Some old pictures from long ago.
My book editor encouraged me to do a small chapter on who Don was so as to break up the medical stuff. It was hard to do but glad its done.till needs some editing but some of you might be interested at this snapshot of Australians circa 1950 - and on...
"I would like to have the luxury of filling a whole book with what Don was like, because the time between his birth on 4th July 1950 and his reluctant admittance to Royal North Shore Hospital on 11th April 2007 was his life. It was a full and rich life filled with laughter and much devilment. He was not that five week period which gripped him so mercilessly and sucked his lungs to collapse like two plastic bags because the Cardiothoracic Surgeon and his team stuffed up.
Sometimes, at home, in the middle of the night I would hear him softly singing Joe Cocker’s “You are so beautiful to me” softly over and over. How do you ever cope with losing someone who loved you like that? Maybe in the night he was awake with pain and just checking if I was awake, which I had to be by the end of the few lines he knew but more often than not he just sang it. Someone able bodied, who could turn over in the night and hold you couldn’t have held me as beautifully and with as much love as Don did with his singing and other things. It was a way of being close in the dark. He didn’t want anything for himself, all he ever worked for and wanted was always for the girls and I and other people. Through that he drew pleasure. I was always beautiful to Don and he to me.
Don told me a few times, about the time when he was about three or four and saw a pure white horse standing outside his home a long way from the house. He called his mum to come and see this wonderful horse but she wouldn’t come. He ran back to the door and saw that the horse had come closer to him and was looking right at him. Again he ran back to his mother begging her to come and see the white horse just outside their place. She was busy. In a panic he ran back to the door again and the horse had come quite close to the yard and was looking right at him. Being a little boy he wanted to show his Mum this wonderful thing. Finally she went with him to the door but it was no where to be seen, and he knew that she didn’t believe him. He was a little boy, born in 1950 and to the day he died he would tell me, 'That horse was really there and it was looking right at me.' It stayed with him, throughout the half century to follow.
Something really wonderful happened to this little boy in a small town now called Old Adaminaby, down in the Snowy Mountains. That little boy who carried the memory of the white horse till death was the youngest of four children. There was Jeanette [Tet], Judy and Ian, and then Don. He he was born in Moree and was to have a most unusual childhood, which no doubt equipped him well for life. When he was a baby the whole family moved down to the Snowy Mountains because his dad worked for a construction company during the construction of the Snowy River Scheme.
Don’s first memories were of many men from different countries painstakingly teaching him to swear in many different languages and telling him to go and repeat at home to his parents. These men were mostly refugees from war torn Europe, many of them having left family behind. They came from many different countries and cultures. For years Don would use the term Scheiser [pop or hausen] but he never remembered the meaning… Scheiserhausen is “shit house’ in German. I may have the spelling wrong as I only found this out after Don’s death.
Don and his brother and sisters all remembered this time as a magic time of wandering the hills freely, so freely that once they got totally lost. Don was only four and he told me that the whole Snowy Mountains camp stopped work to look for them. His brother Ian said at Don’s funeral, “Those six years probably formed Don into the person he became in later years. The things that we got up to, as kids would have sent you to a home of some sort or other these days. It included, the four of us setting out for a bike ride of a lifetime, ending up in a pigsty at the original dam site, with a raging fire that could have burnt an average National park. Someone volunteered me to get Mum and Dad (Tet I’m sure) in a raging stormy freezing cold on a 10 mile ride in the dark. Mum & Dad chastised severely the three eldest – me included. “What were you thinking taking this young baby out in this weather”? As quick as, Tet said “Mum at least he is warm and dry and he is not a baby he is four years old.”
Two hours before Don died, this brother arrived at the house. He was Don’s last remaining sibling. He made a comment about ‘the shooting” and Don’s wasted face just lit up with happiness. Don couldn’t talk but Ian said later, “Don and I were shooting tadpoles and frogs in a creek near home. I had just shot a frog and Don said give me a shot. I gave him the slug gun and he said to me “see how you like it” and promptly shot me in the foot. That was the start of his greenie attitude. Not content with the foot shooting when we got home he reloaded the slug gun and chased me around the house.” What Ian doesn’t say is that Don told me Ian ran like a mongrel dog, as you would do with a loaded slug gun cocked and ready to fire. Don said that the time down at the Snowy was one of the best memories of childhood and a really great place to grow up as a child.
The family moved after this to Swansea which was where Don developed a lifelong love of the beach. He could swim like a fish and surf on a long board. Like a lot of the older surfers he used to laugh at the short boards the kids use these days and call them “cripple boards”. No pun intended. Don became a “super star” at Soccer in the under 14’s and was remembered for kicking a goal for the other team. Ah well always a darn rebel. He had a horse called Taffy and was heart broken when he found his horse dead in a paddock. Dogs, horses and birds especially; Don had a great and deep love for the animal kingdom, human beings included.
