by Carlin Holden
About: Carlin Holden
I suppose my story starts with Bob in graduate school over fifty years ago. On St Patrick’s Day 1975, he killed himself rather than publicly face his sexuality. We had talked about “everything” for years but he hid that. We had had a fantasy of coming to San Francisco and collaborating on scholarly papers. I knew on my first visit in 1971 that I had to live here, if only for a year, sometime, somehow. I was a small town girl and married at the time. I left my husband and arrived in the city just after Halloween ’75.
Lenny was my upstairs neighbor on Dolores St. He and his roommate Steven took me under their wing and included me in the Sunday afternoon salons at George’s apartment overlooking Duboce Park. I remember thinking how glad I was to live in a place where I could wear my wallet in the back pocket of my jeans and hang out with guys who might wear heals. I have a photo of Lenny and myself at the Gay Day Parade ’76.
The next starting point was in 1982 in the Sierra on one of those very 80’s personal growth workshops. I had done a few in the preceding year, looking for something, some way to feel better. In the mountains I had some profound experiences, an epiphany and my last drink.
There were quite a few gay men in my recovery group. I especially remember meeting John and Randy at the noon meeting on Guerrero St. They were so young, cute and fun. Between meetings, we were reading articles about the new Gay Cancer and GRID. Some guys got sick, some joined one or more of the grassroots groups like Shanti, PAWS, or Open Hand. Almost all of them died.
In March of 1986, I returned from a week in Hawaii to news that John had died. He had been taken to the hospital on the previous Friday with some sort of flu and had died on Sunday. It was the first I’d heard of PCP. I don’t know if he even knew he was positive. There wasn’t a test yet. (I recall a friend having a test in ’87 that only showed the presence of a retrovirus. One of the few things known about AIDS then was that it is a retrovirus. Now we know that everyone has retroviruses, most of which are benign.)
I went to John’s memorial at an Episcopal Church where the man swinging the censer made a full circle, every third swing. It was fabulous! The church was packed. Many attending, including my former roommate Michael, would fall to this new disease in the next few years. That summer I followed friends to Shanti Project. The news was reporting that some folks wanted to quarantine everyone with AIDS and all those who had contact with them. It was a little scary but we signed up anyway. The two-weekends of training, were as good as any personal growth workshop I’d paid to take and more profound. I re-met Randy during my training.
As an emotional support volunteer, I participated in training new volunteers and co-led a support group for people with AIDS (PWAs) as they were being called, as opposed to AIDS patients or AIDS victims. Our conversations were full of medical and pharmaceutical terminology. The guys often said they were unsure if they felt ill due to the virus or the treatments. I remember walking and bussing around town listening to Les Miz on my Walkman. Those songs of anger and hope, love and grief expressed what I was feeling. One night Randy phoned so that we could listen to someone on the Johnny Carson show singing the prayer “Let him Live” together.
There was a long period when our support group had a strong core of regulars. We had tea parties at private homes and a grand dinner at a hotel downtown. Then we lost six of the regulars in six weeks. Even in those days of memorial services nearly every week, those six weeks were brutal.
Death was becoming something that was not separate from life and the celebrations of the lives being lost were very creative, personal and meaningful. One of the few church funerals I attended, felt cold and un-related to my friend. I can remember a memorial in someone’s home when it took all my self-control not to stand up and scream. The pretty poems and music just didn’t touch the pain. Years later at a Quilt display in DC we marched with candles past the White House, stopping in front to just scream. The sound was so loud, so raw that I could not even hear my own voice, but I felt it!
AIDS was everywhere for me, my work, volunteer service, friendship network and social life. Some people would ask, “How do you do it?” It, meaning responding to AIDS, was what was there to do. Sure, I chose some pieces, but none of us thought we were doing anything but what was in front of us. Looking back, it was much more traumatic. I do remember landing at SFO after a week or two back east, feeling a familiar sad heaviness come back into my body that had been absent while I was away. My parents commented at one point that even though they were at an age when they could expect to lose friends, I was actually losing more than they were.
In those days I did Japanese acupressure massage. Between 1986 and 1989, I went to a number of PWA retreats at Wildwood near the Russian River to give massages. I was often the only woman. I had rare and precious experiences and I treasure the memories of the people and the sunshine and all the living and laughing we did in the midst of all the illness and dying. One weekend we had a costume competition for Miss Wildwood. I wore Randy’s leather chaps, harness etc. etc. and won as Mr. Wildwood having campaigned for the title with a very butch rendering of “I’m tired of all this Shanti peace and love crap, I’m gonna kick ass.”
