A box of Dad – unexpected memories in the mail

I saw it as soon as I got to the top of the stairs. It was on the kitchen bench and it was hard not to notice. One of those large postage boxes – the biggest delivery we’ve had for a while. I quickly started to think about what I might have ordered on eBay in the past week or so, what (clearly) large item did I, at the time, deem was a necessity in my life? I drew a blank.

Maybe it wasn’t for me. I’m not sure why but I had a sense of fear about me. Me and this parcel. I tentatively approached the parcel to see who it was addressed to.

Me. No sender details either.

What is this?

Normally letters (sans bills) and parcels in the mail are cause for excitement – with me frantically ripping open the wrapping to get to the goodies inside.

Not this time and I had no idea why. I retrieved the scissors from the kitchen drawer and started to carefully tear away the tape holding the box together. Slowly.

Completely unlike me.

I lifted the lid, still unsure why I was feeling this sense of trepidation….or was it fear. What was it?

Out on to the table spilled a stack of photographs many of which I recognized immediately. Family photos mostly, old school photos, some old black and whites whose subjects I mostly recognized as members of my fathers side of the family. There must be over 100 photos here.

Two old school exercise books. Like the ones we all had in primary school.

 

I recognised the handwriting on the front covers immediately. It was my Dad’s.

He’s been gone for over 4 years and now I remember that my step sister had mentioned she was finally going through the last of his and my step-mothers stored items. She said she’d send to me anything she thought I might like to have.

Here it was.  Everything that was left of my Dad was in this box.  

I held the note books in my hands. I dared not open them. It felt like to do so would be to breach my Dad’s privacy. They looked to me like they were journals of some sort – though I never did think of him as the journaling type.

Upon closer inspection, I see he’s labelled them on the front.

Criminology Part 1.
Criminology Part 2.

My heart literally skips a beat.

After losing my Mum when she was just 42, my Dad (who was also 42), wandered around untethered for the next few years. He was lost, his one love taken from him when he was but himself still a young man. He lost all faith in himself to go on, in his ability to feel alive without her. He took to spending most of his days with a bottle of scotch, ignoring his business and his life. He spun out of control over several years, and to cut a long story short, decided on one September day that his life wasn’t worth living any more.
He attempted suicide.

He didn’t succeed thanks to two angels who found him in the midst of it all.

It was my birthday a year later when the judge rang down the gavel, sentencing my father to over a year in prison for white collar crimes he’d committed since befriending alcohol and using gambling as an antidote in the hopes it might somehow numb his pain.

Criminology Parts 1 and 2 it would seem, were my Dad’s journals from this time in prison.

I’d visited him as much as I could when he was in there, and I’d written to him often, but during and after, he never really spoke of that time.

In my hands were his writings about a year of his life where his freedoms were removed in order that he repay to society for the crimes he had committed. Writing that at a glance, seemed raw and straightforward but with his wry sense of humour.

I close up the first book. I feel like I’m prying. Do I want to read this? Did he leave these safely with his other important documents because he wanted them read? Have I got it in me to open this book again?

No. Not right now. I put the books back.

I keep looking through the box. What I now refer to as the box of Dad.

There’s a folder and in it I find a series of hand written letters and cards. Upon closer inspection I see they are all from a one year period. Every single piece of correspondence my Dad received in prison is here in this folder, in date order with a note on each piece reminding him of when he had responded to each.

I find letters penned in my own hand addressed to him.  Letters from myself some 20 years ago. Letters from a daughter on the outside, to her father on the inside. While the content of the letters is what you would expect; updates on the world, the kids, the family, the house renovations and the like, the pain this daughter is holding in is leaping from the pages.

Letters a daughter should never have had to write. Letters a father should never have had to read.

With my shaking hands I drop the letters back in the box.

Through tears I fumble in the kitchen drawer for tape and take to the box – sealing it back up, containing the pain and the memories and  the fear and the love. Shoving it all back in that box. Sticky taping it back inside because right now, it needs to stay in there. Right now, I don’t have it in me to open the box because I know that to open the box, I will open up the grief around my Dad, the memories of those times, the wounds that are barely holding themselves together with the haphazard stitches I have used to keep them from splitting open again and again.

I tell myself the box of Dad can wait – it’s waited this long – it can wait a while longer.

I take a deep breath in. Then out.

I pick up the box of Dad and put it in a chest in the lounge room and close the lid.

I pour myself a glass of red wine.

Here’s to you Dad. I miss you. For a moment this evening, you were right next to me as I read your words, in your handwriting. You felt so close I thought if I looked up, I’d see you there, at the kitchen table. So I never did look up because the disappointment of you not being there would have torn apart my heart again. So I taped you all back up with sticky tape. 

Until another time. Another day.

‘Let your life be your message’ Mahatma Gandhi

That one time when I was handed a human skull at my desk – the joys of local government

Choose Local Government as a career they said.  It’ll be fun they said.

I’ve never taken the time to record the stories I have from my more than 20 year career in local government despite many people urging me to do so. Not the run of the mill everyday stories, but those moments that come out of the blue, those times when everything you know, everything you feel and everything you’ve learnt come in to play. Those times when there’s no procedure, no precedent, no guidebook and no-one to turn to.

Local Government is a diverse and challenging environment – that is not without it’s rewards.  But at times, the beast that is Local Government can throw a curve ball at you and whether you’re ready or not, you need to deal with it.

Local Government 101.1 – What to do when you’re handed human remains.

Seriously. There was that one time, when I was sitting at my desk, in Outback Queensland, doing CEO stuff as you do, when my Parks and Gardens Supervisor knocked on my office door.

“Hi Bob! What’s up?” It was unusual to see him in the office.

