Patricia Burge (1937-1992).
WORDS cannot really describe the shock and grief that made its way into our family when we knew that our dear mum, Pat, was going to die.
It was one of the very few times I have been moved to prayer, night seeping into our little home, mum noticeably absent in hospital, and my sister, still at school, waiting for my return. I put my arms around Jen, and prayed that we would be okay. I don’t have any firm religious beliefs, but that night, we needed to be heard by something.
Pat Burge was a nurse, an excellent old school carer who knew her stuff. Born at the tail end of the generation of Australian women who were encouraged into teaching, secretarial work, or nursing (and little else), Patricia Crawford (as she was born) did the unthinkable for a North Shore girl and got herself enrolled to train at Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital in Camperdown.
She described nursing school as the making of her, since it gave her female leadership in the form of matrons and older nurses who taught well and cared deeply for their profession. It transformed mum from a directionless girl into the practical, approachable woman that she was.
When she married, she thought it was high time. Most of her friends were already having kids, and she was pushing 30. Like most women of her era, she gave up work completely when she had children in quick succession.
‘The Dream’ of pastoralists to marry city girls and create dynasties to work the land was at its peak, and mum willingly bought into the myth, relocating to a farm outside Delungra in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, and making it into a family home after years of standing derelict.
But ‘The Dream’ lasted only five years, until the death of my younger brother Nicholas.
For the next six years, mum struggled to ‘get on with her life’. She gave birth to Jen, and watched her like a hawk until turning one meant the new baby was past the risk period for SIDS.
Approaching 40, she tried her hand at academia, beginning distance education in English literature. But when her first results didn’t match her promise, she gave up. Being part of the group who needed her, I was unaware of the pain that surfaced, the hopes that were dashed, and the disappointment she brought to those around her as a result of not living ‘The Dream’ to its fullest.
Nobody who hadn’t promised to stick by her ‘for better or for worse’ was affected, but when Pat Burge tested ‘The Dream’, it blew up in her face.
The moment she decided to leave Inverell was one of the turning points of mum’s short life. No longer was she towing the line for others. She became a self-actualised person, probably for the first time. She sat her kids down and asked us if we wanted to come. I said “yes” without hesitation. What we left that Spring of 1979 was an already broken home. Dad had left, and Inverell held nothing for mum anymore. ‘The Dream’ was over.
The night we drove away, mum turned the radio up in shock at the news that Lord Mountbatten had been killed by an IRA bomb. Mum was very ‘old school’ North Shore – the Royal Family meant something to her – and his death was like a watershed. She entered a time when there were no more heroes, only herself.
For the next 13 years she created a world for her children. She surrounded herself with great friends. She returned to nursing, and achieved in that field in ways that she never envisaged. She taught us to believe we could do, and be, anything, and encouraged us towards a much broader set of dreams. In doing all this, Pat Burge became a heroine.
It was a bright, brief time, and we all shone.
By the time her cancer was picked-up through exploratory surgery, treatments were all too late.
Mum told me that as she woke from the anaesthetic, she felt for the post-operative tubes and knew her prognosis by virtue of her training, thinking “oh, damn!” for a moment.
Then, true to this heroine, she stayed positive for all our sakes. There was simply no other choice, and she achieved a year of denial with a funny grace – laughing about being pushed around in wheelchairs, caring for the recovering ladies who shared her room, and eschewing chemotherapy, until she could almost count the days left to her.
A good friend of mum’s who was on duty at the local hospital broke the news to me that her death was imminent. He and I told her together, and she just accepted it, simply because she already knew. Entering the new emotional territory, we decided in a matter of minutes that we would be bringing her home to die.
During those last weeks, we talked about the moments in her life that had meant something to her. These talks enabled me to write all but the last paragraph of her obituary.
What happened after that was so profound that I could only describe it as “a powerful death, after a powerful life”.
Surrounded by her nursing friends, who held her, monitored her, and comforted her, Pat Burge died in her own bed, after a series of exhilarated breaths, like she could see something great coming. She had farewelled everyone, made peace with her journey, showed no more than a hint of despair, and an abundance of humour.
Without her, most of us who had relied on her heroism came to absolutely nothing, and we needed to rebuild from deep within.
But hers was an inspiring death, which in its own time saw my prayer answered. We have been okay, since she left us. We’ve had to grow the seeds she planted, but when taken care of, they proved to bear wonderful fruit, and still do.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.