Letter to my granddaughters on the Human Condition

Sunday 9 September 2012

Having spent 8 wondrously funny hours with my two young granddaughters yesterday, I returned home at 8pm only to slam into a wall.

No…nothing physical…just a wall of hard, cold, sobering feeling after catching up on recent news.

The first piece I read was the 2012 Human Rights & Social Justice Lecture delivered at the University of Newcastle by Anne Summers on Friday 31 August 2012. Entitled ‘Her Rights at Work. The political persecution of Australia’s first female prime minister.’

It was a tough read indeed.

Almost immediately after reading this piece I received a message on Twitter alerting me to the passing of our Prime Minister’s father, John Gillard.

This was followed closely by another message quoting Sky News Australia’s headline: ‘Gillard misses APEC because father dead’.

It was my stomach that reacted first to all of this. With Olympic panache…it twisted my intestines into multiple knots…escalating into my lungs so I scarcely could breathe.

How could people be so utterly cruel.

My reaction had nothing to do with politics. It had everything to do with my perception that as a race we are becoming utterly de-sensitized to the human needs of others.

For the first time I had to fight down a sense of fear for my granddaughters.  I love them beyond words - delighting in their world full of love and laughter and short-lived tears; their unfolding awareness of surroundings and imaginations inhabited by Green-Footed Giraffes and Grubblezups.

I wanted to rush back and gather them in my arms but as they would have been fast asleep it was not a solution. Instead I wrote them this letter.

My darlings Olivia & Hannah

Thank you for the most wonderful day today. At nearly 4 and nearly 2 you have more energy than your Nanna can ever remember having – even when she had four children (including your mother) under the age of 5.

I’m writing this letter to you because I’ve just been reminded of something I learnt once – many years ago -and maybe when you’re a bit older it may come in handy.

I was in my mid-20s when it happened.

Your Nanna fell off a rainbow. Well…it wasn’t a real rainbow and I didn’t exactly ‘fall’…slithered more like from the top of a huge set in a television studio that had been built to look like a rainbow. A piece of the set had given-way and I landed in rather an un-gainly fashion I imagine, on the concrete floor several metres below.

I’ll cut this short because you don’t need to hear anything but the important details…sufficient to say that I was taken to hospital, diagnosed as a paraplegic, given the prognosis that I would never walk again and after several months sent home to my parents – presumably to stay for as long as they could look after me.

Well darlings, you wouldn’t believe how that changed your Nanna’s attitude to life.

For one thing I had to learn that when you live in a wheelchair…people bend down and shout at you…and I must say that that often made me laugh inwardly because most of them didn’t know I couldn’t hear them anyway.

But oh! what respect it gave me for our wheelchair Olympians.

My dad - your great-grandfather Cato who sadly you never met – was a great carpenter and yes, I know he was a dentist. He endured many jokes about that connection I can assure you. Anyway, he built me a set of parallel bars from which to hang by the armpits in the vain hope that it may stimulate the nerves into action.

It didn’t…but he never tired of lifting me onto his apparatus in the hope that he’d see a flicker of life in those limbs.

Anyway - you want me to get to the point of my story don’t you – even though it’s often you two who sidetrack me in the middle of a story with your treks into the Ranglejangle Jungle.

So here it is.

One day my dad lifted me off the apparatus and onto my bed… and I didn’t thank him. I turned my head to the wall and felt all the resentment that’d been building up for months exploding inside. I hated everybody and everything about my life and everybody and everything in it. I started to voice this out loud…and my head ached and the pain right through my body grew worse and worse.

Then…to my horror, I suddenly realized that my hands and arms were being affected…they began to stiffen, become immobile.

My darling mother – your great-grandmother Cato was sitting by the bed helplessly watching my agitation when suddenly but gently she reached out to me. And I froze. Earlier I’d been reading about the destructive nature of hatred and resentment on the human body; about the need to see their lack of principle or ability to achieve anything but self-harm; about the need to fill consciousness with a positive sense of good.

And in that frozen moment…as my mother reached out and I resolved to change my thinking…my mother screamed.

Horrified, I looked at her face and she was pointing with a shaking hand as my dad ran in to see what the screaming was about.

