THE PACKET OF soy milk was standing alone on the top shelf of the long-life milk section in the brightly lit aisle of Coles at Corinda. Normally, I could easily stretch up to the second-highest level to grab it. That day, though, the shelf was empty. I peered upwards and spied a solitary packet standing slightly back from the edge of the highest tier. Once, retrieving the packet would have been simple, a matter of standing on tiptoes and reaching up to get the milk. But that day my balance was shaky and I had to hold onto the trolley handle with my left hand while extending my right upwards. I felt my muscles cramp. I was in a lot of pain that morning and had been for a number of weeks.
I leaned against the shelf to steady myself, and tried to feel around for the soy milk, but for some reason I couldn’t move my arm or the hand that was now hooked over the rim of the shelf. I gripped the trolley tightly with my left hand and tried to leverage myself out of my predicament. All I did, though, was push the trolley further forward, my arm along with it, while still clutching the top shelf with my left hand. I knew I’d have to let go of something. So I did. I let go of the top shelf and my balance as well, as my feet slipped out from under me, while my hand, still gripping the trolley, pushed forwards. I fell on my knees, my eyes watering in sudden shock, as packets of soy milk tumbled to the ground around me.
I was still resting on my knees when a man on a disability scooter rounded the corner of the aisle and saw me in the middle of the havoc I had just caused by my fall. He manoeuvred his way towards me, rotated his scooter so it was beside me, deftly activated his brakes, braced his arm at the elbow and leaned down towards me.
‘Hold on and let me help you up,’ he said, smiling warmly.
I could feel the colour of my face through its burn.
‘Don’t worry about it, love, happens to the best of us.’
I found it hard to look at him. Found it hard to be fallen in the local supermarket.
‘You here with anybody?’ he asked, as I slowly found my way to my feet.
‘No. I’m alone.’
‘Darling,’ he said, ‘I’ve been in this chair a long time. And one thing I’ve realised is I’m never alone. I used to have accidents all the time. But look at me now. I’m a Formula One driver.’
I could tell by his laugh he wanted to make me laugh as well. He waited till I regained my balance, then rotated his chair again, bent over and picked up a soy milk packet from the floor.
‘Is this what you were looking for?’
I looked at him closely. He was smiling broadly, encouraging me to take the soy milk out of his hand. I really didn’t want it now, but he was being so kind that I had to take it.
A tall, dark-skinned man walked towards us from the end of the aisle. My benefactor called out to him: ‘Hey, Ollie.’
‘Oh, here you are,’ Ollie said in a deep, strongly reassuring, melodious, accented voice.
‘This is Oliver. He helps me shop.’
‘He’s from Senegal. Isn’t he handsome?’
Ollie turned his head shyly. ‘Do you need any help?’ he asked me. I noticed he was wearing a work badge of some kind hanging from a chain around his neck.
‘I’m Davo, by the way. Ollie can help you with lots of things,’ he added. ‘If you need to sue Coles for stacking the shelves so badly you can ask him. He was a lawyer in Senegal.’
He laughed again, enjoying his own humour. Ollie turned away and began retrieving the cartons of soy milk from the floor and returning them to the shelves.
‘They won’t let him practise law here,’ Davo whispered loudly. ‘So he works as a carer. My carer. His misfortune is my good luck. I don’t know what I’d do without him.’
Ollie finished restacking the shelves and turned to us. ‘If I couldn’t come, Dave, they’d find someone else for you. You know that.’
‘Wouldn’t be the same as you, Ollie!’
Ollie’s smile was kind, shy and charming. I looked closer at his badge. It had his picture on it, along with the words ‘Australia Cares’.
‘Thanks for your help,’ I said to them both.
Davo wheeled himself around to face me. ‘Whatever your problem is, darling, just remember two things: One, there’s always someone worse off than you; and two, there’s always someone to help you. People can be mongrels sometimes, but they can also be good.’
‘You sound like a philosopher.’
Ollie nearly cracked up at this remark.
‘If I am, then I’m self-taught, as all the great ones are. As soon as I got in this chair I started my training. Come on, Ollie. Let’s not hold her up any longer.’
I wanted to stay and talk more to Ollie, who had a serenity about him that I found intriguing. I hoped I might run into him and Davo shopping at Coles in the future sometime. But more likely, I would never see them again. After years of travelling I’d grown used to fleeting encounters. Sometimes I felt I was still travelling, even though I hadn’t left Brisbane, my hometown, for a few years.
