Giving my own little bit to eternity


Writing is my life-long thing that I do. I’ve always written. When I’m in the zone, with the muse, the creative mindforce – what ever you want to call it – I’m somewhere else. Completely absorbed. It’s more than creative expression. It feels like tapping into something universal, outside of myself.

As a lawyer, I write every day. I craft arguments, tell legal stories designed to persuade. My professional writing is in the form of formal letters of advice, or outlines of argument filed in court, but it’s still about storytelling. About flow. About ideas.

I wrote my first book aged 11. It won an A+ from my year 6 teacher Mrs Ferguson at Clapham Primary School. It was a sci-fi picture book. My second book was “Fast Disposal and Safe Return” about road safety which I illustrated and bound myself, complete with dust jacket and marbled frontspiece. “Fast Disposal” had creative scenarios for killing yourself on the road, such as backing a truck into a public swimming pool or hopping blind-folded over the busiest road you could find to be dismembered in the oncoming traffic. “Safe Return” was about doing the right thing, obeying the road rules, being sensible. Mr Young, my year 7 teacher, gave it this review; “A very good idea for getting people interested in the real message. Charming drawings.”

By age 11, I had been keeping a diary for a while, and writing came naturally. Inside the pale blue vinyl cover of this diary, which I still have, is my father’s handwriting “Best wishes for Xmas 1978. Love from Mum and Dad.” Inside, I recounted my summer holidays (many entries about the beach and friends’ pools) and the return to school (“Mrs Ferguson is picky! Played overlanders at lunch. Not that exciting.”) I recorded my delight at our family buying land in country South Australia, and plans for building our new house. I recorded departures; “Uncle Harold died today. We went over to Aunty Jean’s because Daddy had to talk to the undertaker. All my cousins were there. The kids had to stay outside.” And arrivals; “It was charity day today. We had a raffle and sold lollies. We made $11.89. But best thing of all was Helen had her baby. A baby cousin called Andrew Carnegie.”

My diary went on to record the first days of high school, trying to fit in as a bookish nerd with poor ball skills in a sports mad rural town. There was endless teenage angst in what by then had the more sophisticated title of “journal”. But now my gaze was broader and I was also writing about local events, like the Ash Wednesday bushfires on 8 February 1983:

Watching the McLaren Flat fire from our hill, we could see flames racing down the distant hills through the binoculars. At night a shower of rain fell, but helped the situation little. On going outside an incredible spookily beautiful sight met our eyes. The whole of the hills where the fire had been was smouldering in thousands of tiny pin-pricks of red light. It looked as though a new city had sprung up instantly on the distant hills.”

By now I had aspirations of being a writer, a journalist, and in year 11 with my friend had started a student newspaper. I managed to get work experience at a local rag, the Victor Harbour Times. They liked me and offered me a job. But I declined. I wanted to go to Uni and learn to be a serious journalist. Not some small time hack. No, I was going to be an investigative reporter, a Lois Lane of South Australia.

I did get to Uni, and that’s when my world fell apart. Dad dropped dead from a massive heart attack.

Now the world was bleak. I’d been shown that life contained darkness and sorrow. I knew grief. I stopped writing my journal as recounting pain just made it worse.

But I persevered with my studies. With my shiny new degree I got a job in Adelaide at The Advertiser as a cadet journalist. I was completely unprepared for how much I hated it. Still reeling from the shock of losing my dear Dad, who was not only my father but my friend, my ally, my reference point, I felt adrift. This wasn’t writing. I couldn’t do this. The only thing I ever wanted to do turned out to be the last thing I wanted. So I left those literary dreams behind and set off to see the world and find out where I fitted in it. I took my journal and my camera with me.

I travelled all over the joint. London first, as a live-in babysitter for a high society family. I backpacked Europe, several times. I taught English for a year in France. I lived in Croatia for 6 months on the rocky shore of the Adriatic. I did Bangkok, Turkey, Greece, USA, returning home in between times to settle the homesickness I felt when I was away. I was torn between the love of home, the sunburnt hills of Adelaide’s Southern Vales, and exploring the new, savouring the exotic, and always the yearning to learn about the world and my place in it.

