WASHINGTON -- Just below the Washington Monument, in the grassy expanses of America's front yard, Gary Stevenson stared somberly at the brightly colored patches of the AIDS quilt being unfurled at his feet. "The day'll be coming when I'll be on there," he said quietly.
Mr. Stevenson, a lanky 31-year-old artist from suburban Minneapolis who has had AIDS for six years, already knows what he wants on the panel that will symbolize his life: "Red roses because they're a sign of life and death in one flower. And I want a lot of nature and people I love signing it."
Nearby, Bob and Jackie Stuart of Fresno, Calif., watched as a panel they made for their 26-year-old son, Jamey, was rolled out. It was the first time they had seen it attached to other panels, a part of the massive tribute to those who have died of AIDS. Mr. Stuart placed his hand on his wife's shoulder as their family's handiwork -- with hearts, a poem and pictures -- came to rest on the ground.
"It's a heart-rending thing, isn't it?" Mr. Stuart said. "Every time I think I'm getting over it, I don't."
All around them on the grass, volunteers this week attached the 3-by-6-foot panels into 24-by-24-foot blocks in preparation for the formal display of the quilt on the Monument grounds today and tomorrow. Heavy rain prevented volunteers from unfolding the quilt yesterday, but they planned to display it as soon as the weather cleared.
Organizers said they expect more than 300,000 people to view the quilt over the weekend.
Each panel celebrates the life of someone who died of AIDS, a memorial in fabric and pictures and poems and mementos assembled by those they left behind.
Behind the bright colors and creativity and cheerful feel of the quilt are the darkest of statistics: When it was first displayed in Washington five years ago this month, it had 1,920 panels. Now it has grown to some 20,000. The assemblage now weighs 30 tons and will cover the equivalent of 12 football fields in the quilt's largest display to date. And it is destined to keep growing.
"The saddest part," said James McKinley, 39, of Houston, a display coordinator, "is that people I knew who were [earlier] working on the quilt are now on it. And I know that next time a number of people working on it this year won't be here."
Most of the names on the quilt are male, although not exclusively. There's a panel for Heather Marie Zajkowski, 1986-1988, with her smiling baby picture, a tiny stuffed bear and a piece of a baby blanket. Next to that is a panel for her mother, Alice Marie Zajkowski, 1955-1988.
Another family made a panel for its Grandma Sophie, 1905-1989, dominated by a picture of an elderly lady framed in gold lace.
Each square in the quilt tells a different story, sometimes easily deciphered, sometimes more private. But the creativity of those who made the panels for their friends, lovers and relatives is awesome.
Panels contain everything from balloons to stuffed animals to pictures to Christmas stockings to a diploma to paint brushes and hats. One, for Peter Boe, has a neatly sewn cloth book with hand-stiched writing. Another, for Claude Boyington ("best friend and vicious card player"), has a carefully crafted hand holding aces, kings, queens and jacks.
For Jamey Stuart, who died last March, his parents, two brothers and sister stitched a panel with hearts containing the names of his friends, a picture of him diving, a poem he had written and a cloth Scrabble board for one of his favorite games. There also is a picture of him with his family at Yosemite, one of his favorite places.
"And that," said his father pointing to a snapshot of some brightly blooming flowers, "is a picture of the flowers he planted in December. They bloomed just before he died. The day he died, it rained just a little."
A volunteer assembling the quilt heard the parents' conversation and asked if they would like to help her fold the giant section with their son's panel in preparation for the formal unfurling.
"Pick up some wind," she instructed.
As each parent held an edge, the section with Jamey Stuart's name caught the breeze and danced in the air and the bright sunlight.