Authors: Mary Tennant
‘Yeah, I held her for a while, then they took her away.’
Attitudes were finally changing.
‘How do you feel about relinquishing your baby?’ I asked.
‘I dunno, the social worker told me it was the right thing to do. She said I won’t be able to go out at night if I have a baby and I won’t be able to be a good mother.’
‘Do you agree with her?’ I said, holding back my rage.
‘It’s not like I go out every night, but I won’t be able to work.’
‘What about your parents, would they help you?’
‘I dunno. I didn’t tell them.’
I could feel her shame, her confusion, her fear, her sadness, and yet I did not tell her about my own baby. That night I resolved to tell her the next day. It might help her to talk to someone who had gone through the experience. But as I made her bed the next morning, as much as I wanted to speak to her, I couldn’t. What if she told another nurse on the ward? It would go around the hospital like wildfire and everyone would judge me. I still felt ashamed and it surprised me that I felt that way. I couldn’t bring myself to be up front and honest with her. It could have made a difference that in this case I was the one in the caring role and not the one who warranted sympathy.
The Mater Mothers’ is a Catholic hospital. Outside the labour ward there was a giant picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms. Each time I walked past that picture I reflected. Mary was a virgin, an unmarried virgin. Thank goodness she did such a human thing as having a baby, or else the Catholics may have made that a sin too. Mary, my namesake, was on my side.
A huge gum tree dominated the backyard of our home. Dad planted it when we first moved there. The green lawn was big enough to host forty people. Charlie and Jill had had their wedding reception there the year before I went to live in England (and after the Catholic Church annulled Jill’s first marriage). One Sunday afternoon my parents hosted a party. The guests had all gone and Mum, Dad, Ken, Alexis and I were seated at the large table under the tree. I was licking the last of Dad’s sherry-laced trifle from the bowl when Ken piped up.
‘Hey Dad will you give me some money so I can buy land in Nimbin?’
He lifted his nicotine-stained fingers and drew on his rollie.
‘Not on your life,’ Dad said. ‘Go and earn your own money.’
‘Well, if you won’t give me the money, I’ll kill myself and you’ll have to pay for my funeral.’
We were used to Ken’s idle threats but this one took the cake. Ken had been home for three months, after being discharged from a mental hospital in Lismore. The police had picked him up in Nimbin, at that time the drug capital of Australia, where he was having a psychotic episode in the main street. He’d been sent to hospital, where he’d recovered enough to be discharged home. His doctor had prescribed an antipsychotic drug that had the effect of making him sleep most of the day. This was a rare day that he was awake enough to be talking to us.
Ken had left home ten years earlier, when he was only fourteen. It was soon after being expelled from the state school he was attending – he’d been caught with drugs. The year before he’d also been expelled from the prestigious Catholic school where he’d been introduced to drugs. After the second expulsion, his behaviour at home became violent. Dad was working away most of the time and Mum found it hard to manage Ken on her own. She’d taken him to a psychiatrist, but Ken told me later he knew what the psychiatrist wanted to hear, so he just ‘fed him bullshit’. The psychiatrist had not been able to treat his ‘illness’ or change his behaviour. Mum had no idea how to manage him, especially his violent rages.
Initially, he found a job in a coalmine in Queensland. He lied about his age. But the money he earned only bought him more powerful drugs. He graduated from marijuana to LSD. Then he disappeared. Occasionally we got a letter from him. They were always full of optimism.
Perth is an incredible city. It’s really marvellous. Little pollution, magnificent beaches, oodles and oodles of shops (they’ve even blocked off a street for travellers on foot!), great public transport system, quiet bunch of coppers and cheap rent
We learned that he only wrote letters during his good times. My parents’ hopes would be dashed only months later when they’d hear he was in jail, having been picked up by the police carrying marijuana, or that he was in hospital somewhere. Now my younger brother was twenty-three and back at home, and it hurt my parents, especially my mother. She wanted her young son, the old Ken, back. But he shut himself off. If she tried to hug him, he shrugged her off. He told me he had ruined his life and that there was no hope for him. No amount of reassurance could convince him otherwise.
Soon after the outburst in the backyard Ken left home again. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going. My parents woke one morning and he was gone. That was his pattern. I was relieved, even though I wasn’t living with my parents. It was a strain having him around because he was moody and angry. A month later Mum received a call from a policeman in Bathurst, telling her that Ken had been found dead.
