I sometimes wonder why I need to be twelve thousand kilometres away from all the precious memories that had become engrained in me. Maybe this is for me to hear a touching story of people that do not necessarily share my culture, a story that has stayed with me since I heard it.
“Grantham is a tiny town west of Brisbane, in the Lockyer Valley that was devastated by flash floods on the 10th of January 2011. Many people have tragically lost their lives, homes and businesses with much of the town destroyed. The town has become known as “Australia's Ground Zero”. (Yahoo News, 15 January, 2011)
Almost two weeks after the flood, Ruth* waits for me in the waiting room of the Withcott Medical Centre, approximately 20 km from Grantham. She displays the vulnerability which one would expect of an 84 year old. We shake hands gently, and I do what I always do: check for synchronicity between her mouth and eyes. And in my eyes she appears 44, allowing her soul to shine through. Souls are, after all, ageless, and it is easier to speak with someone of my own age. She smiles and says that I need to sit close to her – her hearing aid and glasses were swept away in the flood. Our knees close to each other before we talk- bedroom parliament as our elders would refer to. She tells her story:
She and her husband, Clyde* (87), have been living with their 62 year old son, John* on his plot in Grantham. John grows vegetables and delivers it in the early hours of the morning. On 10 January her hardworking son is busy outside, and he freeze for a moment when he looks up and sees a wall of water rolling threateningly towards him. He runs to his elderly parent's cottage, and while the water starts flowing in, he grabs both his parents' hands. The water washes around their ankles, and Ruth falls. John pulls her up and shouts that they need to head for the shed. His heart drops to his shoes as they battle past Cocky, his beloved cockatiel. Cocky flounders in his cage while the water rises. They continue their struggle through the water and mercifully they reach the shed. John lifts his parents on a workbench while the water rises above chest height. He ties a rope around their bodies as the water still pours into the shed. They realise that the shed will become a water grave if they do not escape.
There is no other way out – they need to escape under the rubber roller-door. Mercifully, all three heads pop like corks out of the water. A utility van has been propped against the tree stump outside the shed. John swims to the oasis and climbs onto the roof of the vehicle. He guides his parents with the rope to a safer place at the back of the ute but they are too weak to climb on top. A helicopter flies overhead and the pilot accepts that the man on the roof is relatively safe. He does not notice the two elderly people hanging frantically onto the back of the ute. It feels like hours in the water until the helicopter shows up again.
Ruth's fingers slip through waves of grey hair as she explains that only yesterday she was still washing black mud out of it. She looks vulnerable as she explains that the doctor did a test and is of the opinion that she had a light heart attack. Throughout our discussion it remains a mystery as to how she survived this trauma.
I excuse myself to go and collect Clyde from the waiting room. His handshake is surprisingly strong for someone of his age. He stands proud, dressed in a Brisbane Broncos rugby shirt. His grey hair slightly outnumbers the black ones- all falling naturally into a middle path. We enter the consulting room, and he takes over the story from her. I write everything down. She adds: “You know my legs are strong; I never fell, I tripped...”she smiles mischievously. They never lose eye contact. “Forever young”, I think. I touch Ruth gently on her arm, it's bruised from top to bottom. She soothes her arm gently and says, “The paramedics said they almost lost me. Apparently I was too tiny for the harness”. Clyde gazes downwards and for the first time looks despondent, describing how he looked up and saw Ruth's small body swirling 30 metres in the air. He says that he would not have survived it if anything had gone wrong. He adds: “When they put us down in the helicopter, they stripped us of all our clothes. It was like being born again – we lost everything and did not even have clothes, we were like babies”.
I was in South Africa on a month long holiday when I saw the disturbing images of the floods in Australia that floated on television. My thoughts wander off to two weeks ago when I had to say goodbye to my parents in South Africa. Mom said that she would say goodbye in the flat, it would be too difficult outside. Dad walked out with us. I drove down the long road to the old age home's gate. Amunda (my wife) said softly: “Don't look in the rear view mirror”. It was impossible. He stood in the road, his body bent and his cap windblown. I braked and while the twins, James and Kate (10), were puzzled I got out and held him. I wondered for how long this would be possible as every day after seventy is apparently borrowed time. He told me that I stole his heart at birth.
“My son is a hero”, as Clyde brings me back. “We're hardy people”, he says with gentle eyes. Clyde tells me how they arrived as pioneers at virgin country. A double-edged sword – on the one hand being fed, and on the other hand being punished by the elements. He tells me how, as a youngster during the Depression years, he collected a few cents and bought himself a big chocolate Easter Egg. His mom preserved it for sentimental reasons. Inside this egg is a toy, but for the past eighty years Clyde did not know what the toy looks like. It is a secret. Clyde tells excitedly that the Easter egg is still preserved and that it miraculously survived the flood and has been found on the property.
On the way to the door, I asked Clyde if he will be opening the Easter egg to see what toy is hidden inside. He smiles and says: “It will remain a secret, mate...”
On Clyde and Ruth's last visit to the practice. I give them each a hug and they assure me that I may share their story.
*Pseudonyms were used to protect the couple's identity.
Dr James Scott
St Andrews Medical Centre
280 North Street Toowoomba