She was pointing at my feet. Can you guess? My toes…were moving.

Within seconds my mum and my dad were sitting on either side of me. Dad lowered my legs to the floor, they stood me up…and I walked.

Olivia and Hannah…I can’t honestly say that I’ve always adhered to what I learnt that day. Was it a miracle? I don’t know…perhaps Life is the Miracle. But I really have tried hard to remember to constantly reject resentment and any semblance of hatred out of consciousness.

I hope that you will be able to do the same.

And I hope with all my heart that by the time you read this – as vital young women - you will no longer need to tread a rockier path to achievement than your male colleagues; that you will not suffer from a disease called Misogyny that once was rife; that you will not be tempted to replace diligence with jealousy or spite at other’s success and that you will contribute…as we are meant to do…fully and positively to the well-being of the Human Condition.

I love you

Nanna Cato


  1. Dearest Nancy
    I felt exactly as you did upon reading the headline announcing the passing of the Prime Minister's father. It left me feeling overwhelmingly sad and despairing about the lack of respect, but more so at the lack of compassion that was on display. Anyone who has felt the love that compassion can bring and knows of its healing powers would surely want to reciprocate ...so I will assume that whoever thought that to be a good headline has never been in its embrace.
    Now I'd like to say a few things about you Nancy and I know you'll be cringing but you'll just have to endure the next paragraph or two with a little grace and forbearance.
    For some people, their work is a job and for others it is a passion. Then there's another group of people, fewer amongst us, for whom their work is a vocation, a life's work, and you Nancy are one of those exceptional people.
    For want of a better title you are a Civil Society Elder, a Leader of a rich and vital part of our community life. You invest of yourself generously in civil society, in the bloodstream of community life (Twitter Community) where human resilience and spirit are tested and prevail.
    You haven't entered political life or sought wealth through your labours which is not to say that you're not a fiercely political animal. You feel the use and misuse of power intensely and understand the body politic intimately. Fortunately for Olivia and Hannah you choose instead to immerse yourself in their world inhabited by Green-Footed Giraffes and Grubblezups.
    We’re very lucky on Twitter and Nancyrants to have been blessed with your commitment to social justice and you have been an exemplar as one who always "contributes...as we are meant to do…fully and positively to the well-being of the Human Condition"
    Love and Thanks
    Jane xx

  2. Dear, dear Jane...how on earth does one respond to words like that? I'm certainly not cringing...why would one cringe from something so beautifully uplifting to self? But I do have to question that (because I've the good fortune to manage to string together words to describe a life that is no more blessed, cursed nor remarkable than the next) I deserve such testimony. I thank you for your generosity of spirit that led to these lovely thoughts and trust that when you start writing YOUR Blog posts (as you must) I shall be in a position such as will enable me to return the compliment. Bless you...I am enriched by knowing you through your words.

  3. Beautiful. Miracles are inspirations. May we all have the the ability to see them for what they are, through our own eyes. x

  4. SO glad you can see that we all have them Carmen. I tend to think that what we call 'miracles' are really life itself as it was meant to be. Thank you for your observation.

  5. A beautiful piece, Nancy. Congratulations.

  6. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your words Denis. You, who have shown the world what courage and triumph over adversity are all about. I confess I read your amazing Blog - often in the wee hours - and forget to acknowledge the joy it brings. I come up short again. May your generosity of spirit prevail. Thank you!

  7. Wonderfully written Nancy. Also an amazing life experience.

    I was worried for Julia when her father died. Politicians have been so cut-throat lately, I wondered what they might do. Thankfully, I think some decorum reigned.

  8. Thank you for your lovely comments openid - and yes it was an experience that affected my life dramatically. Without going into it too deeply I do think I was granted a tiny insight into one of the 'mysteries' of life - that of healing - an insight that I find extraordinarily useful in the course of my day.

    My heart ached for our PM on the death of her father as it does for anyone who loses a much-loved parent. This is an area of human existence that should be totally off-limits for political or social gain of any kind.

    I am aware of you on Twitter and can see that you are active with your own particular social concerns and more power to you.

    Thank you for taking the time both to read this post and make a comment.