On 5 October 1993 I wrote about a trip on the Overland to Melbourne:

“I haven’t been out of SA for more than a year. I love it here. I’ve slotted in to home. I’ve built something for myself; I’ve got foundations. But for two days away I’m excited. It’s only Keswick Railway Station, but I stride down the platform. It’s only Melbourne with Tracy, but I’m alert and awake and alive. There are a Greek couple in front and group of Lebanese youths behind. The Greeks are being waved goodbye by friends on the platform. There’s a bum who looks drunk and has his shoes off. They stink. People are running down the platform and waving. There’s excitement and sadness, so much emotion and life in a railway station.”

At home, while in one of a series of casual jobs, this time working as an admin assistant at the Alliance Française (I spoke the lingo reasonably well since my stint teaching in France), I decided I had had enough of the officious French director (“Mais non! Julianne – he never pronounced my name correctly – do eet like zis!”) I needed to do something a bit more serious than stuffing envelopes or taking messages. I applied for law at uni, not thinking I’d get in. I realised that I needed structure, a career, a challenge. And I needed money. I did get in, and to my complete astonishment, loved it. It was one big puzzle, and I loved trying to work out the answer. Plus it involved writing. Heaps and heaps of it. It suited me fine.

With a steady legal job I had enough money to realise my dream of adopting a child. Having one biologically wasn’t going to be part of my life story. I was lucky enough to adopt two babies who have grown into a thoughtful, caring, energetic son and a graceful, smart and sassy daughter. Of course, I wrote about it in my journal.

My volumes and volumes of handwritten journals collect dust on my shelf now. Facebook and WordPress have replaced them, and recently Shutterstock have accepted my photos for sale (that’s been my other passion). And only recently I’ve tentatively started submitting articles for publication again. “The pain of losing my husband – what it taught me at 50” was accepted by the website Mamamia and was my first success.

If you read the Mamamia piece, you’ll understand my new driving force. I lost Anthony, the love of my life, in a brutally short time, to brain cancer earlier this year. In the shock of the diagnosis, in my despair, I turned to my old friend my journal, to help me process the unfolding nightmare. In quiet moments, when not too exhausted from my caring role, or too emotionally drained from receiving one lot of bad news after another, I would retreat to my lap top and spew forth my inner most thoughts. I recorded everything. The visits to the doctor, the hospital, his deteriorating condition, the ambulance trips, the paralysis, the surgery, our two weddings (one in ICU the night before his crainiotomy, another proper one a few weeks later), the caring, the intimacy and the terrible end.

Whereas before, when my father died, the journal became too painful to keep, now I turned to it to sustain me through the pain. The journal became my priest, my confessor. It gave me strength and from it I took counsel. And in it I have recorded Anth’s courage and love for me, two themes which continue to sustain me since he has gone.

Since Anth’s passing I’ve thought a lot about life and death. About an afterlife, and about the point of it all. What’s left after the Universe has pronounced “That’s it. Time’s up. Time to go”? What do you pass on, your contribution, your legacy? What do you leave to eternity?

The other day, one of my colleagues quipped “Have you made sense of the meaningless universe yet?” “Haven’t had time,” I quipped back. And that’s true. To dull the pain post-Anth I have immersed myself in distraction. There’s work (a necessary distraction), kids, family and friends (a welcome distraction), fundraising for cancer research, travel to New Caledonia and then Fraser Island (two bucket list destinations). I have volunteered at the hospital charity Flinders Foundation and made efforts to start advocating for better services for brain cancer sufferers with politicians and doctors. Of course, I’ve written about each of these things.

But what I really want to do is to write about Anth.

In a way, I feel I have a moral duty to fulfil a promise – to write his story, to complete the journal and turn it into a book. To share his struggle and his triumph, his grand tragedy, with the world. I’m the only one who can. I witnessed it all, as supporting actress to his lead role.

Anth’s two great legacies are love and courage. His is a case study in courage. He looked death and debilitating illness in the face and told them “Fuck you”. I want to broadcast his legacy, and by doing that maybe I will be closer to making some sense of this meaningless universe and give my own little bit to eternity.

In my mind there is a vault with a massive steel door. Inside the vault are all the memories. But it is more than memory. They are events suspended in time. I feel if I open that door I can step inside, back to the past, to be with him, to be there again. I will step back and write it all down for you. And then, on this blog, I’ll let you know that it’s done.


Anth in hat
RK Smith
My Dad, RK Smith, in his 20s