ON MANY LEVELS, 2016 was a difficult, disruptive year. Britain voted to leave the EU, and Donald Trump became the US president after an acrimonious campaign against Hilary Clinton. Pauline Hanson’s election to the Senate in the Australian federal election signified her resurrection as a political figure – along with her party, One Nation – and she was once again stirring up debate with her views on immigration. And for much of 2016, I found walking difficult. I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years earlier and some days I was unable to leave the house. Getting things done, like shopping and housework, was becoming more difficult.
At the beginning of the year, a Trump presidency had seemed like a fantasy, albeit an ominous one, and Brexit an obscure contraction. When they came to pass, both phenomena signified an ending of old political assumptions and were interpreted as seismic shifts towards a particularly anti-immigration brand of populism. In 2016, I was also learning to cope with the end of an old way of life, a life in which I had moved freely around the country and other parts of the world. This change in my circumstances, though, which coincided with a worsening of my symptoms, enabled me to have a very different – albeit very personal – view on the benefits of diversity.
IN JANUARY, I discovered more about the organisation Ollie worked for when I was referred by my friend, Wendy, to a similar group called Centacare, which supplied cleaners to seniors and people with disabilities. I resisted contacting the agency for a long time, as I felt embarrassed about losing my independence. Finally, after weeks of procrastinating, I contacted the office in Darra and arranged for a caseworker to visit me to assess what kind of domestic help I needed.
I booked an appointment with a softly spoken Colombian man called Sylvio. I was still suffering social anxiety and postponed the scheduled meeting several times before mustering the courage to proceed. My small circle of friends, family and neighbours were regular visitors to my home, but Sylvio was the first new person to visit me in my Sherwood flat since I’d moved there and I was nervous. I needn’t have been. In some ways, it had become easier to meet new people who had few, if any, expectations of me. Sylvio was very gentle and put me at ease as we focused first on the things I could still do for myself, such as showering, eating and conversing – which, he assured me smiling, I still did very well.
During our conversation, I discovered that Sylvio was studying for his master’s degree in social work, as well as working full-time as a community home-care case manager with Centacare. He’d been a lawyer in Columbia, but had been unable to practise in Australia. He had not felt that he had lost anything by starting afresh, though. He no longer wanted to work in litigation, and desired instead to serve the community as part of his new life in Australia.
I found out from Sylvio that employees who did cleaning work were not called cleaners, but domestic support workers. This title resonated with the aims of the organisation – to support and care for the community. As I signed up for this service, I felt I was passing through a portal that ushered me from one world to another. It was the first time since I’d been diagnosed that I had officially admitted that I wasn’t coping, that I was vulnerable and needed help.
IN LATE FEBRUARY 2016, three new tenants moved into a flat on the second floor of the block of units in Sherwood where I lived. I had been good friends with the previous tenant, a man named Henry, and hoped that any new neighbours would not disrupt the friendly atmosphere that made my cosy unit feel like home.
I met Constance a few days after she arrived. She was walking up the stairs holding a child in her arms, accompanied by a young woman. The young woman, who spoke English well, introduced herself and her companions. Her name was Iris. The child was her daughter, Emma; Constance, the older woman, was her aunt. After several such stairwell meetings, I found out that Constance had travelled from Papua New Guinea to help Iris, who was studying for a masters’ degree in nursing at the University of Queensland. Iris was a single mother, so Constance was there to look after Emma, a stocky three year old with a fantastic head of hair and an insistent, mercurial energy. Constance had children of her own back in New Guinea, but had left them to travel to Brisbane. This both intrigued and impressed me. It was what families did, she eventually told me, when I enquired about her children. In New Guinea culture, she explained later, an aunt is the same as a mother, and a cousin is like a sister; someone’s niece is like their daughter and a nephew like a son. In this interchangeable family dynamic, family structures are fluid and mutable and so the duty of care can be shared by many.
Constance and I got to know each other slowly. Her English was limited and my Papuan languages non-existent. At first, our interactions consisted of meeting on the stairs and smiling at each other. After a while they became opportunities for brief verbal exchanges.
‘Hello, Linda. How are you?’
‘I’m good, Constance. How are you?’
‘I’m good too, Linda.’
For several weeks, these simple exchanges were the limit of our conversations. We communicated mainly by smiling and noticing nice things about each other: Constance’s smile, my curly hair, which reminded her of women back home. As the weeks passed and Constance grew more confident with speaking English, she would compliment me on my clothes, compliments I returned by admiring her head of short, tight curls. Years of overseas travel had taught me how to communicate with others non-verbally, in the language of smiles and mime. To express my friendship, I started to give her little presents: some nail polish, a gold ribbon, a bracelet made of glass.
‘Oh, thank you, Linda. It’s so nice,’ she would coo, smiling brightly.
