April 2020


Three disasters, a wedding and a funeral

By Lech Blaine
Reckoning with family in times of drought, fire and flood

The drought broke in the final weeks of a black summer, but not before the most far-flung crusts of a sunburnt country were charred by apocalyptic bushfires. My sister Rebecca and her five children were evacuated from a rural property in northern New South Wales. Seventy per cent of their 125 acres was incinerated, but the humble house at the heart of a silver perch farm was saved by crews of supernaturally brave firefighters and Rebecca’s carpet-layer fiancé, Jamie, who risked a do-it-yourself cremation to irrigate their endangered Australian dream.

“I don’t give a stuff about the house,” Rebecca said at the time. “I’m just terrified of becoming a bloody single mum to five kids. You can take a couple of them!”

At the height of anxiety, Nationals leader Michael McCormack pitted rural citizens like my sister against her metropolitan siblings, as if the country could be neatly divided by the local density of Birkenstocks.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, unenlightened and woke capital-city Greenies at this time,” said the deputy prime minister, as I waited for confirmation that my nieces and nephews were alive.

Three months since my sister’s rainwater tanks ran dry from fighting those blazes, country roads were turned into moats by monsoonal downpours. Flash floods would have been inconvenient at the best of times. The times, however, were lending themselves to chaos. Coronavirus offered a short-term threat of mass extinction to accompany the more medium-term oblivion posed by climate change. DIY survivalists stockpiled toilet paper while recycling breathing masks from summer dust storms.

Rebecca and Jamie had unwittingly chosen this moment to get married after a 13-year engagement. Three days before the knot-tying, my sister uploaded a Facebook photo of coffee-coloured rapids gushing across once-scorched lawn now growing pornographically green.

flooded in, she wrote, nothing better to do

The picture was accompanied by a gleeful emoji with love hearts for eyes. My worrywart sibling had grown such a thick skin to catastrophe that a wild flash flood in her long-awaited wedding week elicited only the mildest amount of disbelief.

Rebecca is my sister, but not by blood. Her biological mother – a former foster child who suffered horrific physical abuse – used liquor to pacify her crying baby. My parents took on a complicated child safety case as their first foster daughter.

I was born two years later, the only offspring of my hitherto infertile parents, and the youngest of seven siblings, none of whom I was related to by blood. Rebecca was the most troubled, and the subject of frequent social worker visits. She suffered from ADHD. As a child, I couldn’t fathom the aggressiveness of an older sister who pinched my skin and popped my balloons. On a cellular level, Rebecca felt threatened by my existence, afraid my parents would stop caring about her.

“I have a lot of abandonment issues,” she told me. “My therapist reckons that’ll always be part of me. Ask Jamie. I get scared that he’s gonna take off all the time. Not that he would – he loves me.”

As a teenager, Rebecca found out that her biological father, who never made any attempt to find her, was an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory, and reflected that she’d always felt more comfortable with the Indigenous girls at school. She ended up attending a school for kids with learning difficulties, before dropping out at the age of 15 to work as a cleaner.

Rebecca soon met Jamie, a working-class boy whose father – a cleaner at the local meatworks – died when Jamie was 13. Like his future wife, Jamie dropped out of high school at 15, and undertook an apprenticeship installing roof insulation.

“Me and Jamie have only ever been with each other,” Rebecca said. “We took ages to even kiss. I was so scared he was just going to use me and piss off. But he kept sticking around. And helped me with a lot of my trust issues.”

Rebecca was pregnant at 17, and after the birth of their first child, Henry, they had four more. Her highest priority in life was to be a reliable mother. After the national pink batts scandal, Jamie changed careers to be a carpet layer, and bought a farm so that their kids could learn to ride motorbikes and shoot guns.

I was a gifted kid with left-wing values, but my compassion was more political than practical. Despite overcoming the odds of developing substance dependence, Rebecca didn’t meet my teenage expectations of success. I was an armchair socialist, unable to connect emotionally with the intended beneficiaries of my ideologies.

I couldn’t see that Rebecca was my parents’ finest triumph. She broke a multigenerational cycle of abuse and addiction to become a caregiver whose kids’ biggest frustration would be she loved them too much.

“The social workers say that I should forgive,” she said. “And I’m like, you choose your path. It’s simple. You have kids, you protect them.”

