A child sits next to her grandfather as the sun sets on another warm summer’s day. They sit on the faux wicker outdoor setting, their view of the world framed by the colourbond fencing that defines their piece of backyard Australia.
Beads of water form on their drinks, sitting atop a frosted glass table that had seen its fair share of barbeques, birthdays and games of backyard cricket. When Nanna was alive, she would keep score as the kids, now adults with their own children, would play a do or die test match between Australia and the world. Hit the fence on the full and you score six runs, go over and you’re out, hit the tree and it’s four runs, one bounce/one hand catches were allowed and you could still hear the echoes of terror and laughter each time Kosi, the dog, would run off with the ball.
Gin and tonic was Nanna’s drink and her children were taught from an early age the perfect ratio of tonic and well, tonic.
A house that once seemed so crowded and full of the family life, now felt big and quiet. Grandad enjoyed these visits and especially enjoyed these moments when he got to see his own children grappling with the same questions and challenges that he and his wife had faced.
While it is true to say that time marches on, in reality, all he could see was time going around in one big circle. The faces are different, but the questions remain.
Today, the biggest questions on his mind where ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what can be done’?
Today, however, is not the normal weekend visit; she has been staying with grandad for a couple of days now, while her mum lies in a hospital bed healing broken bones and a broken heart from yet another ‘accident’ that everyone knew was not an accident. Grandad had tried to talk to his daughter about it in the past but there was very little he could say that would get her to see her marriage was not a safe place.
Of course, Mary never went into a relationship wanting to be abused, and while it is easy to blame or judge the victim, the reality for Mary was the abuse was something that started quite subtly. It was those sarcastic comments that, especially in Australia, can be passed off as friendly banter, but over time became delivered with more of a sting. It was giving Mary a weekly allowance but no access to the bank account, or asking her to account for her whereabouts at any given time.
These interactions never quite felt right for Mary but a long-held belief about the importance of ‘keeping family together’ and the implied guilt about her marriage failing if she left, provided a fertile breeding ground for the escalation that was to lead to a few days in a hotel, staffed by doctors, and the possible loss of vision in one eye.
Brad, her husband, was what you would call an ordinary bloke. He would not have been out of place taking wickets in one of those backyard test matches, yet was also just as comfortable taking emotional wickets against his wife.
Grandad had tried to console himself by saying Mary was one of the lucky ones; that she was still alive after all, but somehow just being alive seemed like a desperate grab and a very low bar for success.
He sat with his granddaughter, careful not to pry but giving her the space to talk about whatever was important to her. Like many men of his era, he wasn’t that comfortable talking about emotions, even though he felt everything just as acutely as the more emotionally eloquent and expressive women he knew.
He knew that even at the age of five, she knew what was going on. He knew that she had seen and heard things a child should not experience so young in life, if ever. What he didn’t know was what to do about it, what he didn’t know was how to drain the poison that had now seeped into her life story. While her smile was an ever-present beacon of light, he could also see some darker circles that were not there before and noted that she had started wearing pull-up pants to bed again.
They had spent their day at the park and playing some games. Now she was asleep, curled up in one of the extra-large outdoor lounge chairs. He saw her chest gently rise and fall, ‘Rest dear child,’ he thought.
His grief and anger fought for space in his body… they combined to form a level of despondence that he was unfamiliar with. As a retired builder, he was used to being able to solve things; he had loved nothing more than to see a problem and work his way through the various options until the solution became as identifiable as a kookaburra’s laughter.
But he never picked it with Brad. In fact, for the longest while, the two of them were best mates. Fishing, going to the footy…
They came from different eras but were of the same world — a world of men — yet what had that world created, what had that world allowed to fester and grow in homes across the country and across the globe.
That was the problem grandad was now trying to solve.
Surely it’s not random. Surely this abuse has to start somewhere. His boys never showed this roughness as children, but while they didn’t hit their partners, they certainly walked and talked a lot like Brad in many other ways.
Male dominated society… was the easy cause to find. Yet he hadn’t felt the call of the kookaburra yet, so this was not the answer. He had too many male friends suicide or die early from heart disease to feel that dominance had resulted in some net benefit that actually made a difference to anything other than the ego’s preponderance for and reluctance to relinquish power.