From there the family fragmented as happens when kids grow up. Don and his mum and dad moved to Port Hedland in West Australia, again with the construction company. Don loved Port Hedland. He was a young teenager and had a rich life. He fell in love with a special girl called Judy when they were about 14. He fell in love with fast cars. He learned how to pull them apart, and put them back together again. He survived a few rollovers and smashes but because of this ‘practice’ he became a really good driver. One of his happiest memories was of playing soccer on the beach after work with the Thursday Islanders who worked for the mining company. Don could not speak highly enough of these men. He often said to me that no matter what happened, no matter how hot the day was, or how hard the work, they smiled and laughed and were the happiest people he had ever met. I would watch Don’s face when he spoke about all of this and he created a wonderful tapestry which I still see.
Then sadly his dad died from cancer and aged fifteen Don was alone with him when he died in 1966. Don and his mum returned to the eastern states. Aged sixteen he was basically on his own financially, and in every other way. He headed to Blackwater mines 400-500 kilometres west of Rockhampton in Queensland. He worked in “Stores”, learned how to live life in the present. It was this quality which Don and I recognised in each other.
His sister Jude married her soul mate, Buddy, and lost him in a car accident in 1965.His beloved eldest sister Jeanette had married Jack Holmes and had a son Phillip. In 1969, when Phillip was only four and Jeanette was heavily pregnant a drunk driver hit their car near the town of Woodburn. They were all killed. Don missed his sister till the day he died. After his mum died in 1997 I remember don becoming terribly distressed over Jeanette's death. i believe he felt him Mum and the home were his last like with her. It was her and Jude’s photo he looked at so often towards the end of life while in RNSH.
When I consider the grief he would have been dealing with and his aloneness, I can’t imagine what it was in him that still had him smiling easily. The family that was once so secure had to be so messed up after all this. Don was young by today’s standards to be so alone in the world. Understandably his poor mum was just battling to maintain her own sanity after losing husband, daughter, two sons in law, a grandchild and a little one close to birth in about three years. . As I grow older and understand more, it is to this family’s credit that they did as well as they did. My own dad was killed in 1969 and I know how that one death rocked our family. I know for Don that there was damage done, but there was nothing self pitying in him and he just turned his face to the sun, literally and lived. That was the bravery inside Don which stood him in such good stead in the years ahead.
We met in Newcastle, in the old Star hotel in Hunter Street in 1972 and joined forces about three weeks after that meeting. It felt lovely like a sigh, a sense of coming back home. He was so familiar to me and I can’t explain this. In 1974 Melissa was born and Don’s boss offered us the use of a large caravan to use so that Don would not want to come home each weekend to be with his us and could spend months moving around NSW working. Being close and being with family was always a major drive with Don. He craved that intimacy and surety of home and love. That suited me. I was like that also. I think we were both a bit wounded, and having both come from families that didn’t neatly slot into the tidy niches of Australian life in the 50’s and 60’s we recognised on some level the same attitudes and values. This isn’t to say that it was plain sailing between Don and I. We were both passionate about our feelings and beliefs and there were some really fiery exchanges, even in later years. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
This was a wonderful 18 months and there were few areas we did not get to spend time within New South Wales. Blayney in winter in an uninsulated caravan was an experience. Opening the van door at the tick gates and seeing our red kelpie, called imaginatively, Red, slithering around in the beetroot which had fallen out of the fridge, because someone had forgotten to put the pin in the fridge door was another. Port Macquarie was one of the towns we worked in and Don was offered work from Gordon Hunt should he ever move here so in late ’76 we moved to Port Macquarie. Alison was born in 1977 and our little family was complete.
We lived in a small house just past Sea Acres near Johnson’s Fruit shop, which cost $12 a week rent. Here we were home. Chooks, ducks, a dog called Boris, cats – (Don was never too keen on these creatures) and Lucky, Don’s horse; two happy little girls and little money made this a happy home for us. Don worked on building sites and drove a backhoe and truck and was able to turn his hand to most things he tried. Apart from my own dad, few men come up to this capability. He never thought he couldn’t do things. He just seem to be able to figure out how things were meant to work, meant to be out together and away he went. I miss this.
We married in October 1979 because Melissa was about to start school and I wanted the whole family to have the same last name, as simple as that. It was a wild wild rambunctious wedding, which I have written about elsewhere and been paid for the story, it was such a good yarn.
Then one golden day in January 1982 a day I recall feeling as if the Gods were smiling on me…two lovely healthy daughters, a husband who loved us and who I loved to distraction, a little house - all of it, Don broke his neck on that first day back at work after Christmas . He became a quadriplegic and spent a seven-month stay at Royal North Shore Hospital (Sydney). We three, Melissa, Alison and myself, moved for that period; living near the hospital, with my sister Veronica. After seven months we came back home, to a different home. Our lovely little home with its ducks and chooks, cats and dogs had stairs…the new place didn’t. For years I would dream vivid dreams about this place and in my mind even now I feel its tucked away where the angels are taking care of it for us.