When I asked her to teach me her language she laughed and enquired in return if she could speak English with me, so she could learn some more words while she was in Australia. I agreed happily. I appreciated our spontaneous meetings; sometimes they occurred just when I was feeling isolated, when the days of adjusting to my symptoms had become too dreary. Constance told me that, despite being with family, sometimes she felt isolated too. When Iris was at university, Emma was at childcare and she had finished all her cleaning and food preparation for that day’s meals, sometimes she would sit alone in her living room for hours. There was no television in her flat so she would look outside the window and stare at the clouds moving for hours on end. I knew what that was like, I told her. I used to always be busy, but now I had hours to myself, as she did, looking out the window. You never knew, we both agreed, laughing, where life would lead you – to unexpected places and unexpected things.
WHEN I OPENED the door to my next visitor, the first thing I saw was a mouth full of shining white teeth flecked with gold.
‘Hello, darling. I’m Mary from Centacare.’ As she spoke, she flicked back the braids that covered her head; the tiny beads that held them in place snapped and clicked as she moved her face from side to side.
‘How are you today?’ she asked, walking inside. Wafting past me, I could detect the faint smell of patchouli and lavender. I was taken aback. Mary was the second new person to be in my flat in over a year and she filled my tiny space with fresh buoyant energy, as if she was already cleaning the space with her presence. As I closed the door, I felt a little shiver of joy.
After telling Mary what I needed done, I stayed in my chair for the hour she was there. I was unsure of my balance that day and I didn’t want to be falling over while she mopped my floors. Mary chatted while she worked and did her best to make me comfortable with a stranger being in my home. So we got through our first hour together with minimal awkwardness and by the time she left I was already looking forward to her next visit. I now realised how much I missed meeting new people, especially those from other countries. When I used to travel, I was always curious and my work as a documentary maker had taught me how to listen to a story; it was one of the things I most missed from my life before my illness, the freedom to roam and listen.
As if she had read my mind, the next time Mary came she told me about her life in Africa before she came to Australia, and how she’d fled Somalia when she was a child. How for twenty-three years she’d lived in a refugee camp in another part of Africa; how she’d grown up, married and had her children in that camp. It had been a long haul for Mary, she divulged, but she had never stopped believing, never given up hope that she would be delivered from her life into a better one. Finally, one of her husband’s cousins had been accepted into Australia and, after several more years, had been able to sponsor Mary and her family to make the long trip to Queensland. While waiting for work permits, she had volunteered at aged-care facilities where she had gradually improved her English. Eventually, she moved with her husband and children into her own house – her very first house, she confided in me, beaming.
Mary did impeccable work and made my bathroom and kitchen gleam. She hardly looked old enough to have children, let alone grandchildren, and when she talked about Somalia and Africa I felt she was taking me on a journey, that I was travelling with her, there and back, as she retraced her life story.
‘How do you like Brisbane?’ I asked her once, while she was cleaning my bathroom.
‘Like a paradise,’ she giggled. ‘Like heaven.’
I was surprised at anybody calling Brisbane a paradise. I’d spent many years crafting elaborate plans to leave my home town, always thinking that paradise was elsewhere.
‘Tell me about your paradise here, Mary.’
‘Oh, it’s so peaceful. No wars. No guns. Food for my children, schools for their education. It is like heaven. Here I live like a queen.’
I wanted to ask her if she found it difficult being an African woman in Australia, but I felt too reticent to bring up the question. As if she’d heard my thoughts, again, she smiled at me and said, ‘People are good, my friend. People are kind.’
I discovered that this was one of Mary’s favourite things to say as she swept, vacuumed and mopped my tiled floors. If a woman could so fervently believe that, after the traumas of her life in Africa, then I felt I should take heed. After all, she had travelled a great distance, literally and metaphorically, to arrive in my home to tell me the things she had learnt from being a displaced person who had finally found her place. And it was here in Brisbane that she’d found it, as well as peace and good fortune for her children and grandchildren.
NOT LONG AFTER Constance, Iris and Emma moved in upstairs, I also had a new neighbour in the flat next to me. Her name was Mi Na; she was from South Korea and had moved to Brisbane to do an MBA. A few weeks after she moved in, she knocked on my door and offered to put out and bring in my rubbish bin.
‘Anything you need help with, please just knock on my door. Or text me.’
She then held out to me a sheet of paper with all her contact details: her email address, Facebook page, landline and mobile numbers.
Mi worked long hours: she had a full-time job, as well as undertaking a full-time university course. Our paths seldom crossed for the first few weeks of her tenancy, so sometimes I would text her to keep in touch and see how her life was going. As she had promised, she would often bring in my bin; and sometimes, to say thank you, I would leave a little cake outside her door, just so she knew someone was thinking of her.
