Just a Rough Diamond – By Sandra Spadea


Graphic is stylised portrait .. to the left is author Sandra Spade a and her parents. To the right is David, subject of the article.
Graphic is stylised portrait .. to the left is author Sandra Spadea and her parents. To the right is David, subject of the article.

David was my baby brother, only 2 years younger than I. Our childhood was idyllic and always fun. Our first language was Auslan. I am Deaf. David was not; he was a CODA. Mum and Dad always said David and I were too close, too alike.

David was a talented basketball and football player. He won many awards. When he was young he also tried his hand at cooking. His recipes were always delicious. He often made me laugh, he had a wonderful sense of humour. He had the knack for turning the ugly into funny. He was tall, handsome and charming. His biggest love in life was music, loud and loads of it. He had a passion for Holden cars and women, and women in turn, loved him.

He was also intensely protective of his family. He was my best friend. In difficult times he was always the first to call. In happy times, like on the birth of my children, he shared the joy with me. Every meeting ended with an “I love you!”

I initially started writing about David late last year after seeking my parent’s permission. Shortly after I started writing, the media was full of stories about the then execution of the Bali boys. My social media newsfeed was awash with negative comments supporting the death penalty. It left me sick to my stomach.

My children were sensitive to all the attention towards the execution of the Bali boys. It got so bad I had to turn the TV off. I thank God that my kids were not on Facebook. The media saturation focusing on the execution of the Bali boys made me stop writing. Perhaps it was just easier for me to pretend that it was not happening.

You see my brother was a drug addict.

He first took heroin at the tender age of thirteen.  He had fallen into a wrong group of ‘new’ friends. He stole to feed his addiction. By the age of fifteen he was in juvenile detention. As a measure of how much David loved his ‘Deaf’ family he advocated successfully to get a TTY for the detention centre. In this way he was able to communicate with us all regularly.

He spent 17 years in and out of the prison system. We, his family, didn’t tolerate his crimes and he knew it. He was extremely remorseful. Mum and dad visited him regularly. Whenever I visited Perth with my children and their dad, we always visited him in prison. One would hope that being in prison would have kept David safe from drugs. This was not the case. Despite the security, drugs still found their way into the prison system.

I recently asked my children’s dad, Rino, what he assumed before meeting David for the first time in prison. His responded, “I’d never been to a prison. I thought he’d be tough and a hard man.” After the visit Rino had been surprised that my brother was gentle, easy to get on with and had a great sense of humour. Rino realised that David loved his family dearly.

When we visited my brother in prison, he spoilt my children rotten. He would shower them with ice cream, lollies and chocolate milk. For those judgemental people who might think he bought these treats with taxpayer money, he did not. He paid for them with money provided by my mum and dad.

After one such visit, and having indulged in too many lollies, my kids farted all the way home. It was disgusting. The next day we came back to see him again, with the stink still fresh in our memory. I grumbled to David as I told him about it. He laughed heartily. We all laughed along with him. My kids still giggle at the memory.

On a few occasions prison officials asked David to interpret for other deaf offenders in prison. David always told the officials that this was inappropriate and they should get a qualified interpreter. His protests were always ignored.

During one visit I asked David if he had spoken to a counsellor/psychologist while in prison. He bemoaned the fact that the counsellors had no understanding of his experience of being a CODA and also having a Deaf sister. He felt they had no awareness of deafness, and felt he should not have to explain when he could have been talking about himself. Today this still bothers me as I also have CODA children. Mental health professionals have no understanding of just how important it is to ensure that families of CODAs get access to support services. In this way they can better support CODA children who are experiencing difficulties like David. They can also get much needed support for themselves.

Every time he was released, mum and dad were always there for him. They were his only support because the prison system offered David no support for rehabilitation. How society views people like David is appalling. The responsibility for David’s support, post-prison, fell heavily on the family.

On his last release from prison, David vowed never to go back. He was happy. He had a girlfriend. Despite this he became depressed as the months went by.  He worried for his future. He confided to my mum and dad that he thought no one would ever employ him. Mum and dad suggested he talk to me because I also live with depression. He never sought support from me. He would send me short and sweet text messages to tell me he loved me, but that was all.

One day a letter came in the mail for David. Mum opened it. The letter was an invitation to a job interview. A friend had recommended the company to David because the company were empathetic towards the needs of people like David. It was too late. A few weeks before, David had been tragically taken from us in a car accident. This had been his longest stretch, ever, outside of prison.

His death broke us all. He was only 32. His farewell was beautiful. My nana could not believe how many people attended David’s funeral. My late uncle said in his eulogy,  “David was a natural interpreter, you always knew he explained your view the best way. David, like many youth got into trouble, he served his time and paid his debt to society in full. While David was doing time he acknowledged it was a pretty tough time in his life and he confided in me and said, ‘Uncle Stan, there is no way I would have served my time without the love and full support of mum ‘n’ dad.”  Without that ongoing support that we provided to David, I think we would have lost him much earlier.

David was extremely grateful for the support that his family gave him and never forgot it. Although David never got the chance to tell us before he died, his actions always showed us how important that we all were to him. At the funeral one of David’s favourite songs, Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, blared through speakers.  It was interpreted for us all wonderfully and left us with goose bumps.