Charlie, my parents and I drove to Bathurst. At the police station we enquired about his death and a policeman brought out his backpack. It was the same one I’d used on my travels. I had given it to him. On top of the pack was the rope he’d used to hang himself. Did no-one think that was inappropriate?
Mum asked where the incident had occurred and we were taken to an old barn behind a doctor’s surgery. Ken had visited some friends the night before he’d been found, the policeman told us. They had drunk wine and smoked a joint. According to the policeman who had interviewed his friends, Ken had been in good spirits. He left around midnight. He was squatting in the barn and sometime between midnight and the morning he had strung a piece of rope over a rafter and hung himself. The secretary working at the doctor’s practice saw him hanging when she arrived for work. The place of his death is etched in my brain. What a wasted life.
Out of a sense of duty I moved home to be with my grieving parents. Each of us reacted to Ken’s death in different ways. Mum questioned everything. Where had she gone wrong? Was there some connection with the lack of movement she had experienced when she was pregnant with him and heard the news of Dad’s stroke? Had he planned this because Dad turned down his request for money? Did he really believe his life was so worthless? Could she have done more?
My way of alleviating the sorrow was to buy a bike. I was soon riding all over the streets in our suburb and occasionally to work.
Dad was deeply affected by Ken’s death and turned to religion as he had done after his stroke all those years before. He joined a Catholic Charismatic group and out of the blue he asked me if I would like to attend a weekend of prayer with the group. We had regained our bond although there was still never any mention of Christopher. I guess it was because he asked me that I went, despite my flailing belief in religion. I had no idea what was involved. It was an intense weekend of prayer and reflection. On the last day, the group were huddled in a hall for the final prayer. I spotted my father. I hadn’t known he would be coming. Later he found me in the crowd and we hugged and both of us cried. In his embrace I felt a potent feeling of love and affection. Though we did not speak of the past I felt it was his way of forgiveness and acceptance.
Dad returned to his job in PNG. The relationship between my parents was strained. In December, nine months after Ken had died, Mum was in Sydney visiting her family when I received a call from someone in Dad’s office.
‘Your father’s been taken ill,’ he said. ‘We’ve chartered a plane and it arrives at the airport at 6 pm.’
Charlie and his family were camping on Stradbroke Island. Teresa and Frank were living over an hour away on the south side of Brisbane. Alexis, who was in her first year at university, had taken a holiday job on Hamilton Island. I was the only person at home. Before I left for the airport I rang Mum.
When the charter plane landed I was in the hangar waiting with the ambulance. I saw Dad as he was being transferred on the stretcher. He looked tired and in a great deal of pain. After he was settled into his hospital bed, I called Mum and told her Dad was in a critical condition and she needed to come home. Charlie and Alexis were harder to contact. There were no mobile phones back then and it took days to get messages to them.
The doctors weren’t sure why Dad was so ill. He underwent one test after another. Arthritis, they thought. But he had too much pain for that. He was in the Mater Private Hospital, adjacent to the Mater Mothers’ where I was in the final month of my midwifery training, so I was able to see him every day, sometimes twice a day.
The doctors decided to do a liver biopsy. They suspected liver cancer. I had worked the morning shift that day and had seen him on my lunch break, before he went for his biopsy. After work I went home but had earlier given Mum the house key. Unable to get into the house I called the hospital from a nearby payphone and spoke to Mum.
‘Your father’s not looking well.’
I got straight back into my car, and was not too perturbed until I heard the song ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ on the radio. We had sung that song at Ken’s funeral. It gave me a bad feeling. I stepped on the accelerator and sped to the hospital.
I arrived as the nurses were wheeling Dad to the Intensive Care Unit. He could hardly speak.
I bent down to kiss him and felt his cold, clammy skin. He was pale and the worry on his face was terrifying. I had seen that look on patients before.
I was ushered into the waiting room where Mum was sitting. Soon after, a doctor arrived. He addressed my mother.
‘Your husband has had a heart attack,’ he said. ‘We tried to revive him, but it was no good.’
‘You mean he had a cardiac arrest,’ I said, ‘and you defibrillated his heart?’
I don’t know why I couldn’t take this news in lay terms.