On the day of the wedding, Coffs Harbour locals celebrated the first extended period of sunlight in ages by mowing their lawns in unison. The ceremony had been relocated from the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden to the Sawtell RSL. An Australian flag flapped at full mast in the car park. The jingle of pokies drifted up the stairs to accompany the makeshift ceremony. Some guests settled the butterflies in their stomachs with Bundaberg Rum and Cokes.

“Let’s show that life goes on after terrible tragedy,” said the celebrant, “by joining together for the union of two resilient people.”

The unassuming bride and groom were pronounced wife and husband. Their kiss was a buoy of joy in a sea of catastrophe. Time stood still, in a good way, immunising witnesses against non-stop coverage of cataclysms through the simple expression of true love.

The function room was permanently themed as a P&O cruise ship called SS Pacific Princess, replete with fake floatation devices, a fitting place to weather the biblical cloudbursts that periodically bucketed down after sunset.

My brother from Perth, Steven, had nominated himself as MC. A metrosexual craft-beer executive, who joined the Greens in the grief-stricken weeks following the 2019 federal election, he was the only person present wearing a tie.

“All of his neighbours said Jamie was crazy for sticking around,” Steven said, trying to get on everyone’s level. “Well, who’s laughing now?”

Awkward silence.

“Too soon,” whispered John, a car dealer from Bundaberg. My ScoMo-loving brother John believed that he was the natural fit for MC, before Steven claimed seniority. John had spent the summer doubling down on climate-change denial by sharing Andrew Bolt videos, along with memes from obscure American Facebook pages with names like Livingston County for Trump.

After I wrote a 9000-word essay for The Monthly about the importance of listening to people with ­different opinions, John and I didn’t speak for three weeks because I hung up on him in the middle of an argument, after he claimed Queensland’s bushfires were caused by the Greens and the lack of back-burning. Civil dialogue was easier to preach to strangers than practise with family.

Hannah, my Greens-voting neuropsychologist sister from the Gold Coast, sat breastfeeding a four-month-old daughter. She named her first child Lennie, a new-age twist on Lenore, the name of the foster-carer who had fought tooth and nail to reunite Hannah, when she was two, with her biological brothers Steven and John.

After dinner, our table descended into heated debate.

“Coalminers don’t start bushfires,” said John. “Arsonists start bushfires.”

“So, scientists are lying about climate change?” asked Steven.

“Look, I’m not for or against climate change.”

“You sound like you’re pretty well against it,” said Hannah.

“No,” he said. “I just like to question the people who are for it.”

“John,” said Steven, “I don’t think your opinion is less superior. I just think that it’s unfair environmentalists like me have to provide all the evidence. Whereas people like you just go, ‘Bullshit, this is what it’s all about!’”

“The elephant in the corner of the room,” said John, “is that when Scott Morrison was in Hawaii with his family on holidays…”

“It was a national disaster!” said Hannah.

“Was he supposed to blow the fires out?” asked John.

“I love you,” said Steven, “but I honestly believe that the attitudes of people like yourself are putting my children at risk.”

“We’ll agree to disagree,” said John.

“Climate change is too important to pretend that I agree with you for the sake of keeping the peace,” said Hannah. “It’s Lennie’s future at stake.”

This wasn’t the fake empathy employed by politicians trying to make hay via a natural disaster. This was the deep, revolutionary empathy capable of sustaining a group of thrown-together siblings with far-flung postcodes and education levels through a deeply traumatic decade bookended by the fast death of my father in 2011, and the slow death of my mother in 2018.

Sometimes the truest proof of love is caring enough about another human being to argue with them. To have the uncomfortable conversations about tough subjects, rather than shutting up while people sleepwalk towards a future of black summers.

The downpours persisted overnight. The only major casualty from the matrimonial debates was Hannah’s husband, Jay, who was sentenced to sleep on the couch after Hannah accused him of sympathising with her climate­change-denying older brother, by continually reciprocating John’s fist bumps at the dinner table.

The hatchet was buried at a good-natured family lunch.

“Thanks for backing me up last night,” John said to Jay.

“You’ve got the wrong idea,” said Jay. “I’m not on your side.”

“Sure you aren’t,” said John, winking. “I appreciate it, mate.”

After lunch, we congregated on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean for a belated funeral. The missing matriarch of our family died in winter 2018 from a neurodegenerative brain disease that progressively eliminated her ability to show physical affection. We hadn’t been together since the cremation.

“If it wasn’t for Mum,” said Rebecca, “I think I would’ve been a drug addict. But she showed me I deserved to be loved. So I knew how to love my own kids.”