A quietly spoken hard working man, Bob just looked at me, and held out to me a brown paper bag.

It looked to me like the brown bags the bakery in town used to put your freshly baked cream bun in. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cream bun – going by the look on Bob’s face.

“Errr what’s up Bob? What’s this?” I said as I reflexively put out my hand to take the bag he was holding out to me.  Maybe it was a cream bun?  It was about the right size.

“I think that’s most of a human skull, it’s in some pieces and all, but yeah, I’m pretty sure. Not that I’ve seen a heap of them, skulls that is…..I’ve seen pictures….but…well take a look….tell me what you think”.

My lack of any verbal response had him talking some more – as I remained stationary holding out the bag in front of me at my desk.

“Jacko noticed it when he was moving some soil around – he dug it up. There’s more out there but we just brought this bit in to show you and find out what to do”.

They say there’s a first for everything.

Here’s how it played out.

Trying hard to quickly work out which of the 4000 questions I had rushing through my brain to ask first – I started with asking where exactly we dug up this – what seemed to be – human skull?

At the cemetery Bob told me.

Out there, in outback councils, it’s not uncommon for the council to maintain and manage the town cemetery and we did that here. It’s also not uncommon for the council to be the undertaker – we were that as well.  It’s unique to be able to add Undertaker to my resume. 

My mind started swirling with the headline in the local paper – thinking we must have accidently dug in a area that had already had graves in it.

Ah but no – we were digging outside the cemetery as it turns out, and we’d moved soil from just outside the perimeter into the cemetery proper and stockpiled it to use for, well, filling grave sites and to level out the uneven ground.

That basic information at hand, I figure that, even though I have never had to identify a human skull before, I’d have a look.

I had a look – tentatively.

I tried to recall my degree studies, my post graduate studies, past episodes of Bones and CSI, specific local government studies – nope, nothing was coming to me. I must have been away for the class on human skull identification 101.

If I had to make a call on this, and it seemed like I did – yes – I’d hazard a guess that it is a human skull in the brown paper bag I’m holding in my hand.

Do something Michelle.

Anything.

Oh where to go from here – so much to think about.

Seeking support and taking early actions

Bob, have we stopped work on the site?
Yes.
Are there any burials today?
No.
Close the cemetery please Bob – leave everything as it is. Set up two blokes at the entrance. Don’t let anyone in.  And Bob, check on Jacko – I’ll come and see him later. 

I asked my assistant in my best fake calm voice to get the officer in charge of the local police on the phone.

Oh and to call the Mayor and ask him to come in to see me asap.

What else?

Get the boardroom ready.
I’m not sure why, but I felt like I needed to get these human remains out of my office. Actually out of my hands – I was still holding the brown paper bag.

Take these to the boardroom Bob, please – handing over the bag.

We met in the boardroom. Senior police, the Mayor, my Environmental Health Officer (I don’t know why I invited her – but I felt I needed her there) and me.

The people who’ve actually dealt with skulls before tell me yes, it definitely looks like a skull.

That being the case we came up with the following potential scenarios:
1. It wasn’t human – unlikely given it …well if it looks like duck
2. It was human and:
a. It was recent – this held a range of serious issues as you can imagine – starting with the police declaring the entire cemetery and surrounds as a crime scene – complete with blue police crime scene tape!
b. It was not recent, that is, these were part remains of a person having been buried outside the cemetery many years ago. Not as serious as 2a) but still significant.

Seeking answers and solutions

With those options at hand, firstly the site was officially declared a crime scene, until it could be determined otherwise.

Through a process of using normal office rulers and a camera, with the police staff we photographed the pieces of bone on the boardroom table. We emailed the photos to forensics on the east coast and waited for their initial assessment. The nearest forensics were about 800km away.

I called the media – they’d already seen the crime scene tape at the cemetery….they wanted the story.

I called the historical society. Back in times before I was thought of, bodies were sometimes buried outside the perimeter of the cemetery. If you didn’t identify with one of the religions signposted within the fence, if you had disgraced your family, if you were poor, if you were an Afgan trader or Chinese market gardener (of which there were many in past decades in this region) it was likely you were buried outside the fence.

Who knew?

I took a breath.

We waited.

Getting results

Results are in! Forensics call – from their initial assessment it’s human.
Crime scene remains. We wait.

Another call an hour later.
It’s female and it’s definitely a skull.

I hold off the media.

I get a coffee.

Forensics call again.
She was approximately 50 years old when she died.
She’s been not alive (‘dead’ sounds far too harsh) for over 100 years.

Crime scene gets dismantled and police are removed from the cemetery.

When everyone goes home

I breathe again.
The Police sergeant hands me the brown paper bag.
What am I meant to do with this? I ask.
No idea he says.

I send my staff home.
I call the Coroner.
He tells me to bury the skull pieces in the actual cemetery and GPS the location to add to our cemetery records.

I call the media.
I call the historical society.
I call my husband.

I have another coffee thinking it should be a bourbon, and head back to my office.

It’s late and I’m tired.

I think about this woman. She was about my age when she died. Buried with no headstone and likely no ceremony, in a paddock outside the cemetery. Back in the early 1900’s. She was a 50 year old female living most of her life in the late 1800’s. What was her story? Who was she? What was her life?

My mantra is a Mahatma Gandhi quote “Let you life be your message”, and I wondered, what was her message?

I took a moment to honour her – I held the remains of her skull in my hands and I said a few words. Just to myself, and to her, in my office.

Me and her.

I took another breath and then I went and locked her in the safe – she was now a ‘her’ to me. She was a she. She once lived where I live.

Pondering not for the first time, and not for the last time, life, death and the diversity of local government, I headed home.

“Let your life be your message” – Mahatma Gandhi