It’s the closing act of the show
Humble violets nestled in chipped pots perch precariously amidst the chaos of the kitchen. Outside, vigorous quills of rosemary are soaking up the sun radiating from hot concrete steps, and grevillea unfurls its lace-like blossoms. The clematis is his favourite, but it’s looking a little sickly of late. He wonders who will look after it all when he’s gone.
What he thought was the flu was actually the seroconversion illness. First they told him he’d have about a year. Then maybe five years, later they revised it back down to two. Five years passed, then seven, before they relented and admitted they didn’t really know. There were treatments and new drugs, holistic therapies and a host of invasive experiments. Always, around the corner, or maybe the next corner, was some kind of cure.
Twenty years later and lives can be extended, but not saved. Much has changed socially and medically in that time, but despite that, there is a sense that it will be time, soon. Standing in the kitchen of his Fortitude Valley flat, sunlight filters through the netting curtains and casts a soft glow on his now slightly dusty collection of English tea service accoutrements. There are photos everywhere, hundreds of pairs of eyes and happy snap smiles. Ever the hoarder, he admits a tendency to collect with alacrity and eccentricity rather than studied discernment.
Greg’s fingers are slender, with a clever quickness, and they lightly tap the table and question the surfaces around him. Piano player’s hands. He talks about how if he had known he would live this long, he would have gone to university. Studied music. When he was first diagnosed little was known about the condition. The term ‘life expectancy’ took on bitter implications. Back then much of the treatment was experimental, and his health would swing wildly between extremes. It was difficult to make plans when counting T cells, CD4 and viral load. He muses that if he’d thought more about how he’d live with it, rather than how he’d die from it, so much would have been different.
“We’d heard about it. We knew about NYC. There were so many rumours, but no real way of knowing the truth. Back then gay men were the devil, there was so much propaganda, it was hard to know what was real and what was a beat up. It was also Sydney in the 1980s. Drugs, sex, drugs and sex, I’d done it all. I could have, should have… but in the end, didn’t. You can go mad thinking about the what ifs.”
Australia’s initial response to AIDS was comparatively quick and effective when measured against that of other industrialised nations. A mobilised GLBT community, prolific safe sex education campaigns and needle exchange services kept figures comparatively low, but nothing could stem the tide of prejudice, fear and demonisation. “AIDS was the just payment for junkies, fags and whores and I’d been all three. It was one hell of a punishment for being young and stupid.”
Some with a fervour bordering on Puritanical took to the gospel of organic food and yoga, attempting to ward off the inevitable. Others like Greg reacted to Australia’s infamous Grim Reaper television ads with a capitulation into frenzied hedonism, figuring they’d die so soon so it didn’t matter. There was a sense of community in Sydney for a while but according to Greg once you started to look ’sick’ friends suddenly were unavoidably busy and stopped returning calls. Wards slowly started filling up with the emaciated versions of the stereotypes, plus the casualties from blood transfusions and contamination. The public reaction was severe. Airlines were refusing to transport HIV+ passengers, everyone from dentists to hairdressers were suddenly ‘regrettably too busy for an appointment’ and many of those who had become openly gay in the more accepting 1980s suddenly found themselves suspected of being ‘carriers’ and losing their jobs, friends and the few rights they had earned. Getting a regular job and having a normal life was practically impossible.
Living with the disease and a ferocious drug habit unsurprisingly sparked periods of severe depression and instability. Greg managed to kick H and moved to Adelaide to get away from the chaos of the ‘Cross. In the quiet little City of Churches the gay community was much smaller and less visible. Homophobia was rampant and his HIV+ status was quite rare. Greg kept a low profile initially, but rumours spread quickly. While he was regularly harassed and threatened the abuse rarely resulted in direct physical contact. It didn’t stop people from throwing rocks through his windows or spray painting the front door of his government housing flat. Neighbours would cross the street to avoid accidentally brushing past him and bus seats would magically become available in all directions. There were times his loneliness would be so acute that his doctor’s off hand pat on the back could reduce him to tears. No one else would touch him, not without rubber gloves and a strained facial expression. Finding HIV+ social groups and ‘Positive Dating’ helped dispel some of the loneliness while reinforcing the dreadful pariah status. The constant whispering surrounded him like a thick, inescapable mist.
Working AV at E riddled dance parties and booming clubs was inconsistent work but was at least a job, and it led to a little bit of independence from welfare, and some self esteem. Acid, ecstasy, speed and cocaine took their toll, but he ‘kept his head’ and always fronted up on time and sober. Besides, the come downs were no worse than the sickness from the cornucopia of experimental drugs he’d been laced with. From time to time he cleaned up and religiously stuck to the medication regime, but social isolation and depression would draw him back into the ecstasy milieu and the immediate, if superficial instant friendship with other wide-eyed, pilled up kids. Work and the club scene became his life support system, so he didn’t say anything when his legs buckled under him while he was up high on lighting tracks, never mentioned when the nausea and pain made standing up straight nearly impossible. He worked six nights a week, lighting guy in a gay club. It wasn’t quite concert piano. He says those were his best years.
Adelaide’s cold winters and the passing of a few close friends made moving north to Brisbane an easy choice. It was in Brisbane that he met doctors who became friends, a gaggle of ‘old Sydney queens’ taking their final vacations in BrisVegas and a generally more relaxed attitude. The tropical heat was intense at times, but easier on his joints. Not far from his flat in the Valley was a rose garden and band stand. Whenever possible he’d take the thirty or forty minutes to walk the three blocks to the park and sit on a bench by the river. His hair had pretty much all fallen out and he passed for a cancer patient. Eventually, like many other HIV+ men of his age group, Greg developed Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was a cancer patient.
HIV gave way to full blown AIDS. It was time for the gangrene, lesions and vomiting up blood clots.
The lesions were all over his body, and inside his body too. The black stains on the x-rays of his lungs and throat explained the wheezing and shortness of breath. Morphine would take the pain away, but he would wake up with bed sores from sleeping for so long. Little tasks became monumental and overwhelming. Drugs could only etch him a small window of relief open long enough to drag himself to the clinic for treatment. The virus had depleted him so much that every ailment tacitly held at bay overran his body, and wave after wave of the invading forces besieged his already plundered territory. Despite this, Greg fought full admission to hospital and palliative care.
He began researching just how much of the prescription medication he’d have to take to not wake up. With gritted teeth he’d endure the pain coursing through him and stockpile his medication. Conversations with doctors that started with phrases like ‘what if I was to’ or ’suppose I wanted to’ became ‘I will’ and ‘I want to’. His mother’s Catholicism made this subject off limits, but Greg felt that it was his right, a basic, human right. A covert network of practitioners and carers existed that could answer the difficult questions and list the facts. Cataloguing his life and ‘making the necessary arrangements’ became his overriding obsession on days when he was well enough to actually get out of bed. In the end it didn’t matter, he slipped into a coma and his organs simply shut down, one after the other.
“I never begrudged those people that disappeared then. If you are Pos’ it’s like staring at your own horrible, revolting future. There is no dignity or style in death, darling. I always said I’d die if I wore track pants. And guess what? I’m wearing track pants.”