One of my earliest memories (and one verified by mother and various relatives) is of me standing on a table surrounded by smiling people as I sang the old country song ‘I Want a Pardon for Daddy’. The faces are beaming, encouraging. The faces are black. My next memory is being trapped inside an iron lung that segues into a leafy garden and a little boy called Brian. Both of us are victims of polio. Neither of us can walk. We call each other Mummy and Daddy. We have created our own little world. We swim each day in a hydrotherapy pool filled with soothing emollients for the benefit of another little girl who has been burnt from head to toe. The little girl is allowed into our domain during those sessions. We are three little children who have no idea there are others in the world that are strong and able, with smooth skin undamaged by savage flames and limbs that obey the commands of their brains. We are spoilt and cosseted by the nurses, the orderlies, and the cook, Linda. The rehab hospital is our castle and we the rulers and already acquiring the mind skills we will need if we are to survive all that life has in store for the different, the damaged. We pay no heed to how others see us. All that matters is how we see us.
I see no other black faces over the 3 years I am in the rehab hospital. Everyone around me is white. There are no mirrors. I am reflected solely in the faces of those around me. I never take the time to observe the colour of my skin. It is of no consequence in my world. I am for all intents and purposes the same colour as everyone else around me.
I sleep very little. My overactive imagination turns the shadows into monsters and the breathing of the children around me in the ward seems loud and threatening. I always end up whimpering and am soon gathered into the arms of a nurse who dries my tears and carries me to the nurses’ stations. I am fed buttered arrowroot biscuits and cold milk and entertain them with childish stories and remembered songs. I feel loved and safe.
After countless hours of physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and sheer bullying, Brian and I gradually learn to walk and are fitted with our callipers together. Little do we realise that this will mean that we will soon be separated, never to see each other again.
The day my life changed is deeply ingrained in my memory. I was up early as usual, breakfast, and then bath. But there was something different today. There seemed to be tears in the eyes of the nurses as they collected me for my bath. Today I was dressed in special new clothes. A little fawn coloured pinafore, pretty little blue jumper, new socks, my callipers polished, a ribbon for my hair. I was excited at the new clothes but also suspicious. Why the new clothes? Why the tears? Why was Linda the cook fussing over me at this hour? I usually didn’t see her until later in the day. She grabbed me and held me as tight as she could. Her tears wet my face. I began to become alarmed. The head sister then told me that I was to meet my mummy and daddy today. Mummy & Daddy? What did they mean by that? Brian and I were Mummy and Daddy and I told them so in no uncertain terms. But they insisted that I was to meet my real mummy and daddy and they were taking me on a long journey. I was going home, they said.
‘But I’m already home,’ I said.
‘This is a hospital. You came here when you got sick. Your mummy and daddy are taking you back to your real home, the home you came from before you got sick,’ she said.
Eventually, confused and scared, I was taken into a room where there stood two people who seemed to be from another planet. They were introduced to me as my mummy and my daddy. I remember recoiling in horror as they handed me to the strange dark lady.
‘This is your real mummy,’ the nurse said in her most soothing voice. But I would have none of it.
I screamed, ‘She’s not my mummy! He’s not my daddy! They’re black!’
I remember tears streaming down their faces. How they must have hurt. I know now that it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t visit me. They were two people with no money, living in a society where if you were Aboriginal, you had to have permits to work and to travel. There was no independence for Aboriginal people back then. You had to have permission from the powers to be to do anything at all really. The circumstances back then meant there were no gentle introductions, no orientation days. There was no time for us to get to know each other. I was thrust into the arms of strangers with no warning and they in turn had no idea what to do with this screaming child who looked at them as though they were monsters. I was allowed to say goodbye to Brian who wept and screamed as much as I did when they finally managed to prise us apart. I still to this day think about Brian, Linda the Cook, and the little girl with the badly burnt body and wonder what became of them.
The strange couple carried me, still screaming, into a bustling, noisy, crowded Central Railway Station, desperately trying to ignore the suspicious stares of the strangers around them. All their soothing and stroking was to no avail. I continued to weep as we boarded the train. Eventually, with a shudder, it pulled out. We were passing through suburbs of poky backyards with thin, waving children and grey washing flapping on clotheslines that stood like drab sentinels in the yards that backed onto the train tracks in a late 1950’s Sydney.
Then we were in the countryside and my childish interest was piqued. Cows, sheep and horses grazed in green paddocks. I had only seen them in books before. I stopped crying long enough to ask if they were real. The two strange people grasped the chance to connect with me at last. Each animal was pointed out, given names. I calmed down and started to relax into the warmth of the dark-skinned lady who, now that I was not struggling and screaming, seemed so soft. Her eyes were big and brown and filled with tears. She stroked my hair and whispered, ‘we’re going home now baby girl’.
‘Back to the ward?’ I asked.