Mum was confused.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked me after the doctor had left.
‘He’s dead, Mum.’
‘No, that’s impossible,’ she said. ‘I would have felt him go. He was fine this morning.’
His biopsy had triggered an embolism; a small clot of blood that had travelled to his lungs and when his lungs could not cope, it triggered a heart attack. He was fifty-four.
After my brother died, I was on a maternity ward on a normal day. I was walking down the corridor and it came like a bolt from nowhere. I will never see my brother again. I walked into the pan room and cried. The same happened for Dad. I was in a supermarket, reaching for something when it hit me. I will never see my father again. The death of a loved one and an understanding of the impermanence of life are two different things. When my father and brother died there were the funeral arrangements to deal with, the logistics if you like of laying someone to rest, but far more relevant and shattering is the moment it hits you that you will never see them again. That takes time to sink in. Nothing prepares you for that.
In the months that followed I could not shake the thought that my son might die too – before I got to meet him.
Change was in the air in the early 1980s for Aboriginal people in Australia. The Whitlam government’s 1972 policy of self-determination saw communities taking control over the day-to-day running of their affairs. It was advancement from colonialism, paternalism, protectionism, assimilation and the time of the Stolen Generations, when children were taken from their families. Eddie Mabo had begun his campaign for land rights. These ideas were very much a part of the discussions I was having with my friends at the time. We were young and idealistic and thought we could make a difference. I wanted to act on my interests and convictions. I was also looking for escape from home, for adventure and a total change of scene. I applied for a job in a remote community in East Arnhem Land, Gapuwiyak. By then, almost all of Arnhem Land was already in Aboriginal hands.
The application and interviews took several months. I applied through the Uniting Church because they had a contract to supply nurses to two remote communities in East Arnhem Land. They were looking for someone with general and midwifery certificates, but also someone who they felt would fit in with their religious and moral principles. The panel of people who interviewed me were satisfied with my qualifications and my past Catholic leanings were enough to prove my religious background. They were at pains to point out to me how isolated the community was. I was tough, I told myself, though I really had very little idea of what to expect.
While I was awaiting news of my application, Mum and I were picking up the pieces of the previous shattering year. I was doing shift work, having found an interim job after finishing midwifery. Mum had completed a Bachelor’s degree in Education and had started her Master’s degree. The deaths of my father and brother took precedence over most of our discussions and I barely mentioned my new venture.
She had sunk into depression. The dream home she and Dad had built for their family of seven now housed just the two of us. Alexis had moved to Toowoomba to attend university. In the weeks leading up to my acceptance letter, I would find her sitting in the lounge room, whisky in hand, when I came home from work after a late shift.
‘Sit with me, Mary,’ she’d say.
She would launch into a long list of questions. Why had Ken left home at such an early age? How did he get hooked on drugs? He had been such a bright, intelligent and happy child. Why had he ended his life that way? Why had Dad died and left her alone when she was still so young? What was she to do?
I had no answers, and I needed sleep.
Initially I did sit with her. I too was grieving. But work was tiring me out and I knew my alarm clock would wake me the next morning at 6 am for the morning shift. I began to excuse myself. It was tragic, but sitting with a whisky asking why was not going to change the situation. Telling her about my imminent move weighed heavily on me. Mum needed company. She didn’t like being alone.
‘Mum,’ I said one night over dinner. ‘I’ve been accepted to work in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.’
She dropped her knife.
‘What do you mean? You’re going to leave me here all alone?’
‘How long are you going for?’
‘The contract asks for two years.’
‘Why are you doing this?’
‘I don’t really know the answer to that Mum. Maybe it’s a combination of wanting to help, wanting to learn and wanting to move away from Brisbane.’
‘You can come and visit me; it’d be an adventure!’
She took another sip of her whisky.
To get to Gapuwiyak, I flew from Brisbane to Gove, where I took a light aircraft. The Missionary Aviation Pilots operated these small planes and when I arrived on the Gove tarmac the pilot greeted me.
‘You must be the new nurse for Gapuwiyak? Come this way – we need to weigh you, and your luggage.’
There were a few other people on the plane, mostly Aboriginals. They kept to themselves and looked solemn. The pilot sat me next to him in the front seat and gave me a headset with microphone, enabling us to communicate.