Thanks neighbour, she would text me.
You’re welcome neighbour, I would text back.
MARY STOPPED COMING after a few weeks; I don’t know what happened to her. I was disappointed not to see her again, but in her place came a succession of domestic workers from around Australia and many different parts of the world. There was Jess from Newcastle, Meagan from Tasmania, Tracey from West Bengal, Jackie from Samoa, Samara from Punjab, Catherine from the Solomon Islands, Tito from Zambia. They passed in and out of my life like travellers, arriving and departing, smiling and helping, sharing stories of good and bad fortune, of hope and freedom, delivering me from isolation as they did, and slowly helping me rediscover a sense of myself.
It was a strange reversal of my previous life, when I had travelled extensively and, through spontaneous encounters, felt connected to the people of the world. Now these people came knocking on my door and brought the world – with equal spontaneity – to me. It was a different way of travelling, especially as some days I could not go outside. It brought the energy of others into my sphere and for many hours after they had finished their work and left, I felt connected to the world again, and not so alone.
AS 2016 PROGRESSED, so did my Parkinson’s. Tasks I used to take for granted became hard for me to physically negotiate: washing my doona cover, for instance. Once a simple procedure, the thought of taking the cover off and putting it back on now filled me with dread. While I could still drive, I used to motor up to the laundromat at Oxley and put the whole thing – the doona with the cover still on – into the large industrial-size washing machine, after which I would put it in the dryer for thirty minutes, then lug it home and put it back on my bed. Some days though, my arms were so sore and stiff that I didn’t feel safe to drive, nor could I manage washing the cover in my machine and putting it out to dry on the line.
One day I passed Constance down near the laundries on the ground floor of our unit complex. I was moving very stiffly that day and felt very self-conscious about my face, which sometimes took on that mask-like expression so common for people with Parkinson’s. She stopped me and told me if I ever needed help to just ask her.
I wished I could have smiled at that moment, but I could only imagine my staring eyes made her uncomfortable. She smiled brightly, though, and I couldn’t tell she had noticed anything.
‘You are like my sister,’ she smiled kindly, ‘so please let me help you.’
My biological sisters were far away, one busy with work, the other dealing with her own problems. Yet here was another kind of family offering to help. I was part of her Papuan network now. I was her sister.
‘Would you mind washing my doona cover for me?’ I enquired. ‘I can bring it to your laundry tomorrow.’
‘Okay Linda,’ she said. ‘I am happy you asked me.’
‘And there is something else.’
‘Yes, my sister.’
‘Would you like to go for a walk with me sometime?’
I used to be a regular walker. Now I felt self-conscious walking outside, embarrassed to be seen hobbling alone to the end of the street and back.
‘I would love that,’ Constance told me.
The next day, as promised, Constance washed my doona cover and hung it out to dry. She also put it back on my doona, which she then folded and placed outside my door. Then she washed and dried my sheets for me. This wasn’t a one-off kindness. She would do this for me regularly until she went home just before Christmas. So for the rest of the year I had a clean doona and crisp laundered sheets to sleep on.
We also began to take walks together.
We didn’t have the language for deep conversations, but on these walks I learnt a little about village life back in Papua New Guinea, how yams were a staple food and how vegetables tasted different in Australia to those grown in the villages back home, how women sold handwoven textiles on the streets, how she swept her floors with a broom made out of grass.
‘I’ll take you back to New Guinea,’ she said one day, ‘so you will know what a tomato really tastes like.’
‘I can’t wait,’ I laughed, still not daring to dream of actual travel, but happy to have awareness of another part of the world brought to my doorstep.
I STARTED TO rely on Centacare workers for their company as well as for their help around the house. Despite the fact that I still hadn’t been assigned a regular support worker, and therefore could never predict who would turn up at my door, I had begun to feel that whoever did come formed part of a valuable network of care that was helping me transform my life. This happened very slowly. For many weeks I hardly noticed that things were changing. But the sense of desperation that had plagued me regularly since my diagnosis gradually lessened, and in its place I felt the stirrings of a renewed confidence in the ways that life could flow. On the days I couldn’t go out, the support workers came to me. When I needed to talk, they listened, and when I needed to listen, they talked. Because they were used to interacting with people when they were at their most vulnerable, I felt no pressure to be anything other than what I was. Speaking out about what I needed to the support workers who came to help me also restored a sense of agency that had been lost in my life.