I’ve never been ashamed of David as my brother. I am protective of him and my family. Society can be very judgemental.  Society judges without considering all of the issues. My family have certainly endured a few of society’s judgement. More than a few really. Last year I was labelled as ‘ a drug addict’s sister’ even though David had been gone for 5 years. To put it politely, I didn’t let it slide. The person apologised.

My family have wonderful and trusted friends who supported us through the difficult years. They kept us sane. In almost 20 years it still staggers me that Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings are still not accessible for Deaf/Hard of Hearing addicts and families like mine. Families are encouraged to attend NA meetings for their own support needs and also to support family members who are addicts. That these meetings were not accessible to mum, dad and myself made it harder for us to understand and support David.

I know in my heart David would give me a high five with his wicked laugh for writing this. He would appreciate others knowing how much we cared for him and loved him. I will always miss David. His passing is bittersweet. I am so glad that he’s not caged on this earth any more. He is free to fly. I know he’s looking over his family.

Mum and dad, this is for you. Thank you for showing me what real parenting is about and for allowing me to write about David.

When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever
Said I’ll always be a friend
Took an oath I’m a stick it out ’til the end
Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella

Rihanna, Umbrella

An Ordinary Life

dadMy dad is going through a tough time at the moment. A combination of age and Frontal Lobe Ataxia are throwing up enormous challenges for him and my mother.  My dad is just an ordinary bloke. It is a paradox that ordinary people are often the most fascinating. I may be biased, but my dad is one such person. This is my tribute to him.

Dad was born in West Ham on January 27th, 1934. West Ham is in the famous East End of London.  In 1934 Hitler was to come to power on the death of President Hindenburg. Stalin’s PURGES had begun. Mao Tse Tung was beginning the Long March that would lead to the introduction of Communism in China. 1934 was a fascinating, if somewhat dangerous and uncertain time.

My father was just five years old when WWII began. The East End was a prime target for German bombs.  The German’s knew that the East End was crucial to Britain’s war effort. It was the centre of transportation of many vital war resources. My dad told me that he would sometimes look up and see the German planes flying overhead as part of the merciless bombing of London; famously known as The Blitz.

He told me stories of watching unmanned VI Flying bombs, that were known as Doodlebugs, speeding towards their destructive purpose. Air raid sirens went off  night after night necessitating my father and his family taking safety in the London Underground. For a young lad of five or six it would have been a terrifying time to be alive.  It is worth noting that one of every ten people that died during the London Blitz was a child.

At some point my father, like 3 million other children, was evacuated from London for his safety. The evacuation was known as Operation Pied Piper.  My father was evacuated to High Wycombe. In total my father was away from his family for four years.  Operation Pied piper must have been a harrowing time for these children. Some were abused by the families that billeted them. This was no secret and the children were told by their parents to not complain and to grin and bear it. David Prest, writing for the BBC History page, had this to say about Operation Pied Piper, “….the events of those days in 1939 recalls painful memories that have been deeply hidden for 60 years, exposing the trauma of separation and isolation and the tensions of fear and anger. Most were unaware of where they were going, what they would be doing and all were wholly ignorant of when they would be coming back.”  My dad’s introduction to life was a tough and traumatic one.

It is said that more than 80 million soldiers and civilians died during WWII. It is sobering to realise that this was 4% of the worlds population at that time. The end of the war brought with it many challenges. Food was limited and rationing continued for many years after the war, well into the 1950’s. The first 20 years of my fathers life would have been lived during a time when food was scarce and luxuries were few and far between. The impact of the war was never far from the surface.

My father has a particular thing about food. Food was never to be wasted. If it was on your plate you ate it. He would often berate me as a child for not finishing my dinner. I never, ever heard him complain about food. Dad’s upbringing in the war must have influenced him greatly. He lived at a time when food was scarce. He was billeted with a family he did not know and who provided him with food and shelter. He was probably told by his parents to never complain.  Food was not to be trivialised nor wasted.  It was these times that shaped my father and his no nonsense values.

mumndadMy parents are of stoic British stock. They are not known for their expressions of love and mushiness. They married at the Registrar Office on December 17th, 1957 and celebrated at the local pub. My sister was born in 1960 and I was to follow in 1964.  I was born upstairs in a house at Eustace Road in Chadwell Heath. If you have ever seen the TV series, Call the Midwife, that’s how I was born.

In 1966 I was hospitalised for three months. My parents did not know it at the time but this illness would be the catalyst to my deafness. Doctors apparently recommended that my parents take me to a warmer healthier climate such as Australia. My parents did not wait around. They very quickly arranged  a 10 pound assisted passage and migrated to Australia. My father said, with typical understatement, “It didn’t take long to arrange.”  The speed that it was all arranged is amazing considering that they also had to sell their house.

I was discharged from hospital around July 1966. By October 1966 my parents had arranged everything and we all left London and landed in Sydney. From Sydney we eventually found our way to a migrants hostel in Wollongong. My dad did not mess around.  He got wind that there were jobs available in Adelaide. He purchased a VW Beetle and drove off to Adelaide to take a look. He did not yet have a licence.