‘Clear prop,’ he called to no one in particular, and soon we were taxiing along the Gove airstrip. The plane lifted suddenly. It felt a little unstable in the air. I left my stomach on the tarmac.
‘We stop at Galiwinku first.’
‘Oh, where’s that?’
‘A small island in the Arafura Sea.’ He handed me a map and my stomach settled.
Along the way he pointed out landmarks. Over the next two years they would become very familiar, but on that first trip it was all new and exciting.
‘There’s so much water!’ I said.
‘It’s the wet season. In a few months all those waterholes will dry up and the landscape will look quite different.’
As we approached Gapuwiyak he pointed out the lake. I felt excited about the adventure I was embarking on.
‘That’s Lake Evella,’ his voice echoed in my headset.
‘It was named after the wife of the first missionary who started up the community of Gapuwiyak in the 1960s. The Aboriginals call him Bapa Sheppy. Short for Father Shepherd. He built a timber mill and employed all the men in town.’
‘Does it still operate?’
‘Because there’s no work here. The Aboriginals live on government handouts now.’
We flew over the tiny town.
‘I’m buzzing them,’ the pilot explained. ‘It tells the townspeople we’re here.’
‘Looks pretty small from here!’
Sure enough, as we approached the dirt strip I saw four or five vehicles tearing up the dust. I stepped down the stairs and a tall red-headed woman who looked to be in her forties greeted me.
‘Hi, I’m Marie,’ she said. ‘You’re my replacement.’
We jumped into a blue Toyota troop carrier with most of the other passengers from the plane. Marie knew them all by name. One had a small baby.
‘She’s returning from Gove Hospital where she had her baby.’
‘Oh, the women don’t have their babies here?’
‘No, they have to go to the hospital in Gove.’ She saw my disappointment.
‘I thought I needed midwifery to come and work here. I was hoping to get some deliveries.’
‘Oh, don’t you worry about that, you’ll get your chance. The young ones often abscond from the hospital and turn up on your doorstep. They hate the hospital.’
‘Too cold. They hate the air-conditioning!’
Our first stop was the clinic. I followed Marie into a small room inside a transportable building – a donga. People were seated in a row at the entrance, chatting in an unfamiliar language. Soon we were standing in a tiny treatment room, where three Aboriginal women were attending to patients.
‘These are the health workers,’ Marie said. ‘Maynbunu, Yannanbuy and Dhulpuwawawuy.’ She indicated with a low hand. ‘It’s rude in their culture to point directly at someone, and don’t pat a child on the head – that’s rude too.’ She turned to the elder of the three.
‘What skin name will you give her, Maynbunu?’
‘Don’t know Yapa, we need to ask that old lady with the white hair.’
Marie explained to me that when an Aboriginal person dies, they are not allowed to say their name again, so if someone has the same name, they make up a name that usually describes the person, hence ‘that old lady with the white hair’. ‘Yapa’, I learned, was the word for sister. On cue the old lady arrived in the clinic. People made way for her. She commanded respect.
‘Wamutjun,’ she pronounced, after carefully looking me over. I looked at Marie for an explanation.
‘That’s your skin name,’ she said. ‘It denotes how you relate to everyone here. And it means that Maynbunu is your aunty, so she’s responsible for teaching you.’
Over dinner Marie gave me a crash course in Aboriginal culture.
‘How old are you?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be twenty-five in July.’
‘You’re very young to be taking on a position like this.’ By now we were washing the dishes. ‘And I don’t know what you’re going to do about that hair.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said self-consciously sweeping up my long curls.
‘There’s a lot of head lice here.’
‘Are there any other white people living here?’ I asked.
‘A bookkeeper and his wife. Four teachers, who are two married couples, and a mechanic, his wife and two children.’
I was the only single white person. It occurred to me that like me Marie had embarked on her career in remote places as a young nurse – she had previously worked in PNG – and was now in her forties and single. I made a mental note to get out of this place before I got stuck.
That night I dreamed of head lice, black faces and foreign lands. I tossed and turned in my bed but by morning I was up and ready to face the challenges ahead of me. Marie stayed for a few days and filled my head with so much information that it was a relief when it was time for her to leave. I took her to the plane in the blue Toyota. She was sad to be leaving. She’d worked at Gapuwiyak for four years.