One of Centacare’s services was called ‘social support’. Social support covered a number of activities, including taking clients shopping or out for coffee or a walk. It might also entail simple exchanges such as sharing a drink with clients in their home. Illness can be isolating in its silencing of voice. Speaking out about one’s life, no matter how precarious that life seems, becomes essential for feeling part of things. After many years travelling with a microphone or recording device, I also missed hearing people’s stories and the communion engendered by listening. It had always made me feel part of a world bigger than the parameters defined by my problems. Sometimes before the workers came, I would clean up so that when they arrived they would have time to sit and chat, and for me to ask questions, to understand why their lives had brought them to Australia and, at that particular moment, to my home.
SONNY CAME TO visit me one rainy Friday. He was shy at first, but after settling into a chair opposite me he seemed to relax. Sonny had come to tell me his story and the tale he shared with me that rainy day seemed at times too incredible to be true. As Sonny himself said: ‘I could never have dreamed up the life I have lived. But it’s turned out better than any dream I could have conjured up.’
Sonny was a twelve-year-old boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo when civil war broke out. He was one of nine children, and living at the time with his aunt and her four children. When their circumstances became dangerous they decided to flee without telling his parents, who lived in another part of the country. Sonny and his aunt and her family were part of a large exodus of Congolese who walked from the Democratic Republic of Congo south through Zambia into Malawi, where the United Nations had established a camp for refugees fleeing many dangerous parts of Africa, including Rwanda, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia.
It took them five weeks of walking by foot to arrive in the Malawi refugee camp run by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). Life in the camp, where he would live for six years, was, Sonny told me, more horrible than he could describe. He and his aunt and cousins and thousands of others lived in makeshift tents, subsisting on one meal a day, which they usually ate in the evening. Sonny told me he was always hungry: from the moment he woke up in the morning all he could think about was food.
RENEE, A MAORI woman from New Zealand, knocked on my door at the beginning of winter, when my scalp had started to flake and I was battling a long, wearisome bout of insomnia. I’d been crying that morning, frustrated by my physical limitations and feeling isolated by my inability, at that time, to drive my car. I didn’t really feel like having someone in the flat with me when I felt so bad, but it was too late to cancel.
When I first opened the door to Renee, she looked as tired as I felt. She looked at me carefully as she passed me in the hallway.
‘How are you feeling today, love?’ she asked me.
Something in her voice made me want to burst into tears. The flaky scalp was one of the disease’s side effects and I was embarrassed that I didn’t yet know how to deal with it. I had tried anti-dandruff shampoo, coconut oil, lavender oil, to no avail. I usually hid my scalp under caps, as I did that day. But little flakes had escaped the cap and landed on my shoulders, making my discomfort clearly visible for others to see.
I didn’t say a word about my scalp to Renee, but her sensitivity to my plight was visceral. I felt it envelop me as she leaned in and spoke.
‘Do you have a hair brush love?’ she asked. ‘Maybe what you need is someone to just brush your hair. What do you think?’
I felt too embarrassed to take my cap off. Instead, I burst into tears and cried softly while she sat beside me and held my hand.
‘It’s okay, dear. Really,’ she said gently.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled helplessly.
‘What have you got to be sorry for?’
‘My feet are sore,’ I replied illogically.
‘That’s okay,’ Renee laughed. ‘Mine are too. Everyone’s feet get a bit sore and stiff in winter. How about I put some hot water in a bucket and we soak them?’
It sounded like heaven. I nodded.
Renee sat beside me while my feet were immersed in warm water, but the real healing came by way of her compassion and the gentle way she spoke to me.
There was no cleaning done in my flat that day. Instead, we talked and cried together and for once I didn’t try to cope and look on the bright side. I let myself feel the grief and loss I had not named even to myself. While I spoke, Renee lifted my feet out of the water and dried them off with a towel, then she gently massaged them until my body relaxed and let go of many of the things I had kept unspoken for so many months.
Crying with a stranger was not on my to-do list that year, but Renee made me feel it was okay. I told her how much confidence I had lost since my diagnosis, how I had blamed myself for becoming ill, how lost I sometimes felt. In exchange, she shared with me her story about growing up in New Zealand, how proud she was of her culture, how damaged so many Maori were, how they often felt like refugees in their own country. She also told me about how her mother would brush her hair when she was sad, how the gentle massage of the brush on her scalp comforted her when she felt insecure, and how important it was to learn to comfort ourselves, because how could we comfort others if we could not comfort ourselves?
Renee became my regular support worker all throughout the winter of 2016. She would often massage my feet when they were sore or cold, or brush my hair when my scalp was flaky. There was little I could give in return except my time. Sometimes if she seemed especially tired, instead of cleaning I’d invite her to eat her lunch with me, so she could rest and relax for a while. Our conversations were like gifts, as was her belief in my ability to craft a life for myself even with my difficulties.