In the summer of 1987, I saw a mimeographed sign on a power pole at Market and Church with a cartoon guy on a cloud looking over the shoulder of a guy at a sewing machine saying “more sequins, more sequins.” Someone was going to take a creative and colorful display of coffin-sized quilts to D.C. to dramatize what was happening and show the love and loss behind the statistics. I called Peter hoping he would approve my making a panel for Michael, his late partner. At his suggestion we made it together. Randy made one for John and actually went to that first display.
By late 1987, Randy and I had become close friends. He had grown up in Texas, in an evangelical church. He had tried to be straight, even got married but it hadn’t worked. Randy was creative with cakes, flowers, fabric, hair and Christmas. He had a mega-watt smile that made any recipient feel like the only other person in the room. He sang in a smooth rich voice. I especially recall him singing a song of faith (to the tune of “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors) in the Living Sober musical the day I learned he had AIDS.
Randy had a great closet of wigs, costumes and jewelry. I have several pictures of him in drag and of me in the same outfit on a later occasion. For the Shanti Christmas parties in 1988, he made a ball gown (with some sewing and lots of hot glue). It had a black and gold brocade bodice, and a black taffeta skirt. There were faux onyx jewels and ropes of faux pearls. I felt like a queen. He wore a tux, to escort me to the client party on Saturday night. On Sunday night, we went to the volunteer party, me in the tux and Randy in the ball gown with additional decorations and without his moustache. Even people who had seen us the night before didn’t recognize him until he—as my date, the lovely Miss Merry Season—greeted them in his Texas drawl. He made a Christmas stocking for me out of the brocade, decorated with jewels and pearls. Twenty years later I finally have a proper fireplace mantle for hanging it.
The next year, we had Christmas dinner in his room at Presbyterian Hospital. His health really declined after that except for a brief period around Easter. I became his primary caregiver and eventually spent the nights at his place. There were several times when I felt like a rubber band that had stretched to its limit. I would take a deep breath and find a way to stretch further. (I thought of it as borrowing energy from the future.)
A crisis in late May took him to Mt. Zion and then to Garden Sullivan where he died the day after Memorial Day. His mother, friends Don and Helen and I bathed, shaved and dressed him in yellow sweats and sat holding hands with him in a circle until they came for his body. The memorial in the Swedenborgian Church was beautiful. His friend Tom came from Texas to do the flowers in the grand style we called Randy ‘Rangements. Another friend, Bill Glenn gave a eulogy, which was eloquent and real. He spoke of how Randy “transformed his flat into a Fort Worth interpretation of Christmas at Versailles.”
That fall I found that I really had used energy from the future. It was a couple of months before I could get off the couch for anything more than the basics. I put my feelings into a few poems I’m rather proud of and attended a grief support group at the Center for Attitudinal Healing for a whole year. One of the guys in that group published a collection of pieces called “Voices from the Grieving Heart” which includes two of my Randy poems.
In the spring of 1993 I went to DC as the Emotional Support Coordinator for the special Names Project Quilt display that would be part of the LGBT March on Washington. It was the biggest thing I had ever done. We re-created the original display with new quilt panels brought in that weekend.
I had been interested in volunteering at the AIDS Memorial Grove for some time but wasn’t free on Saturday mornings. On September 18, 1993, Randy’s 40th birthday, I wanted to mark the occasion by visiting the Grove. It was a workday, the second anniversary in fact, and to my surprise it didn’t matter that I was late, they put me to work anyway. I pulled elm suckers and blackberry brambles with a number of other folks including Ed, a teller of tales and ribald jokes who kept us entertained. There was a memorial group in what is now the Circle of Friends. They had come from the Central Valley with a Mariachi band. Like the Grove itself the day was a mixture of light and shadow.
I knew I would go back. I had in fact found a new home, a new tribe. I’m still volunteering with the Grove only now as a member of the board rather than as a weed puller. Being a board member at this time in the evolution of the Grove, having known the site before any hardscape or plantings, celebrating the 25th anniversary and contributing to the mission going forward also represents a personal evolution.