‘The health workers will look after you,’ she said. ‘They’re a good bunch. And I’m in Gove, so you can call me on the radio any time.’
Back at the clinic I set about learning about my new career. I was determined to learn as much as I could about these Aboriginal people who had occupied the land for thousands of years. There were some books in the clinic, which I took home and read at night. During the day, when I wasn’t attending to patients, I familiarised myself with the clinic equipment.
‘Yapa, this boy needs to go to hospital,’ Yananbuy said.
‘Why do you think that?’
‘His ’emaglobin is four point two.’ She was holding up a small machine and pointing to his reading. The Aboriginals couldn’t pronounce an ‘h’, but I knew what Yananbuy meant.
‘Put his name on the list and we’ll talk to the doctor.’
How do these kids survive on such low haemoglobin levels?
I was attending to another lady who had one-month-old twins.
‘Greta, they have scabies again,’ I said. ‘Did you wash all their clothes and bedsheets?’
‘She doesn’t have a washing machine,’ Maynbunu said. She was standing next to me attending to her patient, who had a thermometer in his mouth.
‘Really? Where does she live?’
‘In that camp on the road out of town.’
After the morning clinic Maynbunu and I drove to the camp. It was on the outskirts of the tiny town. As we jumped out of the car, I took in the scene. Greta and her twins lived on a platform with a corrugated iron roof but no walls. It was just big enough for her mattress, which had no sheets. Behind it was a small brick room where I could see a fireplace.
‘How many people live around here?’
‘Depends, Yapa. When there’s a ceremony could be twenty.’
‘Where do they all sleep?
‘On the ground, but they share the kitchen.’
‘Where’s the bathroom?’
‘No bathroom. They use the bush.’
After that I drove to Greta’s shed each day and brought her, the twins and their clothes to the clinic where we had a washing machine and a baby bath. On the weekends she would bring her twins to my house on the way to the store and I babysat them while she shopped.
Each morning we would see anything from twenty to fifty patients, a large percentage of the small community of around four hundred. I soon became familiar with the treatment for scabies, intestinal worms and infections that ranged from ears to lungs to skin. If we needed to consult a doctor we asked the patient to return after lunch, when we could talk to a doctor over the two-way radio, since we had no phone. This schedule was called a medical sched, because it was the time when the medical centres in our region were scheduled to use the radio. The doctors were based at Gove Hospital. One came to Gapuwiyak once a fortnight and on those days we lined up all of our sickest patients, who invariably went back with them on the plane to be admitted to hospital.
After the medical sched we had a general sched in which an Aerial Medical Service nurse based at Gove Hospital called each of the rural health centres one by one to receive and report news. They could be very entertaining and gossipy. More than anything, they briefly connected us to the outside world. The health workers and I would make a cup of coffee and sit around the radio, listening to conversations from the other health centres until it was our turn.
On one occasion we had a patient who had a leg amputated in Darwin Hospital. According to tradition, not only the bodies of the dead but also body parts need a burial ceremony. So the leg was flown to us from Darwin Hospital – but it hadn’t arrived.
‘Gapuwiyak to Gove, over,’ I said into the mouthpiece.
‘Come in Gapuwiyak, over.’
‘The leg from Darwin wasn’t on the plane, over.’
‘Mmm, it says here that it was sent to the terminal this morning, over.’
‘I met the plane and it wasn’t there, over.’
‘Could someone have picked it up by mistake? Over.’
‘I’ll ask around, over.’
The next day I was on the radio again.
‘I went through all the fridges in the store and I couldn’t find our package, over.’
The following week it was placed on the plane. Someone in Darwin had left it in the freezer. Afterwards, whenever I met medical staff from the region, I was always asked about the missing leg.
It worried me that our morning clinics were just a bandaid. We needed to tackle the bigger issue of prevention. The two biggest problems were hygiene and nutrition. I decided to saturate the community with education. One afternoon a week we plastered the health truck with posters, showing pictures of healthy food. Maynbunu, who was a respected member of the community, would gather the women and children around the truck and explain to them what foods they should be eating. The high cost of food in the store and the limited supply of fresh food didn’t help. I asked to address a council meeting, of mainly men, where I showed them the weight charts of babies and small children, emphasising the decline in healthy weight status. On another day, with permission from the headmaster of the school, I gave nutrition lessons to the school children.