First AIDS* Funeral

Issue ThirteenIssue Thirteen Non-FictionNon-Fiction

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By Peter Mitchell

(1985)

It was January. The party at the Wellington Boot raged into the night. Platters of food were spread around the kitchen table. Loud music shook the walls of the large two-story terrace house.

The Boot, as it was known among a network of inner west dwellers, was a well-established, gay male communal house in Wellington Street, Rozelle. I lived there for thirteen months, from April 1982 to June 1983, before I flew to the United States for a well-earned holiday.

The telephone rang, piercing the raucous hubbub of the party. Someone said the call was for me. It was Cate, crying down the telephone line.
‘I’ve just been told the most awful news. Dave Sargent’s dead.’

‘What!’ I said, thinking it was some kind of joke. ‘I was only talking to him a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Robert L just rang me,’ she said. Robert L was a member of the Gay Information Collective, as Cate and I had been during the early nineteen-eighties. ‘He said that Dave died at three o’clock this afternoon at Prince Henry Hospital.’ Prince Henry Hospital was a major teaching hospital in Little Bay out in the south-eastern suburbs of Sydney.
‘They’re not sure what he died of,’ Cate continued, ‘but the hospital thinks it’s some kind of pneumonia.’

‘Some kind of pneumonia?’ Last time we spoke, Dave had said he’d had the flu for a couple of weeks. I pictured his lungs dripping with mucus.

‘I’m sorry about this,’ said Cate, sniffling. ‘But I had to talk to someone.’

‘Will you be alright?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Cate. ‘I’ll see you later.’

I turned around and stood in the middle of the kitchen. I felt separated from everyone else, looking out at the other partygoers, as if I was in a glass cube, I wanted the party to end, the planet to stop revolving. I walked out the back door. A friend passed me and I blurted that Dave had died. He slowed mid-stride, uncertainty crossing his face, then half-smiled and walked into the kitchen. I sat down on the back step. My body floated across the backyard.

***

On Monday the twenty-first of January, Dave’s funeral was held at Eastern Suburbs Crematorium, overlooking Botany Bay on a gusty day. The sky was a partly cumulus-covered dome, the clouds piled randomly like cotton candy.

‘Wow,’ I said, closing the cab door, ‘the view’s fantastic.’

‘Yes,’ said Cate. She stood still, her eyes mesmerised by the Pacific Ocean, a seething expanse of ink-and wren blues.

‘This is our first AIDS funeral,’ I said. I breathed deeply. How many more would there be? crossed my mind.

Cate nodded. Her eyes were sad.

We joined the other funeral attendees in a semi-circle around the hearse. The crowd was sombre, many peoples’ faces taut. A short distance away, Paul P stood with Robert L. Next to them was Margaret M, a university lecturer, and her partner, Louise W, a writer and also a member of the Gay Information collective. She held their son.

In the year I shared a two-bedroom terrace house in East Redfern with Dave, we were both members of the Gay Info collective. Dave was a mover and shaker in gay and lesbian politics at that time. American by birth, he arrived in Australia during the seventies as a high school teacher. Some years later in Sydney, his career morphed into writing: film critic for the Sydney Morning Herald; organizer of conferences and screenings; editor of Campaign, a national gay monthly established in the mid-seventies; contributor to left-wing thought (Beyond Marxism? Interventions after Marx); co-editor of Edge City of Two Different Plans and the Inversions anthologies; founding member of the Gay Information collective.

Gay Information: A Journal of Gay Studies was a seminal quarterly devoted to the intersections of national and international gay and lesbian politics and progressive thought. It was first published in 1980 and continued until around 1987. Some of the collective meetings were held in our small lounge-room in Boronia Street. In April 1982, we were advised that the owner was selling the house and we vacated. Shortly after, I left the collective. Between then and Dave’s funeral I saw or spoke to him only occasionally.

While sharing the house, Dave stayed one or two nights a week with his long-term boyfriend, Peter, or The Bear, at his Coogee unit. I remembered Dave talking about The Bear living with cancer. He never elaborated about what kind of cancer Bear lived with, nor the treatment for it. The times I met him he was always smiling, seemingly happy.

Towards the end of 1984, Dave and Bear went on holiday to the Hawkesbury River, or near it, I didn’t know the exact holiday locale. While there, the flu or whatever Dave had worsened. I heard second or third-hand that he was flown to hospital in Sydney. Was Bear’s cancer connected to Dave’s ill-health? I wondered. Both possibilities seemed improbable. Yet whispers persisted that Dave died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS? The possibility just seemed farfetched.

Tony P, an actor and singer I met through Dave, took charge of the ceremony. When he called for pall bearers, I stepped forward. As I had shared a house with Dave for a year, I guessed that I knew him better than many other people. I was also glad for the distraction from the anger and confusion I felt and was happy to contribute to his last journey. Five other men, their faces also solemn, walked towards the coffin.

We lifted it onto our shoulders. Phew, this is heavy. This was the first time in my life I’d ever carried a casket into a chapel, as death in my life, to that point, was as distant as the planet Saturn. In the decades since then, I’ve attended too, too many funerals: my friends’ and families’ deaths from AIDS and other life uncertainties. We carried it slowly down the aisle. I worried about dropping it. I imagined it thudding onto the floor, the lid flying off and Dave jumping up and saying, ‘Hi everybody, just kidding’. I tensed my right shoulder more tightly to bear its weight. We placed it carefully on the stand.

