I wrote these pieces of writing for readers to understand and know something of my people, whom I love very much. Their lives were not lived in vain; they were beautiful people who held responsibility when they needed to; and they were strong people who have left, in me, great love. My people were strong and did not bow a head to any person, even though they suffered terrible violence through the hands of the state.
My mother, her mother (our Law-woman), and her brother John were Kunya people. My father was a Wailwan/Wiradjuri man, and I was raised as Barkindji by my grandfather. I am living thanks to these people's great love. This writing is an expression of my admiration and love for them.
I was born in the old hospital in Bourke. A district hospital it was back then. And Bourke — well, it was a rich town with plenty people and activity. We were all born there: me; my sister Lee; brother Glenn; my cousins; friends: all born there.
Old Doc Cooligan delivered most of us. Good doctor he was, and a good man. He did much for public health and took no crap from anyone. When he left Bourke he became Registrar at Royal North Shore, Sydney. Green and gold — the colours of Australia’s pride — were the colours of the old hospital. These were the days when Sister wore the big veils and the nurses in training wore little white caps; the days when nurses were women and men were wardsmen; and mostly all the doctors were men. As a kid, I spent many nights in the hospital. Being born premature near killed me and Mum; then childhood illness knocked me around a lot; then there was the bike accident, head over handle bars, flat out in front of the school as a library book got caught in the spokes, and over I went, straight into the bitumen.
The men’s ward — where they kept me, even though I was under ten years old — was filled with coughing and dying men. When an old man was ready to die, the whole ward respected the moment; everyone was extra quiet; even the visiting hours were a quiet affair. It was a sad time, seeing the bed made neat, and tidy, and empty, the following morning. I’d turn into the pillow and cry, just as I’d cry when Mum and Lee and Glenn would leave me there at the end of visiting hours in the afternoon.
The hospital had its own orchard: big navel oranges, grapefruit, mandarins: they were so sweet. And there was a tiny graveyard out the back, where a few little newborns who didn’t make it are buried. No headstone, no names, just a little wire around each grave. They died back in the ’55 flood and couldn’t be buried at the cemetery as it was flooded away. We always respected those little ones and never went near their graves to disturb or stickybeak. I would look towards the graves each day from the road as I walked home from school, and give the little ones a thought. I hated that they lay there and no one thought of them, so I made it my business to do so. Each day I’d turn my eyes towards the dark shade under which the graves are, and think of who they were, who their mums and dads were, and the sadness would over come me again.
Dad and Mum were young at death compared to many people in Australia. This is the difference that is spoken about when they speak about ‘Closing The Gap’. So many of my people have died so young ... ‘Lifestyle choices’, says Tony Abbott. My parents should not have died young; their Aboriginality should not have been a factor in their struggle and suffering in life. Lifestyle choices? What rot.
I don’t hear even Aboriginal people speaking about Close The Gap campaigns any more, in general or in urgent conversations. I think many of us blackfullas gave up on anything closing for us — except perhaps the door that so often is slammed in our faces.
My dad inspired confidence in many people who were frightened, unsure, sick, threatened. He loved his family, he loved country music, he’d own up to the truths — not slide away and hide like a frightened dog, or squirm his way out of responsibility. Except, perhaps when he was on the drink, when he should have been home where a good man is supposed to be.
My old man was a man with many flaws. He’d drink and fight. He loved the drink, and being in a bar room. He fought in courts with his speech. He fought men with his fists. He mixed it with the best; or perhaps, they mixed it with him, as he was the best. They came from Victoria, Queensland, and all over NSW to fight him. He’d take them on, alone, one out; half drunk or sober, he’d shape up and do his best. The fights were brutal affairs. For organised fights, there was a referee, normally Uncle Hope or someone of renown from the black community. The fighters didn’t wear rings, there was no kicking or punching when a man went down, and no one stepped into the fray, so it was a fair fight. But the other fights, in the bar room: they were on-the-spot affairs. Cuts and king hits. Dangerous vicious fights. You live and die on the spot, there in those places.
Dad shared his money and his skills — not just his dukes, but also his ability to speak and read and therefore, being able to understand the legal system; at some level. He was able to make representations at court on behalf of many Aboriginal people in Bourke, over many years. These were the days before the Aboriginal Legal Service came into being, and sometimes those representations, on behalf of a relative or friend, were the only difference between that Aboriginal person’s liberty or incarceration.
Mum called him ‘a weekend special’, for the police targeted him. Dad wouldn’t be intimidated by cops, or by any person, so the cops would look for him at the pubs around closing time, to assault him — payback for beating them in court — and to arrest him again. Sometimes the old man would, by chance, dodge them and make it home, but most weekends he’d end up in the cells at the local watch house. He’d go to court the following week, or when the magistrate came to town, mostly being charged with Offensive Language; Resisting Arrest; Assaulting Police. The Trifecta, we called it.