After a settling period, Don and I became involved in issues in which we believed passionately. He lobbied Council in the ‘80’s for better wheelchair access and struck a deal with them that he would go halves in the cost of construction of wheelchair access on major access points around the CBD. The gormless council shocked me by actually accepting $7,000 from a disabled man. He just needed to be able to get about and do business in town and accepted that everything had its price especially if you are unable to walk and need to do business and get about.
In the early ‘90’s he manned the RSPCA phone and was passionate about his commitment to this. Although it’s a well known fact Don was not a great cat lover, he abhorred cruelty of any sort and would too often be upset by the callousness of human beings to their pets and livestock.
His mother died in 1997. He not only looked out for his mother’s needs but also my mother and was always quick to see when others were had difficulties. He had a great compassion for others who were suffering illness or other. When his beautiful sister Judy was dying in Queensland in 1998 he and I spent the last three months with her, only leaving a few days before she passed away. This was a special time and he spent many days just quietly sitting by his sister’s bedside talking and laughing about family.
Don believed ardently in the right of the individual to freedom of choice on issues regarding Fluoridation, and other and it is well known he did not suffer fools gladly. He was very active in the fight against the privatisation of Port Macquarie Hospital and he worked for years tirelessly to have the hospital returned to public hands. Unfortunately he was stuck in bed on the day the Hospital Action Group had its celebration outside the hospital grounds, once again relegated to the sidelines, when the hospital was finally handed back to the people of NSW in 2004, but he spent that morning harassing the local media, as was his wont, into speaking with the Hospital Action Group who were there from the beginning of the fight in early 1992.
Our good friend Alan who proudly claimed to be “camp as a row of tents but celibate since they discovered Aids” stuck with Don after his accident, when all the work mates dropped away, sadly only making their presence at his funeral. This long time family friend died about two years before Don. Men had real trouble dealing with Don’s condition, but Alan and Don spent many an hour arguing back and forth on the phone, swearing away at each other and talking about everything. Don used to pretend that he didn’t want to talk with him sometimes when he rang, but when Alan died, we were both heartbroken.
We moved out of Port Macquarie to our own “Craggy Island” in early 2004. The sense of peace and beauty we both felt the first day we saw this place is still here with us and for me it is the essence of Don. I feel so safe here, amongst the birds and trees Don loved so much.
Becoming a Quadriplegic was bad enough, but Don was unlucky in that he was suffered constant pain and would comment on those few days when it totally lifted how good the day was. As the years went on this became much worse. His courage and endurance, still being able to be concerned about others, smiling, fooling about, being involved and interested and most of all never complaining, was truly wonderful to experience. It was heartbreaking at times when people did not understand his fragility and his exhaustion and bravery he showed by just facing the days at times.
Our family are so aware of the many roles Don played in life and also on the small screen, where just the placement of a wig, or a hat and he would transform into little fat Edie from Picnic at Hanging Rock which should now be known as “Picnic at Don Rock”…and his Mafia alter ego called “The Don”. This was all done as seamlessly as he did everything. As well there was the eighth day of the week “Don Day” which was a special day for the kids. All things were possible on this day. His force of personality and its many facets became something of a miracle to Melissa and Alison and I. He was constantly concerned about our welfare, and that of the extended family, and he seemed to grow more compassionate, the more he suffered.
Melissa and Alison joke about the fact that they quickly learnt to never say they were bored because when they did he would give them jobs to do, like weeding. Now adults they say they are grateful for this. He was fiercely independent and a gentle and concerned loving husband and father. Don lived with dignity and concern for others, but most and more importantly with humour. He had a great sense of compassion and empathy for others; his sense of fun and stirring; his generosity; his unpredictability; his intense love of the natural world we all experienced but more even than all this and everything else was the love he held Melissa, Alison and me He loved us without condition.
Melissa said, “Whenever I think of him it always makes me smile and a million memories come rushing to me. Each one making me happier. Dad had a wonderful sense of fun and a wicked, wicked sense of humour. Which left a lot of people not quite sure, was he laughing at them? That made it funnier. Alison and I from a young age absolutely loved when he was being wickedly funny. Kids love it when someone can get away with saying and doing things naughty. We had some amazing times as a family; you couldn’t ask or wish for a better dad. He was always always there for you, and nothing was ever too much. The gap in our little family is going to be felt, but he is always with us, because he promised me once. I remember when dad was in hospital, his arms were tied with restraints, mum and I untied them and he stretched out his arms like he was going to fly away. I said jokingly, “You’re free!” And he laughed and smiled it was the most beautiful smile. So I hope he is free and still has that beautiful smile that I’ll never forget.”