Everyone filed into the chapel to the accompaniment of a Pointer Sisters song. I re-joined Cate. Speeches were the first part of the ceremony. Gavin H, a Gay Info compatriot of Dave’s, gave a moving account of his life. A woman from the Filmmaker’s Co-op, where he last worked, spoke next. After a couple of minutes, frustration pulsed through my body.

‘This sounds like an academic paper,’ I whispered into Cate’s ear.

She nodded, a tear rolling down her face.

‘Her words are dry and dusty.’

Cate still stood mute, her face a canvas of tears.

I considered shouting. Dave’s life was much more than these arid words. I remained silent.

Tony P spoke next. He cracked a few jokes then spoke from the heart. I liked his words, my hard-plank shoulders softening. His speech carried our collective grief.

The music changed to Bette Midler and Dave’s coffin trundled through the curtains to the waiting flames, his physical self was removed forever.

Bye Dave!

       For a while outside, everyone mingled, the lack of direction palpable.

Cate and I hugged each other.

‘The coffin was so heavy,’ I said. I rubbed my right shoulder. ‘What do we do now?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Cate, drying her eyes.

‘Hmm.’

We linked arms and walked away from the chapel. Cate patted my arm.

‘I think a number of people are going to a coffee shop in Newtown,’ I said.

‘Will you go there?’ asked Cate.

‘Yes,’ I said, nodding, ‘I need something to do.’

‘I think I’ll go home. I need a strong cup of tea.’

We hopped into a taxi.

‘King Street Newtown, please,’ said Cate, ‘then Reiby Street Newtown.’

The cab dropped me opposite the Vienna Gold Coffee Shop. Cate waved good-bye as she was driven down King Street.

I walked through the door and spotted seven other community members, including one woman. I sat in a spare chair at the end of the table. The others ordered short blacks and cappuccinos as menus were passed between them. I ordered a pot of tea.

‘He didn’t die of AIDS,’ someone said. ‘Dave, I mean.’

‘The medical establishment is trying to blame his death on AIDS,’ said someone else.

‘But I think…’ said Ian MacNeil.

His intervention was not acknowledged. He shook his head.

The coffees started arriving. Two sugar bowls were passed from one side of the table to the other.

‘I think the recent article in Gay Information is a valuable intervention into the whole discourse around the construction of AIDS’ said another of the men.

It all sounded like intellectual bullshit to me. I wanted to ask straight out, ‘What did Dave die of?’ My stomach roiled. I remained silent as I felt pressure to toe ‘the party line’: the medical establishment were attempting to characterise Dave’s death as ‘AIDS’. Also, I felt the intellectual inferior to most of the people present and didn’t have the confidence to articulate my sentiments succinctly.

‘This sounds like inner city pseudo denial to me,’ said Ian. He looked around the table. Everyone continued eating and drinking. He returned to his meal.

At last! I poured my tea. Someone is speaking some sense. I decided I’d ring Ian tomorrow.

The others still ignored him, knives and forks clinking plates, some people ordering a second round of coffees.

My stomach was agitated. I expected more intimate conversations about Dave, his life, his death. All I saw around me were stony faces, except Ian’s. As I had no experience of grief, I expected a few tears and sorrow, not the intellectual blather.

‘Dave’s coffin was so heavy,’ I said, trying to change the subject.

Ian looked at me, smiling.

I intended to talk about the lack of death experience in my family, but I didn’t, as no-one was listening.

‘I think I’ll ring Prince Henry Hospital later,’ said the woman, not explaining why or what for. I wondered if it was to find out what Dave died of. Several of the others nodded in agreement.

‘I think it’s important to continue Dave’s work, to continue questioning the ideology around AIDS,’ said one of Dave’s compatriots from the Gay Information collective.

I looked at Ian and raised my eyebrows. He smiled in return.

Soon enough, the occasion finished, the tension and awkwardness dissipating as people paid bills and left for work or home or to other wakes. I walked down King Street, my feelings on mezzanines between several different emotions, all the people and traffic as if a thousand kilometres away.

On the night that Dave was cremated, I had a call from a close friend, Tim.
‘Ted visited me today,’ he said.

‘How is he?’ I hadn’t seen Ted for a couple of months.

Tim dragged out his words, ‘He’s not very well.’

I frowned, ‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘He’s been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.’

‘Oh.’

‘He says it feels like a death sentence.’

‘We fucked, you know, about eight or ten months ago,’ I said, sinking into the upholstery of the lounge. ‘He came inside me.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Tim. ‘I remember you telling me about the night, about how enjoyable it was.’ He paused, gathering his thoughts. ‘Um, I didn’t know whether to tell you or not, but I thought it was better that you know.’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’ My words dragged along the floor.

‘Sorry,’ said Tim.

‘That’s okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll talk to you later.’
I breathed deeply and stared straight at the wall opposite. This isn’t good. I shivered as I felt suddenly chilled. I looked at the ceiling and imagined I heard the skies knell.

 

* ‘AIDS’ is the acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’