What's It All About by Mike Cavenagh

She was a prostitute, drug addict, and HIV positive when AIDs was a really dirty word. Throw in petty larcenist and car thief for good measure, goes with the territory. Some lives just seem dead easy to sum up: we got this, no further details required. Just another Jane Doe.

Hospitals, ‘nut houses’, courts, watch-houses, the rolled-up newspaper around the back of the head trick at 2 a.m. in some police station. Parents owed money, friends ripped off, best mates left to hang out to dry in all sorts of ways in the dog-eat-dog world of who tastes first tastes… and heaven help the hindmost, although generally it was someone from the other place who’d turn up to help themselves.

Could almost be the beginning of a cheap detective novel, couldn’t it? ‘Of all the crummy joints to walk into, she chose mine.’

Lots of people can tell you about her in these and similar words.

But then there’s: eighteen year old single mum, one year old boy, dead before first birthday, her mum blamed her, she blamed herself, bodged suicides, friends with benefits that came in needles. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: and so it goes. I barely knew her then but she asked me to be the one who went with her to toss her baby boy’s ashes over Fitzroy Falls. So we did that.

A few years later, after she’d started down this road, she became my first wife. I was her first husband. Married for all the wrong reasons; she for comfort, security; me to save her.

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Saving people? All you can hope to do maybe is hold their hand while they go through their journey… just as long as you can live with the consequences: failure, guilt, loss.

We divorced but remained best mates, on and off trying to be some sort of together over almost two decades. Mostly off though.

Then I met the person who would be my end point, the place I was always trying to get to, and we married and my days were full, of love, challenges, work, the joys and difficulties of step-parenthood, and I paid little attention to anything, or anyone else. Then one day I was near where she lived on a work trip and I caught up with ‘Jane’; she’d had her HIV, Hep C, liver cancer diagnosis by then.

We hugged and we sat outside on her back verandah for a while, chatting and laughing. It was good to hear her laugh, but as I looked at her she looked tired, and she’d lost weight, and some colour from her face. She was dying after all.

“I’m tired. Come lie with me, then you can head off.”

So we did that. Chatted about some stuff, then she pulled my arms closer around her and said,

“Remember your promise.”

Two years before when she’d been first told she was dying slowly, she asked me, made me promise, not to let her die in a hospital, alone.

“Of course. Whatever it takes, I will get to you. Don’t I always?”

She cuddled my arms.

“Thank you.”

Soon she was gently snoring. I knew I had to head home shortly, but I could stay at least until she woke again.

God, how many times had we been here, me cradling her from behind, hoping I was offering some comfort, solace, some opening of a door to a sweeter oblivion than the one she feared, even if only temporarily? Too many even for my ‘how many is that’ obsessive brain to compute. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more there would be.

None, actually.

Two months later her mum rang me to say she’d died. In hospital. Alone. She’d made her parents promise not to tell me when she went in.

“I want him to remember me the way I was,” her mum told me she’d said.

She’d asked me to scatter her ashes at the mouth of the Shoalhaven River, in the sea where the waters that tumble over Fitzroy Falls some 100 kms upstream finally reach their destination. So I did that.

Prostitute, drug addict, HIV positive, petty criminal; single mum. A handful of dust, in the end; victims of a series of accidents, as are we all, to paraphrase Vonnegut again. Yet perhaps it’s The Eagles who nailed it best: it’s about forgiveness.

So I do that, and hope she does too.

© Mike Cavanagh

Posted on February 27, 2019