Almost three years ago now, and prior to the COVID pandemic, I put together a post about an earlier pandemic that wreaked its havoc back in the 1980s. I mean the HIV (AIDS) pandemic. Though useful comparisons between these two scourges can be made, there is one very important difference between them. At least in the early years, until the development of effective anti-viral drugs, infection with HIV was invariably fatal. A positive HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. It was a scary situation for those of us who lived through these times.
My post was very well received when published back in August 2019. Some people even confessed to being profoundly moved by it. Sensing it may have some increased relevance in these COVID days, I’m re-posting it now, in April 2022, for your benefit. The more pedantic among you may notice some minor changes I have made. Such is an author’s prerogative.
DEATH WITH DISTINCTION
June (not her real name) was one of several women I pursued around that time early in my life when I really didn’t have a clue how to engage effectively in such pursuit. I knew what heterosexual relationships had to offer, I knew I was desperate to take advantage of that offer, but I didn’t have any inkling of how to close on such advantage. I wanted an instruction manual, or better still a private tutor. When women sensed this, they wanted out. Who could blame them?
To this day, I have a fair recollection of June’s face. Where possible, when describing a face, I like to refer to that of some public figure or celebrity with which it may be compared. But in June’s case, I can find no obvious comparison.
She would not have been regarded as a beauty. For starters, her nose was too dominant and her cheeks too chubby. Her figure was well-rounded, but her stature short. She had mouse-brown hair and (I think) eyes of a similar colour. She used little or no make-up. She made minimal effort to dress to advantage. With June, you got what you saw. So, you might ask, where was the allure?
Well, her love of life shone through. Her eyes were like cheeky animals seeking always to engage those of other people in boisterous play. A distinctive sense of humour always lurked, often expressing itself via choice verbalisms exclusive to her. For example, in her parlance, people who had lost their cool, were ‘fit to can’. Or, she would mock people who were taking themselves too seriously with the exclamation ‘Diddums!’ I have no idea of the etymology of any of her bespoke expressions.
Though her parents were well-to-do professionals, with a distinct kudos in respectable society, she did not let this affect her choice of friends. She was always prepared to slum it when necessary, e.g. when she took up with me.
With justification, June could be, and often was called, a human dynamo. Her passion was the outdoors and she infected me with this passion. To this day, I have a love of the natural world, for interacting with it, and for the quasi-religious experience it is known to engender. The outdoor locales we explored are, not without justification, often compared to cathedrals. We stood in awe of mountains seeming to connect heaven and earth. We ventured into gorges threatening to close like Gothic arches over our heads. We clambered over rocks as heavy as the Commandments themselves, or as sin if you like. We baptized our sodden walking boots (and ourselves) in clear alpine streams. We mixed it with flora bright and beautiful, and with fauna great and small.
Nature. The old-time religion. Live within it, marvel at it, respect it.
Neither June nor I brought any special talents to bear in this outdoors arena. We tried our hand at a few esoteric sports: snow skiing, water skiing, horse-riding, surfing, and the like. They were just not our bag. Without the capacity to boast of and/or call upon any skilled trades (so to speak), we each settled for the role of unskilled labourer. I talk here of a labour of love. Hiking with full packs, sleeping in small tents, threadneedling rough bush tracks, negotiating near-vertical rock faces, splashing about in icy-cold pools, cooking round a smoky campfire, and the like. Though we loved these simple pleasures with a vengeance, we hadn’t the special skills required for conventional displays of excellence. All we had of note was the ability to rough it.
June was a disciplinarian. She made the rules and then enforced them. She took the lead and I followed, entranced by the natural world and enamored of her. These were halcyon days for me. But, of course, they were not to last. As far as relationships were concerned, I was a total klutz and she knew it.
I was devastated when it ended. I had played the main game and lost decisively. But time passed, and wounds healed, albeit slowly.
Many years later, both married now but not to each other, we met up again. We were thankful for the water that had passed under the bridge. We found we were able to relax with each other. The past, another country, fell foul of fickle memory. We related to each other now like old platonic friends. Perhaps brother and sister.
Neither marriage was to last. Hers foundered first. She embarked on a succession of casual relationships, and I lost track of her. The next thing I knew, I was at her funeral.
The church where the service was held was the sort of place everyone who was anyone went to be seen and be seen to be seen. The Anglican priest delivered a predictable eulogy, rattling on about a life well lived but tragically cut short. At age fifty. Afterwards, people huddled in groups and nodded gravely (pun unintended). And I was re-united with June’s younger sister, Meredith. Not, of course, her real name.
Meredith in no way resembled June. She liked to inhabit a world where roads were bitumen black, footpaths were firm under the feet, make-up was the standard presenting surface on female faces, and class distinction was enjoined with enthusiasm. She was intelligent, and closer to being a conventional beauty than was June, but hardness wracked her features. The line of her mouth was immobile as if it were stitched onto her face. She could be blunt. She held the view that social niceties such as tact and diplomacy were only necessary should one belong to the lower orders. Straight (and often brutal) talk was the unquestioned prerogative of her class.