She had worked in disability care for many years and told me stories of some of her clients who had survived terrible impairment with grace and good humour.
‘Everybody’s got something they have to deal with,’ she said one day. ‘Illness, loss, losing your home, losing your country, injustice. Not one of us escapes. It’s how we deal with our challenges that makes us who we are.’
I called her my Maori mum, and with her help I began to do more things for myself. I started driving again, shopping for myself and going for regular walks on my own. I looked forward every week to Renee’s visits and the improvements that ensued from them. On a medical level, it made no sense that I began to improve and become more functional, as Parkinson’s is considered a progressive disease with no cure. But day by day, my life and my symptoms seemed to be getting better.
DURING 2016, I was also preparing my second book, a travel memoir called All is Given: A Memoir in Songs, for publication by the University of Queensland Press. My French friend, Estelle, who was living in the US with her Australian husband and new baby, helped me throughout the year with my rewrites and edits. When the completed draft was ready for proofreading, my publishers sent me the pages to read through. I found handling the pages difficult, and they were strewn across my table and the floor the day Ruby first came to work for me. As she re-ordered my pages into neat piles, she told me her story.
Ruby was from Kenya and had worked in community care for many years. She had originally come to Australia to undertake a PhD in agricultural training at the University of Queensland. She had been a ‘career woman’ back in Africa and was already a widow when she came to Brisbane with three children in the early 1990s. Two of these children were hers, and one was the daughter of her oldest sister who had died of malaria some years before. Ruby had adopted all four of her sister’s children and owned the house in Kenya where they lived with her mother, to whom Ruby sent back regular payments for their welfare. Ruby had always intended to return to Kenya after completing her PhD, but, as she put it, love changed her plans when she met and fell in love with the Australian man who would become her second husband. By this time, another of her sisters had died of HIV and so she took on the care and support of three more children, continuing to pay for the education of seven nieces and nephews back in Kenya, as well as the three children she mothered here.
After completing her PhD, Ruby had worked in university management positions for a number of years until her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
‘I stopped working then,’ she confided in me. ‘All I wanted to do was nurse him and make the end of his life as comfortable as possible.’
After the death of her second husband, Ruby found herself marginalised from the employment loop she had relied on before his illness.
‘I never took welfare,’ she said. ‘I just did everything I could to make money to keep supporting all the children I was responsible for. I ran a café, opened a hair salon, worked as a courier driver. And finally I started this work. I guess cleaning isn’t what I thought I’d end up doing. I always considered myself a career woman.’
I asked her if she would ever like to go back to management positions.
‘I’ve tried,’ she answered. ‘But I guess people in management positions now don’t look like me or talk like me. But I don’t regret my work. I try not to dwell on the past. We always have to keep moving forward, no matter what. That’s what I believe.’
LEARNING TO LIVE with an illness is a time-consuming process. Your body goes through various stages of grief and outrage and you need an array of professional help to navigate the new landscapes that you must explore. Among the many therapists I consulted was a counsellor who suggested I start each day with a mantra of gratitude for the life I was still able to live. As Parkinson’s disease is characterised by a loss of dopamine in the brain, and despite mainstream medicine’s view that the disease is incurable, any activity that increases the mind’s capacity to focus on positive things seemed to improve physical movement.
The Centacare workers who eventually came to help me twice a week became the focus of this gratitude. I felt their help and kindness as tangible things, as effective as medication in lifting my mood. The fellowship I felt for them, and which they felt for me, was visceral and comforting. It created security and hope. We all knew what it was like to start over, in some cases with nothing. And out of that awareness of how tenuous life could be, we recognised each other, not as strangers but as part of a global network of travellers.
BY THE END of winter I had rediscovered some of the confidence I had lost. One of the things I now felt able to do was to take in Mi’s bin.
She wrote me an email with the subject heading: Kindness.
Did you bring in my bin? she wrote.
Am glad to return the favour, I replied, after you brought in mine all winter.
The next day I found outside my door a packet containing a dozen eggs, hard-boiled Korean style.
Thank you neighbour, she wrote with a smiley face on the lid.
You’re welcome, I texted her back.
A COUPLE OF weeks after Ruby’s visit, I received an email from her with some stories she had been writing.
As you are a writer, she wrote, perhaps you might tell me your opinion.
Of course, Doctor Ruby, I emailed back. Please send them.
The stories she sent were based on old Kenyan folk tales that, like fables, contained parables and life lessons set in the villages and plains of Kenya.
She wrote in the preface: ‘I write these for my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren, so that these stories are not lost in the passage of time. So that they know that our stories are part of the whole world’s story and can travel through life along with us wherever we go.’
