Perhaps one of the smallest National Memorial Sites in the country, and certainly one of the most affecting, is the National AIDS Memorial Grove, tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is easy to miss, on a side street on the eastern end of the park, well away from the bustle of the Music Concourse, the Conservatory, and the Museums.
You follow a fernlined path down into a deep hollow. It is very quiet, below the level of street noise, and it is easy to be reverent in the shade of tall redwood and oak trees lining a boulder-strewn creek. As you look closer, you see that many of the boulders are etched with messages of love for someone who has died.
In a sunny clearing at the end of the grove is a paved circle – the Circle of Friends. Radiating out from the center in concentric circles are names. Some are the names of AIDS victims, others of AIDS survivors, still more of friends and family members whose lives have been irrevocably changed by AIDS in some way. Often there are bouquets of fresh flowers at the center of the circle.
New names can be added only once a year – on November 1, the National Day of Remembrance for AIDS victims. On the website you can search for the names of people you know whose names are already in the circle. I found a college friend’s name, and the names of his parents. He had been one of the early ones to die.
As I walked back through the grove, I noticed that many of the boulders had small cairns built on top of them, perhaps related to the Jewish custom of putting a stone on the grave of a relative or friends when you visit. I stopped by an empty boulder and piled up a cairn – one for my college friend, one for two boys I had known well in high school, one for the son of my high school principal, one for another close friend who is, so far, as survivor. I had not thought of them for a long time. It felt good to think about them here.