Meredith had had the B-word flung in her face more than a few times. I doubt if June had ever had this pleasure.
A week or so after the funeral, Meredith contacted me. She felt she owed it to me to ‘bring me up to speed re June’, and proposed we meet for lunch at W, a fashionable restaurant in the right part, her part, of town.
She arrived soon after me. Her dress – conservative, expensive, and fashionable – was a one-piece knee-length woolen outfit in deep pink, overhung by a double strand of pearls almost to the region of her navel. Though intended to emphasize a shapely figure, her general presentation could not disguise some untidy rolls of flesh in her midriff region, signs (I guessed) of age and the good life.
After we had placed our orders, she told me, across a white starched tablecloth laid fastidiously with cutlery and napkins, that June’s ashes had been buried besides a waist-high rocky outcrop located on their country property at M. This apparently accorded with June’s expressed wish for an unadorned memorial. We both agreed this was in keeping with her love of the natural world.
Our meals arrived. Meredith came to the point. June died of AIDS, she said.
She waited for me to show signs of surprise and/or shock. I certainly felt both, but I doubt I showed either, which may or may not have disappointed her. I waited for her to continue.
She obliged. The thinking at the time, she said, even among professionals, was that AIDS was a gay man’s disease. Women didn’t catch it. So when June presented to doctors with vague flu-like symptoms that refused to go away, they were clueless. She was passed from specialist to specialist to no avail. Months passed, then years.
One day, Meredith recounted, June was having morning coffee with a female friend. Allison P, she said. You may know her.
I shook my head. Our meals arrived. A Thai salad for me and coq au vin for her.
Meredith continued with her account. June asked Allison about an old flame, she said, with whom she’d had a brief affair.
June had? I asked.
Meredith nodded, then continued. ‘Any news of Ray lately?’ June asked. ‘Hadn’t you heard? He died,’ was the reply from Allison. ‘How?’ asked June. ‘AIDS. Ray was bi.’
I drew breath audibly. Jesus, I said, what a ghastly way for her to get the news.
Self diagnosis, said Meredith dispassionately. June went straight back to her doctor and demanded he test her for HIV.
It was all downhill from there, Meredith continued. Near the end, family and friends were taking turns to push her around in a wheelchair. What took her out in the end was a common and garden UTI.
Meredith changed tack. She adopted the patronizing manner she often used with her perceived social inferiors. Her tone was pompous.
Of course, she said, it will come as a complete surprise to the average Joe Blow that nobody actually dies of HIV per se. That’s not the way the little chappy works. AIDS is a complex of symptoms, not the disease itself. What you die of is an opportunistic infection that takes advantage of your compromised immune system. But I’m sure you knew that.
I saw it as clear as day. June – yes it was June, I swear – put in an unexpected appearance. Tapping the tip of Meredith’s nose, she said, Diddums! Then she was gone.
Meredith picked up a chicken drumstick between thumb and forefinger and waved it in the air.
I have it on good authority, she said, that June was the first woman in Australia to die of AIDS. Number one.
Some people will do anything for fame, I quipped.
Meredith munched on her drumstick for a while, before putting it down and continuing her spiel, which took the form of a savage back-handed compliment to me.
I’ve always imagined, she said, that June would have done much better had she taken up with an ordinary person like you. It would have saved us all a great deal of angst.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that was a conversation stopper. After such a carambole, all that remained for us was to pay for the meal, which I believe we did by splitting the bill. Then, in less time than it takes to say ‘human immunodeficiency virus’, we were out in the street, and I was bidding farewell to Meredith forever.
On my own now, and dazzled by the bright Australian sun, I made my way slowly along a street lined with faux European shopfronts, testament to the Oz cultural cringe. Churning things over in my head, I found myself in conversation with June. Conversation vivid and vital, but taking the form of thought only, without moving lips or vibrating air.
June, I asked, what in the world could you have been thinking? Did you forget that, when riding unfamiliar roads, helmets are always advisable?
Spare me the lecture, was her reply. There’s stuff here you can’t possibly be party to. And wouldn’t even want to. I mean the shock of discovery, then the anguish, then the grief. Finally, my fierce anger against the whole world for the cards it dealt me. What right had my comfortable world to turn on me like this?
You were fit to can? I suggested.
Well take my advice, I said. Don’t do it again.
Sor-ry. My apologies for being such a stupid pleb.
You’re no pleb, I said. No way. I’m the ordinary one.
Sure. And I’m so special I died through common and garden stupidity.
It was a first for Australia.
Up yours, squire.
Your death was one of a kind. Death with distinction.