17 February 2016, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, Australia
Tony Wilson hosted a 'Show and Tell for Grown Ups' session at the The Wheeler Centre. The other guests were Sofija Stefanovic and Alison Lester. There will be more Show and Tell for Grown Ups in July 2016.
Tony: It is, ladies and gentlemen, it's a stick.
Rob: If I put it there it blends into the background though, you can't see, it's got a camouflage going on. Maybe... can you see that? Alright. There you are.
Tony: It's a stick.
Rob: It's my stick!
Tony: So, talk us through, ah, a stick.
Rob: So, I was thinking about this, and this stick kinda comes within a story, within a story, I think. And certainly by the end of this, we'll know whether there's a story in it at all.
So that stick, was in my house growing up, it was always part of our lives. My mum and dad were amazing cooks, my dad loved cooking curries, and for as long as I can remember, that stick was in our kitchen, in Bayview, which was my home where you get a real sense of home.
And that stick was used to stir our curries.
And at some point, I think in my teens, I learned that that stick was brought into my family when – before I was born – about 18 months before I was born, when my mum and dad and two older sisters were living in New Zealand and my older brother Richard was born.
And at eight weeks of age, my brother Richard died of cot-death, and my mum and my dad and my sisters walked down to the beach, on a lonely cold, windy day. An Australian family sitting on a beach in New Zealand, trying to gather courage together, and they picked up that stick. And they bought it home. And I learned about that when I was in my teens, and it was always this wonderful thing, it was something that was just there and we always used it and it was part of our life.
And then my mum and dad got a bit older, and as wise parents do, when they start to get older, they divested themselves of all these things that, should they go under a bus, it won't mean anything to anyone else –
[adjusts wilting microphone] Hang on, I'm an old roadie, don't worry about this. Being an actor, you can pretty much do EVERY job...um ...Coffee anyone?
Tony: A long time since you've done those ones though, isn't it?
Rob: (laughs) So, yeah, when older people ... being sensible ... so they gave it to me. It was my stick. 'Cos I was the replacement boy. And so I now got this stick and I then have it my house and I've got twin boys, my eleven year old boys, and I explain to them everything that goes on in my life, and I tell them that this is my stick and this is how we came to get it. And they call it ‘The Stick Of Richard Life’. My little boys call it ‘The Stick Of Richard Life’, so that's the name.
So here's where the story gets into a bit of a different sort of story and it starts to go slightly skewiff. Right. Oh, and don't worry about me, I do get emotional, but trust me, I'm feeling fine ...(laughs)
So we then, in Sydney we do something that's called Story Club, and we sit down and write a sixteen hundred word story and we read it out in a big oversized chair. Now the theme of Story Club this month was 'Sense of impending doom' – write a story about when you had a sense of impending doom.
Now, here's the bizarre thing. I don't have a sense of impending doom. I've never had a sense of impending doom, and it remains one of the great mysteries of my life, how my mum and dad were able to bring me up in a world that was only ever going to shine on me, that was only ever going to give me joy and wonder and happiness if I showed it to the world.
I was never mollycoddled, I never ever got a sense that this world would take me away. And how my mum and dad did that after going through what they went through, remains a mystery.
So, I wrote this story. And I framed my story up with this stick, and talked about the irony of growing up without this impending doom, given everything I should have had should have been fear and worry.
So I write this story, and I read it out and it was good, man! I nailed it. (laughs)
But then, of course, I've gotta tell my mum and dad, and I’ve done this thing, and am I cashing in on the family heartache and grief? ... and then, oh dearie me, I wasn't doing that, I know what I'm like, I was honest and clear in my intent. So I wasn't doing that, but for the first time ever, I felt reticent. A little. To tell my mum and dad about my story that I'd written for fear of the emotions that it would bring up.
And shortly thereafter I came down to Melbourne, and I was having dinner, and I did think to myself, what shall I do in this situation? And so I do what I always do, I arrived and spilled my guts immediately - (laughs), that’s just how I roll.
And so that led to this, um – now we're gonna be here 'til eight o'clock – So I told my mum and dad, this is what I've done. And of course my mum and dad are amazing people, and so emotionally courageous, and transparent and we talked about that, the detail, I'd never really got an understanding of what my dad went through.
My dad’s framing of those horrible days back in New Zealand forty six years ago was always 'it was so much worse for your mum', 'you see, Rob, back then our lives, it was segregated, I would go to work but your mum was at home with the children, and she carried Richard, and she was looking after Richard, and she was with Richard for every hour of every day’, and this was my understanding of that time. And in fact, my story, when I wrote it, it focused on that moment that my sister would tell me, she stills remembers that moment of mum running down the garden path, saying 'He's gone! He's gone!'
