If tears could pay our debts
If with our tears we could buy you an indulgence from all pain
If by weeping now we could do all your weeping for you
Then we would cry until our eyes were washed away
Excerpt from Wilbur Smith novel
For World AIDS Day 2003 I wrote a piece titled “The Storyteller – Stories Almost Lost In Time”.It was a synopsis of the lives of three close friends who had died from AIDS before successful treatments – as we know them now.
As someone who is accustomed to writing – in fact have a university degree in it – I find that writing flows quickly and naturally from the smallest of seeds. I have to admit that writing “The Storyteller” was one of the two toughest pieces of writing I have ever done. It took me a month to nut together 750 words, a month of anguish and more tears than I have cried for some time. It was an emotionally difficult piece to write. It was hard enough trying to decide whose lives to use for my stories, let alone revisiting photos and eulogies.. The prologue to the piece came easily, but I delayed the writing about Andrew, Stuart and Geoff for as long as possible. It made me realize just how unreconciled to their deaths I actually was, that despite everything that had gone on over the twenty seven years since the deaths started, I had never really allowed myself a period of mourning – not just for them but for all the people I knew during that period who had passed on. The unfolding of the AIDS Quilt had, for many years, served as an outlet for grief during this intense time, a way to ‘get it out of your system’, but that doesn’t happen anymore, so I store the grief, hide it away in a dark corner where it sort of sits and mocks me. The writing of “The Storyteller” was almost like a venting of 20 years of grief. I can’t go back and read it, despite being its author. It hurts too much, and I end up crying – yet again!
What I found very empowering from the experience of writing that story was the reaction of people to it. It was almost like giving people permission to grieve, almost like telling them “It’s okay to cry even now, it’s okay to relive these people’s memories, it’s okay to tell their stories”. Some found the article profoundly beautiful, some used it as a way to communicate to partners and friends exactly how that period of HIV had affected their lives. Some, like my partner David didn’t even know the people in the stories yet related so strongly to it through his own experience that he could not read past the first story. Others said they wished I had warned them I was going to do it. It cut deep, it opened wounds not just for them but also for me. I wish I could have written about every single person I knew over that time who had died, but articles do have their limitations.
In fact, the writing of this piece and a piece I did in university for an assignment in personal writing made me aware of my own mental and emotional toughness, my own ability to cope with intense grief by just cutting myself off emotionally and putting up a wall to block it out. Of course, these things always creep up on you in the dead of night, but there is never anyone to witness that vivid flash of memory, that tear that hides behind the eye, to catch you in a moment of weakness.
My capacity to block out these things is, in many regards, a product of my upbringing, and the experiences of life in my younger days.
Like many of my generation I was raised in the dysfunctionality of families recovering from the effects of World War II. My parents – let’s call them Joe and Betty, as mum and dad are now alien words – raised me in the conservative ways of parents of that period, in the idyllic environment – at least at that time – of Sylvania. Lots of skeletons rattling around in Sylvania, I can assure you! Joe never came to terms with the post-war period of the 50’s and 60’s, and despite a thin veneer of normality in our household, as I grew older I realized all wasn’t as it appeared. I had a younger brother, Kevin. He was to be the subject of a university assignment 40 years after his death.
When I was 11, Betty up and left. No word of warning, no hint of departure. There in the morning making breakfast, gone when Kevin and I arrived home from school. Within several months of her going, Joe bought his mistress into the house under the guise of a housekeeper – we must retain a respectable appearance, despite anything that was happening. Joe had a seriously bad temper, and both Kevin and I experienced his wrath with a strap huddled in a corner. The housekeeper – herein referred to as the bitch from hell – hated Kevin and I almost as much as we hated her. Kevin was five years younger than me and suffered from ADHD. This was enough for the bitch from hell to make him her direct target, and she made his life a total misery. There was little I could do to protect him. Her vengeance for taking her on was to go to Joe with exaggerated stories of misdemeanors, and as we knew – punishment for transgressions was severe. She finally pushed too far, and on the evening of the 8th December 1965 Joe took Kevin out to The Gap at Watson’s Bay and jumped over with him in his arms. Joe survived. Kevin’s body was found two days later floating towards the sea near Broken Bay.