But maybe that is the point, maybe the whole idea of manhood is not working?
It seems that young men are killing, poisoning or dying in transport accidents at alarming rates and then as they get older, they die of heart attacks and strokes, quite literally dying of a broken heart. So, to become anti-men and to take the other side of the gender war didn’t seem like the answer either. For a war to end, both sides need to stop fighting.
‘Where does it start?’ he thought to himself. More importantly, ‘How does it end? Not just for Mary and Brad, but what does a world look like without abuse and how do we get there?’
‘What is the opposite of abuse?’ he asked.
He looked down at his grand child and the answer was obvious — LOVE.
For all the anger he felt towards Brad, all of the helplessness he felt in how to extract his daughter from this situation, all of the realities of time marching on and his body beginning to fail him, all of it disappeared when he looked at his granddaughter. Love, he thought. It was the bond that had held him and his wife together through thick and thin.
While part of him wanted to reminisce about his wife, there was something about the last few days that had stripped him of any veneer that life was okay and had him seeing things in a very different way.
Pain has a way of clearing the fog of long held beliefs. What seemed like a married life that was the perfect blend of support and good old Aussie grit, now felt more like the leather binds of a straight jacket that too many families wear.
The words, through thick and thin, reverberated in his mind. ‘Why was there the need for the ‘thick’?’ he thought. How can love have any expression that included any shade of ‘thick’. How can love be anything but love?
He knew that his wife drank too much, he had known it from before they had gotten married but it was there until the day she died. He knew there were times when he came home from work and the kids hadn’t been fed because he wife was ‘having a rest’. But he never really thought much of it and was unsure how to tackle it. His wife’s parents went through some horrible times during the war, and as a child she was an easy outlet for two people, who at best could be as described functional but in reality, were broken by life.
Past abuse all too often seems to be used as a justification for the abuse we perpetrate on our self, and others. Once again, he was taken aback by the myth of time marching on, as he faced the reality of the cycles that play out from generation to generation.
He remembered the fights he had with his wife about money, school or other things that now seemed petty and could have been resolved without the histrionics. His wife was a fighter, she continually fought her inner demons from childhood but once the breast cancer settled in, it became one battle too many.
He knew that he also wasn’t free of his own demons. He had an eye for detail and could be quick to point out what was wrong and what needed fixing. After all, fixing stuff is what he did. What he didn’t know was how often his wife would start drinking, not because of her childhood issues but because she was left home alone with the kids, yet again, while he was caught up being the breadwinner or was off with mates for a round of golf.
But you can’t re-write history, you can only learn from it. After all, wasn’t he simply following the rules and example of what he had grown up with? His marriage and life a carbon copy of what all of their friends lived, celebrated and venerated at weddings, anniversaries and even funerals. They each put their own filigree around the edges but the foundations and structures where the same.
In that moment and as he looked at this delicate being asleep next to him, something deep inside knew that for a good portion of his life there was very little love in his family. It felt hard to admit and he was fighting the urge to defend the loving moments they did share. While there were moments of tenderness beyond physical intimacy that he still missed to this day, there were also pockets of time that, on this day, felt like large pockets that were anything but the intimacy and connection he craved.
He shook his head at the level of pain that was triggered within him as he noted that this is not a future he wants for his grandchild, any child for that matter.
As a couple, they had made an amazing team and had put their kids through school, went on the odd overseas holiday and got to see a bit of the world in retirement before his wife passed. There was no doubting they had had a good life by any contemporary measure, but that was the problem, he thought. We are using the wrong measurement!
‘You can’t fix something without knowing what the problem is, and if you can’t measure it right, you’ve got buckleys,’ he thought.
Love… love is the opposite of abuse, but how do we measure it, how do we prevent ourselves falling for the false flags that get sold to us? How much love, real love, do we see in Australia?
The magnitude of the question made him so uncomfortable that he stood up and began pacing the veranda.
‘What chance did his daughter have?’ he asked himself.
