this (fam­ily) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Matt Brett

MY fa­ther will soon die. A dis­abil­ity pen­sioner for the later years of work­ing age, he was em­ployed in semi-skilled labour in fac­to­ries that no longer ex­ist, pro­duc­ing tech­nol­ogy long ob­so­lete. There were no no­table achieve­ments in his life be­yond en­ter­ing a re­la­tion­ship that stood the test of time and be­ing the fa­ther of two chil­dren. His pass­ing will be mourned by fam­ily and friends, but be­yond this, his life and death is of lit­tle pub­lic in­ter­est. My fa­ther was a work­ing­class deaf man, who lived a work­ing-class life.

I feel com­pelled in some way to write. My brother felt com­pelled to com­pose, craft­ing an ele­gant melody with haunt­ing strings on his iPad while nurs­ing the man who brought him life and char­ac­ter but who was never able to hear this cre­ation. My fa­ther’s brother, in re­cent cor­re­spon­dence, wrote that life had dealt my fa­ther some pretty bad cards. First be­ing born with what he termed an af­flic­tion, then hav­ing to spend his child­hood as a boarder away from his fam­ily, and then hav­ing to suf­fer at the hands of a cruel and preda­tory step­fa­ther. For many, this may have been a fast track to in­ter­gen­er­a­tional poverty and in­car­cer­a­tion. And yet I write while my brother com­poses.

Our po­lit­i­cal sys­tems spend in­or­di­nate amounts of time and money on ap­proaches to achieve good so­cial out­comes. I won­der whether there is a les­son with broad pol­icy res­o­nance that might be drawn from my fa­ther’s life. My fam­ily mi­grated to Aus­tralia in the 1980s, in part as a means of re­al­is­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties present in Aus­tralia, and in part as a means of avoid­ing the in­ter­fer­ence of fam­ily who had lit­tle trust in my deaf par­ents’ ca­pac­ity to rear a fam­ily. Aus­tralia rep­re­sented free­dom and op­por­tu­nity. Things were not al­ways easy. With­out a car for sev­eral years, I re­call that my fa­ther would of­ten walk the 7km to work. His ca­pac­ity to do what was needed to pay bills and put food on the ta­ble meant the bit­ing cold and wet of win­ter was no hin­drance. Even­tu­ally the house was paid off.

While he avoided in­ter­fer­ence from fam­ily, the state even­tu­ally rose to the oc­ca­sion. Af­ter a vol­un­tary re­dun­dancy, state-sanc­tioned as­sess­ment found that de­spite a his­tory, will­ing­ness and ca­pac­ity for work, he was un­fit. The mythol­ogy of the dis­abil­ity pen­sion as a haven for bludgers be­lies the soul-de­stroy­ing ef­fect of the state in­form­ing a cit­i­zen that he can no longer con­trib­ute to our econ­omy.

So many hard­ships, yet so much joy was found in life. The tears and emo­tion he ex­pressed when Wim­ble­don pro­gres­sively moved from Non-League to First Di­vi­sion to FA Cup tri­umph, over­com­ing the dar­lings of Europe, were em­blem­atic of his ap­proach to life. The un­der­dog had shown it had some­thing to of­fer, with money and pedi­gree un­able to with­stand its char­ac­ter.

My brother and I have qual­i­fi­ca­tions from the best univer­sity in the coun­try and earn in­comes well above the av­er­age. This emerges from a fam­ily where ed­u­ca­tion was val­ued and cu­rios­ity cul­ti­vated. Child­hood com­pe­ti­tion was of­ten cen­tred on gen­eral knowl­edge. The ques­tion ‘‘What is the cap­i­tal of Bo­livia?’’ has a spe­cial mean­ing in my fam­ily.

I be­moan the lack of promi­nence of fam­ily in pub­lic dis­course. I know first­hand that the best so­lu­tions can be found in the home, in the safe keep­ing of a lov­ing fam­ily, free from out­side in­ter­fer­ence grounded in un­founded as­sump­tions of what is pos­si­ble.

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