From that day to the time of my university assignment 40 years later this subject was never discussed within my family or otherwise. It was like it never happened. Joe got off on a plea of manslaughter. I had to live with him for another 10 years, but any vestige of trust or feeling had been destroyed.that December night. I never trusted him again, and always guarded what I said, and how much I let him know about my life. I closed off. I became hard. This affected my life for a long time after, and gave me the capacity to survive. The bitch from hell never shed a tear or displayed any emotion regarding Kevin’s death. It was as though he had never existed. By the time we left Sylvania at the end of 1966 we had changed the family name. The bitch from hell had managed to alienate us from all our friends and neighbours, even our direct family. Joe committed suicide in 1978. I shed the obligatory tears and moved on. I’ve never forgiven him, and I never will.
Writing the university assignment in 2003 opened a whole Pandora’s Box for me. I had never investigated Kevin’s death, had never wanted to revisit the wound. However, in June 2000 “Sunday Life” magazine ran an article on The Gap, and the bones in the closet rattled very loudly. Among the synopsis of sad events that surround The Gap was a brief entry for 1965 – “Frederick Pickhills of Sylvania, tells Vaucluse police, “I have been over the gap with my son. I had hold of his hand.” Pickhills was charged with the murder of Kevin Pickhills, 7. Pleading guilty in court to an emended plea of manslaughter, Pickhills was released on a five-year good behaviour bond.” (NB there have been two name changes in the family over time. One to Phillips, which was initiated by Joe so his past wouldn’t follow him, and the second to Alderman by me so that my family could never track me down after the fiasco they called a funeral). For the assignment I scanned all the papers from the time – my tutor was quite concerned about the emotional impact of following up such a closeted and traumatic event – and pieced together a nightmare I had all but blocked from my memory. It was almost a feeling of freedom to finally piece it all together, and lay the bones to rest.
After Joe died, I came out. I was 25, a very later bloomer. I came out with a bang, not a whimper. I had always wondered what Joe would have done if I had told him I was gay, and sort of knew that it wouldn’t have had a good outcome. I may have left it late, but at least it was safe. I reunited with my mother. We communicated for 19 years until 1997, when I finally severed the threads of what turned out to be a futile attempt to try to reconcile some sort of relationship with her. It was never destined to be. Another set of bones laid to rest.
What I wasn’t to know when I came out was that my life as a gay man, and my life as a HIV+ man were going to run in a parallel line, were going to be intrinsically tied together. So this was what the hardening, the hiding away of all emotions had prepared me for. It proved handy I have to say. Always a strong shoulder to lean on at funerals, and to cry on at wakes. I sort of prided myself on this toughness, on this capacity to turn off. But I payed in other ways, as I found out when I wrote “The Storyteller”.
Not only have I given other people permission to grieve, I’ve given myself permission to grieve, to flush out 20 years of pent up emotion and sorrow. But not just that either – I’ve finally given myself permission to grieve for many things. I have finally relaxed the hardness, finally given in to the emotions. I’ve already ruined enough relationships with my inability to give – though mind you, it wasn’t always just me – and when I met David after a 18 month break from the gay scene due to recovering from AIDS I was at a point where I realized I needed to rely on other people, and I needed to give. I needed support, I needed to love and I needed to share. This is the relationship that is making up for all the shit. This is totally open but very secure ground for me. No more secrets, no more closet rattling skeletons from the past. I’m not quite sure if my experiences have made me functionally dysfunctional, or dysfunctionally functional. Whatever the answer, I’m now taking better care of myself emotionally, allowing these feelings to spill out rather than bottling them away, or pretending they didn’t happen. When I get to write my families story, its going to be a hell of an account.
So light a candle at home for all your lost loved ones on World AIDS Day, and tell their stories. And cry! And grieve! You have permission to perform this act of love and remembrance. After all, we don’t want them forgotten. They deserve better than that.
There is the full story of my brothers death, in all its frightening facts, at the end of my blog, titled “Kevin Pickhills – The Unspoken Name” should you be interested.