THE DAY AFTER Donald Trump won the US election on 9 November 2016, I heard from many friends around Australia and the world who were in deep shock. In the afternoon, Constance rang up and invited me for a walk. My feet hurt that day and I found walking difficult. Constance noticed and, without a word, linked her arm through mine and pulled me close to her body so I could lean in on her and stand straighter. She supported my body like that all the way around the block. I didn’t talk about Trump; I don’t think she’d ever heard of him. She didn’t watch TV and had no access to the internet. But that day as we walked, side by side with her hand guiding me, I felt enormous gratitude that she had travelled from her country to mine, so that I might take a walk around the streets of my home town and breathe in some fresh air on a day when much of the world felt the breath had been sucked right out of them.
FOR THE SIX years he spent in the refugee camp in Malawi, Sonny had no way of contacting his family – so for all he knew, they were dead. And if they had survived, he could only assume that, far away in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they also might believe that he was dead.
The normal rites of passage were absent during his years of internment, so he appreciated the processes of schooling available to him in the camp. Back in the Congo, where he was educated in the French school system, he had always been a good student. In the Malawi camp, he was able to continue his schooling; however, as Malawi was an English-speaking country, he necessarily had to adapt to the English education system, learning the language from what he described as heavily accented Africans. But he kept studying and learning, not with any particular end in mind. There would be no graduation ceremonies at the camp, no transition from primary school to secondary to tertiary. When you live day by day, you keep learning for learning’s sake, not to prepare for future opportunities that truly might never come.
EACH TIME CONSTANCE and I walked together I would try to teach her a few more aspects of English. I don’t know if I was a very good teacher. Constance requested that we concentrate on tenses, which she had always found hard to comprehend.
I asked her what verbs she would like to conjugate. She chose the verbs ‘walk’ and ‘love’. One day as we walked together around the block I made up a little ditty for her to learn and practice.
We recited the words together as we walked side by side, all the way home.
AFTER SIX YEARS in the camp, Sonny and his aunt and cousins were interviewed by the UNHCR, which was screening refugees for countries such as the US, Canada and Australia. He had never heard of Australia, Sonny admitted, so was apprehensive when after another long year’s wait his aunt was informed that she, Sonny and his four cousins had been accepted as refugees to Australia. There was no access to technology at the camp, so all he knew about his prospective new home was what he read in books available at the camp school. He knew there were beaches and kangaroos and imagined it to be an island paradise, with palm trees and so much abundance that food would literally fall from the skies. It was a dream for Sonny and his family to know their time in the camp was finally coming to an end and that a new life awaited them across the oceans. After many more months of medical tests and vaccinations he took his first plane ride from Malawi to Johannesburg, where he and his family caught a flight first to Sydney and then to Brisbane, from where they finally headed north to their new home in Townsville.
Sonny remembered the excitement as well as the fear, meeting the community refugee-support officer who welcomed them at Townsville airport and drove them to the first hotel in which any of them had ever stayed. He remembered how scared he was when he went into the ocean for the first time, because he had been landlocked his entire life and never been to the sea. He recalled the kindness of his new neighbours in the street when his family moved into their new home, how they came with food and household goods and clothing. He remembered the people from the refugee-support group, who guided them through their first months in Australia, and all the support teachers at the Townsville high school where he had to reconfigure his education yet again and adapt to the Australian system. The teachers spoke English so fast it felt as if he had to learn a new language all over again.
He remembered his joy at being able to track down his parents in the Congo and the emotion of their first phone call – the excitement he felt when he was finally able to Skype them a few years later.
‘When my mother saw me for the first time in over ten years she cried and cried,’ he told me. ‘She never gave up hope that I was alive. Never gave up hope.’
A WEEK BEFORE Christmas, the day before Constance was due to leave for New Guinea, I took a bag of presents for her family back home up to her flat. We hugged and thanked each other for the friendship we had shared throughout 2016. She said she would be back in the new year.
‘I’ll be waiting for you,’ I told her.
‘I’ll be waiting too,’ she replied.
SONNY COULD REMEMBER funny things, too, from his first few months in Australia: like the first time he was asked to join a football team in North Queensland, how excited he was to be able to play soccer again, and how puzzled he was when he turned up to play and saw an oval-shaped ball being kicked around the field as part of a football game he did not recognise – a game that, however, he attempted to learn so he could be part of his new community.
What stayed with him the most, though, was the help he received everywhere he went; how he would never have survived without this help and the kindness of so many strangers whose paths he crossed from the time he fled the Congo to the UNHCR camp, during the years he spent in Townsville finishing high school before moving down to Brisbane to undertake a diploma of community work at South Bank TAFE.