My father did never do any time in the Big House though. That is, Dad never was sent to gaol on any charge. He was very proud of that, given that it meant he wasn’t a criminal, or a person who committed serious crime, like theft, or break and enters, or homicide. His charges were at the lower end of the scale. Self-defence, I’d say, is closer to the truth.
I was 34 years old when my father died. Too young, I was.
He was 56 years old when he died. Way, way too young, he was.
In moments of great strain and grief, in moments of fear and urgent need, I still call ‘Dad, I need a hand here.’ And you know, it may only be my imagination running away with me, but I believe that Dad in some kind of spirit-form hears me plea, and I feel him very close to me in those moments.
The ghost of my uncle John — Mum’s youngest brother — has been very near in my dreams. They’ve been real vivid dreams, lately.
John was the wild one. Violent, sick, never treated, but with an obvious personality disorder, and schizophrenia out of control. Poor John. He was three years older than me. He tried to medicate himself — D&A — and he became addicted. He was extremely violent: couldn’t control it, he couldn’t. He suffered this illness, silently, for he didn’t know what to say or how to say it or who to speak to about it. Schizophrenia is extreme among Aboriginal people, and suffering such in a small town, where everyone seems to know, to be interested, to gossip, is a very dangerous trigger for the ill. John would have periods when he seemed okay, and then he’d drink; and all hell would break out.
Police tried to kill him. They handcuffed him, stood around him in a tight circle linking arms while their sergeant — a cruel, big bastard — bashed John to the ground and then kicked him repeatedly. The sergeant stood 6 foot 5. John was shirtless. John weighed 8 and a half stone. John was 5 foot 8.
John spent the night in the cells at Bourke before his court appearance the next day and so, before the police took him into court, they decided that they should try to clean him up a bit. They took him, in cuffs, to the hospital. John had boot prints and boot polish all over his back — all visible marks upon his body.
John asked the doctor to go evidence for him in court as witness to his injuries. The doctor said, ‘Sorry John, I won’t. I live here in this town.’
John died eight years ago today. He was 55 years old.
He had a rare cancer — unknown. The biopsy they removed from his lungs was sent to America for analysis. ‘Never seen before’, was the reply.
John did find peace towards the end of his life. The mental illness settled, without medication, I don’t know how. But I think that perhaps, when he received the news that he had cancer, it came as such a shock to him that it superseded every other thing in his life. He stopped drinking and drugging. He found the love of his life, Jenny — a girlfriend from his past — and together they planned to marry. They sent out invitations for their upcoming wedding. They shopped for, and brought, wedding rings. They had the rings engraved with messages of their love to each. Every phone call he received would end with him saying ‘I love you’, to whoever was on the end of the line.
John died a just a fortnight before his planned wedding date; in Newcastle hospital, four months after his eldest sister, my mum, died in 2010.
I struggled on. Hanging onto nothing at times, it felt. I struggled on trying to do my PhD. When I walked across the stage that day in my cap and gown, I looked into the audience, into spaces, searching for John and Mum and Dad. I stumbled half way across the stage, I felt my legs weaken, and my eyes fill.
And I reckon I felt old John hold me up and whisper, ‘Come on, Nephew ... I got ya.’
I made it all the way across the stage, to the Chancellor, Tom Calma, and, then fell forward into his arms.
It was a big day for me.
Mum’s sister Estelle, who lives here in Canberra, sat crying in the front row for me. Proud of what I’d achieved. And she cried, sad for my loneliness — she’d seem me look for John and Mum and Dad in that crowd of strangers — she cried.
Last night John’s ghost came to me in a dream. As if he’s still looking out for his nephew.
‘… I got ya.’
My Nan was a keeper of our Law. She was solid, and did never speak out of turn. She did not speak about the Law in jest, or threat. She held it safe to herself and for us. She was a good Law-woman.
When her time came to pass into the Forever, she didn’t trust that the Law would be protected as she had protected it, for her traditional culture had ceased being practiced. Rather than risk any corruption or violation of the Law at the time of her passing, my Nan took the secrets and the sacred with her, back to the Dreaming.
She came from dust, our Law-woman.
From desert heat and endless plain, she was made from smoke and rain.
She came from Dreaming, and held our Law.
She did her business at night where Dreaming is living.
Speaking with Spirit-people, she moved — spirit-shaped and formed.
Kept dead-men things in her Majik bag, that no one but her looked upon.
— Things sacred.
— Things secret.
Law-woman kept our Law safe.
Law-woman kept herself clean — no lie dressed her tongue.
When her waters broke, her child was washed in dust and made clean.
Law-woman was quiet, she didn’t scream when he was born.
Law-woman was quiet when police took her son.
She didn’t call up war.
She didn’t sing-up her brother, Storm.
Her feet stayed still. She didn’t dance-up her sister, Ghost-wind.
Instead, Law-woman sang her own death.
And Death came.
Law-woman’s son arrived before she returned to Dreaming.
‘Got somethin for me, Mum?’
Law-woman’s eyes smiled her answer, in tears.
Her smile turned still.