In next to no time he had secured a job in Adelaide and found somewhere for us all to stay. He flew back to Wollongong, got the family and we all flew back to Adelaide to start our new life. The mind boggles really. This was a time before mobile phones and computers. He would have arranged this all with my mother through writing letters and sporadic phone calls to the migrant hostel from public phone booths. But that’s my dad. He just got on with it, without fuss and did what was needed.

As a young boy I often had many deep conversations with my father. We spoke of religion often. My father was never a church goer but he believed in God. His reasoning was simple. He believed that there is too much order in the world. He did not believe that this order could have been created randomly. He just did not think that things like the laws of physics were something that happened by mistake. He believes that this ‘order’ in the world has to be the work of an intelligent being. I know not what form his God takes, only that he believes.

As I rapidly lost my hearing between the ages of 8 and 10 communication with my father became more difficult. Unlike my mother and my sister, he is a bugger to lipread and still is. Those early conversations I had with my father became more and more difficult but we had them just the same. By hook or by crook my father would communicate with me. Sometimes my mother would act as an interpreter for us, as she still does to this very day. If she wasn’t there  my dad would persevere. He would write in the air or on his palm. He would rephrase what he was saying numerous times. Very rarely would he give up. He passed on many a dad joke to me in this way. My children have never forgiven him.

He and I clashed often. We would argue about everything.  We would argue about politics, soccer, the English cricket team, religion, economics – you name it. We are  both very stubborn and would very rarely concede to each others view point.  Dad has a huge intellect and thinks deeply about many issues. Indeed these intellectual stoushes I had with him, although I rarely conceded as much to him, helped me to develop the intellect and values that I possess today.

Despite his harsh and tough exterior my father is a man of deep compassion and understanding. He would never allow me to use my deafness as an excuse for anything. I recall in my twenties I had a huge argument with my dad. I was struggling at university. I had no interpreters and no note takers. I relied on getting notes from students. Most of what I learnt at university was from my own reading using subject outlines as a guide.

For a time I hit rock bottom, I simply did not turn up to lectures, I didn’t hand assignments in. It was all part of my protest as to what I saw as unfair treatment at university. I hated being discriminated against. In 1990 I took this one step too far and the university threatened to kick me out. I received a letter stating as much unless I could offer a good reason as to why I was failing.

I shared this with my dad. He was furious with me. He berated me for being lazy. He said it was all my own fault and that I did not work hard enough. His disappointment with me was palpable. I lost it with him. I screamed at him, – ” What would you know? What do you know about being at university and being deaf? Do you know what its like to sit in lectures for hours and hours and not understand a thing that’s being said? Do you know what its  like to be part of groups and to look stupid when people ask you questions and you don’t even know what they are talking about? Do you know what its like top have try and lip-read for hours on end and how tiring this is? YOU KNOW NOTHING!” These are perhaps not my exact words but they are very close.

I was a blubbering wreck. I expected my father to tell me to buck up and pull my finger out, but no. His head was bowed and I swear that there were tears in his eyes. His mouth just hung open in shock. “Alright”, he said, “You had better write to them and let them know what’s happening.” We then sat down with each other in silence for what seemed an eternity but was probably was no more than ten minutes. My fathers gruff exterior was often no more than a facade. Beneath that facade was a compassionate and empathetic man. He pushed me hard because he wanted me to succeed, but he understood my difficulties more than I ever gave him credit for.

Despite his tough upbringing and gruff facade my father is really a gentle and caring man. I never heard him say I love you to anyone but he showed it everyday. My mum used to come home from work on the bus. The bus would arrive  just before 6pm. Everyday, without fail, at around 5.50pm, my dad would put the kettle on. He would make two cuppas to be ready for when my mother arrived home. When she arrived home her cuppa would be waiting for her. They would both sit down in the lounge and my mother would talk. My father said little. Mum would talk of her day at work or pass on endless gossip. Dad would sit and listen, nodding and adding his bit here and there. This time was his quality time with my mum, its how he showed her he loved her. It is little things like this that people very rarely value. My dad did.

One of the things that I remember best about my dad was when he and mum made the last payment on their house. I had no idea that this was about to happen. They probably spoke about it at home but being deaf I was not privy to all their conversations. I remember coming home and seeing my dad sitting in front of the coffee table. The deeds for the house were spread out on the table. He had a cup of coffee and he was looking at the deeds. He wasn’t touching them, he was just looking at the deeds in silence.

He sat there for a long time, lost in his own thoughts. I fancy he was reminiscing. He would have been wondering how this child of the war, who had little and only a rudimentary education, got to where he is now. From the slums of the East End, from ruins of the London Blitz to a future in Australia where he now he now owned his house. The feeling of achievement would have been immense. He was proud, and rightly so.

That’s my dad, just an ordinary man but what an EXTRAORDINARY life it has been! His life is now winding down. He has Frontal Lobe Ataxia and has lost his mobility. He is struggling but the family are all rallying round. He has sacrificed much for us all. It’s our time to care for him.

Thanks, dad, for everything.