Can you imagine what it's like to have all your friends die?
Too many of us can not only imagine it but have lived to tell about the experience. Too many of us are still in shock from the horrors we witnessed, the young men we danced with and loved dying terribly and much too soon.
How do we go about remembering our sons, brothers, friends, and lovers who have died from AIDS? What is a fitting way to honor their memory and also make clear to future generations that our personal losses comprised only a handful of the millions killed in the plague?
This was the dilemma facing the board of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the seven landscaped acres within San Francisco's Golden Gate Park designated by Congress to serve as a place to remember, honor, and inspire hope.
Should "the Grove," as it is fondly known to the hundreds of volunteers who have helped maintain the site, be mainly for those who suffered loss first-hand? Or is it for future generations?
The 2011 documentary The Grove: AIDS and the Politics of Remembrance, by Andy Abrahams Wilson and Tom Shepard, examines the dilemma of how to mark a time of unimaginable loss and what it means to be a national memorial.
Through your tears, and through the lens of the filmmakers' camera, you will see stunningly beautiful images of the Grove's plants, flowers, and trees. You'll also see and hear the people whose personal losses moved them to create this living memorial in the broken heart of the City by the Bay.
U.S. Representative and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the Grove as a "magnificent metaphor" in the way its green, growing things and those who come together to tend them show life renewing itself. Pelosi was responsible for sponsoring the bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, designating the Grove a national memorial.
Trying to sort out what, exactly, that means, the Grove's board, now comprising others besides the original founders, asked: What will happen when those who lived through the dark years are gone?
Hoping to answer that question, the board sponsored an international design competition. Of the 261 entries, judges chose the design of two young New York architects, Janette Kim and Chloe Town. Their design featured a cluster of tall, black, steel poles to represent the aftermath of a forest fire.
Some board members felt that the contrast of the blackened "forest" and lush vegetation perfectly symbolized the devastation of AIDS set against the landscape teeming with life. Thom Weyand said it was important to honor the "softness and beauty" of the founders' vision while also offering "something more potent and visceral."
Others saw it differently. Co-founder Alice Russell-Shapiro asked, "What does it mean for our little seven acres to be national? To me it means more people need to know it exists. I don't think they will be more inclined to go see some charred poles. I think they want a beautiful garden."
Another co-founder, Jack Porter, the surviving partner of landscape architect Stephen Marcus, whose memory inspired the Grove's creation, put a finer point on his own opposition. "If that design goes in," he said, "I'm going to be the first one to throw myself in front of the bulldozer."
The Grove's board ultimately voted 8-7 not to move forward with the winning design.
Two years later, designer Janette Kim said someone had told her the time wasn't right for her design because the losses that inspired the Grove were still too personal. Standing in the Grove itself, she said, "To me the point of a memorial is that it invites public recognition. It asks us, as a bigger public, 'How am I involved in this? How does this affect me? Is this part of my life? Am I responsible for this?'"
Only time will tell us how properly to memorialize those killed by AIDS. Meanwhile, the words of Cleve Jones, founder of the first, largest, and best-known AIDS memorial, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, are as powerful today as they were in 1987.
In a clip featured in The Grove, Jones addresses the crowd at a candlelight vigil outside San Francisco's City Hall. "We are pledged to the memory of those who have fallen and those who will follow to see this struggle through to the end," said Jones. "We send this message to America: we are the lesbians and gay men of San Francisco. We are survivors. We shall survive again, and we shall be the strongest, most gentle people on this Earth."
Follow John-Manuel Andriote on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JMAndriote