This story is not based on any real person, and I should warn you, the themes are very heavy. Please donÕt read it if you feel you might be negatively affected by a tale about child abuse. It will only take ten minutes to read.
The Importance of Courage
YouÕre five years old when your parents are taken to the hospital. The mangled car they were in is taken to the tip. You sit with your twin sister, your brother, and your two stepsisters in a blue and bleached white waiting room. This place stinks of finality, and you can hear the constant beeping of medical equipment. A drunken teenager is bleeding from a cut on his left hand, and an old woman breathes heavily as she sleeps in a chair. You donÕt understand why your grandfather is crying. You donÕt understand that your parents have died.
Your grandpa cooks microwave dinners for you and your four siblings. You pick at soggy broccoli and dry peas in the black plastic tray. You eat around a small wooden table in the carpeted living room. Everyone is silent. You look to each other for kindness, and you look to your grandpa for support. You look to the photos on the bookshelf of the lost loved ones for memories.
Two months later, you walk home from the bus stop on a hot afternoon. Miss Pear holds your hand and talks, but you donÕt hear her. You listen to the crickets and small beetles as they argue with clicks and snapping sounds from beneath the bark on gum trees. Thin lizards sun themselves on the concrete, and dart for cover as your shadow falls on them.
Your twin sister is already home. She stands, numb, with three paramedics, a woman in a suit, and a police officer on your front lawn. The neighbours watch you arrive, and they watch the body of your grandpa as itÕs taken away. Then they watch you as you sit on the kerb and cry.
No one can afford five orphans. No one can repair the emptiness in your soul. The sadness that has seeped into every action of your life. Your stepsisters return to their biological mother and move to another state before the invention of the internet. Before mobile phones and Facebook. Before communication is easy and guaranteed. You talk as often as you can, but you only see their smiles in old pictures.
Now there are three of you living with a family friend. ItÕs often pleasant and sometimes lovely. When the moment is more powerful, more immediate than your memories, you laugh with your brother. Your sister doesnÕt speak much. You watch the pink and grey galahs squabble in the tall trees. You read short novels with large print when itÕs cold and swim when itÕs hot. You swim in a shirt to hide the black and blue marks on your skin. There is violence in between the happy moments, and there are always bruises.
Ten years pass, and youÕre fifteen now. A decade in fear. A decade with that man. YouÕre at school when youÕre told your brother has put him in the hospital.
Two police officers escort you and your twin sister home. You wait in the front yard as they enter the house. ThereÕs yelling, and then thereÕs silence. A morbid quiet that needs no explanation. Your brother is marched, in handcuffs, to a police car. He waits nervously in the back as a single policewoman hands you and your sister each a large black plastic garbage bag.
ŅGo get as much of your things as you can carry. YouÕll need clothes. WeÕre leaving now, and you canÕt come back,Ó the stranger tells you.
That night, you stay with a friend, and your sister stays with another. Your brother is taken away, but donÕt worry, heÕll be fine. Self-defence is obvious.
Your last living grandparent offers to take you in. YouÕre excited, but your sister declines, and the pair of you never sleep under the same roof again. You drive for hours, and then your grandmother welcomes you with an awkward hug. She shows you around her enormous house. Everything seems to be tiled, clean and polished. ItÕs magnificent, and you feel like you could stay forever. But she disagrees. A child is more responsibility than she can handle. A child needs care and attention, and your grandmother can only care for herself. YouÕre asked to leave again.
What have you done? Why are you being punished? Why is everything so hard? There seems to be no reward. No fair result. You just want someone to love you, but the world canÕt even scrape together any common courtesy.
Despair wafts over you and seeps into every part of your body like smoke. YouÕre tired all the time. You never smile. YouÕre sent to a youth refuge. You lock your door to protect your belongings when youÕre out and lock your door to protect yourself when youÕre there. People are cruel, and existence is a chore. You run away.
You chatter to yourself as you take long strides down the seemingly endless back roads of Australia. YouÕre thirsty. Your sneakers are stained with the orange dust from gravel roads, and your face is red from the sun. YouÕre starving. A sheet of flies covers the sweat patch on your back, and occasionally the little bugs venture out to tease your face. And now youÕre lost and in serious trouble. You sit and think for an entire twenty-four hours. A gentle youth worker finds you, and you sleep in her car while she brings you ŌhomeÕ. Or back. Back to where there is no home.
You return to the refuge, but you refuse to be miserable. You refuse to hate the world, and you decide, very deliberately, to respond to misfortune with love. Your positivity pays off, and you make friends with other kids from troubling pasts. A sad young boy from a place where brutality is more common than tranquillity giggles as if nothing in the world could frighten him when you watch cartoons together. An Aboriginal child is emphatically delighted by every simple kindness. You learn the importance of courage from your counterparts. You recognise the possibility of lasting happiness, but your past has taught you to fear unexpected turmoil. You nervously wait for danger.
Then luck. An expensive and extravagant school offers you a scholarship. YouÕre still convinced that danger is only ever a moment away. But it never comes. Your life swells into something privileged. You wear polished black shoes and carry heavy books through corridors with stained glass windows. You sit at computers worth a hundred times as much as the things you took from the violent house. You stand in science labs, smitten by technology and wonder.
For the first time in over fifteen years, for the first time in your life, a safety net is drawn tight beneath you. People are supportive and generous. There are no dangers in the dark. Nothing to fear. In time, you stop worrying altogether.
And now youÕre truly happy. YouÕve selected a degree, and you work hard towards a promising career. A dream. YouÕre an adult, and you depend on no one. The world is open, and your existence is whatever you want it to be. YouÕre excited at times and pleasantly content at others. You spend your days studying with a belly full of chai latte and cake. You spend your evenings drinking chilled wine from huge glasses with hilarious friends and a dedicated lover. You laugh a lot, and you realise the importance of persistence. You look forward to the rest of your life, and you look forward to the day you can adopt your own child.
Once again, this is not at all based on any real person, but it is an example of countless cases of children in turmoil the world over. Most of us, but not all of us, are fortunate.