Tag Archives: SIDS

Back in town

Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).
DAY IN COURT Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).

A Writer returns to the scene of the crime. 

MORE than 20 years after my family moved away from the country town of Inverell, leaving behind failed dreams and a broken marriage, I returned on a rainy evening in late 2003 with some unfinished business.

I’d called ahead to my grandmother, who was still living there in a nursing home. Before taking her to lunch the next day, I dropped into the local courthouse, an imposing clock tower at the centre of town, where a helpful woman proceeded to assist me in finding my mother’s name in the court records.

The court staffer didn’t flinch when it quickly became apparent we were not looking for a plaintiff of any kind, but rather a defendant. Trouble was, I had no specific dates to search, only the barest clues from what I’d been told about mum’s appearance in the court on a shoplifting charge sometime in the 1970s.

That meant mum’s name was still on the police computer database, in which the dates became brutally clear: just before Christmas, 1977, the police had made their way to our property off the Bingara Road, with complaints from two Inverell shops that mum had stolen childrens’ clothing and kitchen implements.

All court records prior to 1980 were stored in the archives of the New England University at the nearby city of Armidale. Would I like them faxed over? I agreed to return to the police station adjacent to the courthouse when they were ready.

Next, I dropped into the council chambers with a request. I had in my possession a hand-sized flat stone which had been picked up off the driveway of our farm, a flint-like rock with a broad space for a thumb to hold the sharpened edge to use it for cutting – an aboriginal hand axe of indeterminate age.

I asked if there was any kind of Aboriginal cultural heritage centre, or perhaps a museum, which would be interested in taking this stone tool off my hands?

The council staffer held her gaze with an open, shocked mouth, and shook her head, muttering “no…,” and, “good luck with that,” before leaving.

The tourist information centre had the name of an Aboriginal elder who lived locally. I drove the streets of our old neighbourhood searching for the address, but there was no-one home, and the only Aboriginal public office was well and truly closed.

SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.
SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.

I began to wonder whether the stories I’d been told about this stone were true, or if they’d been elaborated into family myths? I had taken it to school for ‘show and tell’, with the family name written on it using thick black marker pen in my mother’s hand. She was interested in anthropology, and we had inherited all kinds of fossils and artefacts at her death at decade before.

But on returning to the riverside shopping centre to buy grandma a present, my doubts were allayed by the wall built of local stone at the gateway, the very same blue, brown and ochre basalt. The wall was all that remained of the department store built by my ancestors in the town. I knew then I had the right rock back in the right region.

Grandma was dressed and eager to get out and about, waiting for me outside the door of the nursing home. We laughed as I lifted her into the passenger seat of my four-wheel drive, me allaying any embarrassment she felt by reminding her of the hundreds of times she had lifted me into a car when I was a child.

We had a lovely lunch. She enjoyed the meal and hearing all my news about life in the big city. We’d corresponded about family stuff many times, and it seemed a waste of time to go over it all again – she and I had come to terms already. We loved one another, that’s all that mattered.

I dropped her home when she started to tire, and headed out of town, along a well-trodden road into the uplands south west of Delungra, where fields of wheat in black soil run for miles and miles under enormous skies.

I’d met the present owner a few years before, but I hadn’t come to see the house again. I’d picked-over the traces of my family’s dream many times before: the room where my baby brother died, and the hopeful imprint my parents had made on a property which was derelict when they moved there.

I looked over the stones on the driveway, and sure enough, scattered along the verges were more of those flinty fragments like the larger one in my pocket.

I was headed a few kilometres further west, to a lonely place on the Bingara Road, where a memorial had been built in the year 2000 to the Aboriginal men, women and children who were slaughtered on a hillside in 1838 at the hands of European settlers in what came to be known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).
MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).

There, I walked along the trail which marks the gruesome milestones of this iconic event – the first time in Australia’s history that settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.

I took the Aboriginal axe, with our family name impossible to erase from it, and buried it at the site, not only out of respect for the Aboriginal lives lost, but also those in my own scattered family.

Night was falling when I arrived back at the Inverell police station, where a large envelope awaited me. At a motel out of town I pored over its contents, like some terrible play in which my parents were protagonists.

Buried deep in the court transcripts, describing in detail how mum was found guilty of multiple counts of theft, was the news of one shop owner who’d waived all charges in the light of the psychologist’s report, and the one who’d refused.

The sentence in Mulawa Womens’ Prison in Sydney, a day’s drive away from her children, detailed the number of days’ imprisonment resulting from the value of each item of clothing stolen.

The transcripts of friends who stood in the dock spoke of her good character.

The psychologists’ report itself – one clinical, succinct letter linked mum’s behavior to deep feelings of guilt and shame about the death of her third child, the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

And then the suspended sentence – no jail time to be served, in exchange for a warrant of good behaviour.

I suddenly understood why mum did not put up a fight for her financial share of the marriage settlement. Buying her freedom had cost our family dearly, and walking away with nothing but a car and some furniture, she might have felt she’d repaid her dues.

