Saturday, July 20, 2013

Though I walk through the shadow...

Like too many people from the bush I knew blokes who had taken their own lives. Although this time it was different, very different. This time it was my father and the world, as I knew it, ended.

The day had already been surreal. It was like I was watching a movie with me in it. That morning Mum had finally decided that she couldn’t take my fathers abuse anymore and with us there for Christmas felt safe enough to make the move.

Being an alcoholic my father always had a can in his hand. Dad had already downed a few by the time Mum told him she was leaving. In front of all of us he threatened that he now had no reason to live.

I could see the sequence of events adding up to the final act. He’s putting things in place, tying off loose ends, he’s gonna do it! At the same time I kept telling myself, this isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, I am being paranoid.

I went to the gun safe to take the keys, just in case. Dad was two steps ahead and took a gun out right before my eyes.

He put the rifle in the 4wd and went back to the house. I thought here’s my chance, do something, do something. I fumbled with the .22 trying to release the bolt. It was a new rifle and I had no idea how to release it. Trembling in case he caught me I prayed, “Please God help me get this bolt out”. Just then I saw the hidden lever and the bolt fell into my hands. Quickly I turned the rifle over so he wouldn’t notice and went back into the house. As I walked in the front door, he left by the back. I heard the 4wd roar into action and he thundered out the driveway narrowly missing the gatepost in his fury.

He was gone - presumably up to the farm. We took the opportunity to pack Mums things into the car and get her safely to another house. After several hours of unpacking and reorganising, Mum, my Wife and I returned to the farmhouse to collect some more of her things. As we pulled into the driveway we saw his 4wd parked at the gate. Not knowing what to expect we entered the yard.

As we rounded the corner to the front of the house there was Dad crumpled on the ground… It was a nightmare - we acted on instinct – I remember being on the phone to the police and my wife running into the house yelling that she couldn’t resuscitate him and me going out with her saying well no you cant, half his head is missing. Next to his body was a roughly scrawled note and 3 full shotgun cartridges. A clear message, one for each of us should we have arrived 10 minutes earlier.

Being between Christmas and New Year the coroner was busy clearing the back-log of autopsies. It had been a long drought, rivers were the lowest in living memory, and 4 other Northern Tasmanian farmers had taken their lives that same day. 

Burying my Dad on the family farm

A member of God’s Squad, I was living in Melbourne at the time and worked for a program called Inside Out with young offenders as a youth worker. My family was in a state of crisis, dealing with our grief while trying to work out what to do with the farm and all that goes with it. So, I stayed on in Tasmania to support my mother and brothers travelling back to Melbourne as often as I could.

My marriage had not been smooth sailing, few marriages are. Trying to both support, my wife and my family whilst dealing with my own grief was becoming tough. One day she called from Melbourne and gave me an ultimatum, she told me she was leaving, if I loved her I wouldn’t be with my family. It was a choice I couldn’t make so told her that if she wanted to leave it was up to her but I needed to be with my family at this time. Having seen what my parents went through, rightly or wrongly I did not want to end up in the same way as my father so the marriage was over.

As with most cases when a marriage ends, men tend to withdraw whereas women reach out for help. Thankfully a club brother in Lonnie, who I hadn’t known very well, took me in while I attempted to sort my life out. He put a roof over my head, even helped me to get a good job. It was there that I met their daughter Claire whom I married 4 years later.

Those that knew me at that time know that I was a bit of a larrikin always looking for a opportunity to make a joke out of something. I even treated my own life as a joke not really taking myself seriously. Some of this was my personality but a lot was a result of post-traumatic stress from my father’s death. I was scared of what I might be able to achieve if I really committed to it. This fear also included a fear of genuine intimacy with my wife. By that I don’t mean sex but the opening up of yourself to another person. So when we started to have some struggles, instead of trying to work it through, I sought escape. For me it took the shape of an affair with a work colleague.

It was one of the biggest mistakes and regrets of my life. When I ended the affair I confessed to my wife who was understandably devastated. To her credit and amazing strength of character she remained with me through all the pain and humiliation she felt. We were separated for a while, as I was trying to sort my head out, I was pretty messed up and confused.

A Christian mate of mine, Al and his wife Lisa took me in and supported me through this time while two club brothers, one from the UK and the other from Launceston both gave me regular support and encouragement. They told me that despite what I had done, I was ok and God loved me and they loved me as brothers and would stick by me through all the crap that life offers. They encouraged me to sort my life out and go back to my loving wife, which I eventually did.

I remember at my lowest point sitting down at the very place where Dad had taken his life years earlier, with a shotgun over my knee and a cartridge in the chamber contemplating the unthinkable. At that moment of incredible darkness I remember staring into the abyss and all of a sudden I had this feeling that everything was going to be ok, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. That God, as the old book says, was holding me in the palm of his giant hand.

I put the gun away that day and never contemplated picking it up again. Nowadays when the shit hits the fan I know that it’s going to be all right. You see, being a follower of Jesus didn’t make me a mindless robot, it didn’t immunise me from the struggles of life. Quite the opposite, it helped me embrace life and confront my demons. Having stared down the barrel of a gun twice I know this life is fragile but I am certain that life is also eternal.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 

Dale (RHS) with his Father in Law Steve

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