Peter Leith is 89 and describes himself as ‘half-deaf and half-blind’, but he has never been one to dwell on his challenges. A mother’s love continues his series of true short stories and observations.
She was born ‘out-of-wedlock’ in 1894 and became a very strong, determined woman. With very firm ideas about the inadequacies of the male sex, she decided, at an early age, that she would one day marry and “have two children – two boys, two years apart”. To that statement, she would later add, “And I had two boys, two years, one month and six days apart.”
Throughout their childhood, the older boy provided ‘top cover’ for his younger brother, while their parents quarrelled.
Not surprisingly, her marriage, to a man who had enlisted in 1914 at the age of 17 and survived four years of trench warfare, was turbulent and finally broke up when the boys were aged 10 and eight respectively.
They were forbidden to have anything to do with their father again – ever. To do so would be “betraying me”.
The older son, a boy of Mensa-level intelligence and considerable sensitivity, had the misfortune to be conscripted into the air force in 1945, at the age of 18. He became a radiotelegraph operator; five years of doing nothing more worthwhile than sit for hours, alone, headphones on head on remote airfields on the Pakistan-Iran border.
By the time he was demobilised at the age of 23, he was well on the way to becoming a schizophrenic. He was institutionalised for the first time at the age of 25. His younger brother had to sign the committal papers because their mother, who had called the police, could not bring herself to sign them.
On discharge, he ‘went bush’ for the first time and remained a nomad for the rest of his life. His mother pursued him whenever she knew his whereabouts and ‘made a home for him’ in a small, rented caravan in a down-market caravan park.
On each occasion their living together ended with him taking off again.
When vagrancy became intolerable, he would commit some act of minor, non-violent (he was always a gentle man) petty larceny. For example, walking off with two shovels from a road work site got him three months’ ‘respite-care’ in jail.
He discovered that some prisons were more comfortable than the open road and infinitely preferable to his asylum experience.
This behaviour usually resulted in his whereabouts becoming known to his family, and enabled his mother to catch up with him again.
Finally, she was admitted to hospital in Brisbane with dementia. She died there at the age of 87. Whether her older son knew she was there or was in Brisbane is not known.
The older son died of pneumonia, ‘the old man’s friend’, in 1999 at the age of 72.
I am the younger son. I will, forever, be grateful to him for the protection he gave me from all that he suffered – alone.
Do you have a story or an observation for Peter? Send it to [email protected] and put ‘Sunday’ in the subject line.