IT was a blind date that first time we met; a Saturday night dance at the Palais, arranged by my sister’s boyfriend for me to meet his accountancy teacher; friends then, brothers-in-law to be.
We danced the night awa – foxtrots, Pride of Erin, evening three-step, modern waltz and barn dance – all to the rhythm of saxophone, piano and drums.
On this warm, black, February night he kissed me goodnight on the front porch. In June we were engaged and the following January we married.
With only a couple of years experience as a dietitian and no educational qualifications, I was given a teaching position in the nutrition department at The Gordon (now a TAFE) where he taught accounting. I was not more than five years older than my students.
It was 1962. We had our own small home, honeymooners curled up watching black-and-white westerns on TV, preparing lectures and marking exam papers, cutting grass and cooking at the weekend, bottling apricots and apples from the trees in our big backyard, painting walls and laying new vinyl on our kitchen floor. Pregnant 18 months later, I resigned as was required of female teachers.
To my intense grief, that pregnancy lasted only 20 weeks. I was out of work not quite knowing the next step. We had planned a family and had bought a block of land to build our family home.
I only saw him cry once. He’d gone to the optician for an eye test, not seeing those columns of figures clearly, the blackboard a bit blurry, probably needing glasses. But the news was shocking. Retinal myopathy caused by diabetes. He was going blind. Nothing in life balanced. Impossible to reconcile.
For both of us, a future in teaching was problematic. Instead we bought a house used for public receptions, a beautiful old home built in 1894 by Charles Shannon, a wool pioneer in Geelong. In the mid-1950s it had been converted to cater for weddings, dinners and parties.
We began our new life there in late 1964. I managed the kitchen, he managed the business, together a team. Our honeymoon continued, albeit with late nights and 80-hour weeks. Sunday was our day of rest, thankfully years before Sunday shopping and Sunday weddings became the norm.
We extended the dining room and rebuilt the kitchen and at the same time grew our family. Our eldest son was born in 1966 and a baby girl two years later on the 4 July, a day of celebration in some parts of the world.
I left her in her high chair to blow out the candle on her first birthday cake with two grandmothers and her three-year-old brother. Her father was in hospital, his diabetes out of control. The doctor called me in.
“His kidneys are in as bad a state as his eyes. He will not live for more than a few years.” I returned home and we sang Happy Birthday.
In 1969, five years after taking over the business, we sold it. We retired to an old weatherboard beach-house on the riverfront at Barwon Heads – verandah, sleep-outs on the side, chip heater in the bathroom, open jars of marmalade and vegemite in the kitchen cupboard, tablecloths in a drawer. A renovator’s dream, perfect.
So much to learn.
Live-in tuition for a couple of weeks for my husband to learn to walk with a cane. Then side-to-side, side-to-side, side-to-side along the path to the Bluff with a grown-up little son as his guide.
The beach and riverside were ideal for playing and walking, a respite and thinking place.
Never a swearer, the nightmares showed when he began talking in his sleep “I’ll get through that bloody gate.” Learning braille on embossed cardboard cards: “I can run, I can jump.” Then our next little boy was born. Frail from the start, at nine months he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Learning to thump a tiny chest to free mucous from fragile, vulnerable lungs. Learning to read Dr Suess books on a green bookcase. Learning colours, “Look at all those pink cows”, (black Angus)!
Two grandmothers came to the rescue. ‘Old Nana’ lived with us, affected by a stroke suffered many years earlier. My mother helped out when father and littlest son had bouts in hospital, sometimes at the same time, sometimes separately; sometimes a desperately sick baby on the car seat beside me, sometimes an ambulance.
One night, during hospital visiting hours these words were spoken to our brother-in-law, the student and friend who had arranged for my husband to go on that blind date at the Palais over 10 years ago:
“Tomorrow I will be born again.”
Tomorrow he died.
It was Christmas Day.