A baby's hand gripping an adult finger,

Lives Less Ordinary

A chance encounter leads Steve Biddulph to reflect on the nature of families and the challenges we all face.

It’s morning in Dorrigo, northern NSW, a town of such loveliness that I can never quite believe it. A dramatic backdrop of rainforest ranges sets off old-style timber homes, and parrots swoop across the road. The air is warm, and just a few clouds float out where the ocean begins, 32 kilometres to the east. 

I am walking into the town in a friendly mood and see her waiting at her gate: a small old lady of about 70. As I get closer, I notice she is holding a plate of scones, off to some function in this community-spirited place.

Steve Biddolph articleI think I know who she is, and stop to say hello.

“Aren’t you Anne’s mum?” I ask brightly. “Yes, and I know who you are too. Aren’t you Lucy’s dad?” I’m shocked. I’m visiting here after a 12-year absence. She has the drop on me! How does she know my daughter? “I taught her scripture at the primary school when she was about six.” Scripture in Australian schools is generally taught by good-hearted volunteers, and my daughter loved it. 

We chat on about kids and families, and I mention somewhere in there that my kids have had a few health problems, and I am proud of how they’ve dealt with them.

She looks into the distance for a second. “We had a few problems, too,” she says softly. “Two of mine had cystic fibrosis.” My mind is going fast here because the conversation has taken a deeper turn. I know what a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis can mean, but she gets there before me. “Our little girl lived until she was five. Our son only got to 18 months. He didn’t have to suffer so much.” The awfulness of this sends ripples through my body, and I can only mumble something about how hard that must have been.

She doesn’t miss a beat, telling me that their three other girls are just fine and are grown now with kids of their own. In the sum of things, she’s been blessed, I think, is how she sees it. 

I thank her for helping my daughter all those years ago, and we chat about this and that. Her lift arrives, and I head off on my way, too. 

This ‘family’ thing we’re all doing is so commonplace that we can think it’s ordinary and not any big deal – having kids, raising them, growing old. Yet just below the surface, there’s loss, suffering, mishap, love, conflict, beauty, joy… Perhaps it’s the line of work I am in, but when I think about it, I don’t think I know any family that is just, well, ‘normal’, having a straightforward, easy time.

How many people seem to be struggling with a child with difficulties such as Asperger’s, autism or ADHD; a daughter with an eating disorder, anxiety or depression, a son who has problems with schoolwork or behaviour. Fertility problems, health difficulties affecting a mother or father. And then life’s other challenges: money, employment, housing. Plus the great challenge every couple faces: keeping a marriage well and growing through inevitable stresses and strains.

We just never know how our families will work out, but we must keep on going. Keeping on going – not without feeling or grief, but including it – has kept our species alive. All around us, there is drama and struggle, but above all, persistent and enduring love. Not love as a mushy feeling, in which kids are ‘cute’, but as endless selfless work and unsentimental commitment to a partner and those dependent little lives. Love that never quits and that even sees us doing something for other people’s kids.

Tough times are coming back, I think, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing if we remember and teach our kids to remember what really matters. Loving our kids and each other, and not letting that stop at our own front door. It’s always been the secret of a joyful life.

Illustration by Natasja van Vlimmeren