Alison said, “We had such a fun and rich childhood; there was always much laughter in the house. There were always lots of cuddles in our house, ‘interesting’ games of monopoly [ we all cheat like crazy and play Mackay’s rules], jobs if we admitted boredom, and there was always a right way to do jobs and a short time in which to begin them. That was just Dad and it became slightly amusing as we got older.
We have so many funny home videos of us four and others, but by far the best was our “Picnic at Don Rock!” Dad played Edie brilliantly and we have so many one-liners from it that will always make us laugh. Dad always tried to make things better for me. All the phone calls over the last few years I will cherish. All the stories you told, all the silly voices we did. You taught me how to cope with things that were beyond my grasp, and always when the seriousness was over you’d get me chuckling again.
Don was so proud of Melissa and Alison. No matter how ill he was all down through the years, he would have walked on broken glass to make sure they were okay. Sometimes out of the blue he’d just buy them something pretty he’d find down the street. He’d shoot around to the Post office and it’d be on its way before I’d even seen it. More often than not it’d come back because it was the wrong size. And if he was well enough he’d get the right size and go through the process again. He loved to surprise us. Sometimes it was just a little bit of cake he’d bring home that had taken his fancy, or a huge Anzac biscuit we had to halve. In later years he began to buy me little bits of gold. A bangle or a chain. As the girls said “Mum he was bejewelling you.” I’d never been a jewels type person and he knew this, but what he gave me was so right. We seemed to have arrived at a place where we were inside each other’s hearts and we knew.
I was thinking recently how to describe Don’s personality, because it was unique. There was nothing middle of the road about him. I know I have been the luckiest person alive to have had the experiences I have had with someone like him. As many people didn’t like Don as liked him, so the balance is struck. They may have been surprised that he was streets ahead of them and could spot dishonesty, hypocrisy and ignorance with almost physic ability. He couldn’t hack snobs at all and truly believed in an egalitarian society where all people really were treated equally. Maybe it was physic, because he would suss people out from the start. No being one to suffer fools gladly as mentioned, and being fond of calling a spade a spade, people, well men actually in particular didn’t know how to handle a man in a wheelchair forgetting his place.
Don could always spot a rip off, be it a builder who cut corners, or if someone had laid the guttering crooked. He was like a bulldog till he got fair dealing for money paid. It always surprised me how many people would react angrily when shoddy work was pointed out.
But it was yesterday when I was remembering a Dylan Moran concert - Dylan Moran is the main character in the ABC’s “Black Books” and it hit me that it’s the look Dylan gets in his eye just as he’s working up to something – it’s a ‘black’ humour thing. Its like there is almost a little flash in the eye…maybe a twinkle, but twinkle sounds to good and pure. Its like there is a ‘shift’ and if you miss it you will never get the joke. I have seen Billy Connelly and Dave Allen with exactly the same look. Then I realised that the humour is uniquely Celtic humour and black as it comes. Its clever and complicated and involves a lot of thought. There is an old saying about the Irish and its “just because they are smiling at you doesn’t mean they like you.” As with the Scots the Irish suffered many hundreds of years of oppression and learned to dissemble and to get under the radar, for survival. Something of this is glued to the humour and if you don’t get it you never will. Its important for me to explain this, because its what kept Don and I sane during the long weeks of his dying.
Once or twice, when he felt temporarily flush he’d send the girls a few hundred dollars, for no reason. This went to buy winter clothes, or replace things and the girls never expected anything like that. It was his way. They were never spoiled. It was the joy he got when he sent it, knowing it was on its way to them and knowing that they would have a little spend. He got more pleasure out of this than buying stuff for himself. Melissa and Alison loved and still do love their Dad not because of these things, but because of the amazing dad he was from the time they were born till even today a year after his death. He was a total dad. He was a total husband and a total gentleman in his heart. And although some thought that that heart had some rough edges, for some reason it was those rough edges, that prickly exterior, which made us love him the more, because we all knew inside that exterior was a strong but gentle man, like a Chieftain of the clan. A man who took responsibility and you knew would be there right behind you no matter what. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I could picture him standing up tall, protecting his people. I never told him this; it was just an image I held. True gentlemen are in short supply.
Our world was so precious to us. But it was terribly fragile and we knew this. He knew that it was unlikely that he would live many more years. I knew and “accepted” as much as you can accept that this was fact. I knew why Melissa and Chris’s wedding was so important to him. It was unlikely he would make it for Alison’s. It was unlikely he would ever see grandchildren. He and I would not grow old together. We had lived with this knowledge since he first broke his neck in 1982.
This book is my way of giving Don a voice and to record the injustices done to him and hopefully to bring to those responsible the reality of what their actions did to one human being and his family."