A Christian Woman

Signposts is another new blog I’ve just found and will link. It’s a group blog that looks at politics from a Christian perspective. And I see that Chris Fryer, whose blog I also mentioned below, suffers from muscular distrophy. Jen is always asking me to tell her stories, and those two blogs remind me of one. I wrote it almost 2 years ago when Shirley Johnston died, and published it on my old blog The Parish Pump.

I thought about Kim last night for the first time in years. Kim was my best friend when I was a small boy. All four of us Parish kids were close to Kim and his three brothers. They had a TV and we didn’t, so we spent a lot of time across the road at their place.

Kim’s dad was a minor corporate executive who was seldom at home. His mum Shirley was a devout Christian woman, a Methodist, just a touch humourless but endlessly patient, kind and smiling. Shirley used to take us pagan Parish kids to Sunday school each week with her own brood. My dad was a dedicated skeptic and my mum a lapsed Catholic, but they liked the idea of our getting exposure to Christian teachings so we could make up our own minds later.

When Kim and I were both about 8 years old, he was diagnosed with muscular distrophy. At first it didn’t seem to make much difference. Kim still came out and mucked around on bikes with us, rode billy carts down the hill and joined in street cricket games. But gradually it got worse and Kim was confined to home and a wheelchair. Lots of scrabble, Monopoly, card games, TV and home schooling. We kids tried to spend time with him, but we got bored easily and we wanted to be outside. Kim became harder to be with as time went on too; he got grumpy and short-tempered as his ability to do anything for himself slowly failed.

Shirley nursed Kim almost single-handed; there wasn’t much in the way of publicly-provided home nursing in those days of Menzies conservatism. As Kim’s muscles turned to jelly, his weight ballooned. Shirley needed complicated pulleys and slings just to get Kim in and out of bed, shower and toilet. Kim died shortly after both of us had turned 18. It was a release for him and for Shirley.

About 3 or 4 years later, Kim’s younger brother Mark came home from university as a paranoid schizophrenic. He’d gone away to study at ANU in Canberra and, so it seemed, got into lots of bad drugs. Not heroin or anything, but lots of marihuana and more than a little LSD. Whether that caused the breakdown or whether it would have happened anyway we’ll never know. Shirley’s life of patient servitude resumed.

Mark was convinced that Paul McCartney was reading his mind and stealing all the songs he then fraudulently passed off as his own. Once the police brought him home after he broke into Taronga Park Zoo before dawn to watch the primates wake up. But Mark could also be aggressively violent, when he forgot to take his medication or when he became frustrated at what it was doing to his malfunctioning brain.

Shirley’s husband Noel retired from work not long after Mark’s illness was diagnosed. They moved to the north coast but Noel died shortly afterwards. That must have been over 20 years ago. We still saw Shirley and Mark pretty often. They always came down to Sydney at Christmas, and we’d lob on them when we were up the coast surfing. Mark remained a problem for Shirley, in and out of trouble and institutions, but always under her patient care.

About 10 years ago, Shirley decided to move back to her home town of Adelaide. She had extended family there, who could help her take care of Mark as she got older. I’ve only seen her and Mark twice since then. Last night I heard that Shirley died a few days ago. She was 81. Her eldest son Ben tells us she had some good times over the last few years, went on a few trips. I don’t know what will happen to Mark.

Rest easy Shirley. I hope there’s a God and a heaven for your sake. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Loving, patient dedication and sacrifice are timeless and eternal, I think. Truly selfless love makes egoistic survival unimportant and even meaningless. Maybe that’s what Christ and Buddha really meant. Who knows?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

Great story and tribute Ken, and thanks for the link.

2024 years ago

– and she is real and lived across the road – and made breakfast and brought up her children and partnered her husband – we had a neighbor a little like this – her name – joy – one of her children Belinda – cerebral palsy – and a million complications – she and her husband lived a happy life around a degenerative disease
strength and grace – because you do have a choice in these matters – and they choose strength and grace and thankyou for telling that story parish – i love you – how did you ever get to be a lawyer?