‘No baby girl, home to your real home. You have a baby brother and sister. They’re called Buddy and Lulla. You have a grandma and grandpa and cousins. There are horses and dogs. You’ll see. We’ll take good care of you.’
The journey seemed to take forever but the kind gentle lady held me. I became sleepy and nestled my head into her breast. Her blouse was damp from our intermingled tears. I finally slept.
The next morning the train pulled up at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. There were a few ramshackle houses and what seemed to be vast expanses of red dirt. There were no trees, just scrub. I remember Connie Francis singing ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, blaring out from the stationmaster’s radio. We walked away from the station and into an eerie silence. I began to think that these people really were aliens. They had taken me to some far-off planet and I whimpered in fear. Dad could see my distress and took me from Mum’s arms and hoisted me onto his shoulders. We continued across the red earth with its strange little trees. An emu darted past us and lying in the shade of the saltbush was a goanna. It was so hot and we seemed to walk for miles. Then all of a sudden, the sound of laughter and children’s voices seemed to float across on the wind. I could hear someone playing a guitar and singing ‘Mona Lisa’ as we walked into a clearing where stood huts made from scrap, tents and a caravan. Dogs and kids were running about, and all of those children and the adults were the same colour as the people who had brought me here: and, I soon realised, the same colour as me.
These people soon surrounded me. An old man with silver hair, a dark face and twinkling blue eyes took me from Mother’s arms and held me tight as he whispered, ‘My little Topsy is home at last’.
I was passed to Grandmother Edie, then uncles, aunts, cousins and finally introduced to little people who were my brother Buddy and sister Lulla.
My new home was a far cry from the huge, sterile, quiet hospital I was used to. A new caravan had been bought especially for my homecoming, and Dad had built me my own little toilet that he’d painted blue and pasted pink cabbage roses he’d cut from a magazine on the side. Somewhere between the hospital and my new home, something had shifted in my mind. I lapped up the love that was showered on me and soon forgot about the hospital. I came to love my family and later we moved to a bigger town with a river and paved streets. Dad bought a block of land and worked for the Department of Main Roads. I settled into my new life, but little did I realise that this was not the end of my treatment. This was not the end of tumult and upheaval. In a way it had only just begun.
For the next ten years, twice a year I was taken kicking and screaming from my mother’s arms for the seventeen-hour train journey to Sydney to a place called the Far West Children’s Home, for further treatment. The Far West Home in those days was a cold and forbidding place. The playground was all green concrete with high fences. No trees, no flowers, no grass, just a solitary hurdy gurdy. What was particularly sad was that it was directly across the road from Manly Beach. You could smell the sea, the fairy floss, the toffee apples. You could watch the people laughing and having fun on their big day out. We soon learnt that if you pressed your nose against the wire people would sometimes take pity and slip bags of lollies to you. It wasn’t all dreadful. There were outings and visiting stars of the day to break up the monotony, but mostly we were all subjected to the same dreary routine every day. I think that’s why I have such a hatred of routine and why I’ve never really fitted into a conventional workforce with all its rules and its nine to five mentality. It was so different from home, with all the chaos of a big family. At home there was noise, animals, a river, grass, trees and when it rained the unbelievably beautiful smell of water on dry earth. At home I was black and went barefoot except for school and outings. At the Far West I was unsure of just what colour I was and I wore those blasted callipers from six in the morning until seven at night.
My family still didn’t have the money to come and see me, and in a way I was grateful for that, because while I was there, I was able to adjust to my life as it was without the distraction and upheaval seeing them would have brought. I developed a rich and wonderful gift. I learnt how to block out pain with my mind and to adjust to my new circumstances. I developed the ability to be in the moment: where I was, was where I was. I became a chameleon. I developed a deeply rich inner life. I learnt to treasure solitude because alone I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could be anywhere I wanted to be. My legs may have been encased in callipers but in my mind they were strong and muscular. On my feet I wore delicate, silken, butter soft slippers and danced like the ballerinas I had seen in films and on the stage. Or I was barefoot and ran like the wind across vast expanses of beach and desert. I wasn’t tethered to the earth. Oh no! I flew like a bird and rode on magic carpets and looked with pity at the people below as they scurried across the earth, harried and worried and unable to see me smiling down on them. I leapt on strong stallions and rode bareback beside princes and warriors. I never saw myself as disabled. I was unaware of the pronounced limp. I was always so surprised when a child or a cruel adult pointed it out. I always looked around to see whom they were talking about. I may have been momentarily hurt, but never for long. There were too many adventures, romance and magic to conjure.
