Find the Courage to Go On (April 2006)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:22

Saga Magazine

April 2006

Find the Courage to Go On

Amongst the presents for my seventieth-fifth birthday that my son gave me was an actual copy of the Sydney Morning Herald for Wednesday, December 17, 1930, the day I was born. It made very interesting reading because, for all the changes that have taken place over my life, it showed that some things remain the same.

In the classified advertisements there were plenty of horses for sale, while at Vaucluse Heights there was a five-roomed cottage with harbour views for £1295. To buy a similar property in Vaucluse today you’d need to add three noughts to that figure and then some. However, the forecast was for hot weather and Athol Bell, aged thirty, was charged with drunk driving. So nothing’s changed there then. On the same page where Don Bradman reported on the thousand runs he’d made in England in May (‘We had the honour of being received by the King and Queen. They made us feel entirely at home.’) is a short report which reads

WOMAN AND BABY Drowned in a Dam

Finley, Tuesday

Mrs Thomas Masters, aged 34, drowned her three-month-old baby and herself in a dam on Casey’s farm, 19 miles from Finley, on Monday afternoon. At the time her husband was in Finley attending the funeral of Miss Maude Stubbs, who was killed in a motor accident on Sunday. A daughter, aged 12, returning home from school, found a note in which her mother stated her intention to drown herself. Returning home, the father found the body of the baby floating in the dam. The mother’s body was recovered some hours later.

Finley is a small country town in south central New South Wales, west of the Great Dividing Range and far from any town of significant size. Casey’s farm would have been nothing but brown paddocks, empty but for a few cattle, some scrub and a few scattered eucalypts, in December all dry and hot.

On that Monday afternoon Mrs Thomas Masters would have walked across a dusty paddock to the dam. There might have been a hot, searing wind, or perhaps everything was still with shimmers of heat rising in the distance. In the heat the birds with their raucous cries are silent. The water in the dam is muddy, warm at the top but cold and dark in the depths. She wades into the dam at the spot where the cattle come to drink, her feet sinking in the mud. Perhaps she knelt down and cast her baby into the water. Little babies drown in seconds, but she would have to go further into the depths of the water and, not struggling, let herself go down. Perhaps she carried some stones in her pockets.

I can imagine all this, but the one thing I don’t know is her name. Married women then didn’t have public names. All they had was their husband’s name with a ‘Mrs’ in front of it. Perhaps, before she was married, Thomas Masters called her by her Christian name but, once she was married and a mother, he probably called her Mum, as would her daughter. If you don’t have a name, how can you feel that you are a person? Since 1930 women have reclaimed their names, but many women, and many men, still make the equivalent of Mrs Masters’ lonely walk to the dam.

Ordinarily we all try to keep ourselves alive. We’re careful crossing the road and we consult the doctor when we’re ill. But there are two situations in which we are prepared to let ourselves die. These situations call forth acts of heroism or acts of suicide. If you read an account of people who risked their life to save others and who survived, they all give much the same answer when someone congratulates them on their bravery. In effect, they all say, ‘If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.’ What they are saying is that they want to think of themselves as being someone who is courageous and who looks after other people. If they had not carried their heroic act they would not be the person whom they knew themselves to be.

Living a life where we cannot be the person we know ourselves to be soon becomes intolerable. If we value ourselves and we see an opportunity to escape we take it, but, when we don’t value ourselves and we feel that no escape is possible, we contemplate suicide. Mrs Masters, without a name to call her own and no doubt diminished by that, knew that, if she abandoned her husband and children, society would condemn her as a bad woman. She wanted to see herself as being a good woman, and so to her the only possible escape was suicide. She did have an alternative. She could have seen herself as a not-that-good a person who valued herself too much to throw her life away and who would do something to make her life more enjoyable, even if that was only doing less housework and taking more naps.

People who kill themselves delude themselves that they have no alternative. We always have alternatives in how we interpret the situation in which we find ourselves. Even if we’re dying of an incurable illness we still have a choice of dying bravely without complaint, or of making life as difficult as possible for those around us, or all the variations in between these interpretations. Many people who kill themselves say they are doing it for the sake of their families, but this too is a delusion. Family and friends never recover fully from such a death. They remain angry, sad, and often guilty because they feel that they failed the person they loved.

The children of suicides are especially harmed. Research shows that the suicide of a parent increases the chances of that the children too will commit suicide. This has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with learning from their parent that, ‘When life’s tough, give up.’ Even if there is nothing else you can do for your children, even if they’re grown up and able to look after themselves, you can give them the example of living courageously. If you can do it, so can they. I’ve discovered the name of Mrs Masters. It’s on her gravestone in Finley cemetery where she’s buried with her unnamed baby and her husband Thomas. She was Jesse Ellen, recorded not only on her gravestone but on the Finley cemetery website. Her baby would have celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday three months before mine.