How often did she really see love while she was growing up? It was a hard question to ask; everything about him wanted to point to the house, the holidays, the university education, all of those outward signs of a successful life. But today, he knew there was something deeper that was missing. The struggle to succeed, to ‘get through life’ often dominated their focus.
He didn’t feel any guilt about that fact, it was what it was, but as he looked at it, he knew it as fact for the first time in more than 65 years. While there is great pride in a successful life, this deeper quality of tenderness, connection and intimacy were often the price of success.
He paced the veranda, as if measuring up a room, falling into a familiar method of mapping out the problem…
Going back to his working life, most of his clients wanted a bigger home, but at some point, he would have the conversation with them about the need to find balance between what would be good to have versus what was needed to support the family. Needs and wants were different, he would always tell clients. Different again was designing a home that supported (loved) its inhabitants. He found it hard when people were trying to build a picture of their ideal home, yet never really thought about how they were going to live in that home.
‘We have substituted outward success for love,’ he thought.
Society likes the distraction offered by the game of success and excuse a lot of abuse because of it. If you’ve had a stressful day at work, it is okay to get angry, to get drunk, to watch TV till midnight, to eat food that tastes amazing but makes you feel sluggish and less present the next day. If you are a celebrity or some sports star, it’s okay to be belligerent or abusive, we will still pay you more than a teacher to keep us entertained.
All gets forgiven in the game of success. Win or lose, the main point is that you’re in the game, ‘having a crack’ and distracted from what is really going on.
The opposite of abuse is love, not outward success but society wants success more than it wants love. No one wants to talk about why we crave alcohol and we vigorously defend our right to drink; no one wants to talk about why we allow workplaces where abuse and workload pressures crush people; we want to complain about how tabloid the media has become but are happy to buy the newspapers, click the links that pay for journalists to dramatize stories; and we will stick our fingers in our ears to anyone that suggests that the global epidemic of obesity is caused by us abusing our own body with food choices.
If the opposite of abuse is love, the very foundations of what we call success would need to change. Success would not be financial, or a functional marriage, success would not be status or even failure. Success through love would be a deep settlement in the body. It would be a more harmonious way of living with others, if not adoring others and our self to the bone, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual preference.
We have abuse in the world because it serves us all in some way. Thinking that abuse starts with domestic violence is like thinking the battle for gender equality ended when we got a female prime minster or that marriage equality means an end to homophobia.
The opposite of abuse is love, so what is the standard of love that we set for ourselves and, by default, model for future generations? Are we simply walking around the same block time and again or are we carving a new path?
There is no amount of legislation that will change the behaviours of something that we crave, especially if we are not willing to admit just how much we crave it and thus allow it in our lives.
He stopped his pacing and looked across to his sleeping granddaughter. The gentle rhythm of her breath somehow acted as a metronome for his own pondering.
If the opposite of abuse is love, then anything that is not adoring of our self must be abuse by default. ‘Too much’ he thought, ‘Too big…The world is not ready for that level of honesty.’
But that’s the point, it is the standard that we set for ourselves that defines the standards of society, not the other way around. If we drive at 5 km over the speed limit at 65kph, the next person scoots by at 70, and then the next one at 75. Domestic violence may not be going on in our home, but there must be forms of abuse we allow that make that behaviour seem somehow within reach. Maybe our laconic sarcasm, our ‘sportsman’ like roasting, are the 65kph speed that makes more extreme forms of abuse seem like they are just keeping up with traffic.
The sound of his granddaughter stretching and yawning brought him back.
Their eyes met, and in that meeting, he knew what love was. Love was simple, it was grand and it was available to anyone. He felt a pang of regret at not bringing focus to this with his own children, not just for his daughter’s sake, but for his own. His heart ached like never before. He sat back down next to his awakening angel.
For the past hour, while grandad solved the problems of the world, his granddaughter’s world was one of dreams and regeneration. In the safety of this house, and with her grandfather by her side, her body was processing the tension she had been living at home. She woke, stretched, waved and held out her arms, wanting to be held by someone who, in that moment, didn’t want her to win the game of life, but only wanted her to know that she is loved.
A body that has lived love, will never accept abuse.