And it's a heartbreaking image in my mind, but that was my memory of this time, and I wrote this story. So I have this interesting evening with my mum and dad, and then I go to the theatre just down here, and my older sister, by chance – it's her birthday and she's at the theatre – and she rarely goes to the theatre, and I hadn't organised to be there with her, she was there with her husband and we go and see a show together – it was poor – and we meet in the foyer afterwards, we go to the Curve Bar afterwards, and they say, ‘how are you’ and I say I'm really well, but I've just had this really interesting, incredible night with mum and dad talking about the detail of that day Richard died.’
And I said, ’you know, I'd talked about this, and I'd talked about that and I said about the moment with mum running down the garden path ... and I was just sad ...’
And she said, 'Oh, but Rob, that's not the clearest memory of my day.'
I said, ‘what is it?'
And she said, 'Dad.'
And I'd never heard anything about my Dad's response on that day. I'd only ever heard it through the prism of dad saying 'it was so much worse for your mum', and that was it.
I said, ‘What do you mean?’
Now I may lose it through this bit, again don't worry, I'm brave.
So we're standing in the Curve Bar, having this conversation, and my sister says, 'My most potent memory of that day, when they put Richard in the back of the ambulance – Dad banging on the roof of the ambulance, and howling.'
And she told me that, and I had this emotional punch, it was like a fist jamming into my chest and I literally went [howls] and bent down and started sobbing and sobbing, and I couldn't stand up and I bent down to my knees and it was, I was like a groaning wreck.
I've never felt anything like that in my life. Nothing since, nothing before. And at that moment I felt guilt, and I felt shame. I felt that I hadn't honoured my father's grief, I felt as a son I didn't really know the truth of the most horrific thing in my father's life. And I'd written a story and I honoured my mum and her bravery and courage and optimism.
But, I felt like I'd sold my father out a little bit.
It was an astonishing moment. And being what I am, I needed to kind of try and make a reparation. So, I thought about this and a week or two later I –
Oh and then mum and dad said, ‘Will you show us the story?’ Haah, shit! And it's mad. I mean like, it's an adventure story, it's a road trip story, so, no sense of impending doom, man. And me and my buddy go on a road trip, we hitch-hike, we spend a night with an attempted murderess, there's nudity, there's panel vans, there's you know, a lot of low-level criminality, and I think, but, you can read that mum and dad, but there's also The Stick Of Richard Life stuff.
So I sent it to them and Mum and Dad read it and they ring up and they say, 'Oh, we read your story' and say some nice (things) and dad gets on the phone, and he’s very proper and he says, 'Ooh helloo' – you know I've written plays – and he says, 'I've seen a lot of the things you've done, Rob, but, I've never read your prose, and they're quite beautiful, crisp, not too many long words, very clear, I mean beautifully done, a lovely story, obviously very sad, and I'm sure the people that heard it were crying, but in terms of the quality of the literature, very well done.'
I'm sittin' there thinking, fu-uck.
I said, 'Thanks dad, but I gotta say..', this thing – and I didn't want to talk about that moment [indicates banging on the roof of the ambulance] it was not for me to bring up, that moment - but I did say, I'd been thinking about this, and I said, ‘You know dad, I really don't feel that I've ever really, I guess, honoured or accepted or talked to you about what you really went through, it's always been through the prism of a family, through the prism of what mum went through and what my sisters, but I never really ...’
And he said 'Oh no, well yes, it was obviously very very difficult, very sad', but – and then boom, like a switch, straight to the dominant story – it was so much worse for your mother, there was nothing really difficult for me, I had to go to work, this is the way it was, it's your mother, it's your mother, it's your mother.
And I didn't test it further, because that is my Dad's story.
Now, two things to come out of this: one, I think it gave me an insight into what it is different members of the family do, and when we come to an experience and we walk away with our own story of it, each member of a family, each member of that experience has their own narrative that they need so that they can keep moving forward in a way that helps everybody get forward. And at that point in time, I truly believe that my dad needed to sublimate the heartache and the pain of what it is to lose his only son, in order for my mum to repair, and my sisters to grow, and for me, should I arrive, to be born into a world that still has hope, and that every time I go to sleep isn't the most frightening time in the world, for a family. Which I think it would have been. So I think that's what my dad had to do, and that's what he clung to, and that was his story.
And then the thing I've been thinking on, in this last month – my dad died on Christmas Eve – it wasn't guilt I felt that day, or shame or sadness, when my sister told me about that image [indicates banging both hands on the roof] and the ambulance. I have a feeling it was an inherited memory.
The feeling was so visceral, it was so strong, it was, I mean, the time was instantaneous, when my sister said this was what your dad did, I hit the deck and I was howling, and I don't know how we as human beings learn, what we learn, what knowledge is innate, what we're born with, what's nature, what's nurture, but it's my feeling that that particular experience that my dad went through forty six years ago, has somehow, through the wonder of procreation found its way somewhere into my heart and body, and my dad's experience rests now with me.
That's my stick.