‘I wanted to help vulnerable people.’
Sonny told me that above everything he believed in kindness. ‘I know it exists because if it didn’t, neither would I.’
CONSTANCE DID NOT return to Brisbane in 2017 as she had promised. She was unable to obtain another visitor’s visa, despite several attempts. Iris told me that she was now considered an ‘at-risk visitor’. I felt frustrated that Constance was being labelled in such terms, disappointed that Emma no longer had someone to look after her when Iris was at university, and sad, too, that I had not had the chance to say a proper goodbye to my friend.
Iris told me that it was getting harder for Papuans to obtain visitors’ visas. ‘Immigration is worried that once Papuans arrive they won’t ever want to go home. They’re afraid we might overrun the country,’ she laughed.
WHEN I MET him, Sonny was in his first year studying for a degree in international relations at the University of Queensland. He hoped to eventually work for the UNHCR, the organisation that saved him and his family when he was a boy.
‘The way I look at it now,’ he said, ‘is that I have had a unique experience. Most of the students studying international relations would have no first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a refugee. They might have a lot of compassion, but I’ve lived it. And if there is a plan for all of us on this earth, then maybe my experience in Africa was part of that plan, so I would know what people are going through. And I want to give back, to repay kindness with kindness. That’s why I work so hard, because I have been given this great opportunity and I need to work hard to feel worthy of it, to feel I have earned it.’
ILLNESS CHANGES YOUR geography in many different ways. In some aspects, you are cast out of your old life, away from all the things you had taken for granted, and forced to seek asylum elsewhere. The maps I used to follow to navigate my life had to be torn up, and for a long time I felt in stasis. Then, by early 2017, without any conscious manifestation, I realised that out of the desolation of my past and the illness that had made me reborn into the world, a support network into which I might settle and grow had formed itself around me. This new continent, and the population it supported, developed slowly, not by tectonic shifts and spectacular explosions but incrementally, nurtured by daily acts of kindness I received from people, many of whom were from other places and ways of life. Observing and acknowledging this kindness, as if it was a living, breathing thing, became a kind of discipline through which I might learn to see not what had been lost but what had been gained by my change of circumstances. The new map I began to draw out of this nothingness I called the country of kindness, and its population was drawn from diverse origins and from many walks of life.
One night I was doodling on my sketchpad – as I often did to express, in simple graphic ways, the predicament I found myself in – and began to map out this network of kindness. I drew a red heart – that was me – in the centre of the page, and from its circumference I then marked out in gold pen the trails of kindness that stretched out and beyond the immediate vicinity of my home.
The threads of gold go first to my immediate neighbours: to Mi next door and then to Constance, Iris and Emma upstairs. They then wind along the top floor to the unit where Bob, an Englishman who puts out and brings in our recycle bins every fortnight, lives. They then curl outside to the street that leads to the café next door to the RSPCA op shop on Sherwood Road, where Tom and Ben, the Korean proprietors, make my tea lattes just the way I like them. From Sherwood Road the golden thread then winds its way up Oxley Road, to Corinda Library, where the friendly staff often arranges extra time for me on the computers, before weaving their way next door to the op shop, where the girl who wears hijabs as she volunteers behind the counter smiles whenever I browse through the racks of vintage clothes. Further up Oxley Road, after a right turn into Station Road, my Burmese GP runs a bulk-billing practice. Down the road, the girl who sells me craft materials in the $2 shop near Oxley station is a Gujarati Indian. Next door is a vegetarian café run by Sikhs from India’s Punjab. The young woman who occasionally gives me an extra sushi roll for free at the sushi shop is South Korean. The nail salon where I go to have my toenails cut, since I can no longer manage to cut them myself, is staffed by Vietnamese women; the man who runs the laptop repair shop and who once gave me a virus software upgrade for free is from Iran. Back down Station Road, round the roundabout, lives my friend, Wendy, who grew up in the suburb next to where I was born and raised, and who first connected me to Centacare. Further west in Inala, Tommy Lau, a doctor from Taiwan, provides affordable acupuncture for the community.
The network takes on perspectives and shapes I have not expected. The patterns of intertwining lines became more textured and beautiful the longer I look at them. And from places further away, in cities across Australia where old friends keep me in their thoughts, to New Zealand, Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fiji, France, New Guinea, China, the US, Japan, Korea and Samoa, I begin to trace in gold the journeys so many of my friends, old and new, have made, from the streets that criss-cross my home town, across skies and oceans, in planes and boats, to arrive here in Brisbane to work, to contribute and to reactivate hope in my life and the life of my city.
Some names and personal details have been changed to protect identities. For more information on Centacare, visit centacarebrisbane.net.au.