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My Life, My Stories: Karen remembers the love and loss during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco

Brittany Bare
My Life, My Stories
My Life, My Stories participant Karen Van Dine.

Karen Van Dine’s story is one installment of the senior oral histories in our My Life, My Stories series. Karen came to California for personal healing and found herself in San Francisco: a city like no other she had ever experienced. Working as prayer counselor in a healing circle at a gay ministry in the Castro - Karen’s personal and professional relationships were steeped in the love and loss that came out of the tragic circumstances of the AIDS epidemic.

KAREN VAN DINE: I was astounded at the pride parade. It's like, wow, I mean, there are men square dancing, there are dykes on bikes with their tits hanging out, there are guys dancing on trucks in drag throwing necklaces, you know, I mean, it's like any imaginary...I mean, anything you could possibly think of as a way to be, an identity to have, was in that parade.

And I thought, "Wow, you can be anybody who are here. This town is full of not only freedom, but permission and celebration to be who you are." I thought, "Oh my God, what a place." So, I started going to that gay ministry, I became a prayer counselor, I worked in a healing circle, and at the same time, the AIDS epidemic hit like gangbusters.
And there were about, oh, 200 to 300 people in that congregation. There were a few lesbian women, I think there were two straight women, the rest were all gay men,
But, I don't think I have ever felt so much love and acceptance and felt so cherished in my whole life. It was like coming home to a part of me and it was just...it was amazing. It was so dynamic during that time because death was so around us, the veil between life and death was so permeable, and yet there was this huge outpouring of gratitude and celebration at the same time. We had so much joy and so much sadness all in...all at the same time, all the time. So, you felt extremely alive.

One of the first guys I met whose name was Stan Darby. This church was just...I mean, it was so full...it was so over the top, I mean, during a church service we had...you know, we'd sing and we'd dance...like, rock and roll music. It was just out of sight, it was wild, but so happy, so celebratory.
So, very soon, maybe the second week I went there, there was a party at night that I went to, total strangers, I just showed up. There was this game and I met this young man, he was just amazing. He looked at me and said, "Oh, Karen." And then he looked at my hair and he said, "This hair has got to go. You look mousey, you look old, come on, we're getting rid of the hair." I was like, "Okay."
So, I don't know, I came the next day or so and he cut my hair, the most wonderful haircut I've ever had in my life, you know, and he just made me...he was so full of joy and life, he was just, oh, so much fun. And these guys were like that, they'd go, "Okay." You know, I got makeovers, I got...but they loved me and I loved them so open-heartedly. But Stan got AIDS. And there are many kinds of AIDS. One kind was a wasting disease, when they just start going away. The flesh falls off, they become skeletal, it was just hideous.
These guys are 20, you know, and they're becoming skeletal. Other kinds, they get that KS, KS lesions, some would get this toxic thing where they would lose their sight. I mean, the AIDS had so many ways that it affected guys. But Stan got the wasting kind and he took months to die, it was hideous. And at one time he called me and said...you know, he had a hard time. I was on the phone with him a lot, with him a lot. But one time I was here in the city visiting him. And he had grown up somewhere in, like, Kentucky or Tennessee or something, very poor, and he had lots of brothers and sisters and they had all slept in the same bed as kids, and he would just be so scared.  

He would say, "Karen, I'm just so afraid, I'm so afraid." He said, "Would you, would you..." He said, "I used to sleep with my brothers and sisters and I used to play with my sister's hair and it was just so comforting for me. So, do you think you could sleep with me?" I said, "Of course." So, I got in the bed with Stan and I spent the night with him, and he twirled my hair. But he was so weak and, you know, he'd be...he was incontinent, so he would get up, mess up himself and then change his pajamas and get back in bed.
It was just so poignant to be with that dear man. Finally, he was put in Coming Home Hospice on Diamond street in the Castro.

Stan was close to death, his ex boyfriend was there and I remember being on the...just the side of the freeway trying to decide whether to go back to Stockton or to stay...you know, not sure. And my, kind of, guidance said, "Yeah, just go home, it's okay, just go home." So, it takes a while to get to Stockton, I got home and I got in the bathtub because I was tired. And I was just, kind of, relaxing in the bathtub, and there came, like, this energy and light in front of me, kind of, just spinning in front of me. And I heard Stan's voice and I heard him saying, "Karen, if I'd known it was like this, I would never have been afraid. I'm not afraid."
It just felt like he was dancing in this air above me. It was just, "I'm not afraid." And then I looked across at a clock, I got out of the tub. That was exactly when he had died.

Coming here and coming right into the AIDS epidemic, although I was still in Stockton, I think, as horrific as that was, it was probably one of the greatest blessings of my life because I connected so deeply with what love really is and it was such a mutual giving and receiving of love and care, and celebration, and happiness, and fun, and, you know, the whole shabang. It was quite astounding.  

My Life, My Stories, founded by Brittany Bare, is a local non-profit working to gather oral histories of Bay Area seniors — with a larger mission of engaging elders in general.

My Life, My Stories is hosting a live event at 7pm on November 11th at Adobe Books. Seniors will have a public platform to share their memories and stories with audience members. The evening's theme is focused around the question, "What brought you to San Francisco?"

You can contact Brittany Bare at brittany@mylifemystories.org or at (510) 671-5875. To find out how you or someone you know can get involved check out My Life, My Stories.