by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Among the HIV infection cases diagnosed in 2013, African-Americans represented 64 percent of all cases. The highest rate was among adult/adolescent African-American males.
Western North Carolina AIDS Project — which provides case management and care coordination to people living with HIV/AIDS, testing education and advocacy — currently has 445 active clients.
Executive Director Jeff Bachar said the organization took in 100 new clients last year and that the newest cases are young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
“A lot of the times people today will say, ‘Oh hey, is [AIDS] still a problem?’ That’s extremely concerning, considering young people represent the highest number of cases,” he says. “There’s a generational breakdown — people under 30 did not live through the worst parts of the AIDS epidemic. They don’t have a reference point for what the quilt represents.”
Lee Storrow, executive director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, says he hopes that North Carolinians who visit the AIDS quilt will be reminded of those lost from HIV and AIDS and be inspired to continue advocating.
“With the American South the new center of the HIV epidemic in the U.S., it’s vital that we educate the public and policy makers about the importance of HIV treatment and prevention,” Storrow says.
Whatever the purpose, Binder says visiting the quilt is a healing experience. The first time she viewed the panels, it was painful, yet she realized that each one represented the artist’s expression of grief.
“People who had done those panels put their love into it,” she says. “As difficult as it is, especially the first time, after you walk away from it, you feel the love. You feel the art.”
WHAT: The free exhibit, “A Celebration of Lives,” will feature 160 panels stitched together on 20 blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The exhibit is the largest of its kind in North Carolina. An opening night reception featuring Mike Smith, co-founder of the NAMES Project Foundation, live music by classical guitarist James Barr and the a cappella singing group Pastyme will kick off the exhibit on Monday, Nov. 24, at 6 p.m. Local jazz musician Kat Williams closes the exhibit on Monday, Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. with a musical tribute.
WHEN: 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 24 – Monday, Dec. 1
WHERE: Renaissance Hotel, Asheville