Aidan felt safe at choir, changed by the communal act of sharing his voice – then he was diagnosed with cancer | Nova Weetman



Six months before Aidan was diagnosed with cancer, we went to see our daughter’s music concert at her high school. She was in one of the choirs and they were performing an arrangement of a song by legendary Melbourne choir leader, Sue Johnson.

As we worked our way through the bag of chips we’d bought along in lieu of dinner, the choir sang. A wash of 40 young voices, woven together.

That was the moment Aidan decided singing was what he’d been missing. The next week he went with a friend to a rehearsal of the Pagan Angels, one of the many choirs Sue Johnson leads in Melbourne. He came home calm, smiling and a little smug.

Apparently, he had a lovely tenor voice, and besides, they needed men.

Each Thursday night he headed off to the Abbotsford Convent to sing in tune. Aidan had never been one to join things. He avoided groups of people with names he knew he’d likely forget as soon as they parted. He left the school council meetings and the netball coaching to me. But the choir was different. He felt restored.

He became one of those born-again choir members, telling everyone they needed to sing. Initially he even tried with me. But no amount of his private coaching could help my voice over the line.

Pagan Angels wasn’t just about the singing for Aidan. It was about being vulnerable, being honest with the people he met. Through the act of trusting each other with song, they spoke of their lives. And he felt safe, changed by the communal act of sharing his voice.

And then he was diagnosed with metastatic cancer – just months before his play, The Architect, opened at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

The play was inspired by a woman he cleaned for who had a brain tumour. It was about euthanasia, about wanting to be in control of your own end, and it opened just as the voluntary assisted dying laws were introduced in Victoria.

The play was his most successful and he wanted to write another. He was scared of what was coming for him. He turned to his Thursday night choir and found his story. One of hope and humour in a small town. A play about the past and the damage of the church, and ultimately about the power of singing. He recognised that his own need to come together and sing with people who started as strangers and slowly became friends would be at the heart of the play.

And then he started missing choir because he was in pain or having treatment.

I urged him to keep going, knowing how it made him feel. But he was torn. Aidan always processed things alone. He wasn’t like me. He didn’t just spew his feelings out on to the person standing close. He kept them tight, making sense of them first before returning to the world. And choir was somewhere he couldn’t hide. In many ways it was one of the most regular outings for him in a week aside from chemo or visiting the oncologist. The choir members saw him struggle.

He was due to sing the lead in the Nick Cave song, Into Your Arms, for a Pagan Angels performance at the Abbotsford Convent. Finally, the kids and I would see him sing.

That Saturday, I was setting up a toy stall in the school gym for our son’s primary school fete. The plan was I’d pick up the kids later and we’d watch the concert and then all go out for dinner. I was knee deep in bright coloured plastic when Aidan came and found me. He was pale. Two rounds into chemotherapy and it was knocking him.

He was wearing my mum’s old green raincoat which always looked so out-of-place on him with its cheery colour and its mum-shaped style.

I stopped sorting jigsaw puzzles to make plans about where to meet. He started crying in the gym and told me not to come. He didn’t want us there. He wouldn’t be able to sing if we watched him. I didn’t understand. I thought we helped when he felt vulnerable and shaky, but he said it was too much.

He left and I went back to pricing Barbies.

That was the only public performance he did with the Pagan Angels. I have a recording of it. His voice is strong. Sometimes, when I’m trying to find him now in the house, I play it and the layer of 30 voices harmonising helps. He is singing the solo, and each time I hear it, I can imagine him that day without us, trying to make it to the end of the song without crying. I don’t have messages from him where he says my name, because my phone died not long after he did, and took them all with it. But I have him singing.

He spent hours talking with Sue at the Pagan Angels about the play. She helped him understand choirs and how they work. Writing kept him focused on something other than medicine and hospital appointments. It gave us an engine to our family that wasn’t just about him being sick.

He finished his play, The Heartbreak Choir, and it was programmed for the following year, April 2020. Aidan went to a reading with the cast and came home exhausted. Sitting in a chair for hours with cancer in his spine was painful and hard. We weren’t talking about the play like it would be his last, even though we both knew.

Then Covid hit and theatres in Melbourne went dark. The play like so many others had to be cancelled. We were both devastated but hopeful that if it was programmed the following year, he’d be alive to see it.

As the cancer spread and lockdowns took hold, Aidan spent his last months bed bound. The play faded from our lives. He died at home in September 2020. Given that Covid has battered the things we look forward to for two years and that we had to cancel the memorial service for Aidan twice, I have been determined not to think about the play. I have chosen to treat it like an unreliable friend who may or may not turn up for dinner.

Now rehearsals have started and opening night is just weeks away.

The other day, I opened my wardrobe and looked beyond the T-shirts and jeans to find a dress that might fit the occasion. I spied mum’s green raincoat hanging towards the back. A coat that has survived both her death and Aidan’s. Perhaps I will wear that to the opening night.

I cannot imagine how it will feel to sit with our children and watch Aidan’s last written words. Words he never saw performed. We will probably laugh and roll our eyes at the familiar phrases, and clutch each other’s hands and for a few hours, pretend that he is still watching it too.

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