I could also see why she eventually left town, allowing the myth to emerge that she’d left dad, not the truth, which was all the other way around. Our family name on ‘Burge Bros.’, an Inverell shopfront, speaks of our pedigree as descendants of proud local shopkeepers, which mum might have felt was brought into disrepute by a depressed city girl. Housed in the same precinct was the shop whose owner would not forgive her.

I remembered how mum recalled being interviewed by the police after my brother died. It was a matter of course, apparently, that the mother was the first subject of investigation after the death of a child who had been laid in his bed by her arms only hours before. Lindy Chamberlain was to face that same moment only seven years later.

And I remembered it was mum who told me about the Myall Creek Massacre. While the other adults were playing tennis at the courts near the creek, she pointed to the hillside and whispered to me about what had occurred. Whispered. Not to the other kids, or any of the white adults enjoying weekend sport, but just to me.

The Myall Creek Massacre memorial was eventually the subject of an Australian Story episode in which descendants of the settlers who committed the crimes reached out in reconciliation to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay people who were slaughtered.

SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

But in its first decade, it endured vandalism. Not brainless destruction, but calculated censorship of the facts about the case and its impact on lives.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, the place I was born, but it can be a harsh place too.

The shock and grief wrought on one family in the wake of the sudden death of one baby tells us how magnified the same emotions would have been after the sudden slaughter of multiple defenceless women, children and old men at Myall Creek, but despite the well-known contributing factors of depression and grief-related kleptomania, there was little reconciliation or understanding on offer for my mother in the 1970s. The community was still coming to terms with what happened to the Wirrayaraay.

Mum got away from Inverell and made a new life. Grandma died in 2008 and we gathered in Inverell for her funeral, but no-one in our family lives there anymore.

I’ll go back to Myall Creek one June for the annual memorial service. Hearing the true story of the place probably marks the start of my journey to being a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

Patricia Burge – the carer who laughed

CAREER CARER Patricia Crawford as a new trainee in 1956 at RPA Hospital, Sydney.

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, just a teenager, 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.

OH, PAT! Sleeves rolled-up for a school working bee, but funny bone always ready!

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 hospital 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 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 had to leave us. We’ve had to grow the seeds she planted, the germ of which is the emotional intelligence that was Mum’s key attribute. When taken care of, they proved to bear wonderful fruit, and still do.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A Writer’s first obituary

BROTHERLY LOVE (L-R) Nicholas, Michael & Andrew Burge in 1973.

Nicholas Burge (June 1973 – September 1973).

ONE of the earliest original pieces of writing I completed was an obituary, written for my younger brother Nicholas who had died seven years prior from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

I was in the final year of primary school, with an inspiring teacher, a sensitive Welshman, who set us a writing task to record the story of ‘something I’ll never forget’.

I don’t know why I chose Nicholas. Most probably it was because there had not been much talk about him since he died, even though I had experienced first-hand the devastating impact his loss had on my family.

The piece has long since been lost, but I know I wrote about the morning he died. Me (aged three) and my older brother (four) were the ones who discovered the baby, dead, in his cot, during our usual morning ritual of waking him and taking him into our parents’ room.

Not understanding the concept of death, of course we did not see the impact that was coming, when we went to tell mum and dad that the baby wouldn’t wake up.

At the time of writing about the day, I had no more than a mental picture of my mother, flying out of the bed with a great sweep of the pink sheets, and my father trying to wind the old party-line telephone into action. Mum, keening like a seagull, held the dead baby in her arms.

I learned much later that we’d all driven from our farmhouse into town, the dead baby in a carry-basket between my brother and I. We were left with our grandparents while Nicholas’ body was taken to the hospital.

Later again, when I retrieved his death certificate, I discovered Nicholas was buried the very next day in the family plot. Apparently my father was incapable, in his grief, of driving away from the cemetery. Mum took over.

We didn’t last much longer on the farm after that. Despite being encouraged to have another baby, the grief worked its way between my parents, and we left the land for a brief life in town, before they separated and divorced. Not long after, we moved with mum closer to the city where she’d grown up.

There were psychological reasons for everyone’s behaviour in the wake of Nicholas’ death, but this is not the place to explore them. When I wrote his obituary, I was too young to understand them anyway, I was only responding to being asked about something ‘I would never forget’.

Perhaps this was also my first lesson in how powerful words can be? I know it bonded me closer to my mother, to have her son recall with great importance something that was a life-changing moment for her family. When I packed up our house after her death, I found Nicholas’ clothes in a little bundle wrapped inside her wedding veil in a bottom drawer in the garden shed. A photograph of the baby boy confirmed they were his.

When I wrote to my father about the same events many years later, he expressed that he always believed it was better to get on with the care of the living, as opposed to thinking about the dead. At the time, I said nothing, because I didn’t know if I agreed, or not.

But writing about my memories gave Nicholas a place in my life, even though his own had been so very short. Like most of my writing, this little obituary involved looking back, and I have since learnt how controversial that can be. In this case, I believe it was more than worth it.

Obituaries are biographies, often written at acutely painful times. I recall my obituary for my brother Nicholas was very short, like his life. It was an affirmation that he existed, that we knew him, and that we loved him. Sometimes writing is really that simple.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.