I remember lying on the ground cloud watching, seeing the vapour trails the jets left as they streaked across the deep blue sky. I would imagine the people in those planes, wonder at the places they’d been or where they were going. I wondered if I would ever be in one of those planes. I could not countenance a life where this was not possible. There were others who did not share my confidence. I remember my mother taking me to see the local doctor for my dreadful migraines. I was twelve. He said to my mother that they should start looking at getting me on a pension before I finished school. My mother said I went into a fury and shouted, ‘I don’t need a pension. I have a brain!’ She knew I would be all right from then on. Her and Dad did everything they could to see that I had the best possible education for they knew that would help me achieve any dreams I had. A scholarship to a prestigious girls’ school in Sydney gave me an entrée to a society with people who understood me. I made lifelong friends there and on leaving, found work easily.
It came as a wonderful surprise when I was a young adult that I too could have boyfriends and know the loving touch and embrace of men; that I could give and receive sexual pleasure. Men loved me, it didn’t seem to matter to them that I limped and they always seemed so surprised when I mentioned it and often looked puzzled at the very idea of me bringing it up. They saw the inner me. I lived a gloriously happy life for many years full of music, laughter, food and a myriad of friends, but a decision to go home to the country to live would change me. It was wonderful to be with my family and back in my country, where I met a man whom I thought was wonderful and got married. But I had married an allusion, for no sooner had the ring been slipped on my finger than he turned into a drunken, violent monster that stole my joy. I eventually gathered my resources and returned to Sydney but I was flat, emotionally denuded. People said I’d lost my glow. I kept up a front for a while, but the deep hurt and anger I felt about my dreadful marriage was suppressed as I dealt with Post-Polio Syndrome and the loss of mobility that finally put me in a wheelchair.
I stopped wearing lipstick and started going out in trackie daks and t-shirts. I gave up my beloved Chanel No 5, lost interest in flirting and couldn’t pick up on the signals from interested men anymore. Eventually I took to sleeping incredibly long hours and sometimes felt so weighed down by life that the simple act of rolling over in bed became such a chore, I would lay there with my ear hurting but lacking the will to simply turn onto my other side. My mind with its infinite capacity for imagination and pleasure was failing me and became clouded in a miasmic fog that I couldn’t imagine my way out of. For the first time I could remember, I was tethered to the earth and became merely physical. It was a scary place to be. I sought help but could not relate to white psychology. The drugs I was prescribed didn’t help and drinking only exacerbated the intensely blue feelings I had. I knew I had to find my way back. The alternative was too devastating to contemplate. I needed to look deep inside and reclaim the once wild and free mind with its infinite capacity to find joy. I needed my emotional flying carpet again. I needed my silken, butter soft dancing shoes. They were still there: I was sure of that. I just had to dig through the wreckage to find them.
I started by dredging up all the anger and hatred I felt towards my husband. Although they were dark and murderous and filled with rage, I actually revelled in these intense feelings because they made me feel alive again. I then started to let them go, one by one. Each day I became lighter as I discarded the emotional detritus. Those feelings turned to pity and soon he became a feather-light, desiccated husk that I simply sent away upon the lightest of breezes. He could no longer hurt me.
I also had to deal with my feelings about the loss of my mobility, and come to terms with using a wheelchair. I could no longer sustain a full-time job, with the constant toil. I had to find new ways of making a living and of living in general. I decided to become a writer and stated my intentions out loud to my friends. I would not be able to hide. I entered competitions, pitting myself against other would-be writers and to my utter amazement I started winning. I submitted articles to various newspapers and journals, and they published them. I wrote a book and it was published and this took me all over Australia. I have since written five children’s books as well as many articles and short stories. I speak at conferences, I give writing workshops, and I teach children. My life is organised to suit my needs now and not the needs of others. I have a five-second commute from bed to my desk. I can wear my nightie to work if I so choose and my natural nocturnal ways rule. My friends say I keep rockstar hours and know never to call before noon.
I have my magic carpet and dancing shoes back. I can go anywhere I want. I am no longer anchored to earth by the past. I have my lipstick, Chanel No 5 and pretty dresses back. I have my blokes back. I have my life back.
The journey back to myself was complete when I flew to Europe and visited all the places I’d dreamed of as a child. Flying home after a wild and wonderful trip, mid-morning and a mere hour away from Sydney, the plane tracked over my hometown. I looked out the window and smiled. I was finally in the plane leaving vapour trails in the sky. I was the one returning from faraway lands. As I looked down at the rapidly disappearing speck of my childhood home, I wondered if there was another little girl looking up and dreaming of one day travelling on a plane that briefly left their ethereal signatures in the sky. I hoped there was.
Gayle Kennedy is a member of the Wongaiibon clan of South West NSW. She was Indigenous Issues Editor/Writer for Streetwize Comics from 1995-1998. In 2005 her book of poetry Koori Girl Goes Shoppin was shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award. Gayle went on to win the award in 2006 with her book Me, Antman & Fleabag, which was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Deadly Award, and was also commended in the Kate Challis RAKA Award. Her children’s books for the Yarning Strong series were nominated for 2011 Deadly Award for Achievement in Literature. Gayle has presented at various writers festivals and NAIDOC events as well as speaking both nationally and internationally on her experience with polio and disability.