Our mother’s progressive values had practical applications. We were all the beneficiaries of her decision, after suffering six miscarriages, to foster instead of shutting up shop, piercing cycles of neglect with industrial­strength love.

“What’s the saying?” Rebecca asked. “Water runs thicker than blood? You guys are more family to me than my real family.”

The dregs from a day of torrential rain kept emptying over five grieving children, and 12 grandchildren unblemished by the grief of abandonment. The only mourner who bore any physical resemblance to Mum, I was given the job of illegally scattering her remains into the hinterland of a community rising from the ashes of the bushfires.

The following afternoon, I found out that my new brother-in-law was a One Nation voter. It was serendipitous timing. That day, a journalist revealed the firefighter who abused the prime minister on camera was also a passionate fan of Pauline Hanson.

“Tell the prime minister to go and get fucked, from Nelligen,” Paul Parker had told a news crew, after Morrison claimed that firefighters “wanted” to be there.

Rather than promoting a furious online backlash from left-wing snowflakes – as appeared to be the expectation of the reporter – the consensus seemed to be that Parker’s views about Hanson didn’t invalidate his blunt feedback to the PM. It was acknowledged that human beings were far more complex than who they voted for at the last election, and they could be right about some things and wrong about others.

I spent that afternoon driving around a waterlogged farm near Nana Glen, a secluded rural hamlet most famously populated by Russell Crowe, whose property was also recently attacked by the bushfires. Jamie showed me the skeletons of homes belonging to neighbours who lived 500 metres away. I asked him about Paul Parker, and whether his anger resonated around Nana Glen.

“Definitely,” he said. “Everyone was furious – I don’t know too much about the whole climate change business, but just the lack of services for firefighters.”

I tried to get him – a man who courted death in the bushfires – to explain the community’s anger in a way that might predict electoral dividends for the major parties, but he didn’t have a bar of it, because Jamie doesn’t see any relationship between politics and his life.

“I can’t stand politics,” he said. “Half the time they come in and just let you down anyway. There’s less stress not thinking about it.”

Jamie confessed to something that made no ideological sense: he used to vote for the Greens, but now he supports Pauline Hanson. One Nation fulfils an unwavering emotional impulse to punish the major parties.

“Pauline says some pretty stupid shit sometimes,” he said. “But I love how she sticks up for us.”

By us, Jamie means people like him, tradies in rural areas whose vocabularies and world views weren’t refined by university educations. The more scorn poured on Hanson by sophisticated politicians and journalists, the more politically incorrect battlers like Jamie get activated by her message that they deserve to be heard.

Progressives struggle with the uncomfortable truth that to regain government, and cut emissions, Labor needs to win primary votes and second preferences from people who sympathise with Hanson. This was why Anthony Albanese spent the summer risking Twitter outrage by speaking to blue-collar communities with legitimate anxieties, rather than accommodating the wishful delusion that bushfires might turn the entire country into climate-change activists.

After a tour of the traumascape, I sat on the front patio watching rainfall spray sideways at tree trunks charred black by an inferno. Rebecca claimed to be even more politically disengaged than Jamie. She voted yes in the marriage-equality postal survey, before supporting the Coalition at the election, thanks to a convincing scare campaign that negative-gearing changes would raise mortgage repayments.

“I see life a whole lot different to other people,” she said. “I don’t spend money unless it has to be spent. I had anxiety for a week about spending $300 on a wedding dress, so I went and bought a second-hand one for a hundred bucks at someone’s house. Tried it on. Didn’t like it that much, but thought, for a hundred bucks I’ll buy it.”

The same animalistic sensitivity to financial threat that made my parents Labor voters a generation ago has been hijacked by the Coalition to relocate prudent mothers like Rebecca into the conservative column.

“What do you want for your kids?” I asked.

“To have a good life,” she said. “Happiness. I’m just so scared when they get older. About everything. Because you can’t keep them safe in the way you want to.”

Rebecca had bigger things to worry about than the bushfires. Three months later, idle analysis of that terrible inferno had become a distant priority compared with the regular emotional stress and financial challenges of being a mother to five kids.

I wondered, not for the first time, why it is that decent people whose primary objective in life is to protect their children continue to prove so impervious to the dire pleas of scientists, yet ripe to right-wing scare campaigns. Rather than having the penny drop once and for all, many of the apolitical voters worst affected by a disastrous summer had simply grown immune to endless sneezes from a sick climate.

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.


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