I sat down at the crowded table we’d booked a seat at and greet one of the very few people I liked in the whole crowd of god‐awful people in Rockhampton. “Hey Dana, how are you?”
Dana had huge brown eyes with eyelash extensions that she regularly batted for emphasis when making a point. Big hair, big laugh and a big personality. I loved being in her company as did many others and she was always surrounded by gossipy girlfriends – most of whom I purposefully kept my distance from. They exchanged cruel judgement on anyone who was an outsider to their cliquey little group and I was definitely an outsider.
“Great Kerry, just great! Here, have a glass of champagne” as she pulled a plastic cup out of her bag of goodies stashed beside her chair. As she poured she introduced me to several people seated around us. It was Melbourne Cup day at the local races and everyone was jostling for space. The aim was to claim a spot as close as possible to the bookies and the bar without trampling on someone else’s invisible stake and yet still be able to see the race track. Tim and I had met on Melbourne Cup day and tried to make a date of it every year. I was glad to be here. “Here, have a snack” she said, as she herded several cheese and cracker platters my way.
I sighed with satisfaction. No kids, out with my husband, in the company of a crowd in party mode – this was my favourite pastime and I didn’t get enough of it.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a woman making her way purposefully toward us, looking straight at me as she did so. I was startled to recognise Megan from Yeppoon. I hadn’t seen her in ten years and she hadn’t changed a scrap. Large brunette ringlets cascaded down to shoulders framing a pretty face with brown eyes, peaches and cream complexion and generous lips always hinting at a smile. Generously proportioned as ever, she swung her voluptuous self down into the seat beside me and plonked a handful of canned drinks at the table in front of her.
“Do you remember me?” she asked gaily.
“Of course!” I replied, relieved to have another outsider join me at the table. “How are you?”
“Great, just great!” she answered rather breathlessly. “Plenty of people here isn’t there!”
We both scanned the room and smiled at each other.
So began our exchange in catching up with what had happened in between our last party time together. For me, parting ways from the kids’ Dad and moving to Rockhampton. Meeting and marrying Tim. Leaving the family court and working at private practice for a while and completing my law degree before throwing that whole career away due to excruciating boredom. Studying to become a school teacher and struggling with the workload of applying what seemed to be a total mish‐mash of psychology that had absolutely no relevance in a classroom of teenagers. The purpose of it all seemed to embed academic speak more than anything else.
Megan gestured to a particularly good looking man at a nearby table who looked all of 25. “That’s my husband”. My eyebrows must’ve raised and she blushed. Yep, she explained, they’d met, couldn’t keep their hands off each other and that was that. They’d moved to Rockhampton about a year ago after she’d had their fifth child in eight years. My amazement increased. She must’ve been at least 38 perhaps just over 40 and she’d had a busy ten years!
There was a slight pause before she looked down to take a sip from a straw and then she asked quite earnestly “So how’s your eldest girl? She’s disabled, right?”
I sighed. I hated these questions. The pretence of interest, the forced attentiveness, the nodding of sympathy…..the whole charade annoyed me.
“She’s good. She’s coming on well” I replied before launching into her achievements – few that they were. There was no point telling the reality of frustrations. They never wanted to hear that without launching into deep and meaningful probing in finding how I was ‘really’ was because apparently I’m an object of pity. After this well‐rehearsed spiel I changed the subject. “What about your kids?”
As with all mums ‐ particularly of young kids, I got a blow by blow account of their looks, talents, favourite past‐times, where they went to school, how similar/dissimilar they were to their siblings, achievements, personality quirks, etc. I watched and listened to her in admiration. I had three kids and there were days I barely coped. Megan was obviously totally in her element and loved every moment of being a mum to such a chaotic brood.
We exchanged anecdotes about Dads and their sons, Dad’s and their daughters and comparisons of schools in between standing up and cheering at the half dozen horse races that galloped past the grandstand. As we were up the top level behind windows, we could see them almost from start to finish.
As the afternoon drew to a close we rose to find our respective husbands and say our goodbyes. The men swapped awkward small talk and I turned to say goodbye to Dana. I’d hardly spoken with my friend who’d invited me and I felt a little bit guilty. Dana as ever, was in the throes of dramatically recounting an episode of hilarity in her life and had a rapt audience in gales of laughter. I loved her attitude and wished I had her verve. I’d lost it somewhere between the maze of nappies and medical appointments of my life as a mother and moving to this hell hole Rockhampton.
Just as I was about to go, I noticed Megan looking contemplative. She was watching me with her head tilted to one side. As I drew up beside her to gather my things she suddenly asked “What’s it like…………to have to have a disabled child, I mean?”
I was startled. Lots of people used ‘it must be so hard’ or, ‘I don’t know how you do it’, or even the hollow ‘if you ever need help just let me know’, but very few people actually asked what it was like.
“Why?” I asked curiously.
She looked a little embarrassed before informing me a little hesitantly “My baby was born with Down’s Syndrome”.
I knew that hesitation. I lived and breathed it every day. She was waiting for the flinch – horror, incredulity and/or pity before watching it masked behind false empathy and/or bland nonchalance.
I looked at my shoes for a second. My mind whizzed through family divisiveness, rejection by many, endless rounds of doctor/specialist/therapist appointments, lack of sleep, long lists of medication, sorrow at what could never be, great joy at small steps of progress, siblings missing out on so much…………
I raised my eyes and looked straight at her. I could not bring myself to tell her my truth. She had to go through that journey of incremental heartbreak with a sense of hope, not doom. “Look” I said as I titled my head in what I hoped was an angle of maternal kinship, “there’s so much support out there, particularly when they are little. You’ll have heaps of programs for progress offered. It’s really busy but some of them do work. You’ll probably argue with lots of people who try to ram their expertise down your throat because they’ve studied it and think they now best, but you’ll work out what and who is best for him”.
I watched her concern and disquiet.
“How do your other kids cope?” she asked.
“Oh they’ll be fine, it won’t worry them at all because they’ll grow up with him. Tegan and Jake are very protective over Shianna and I’m sure your other kids will be too”. I turned to find Tim looking very bored and ready to move on. “Anyway, I have to go” I said withdrawing from our bubble of intensity, “I’ve got to pick up the kids from school”.
We promised to catch up.
It was everything I had in me to fight back tears as I descended the steps and walk in silence next to Tim. Tim of course, was totally oblivious to the emotional state I was in.
When we got home I grabbed a drink or ten, sat on the back steps and cried and cried and cried. I could not tell her. I could not bring myself to kill that kernel of hope. I absolutely could not transfer my despair to someone who was only one step on the rocky, uphill set of never ending stairs in parenting a severely disabled child.
I just couldn’t.