How Farmers Lose Their Perspective

What was running through my father’s enraged mind that night I will never know — he is too emotionally repressed to ever be able to even acknowledge it happened let alone give me closure on what he was thinking as he was fully loading his revolver — but I have had to live my life remembering my worst night…

I was in year 11. I had celebrated my 15th birthday a few months earlier, and was in my penultimate year at home before going to university.

Mum and Dad had been fighting a lot over recent years, ever since the global prices of agricultural commodities including sugar dropped at the end of the 70s.

The emotional capacity of my family to absorb stress had been totally used by the dream of my father to develop the farm that had been in his family almost the entire time since the imposition of British law removed Indigenous rights over the land that they had occupied for over 40,000 years.

I had come to understand my parents’ inability to deal with additional stress over the previous years as I entered my own difficult development period in life. After my mother told me that I was “becoming a real bastard” — which was uncharacteristic for my typically nurturing mother — I realised that I would not have the opportunity to even begin to rebel like most other kids of my age were doing.

If I did rebel, I stood to lose my family.

Being in a triumvirate of siblings, where my elder siblings were closer to each other than me, and with both of them more social and significantly older than me, I was much more dependent on my parents for my emotional security. Suppressing my own ill-feelings, exacerbated by the stress of living in an emotionally-taught environment, I began to take a great interest in my father’s work and became his ‘offsider’ on the farm.

Mum and Dad had been at each others’ throats for months. It was clear that we were going backwards financially — it’s difficult to explain the feeling of a family working towards a goal with great dedication and diligence, yet being further behind financially even after producing a good crop. They would often go over the books at night, mostly in silence interrupted with periods of abrupt and emotional discourse indicative of bewilderment at how they had arrived at their (our) predicament.

When Dad originally approached banks in the mid 70s to organise financing to purchase the farm from his Uncle, the pre-deregulated capital gatekeepers were ultra conservative and suggested that the manner in which Dad described how we would live to make things work was unrealistic. They told him “This is the 70’s and nobody lives like that anymore”. However, Dad managed to cobble together the finances by borrowing from his parents, a brother and from the bank, and with vendor finance also.

We reclaimed an old cane cutter’s barracks from regrowth and grass — it stood like a time capsule of how the workers left it over a decade earlier — and Dad made some minor repairs and additions to make it livable. My brother and I shared a room which had no door and was open to the elements via an open veranda. My sister’s room, between ours and my parents, only had a door fitted as she approached her teens.

We lived very frugally, to say the least, and of course the entire family worked together on the farm. Being the youngest and well under 10 years of age, when removing remnant wood from cleared paddocks I drove the tractor or truck. But I quickly progressed to driving a tractor and working in the field on my own as a pre-teen.

Life was full of hard work, but we were all happy being together.

In the midst of a commodities boom, prices for sugar were so good that with the early improvements Dad made to the farm they had earned enough money to be debt free. However, the Industry and Government representatives were positive about prices being maintained at those high levels and were actively encouraging farmers with capacity to further develop their land to do so.

Fatefully, Dad listened to that advice and borrowed more to clear and develop more land. He had a dream to quadruple production over what his Uncle had achieved by clearing all of our land and by improving drainage and the layout of paddocks.

The newly deregulated banks were much freer with their lending which Dad was pleased about at the time.

If global prices had remained at those lofty levels for even another 5 years Dad probably would have achieved his dream, but it was not to be the case.

When I heard the Landcruiser pull into our long driveway I had a feeling of dread. An eerie quietness had fallen over the kitchen where Mum had set the table over an hour earlier when she had finished cooking dinner. My sister was fortunately away at university but my brother was still living at home.

It seemed that the only time my father appeared happy was when sharing a few beers with friends, and one particularly persistent couple had become his favourite drinking partners. I could just imagine them cajoling him to stay for just one more — as his presence there provided a buffer to soften their own marital tensions and prolong their enjoyment — while he mildly stated that he should leave. For some reason he stayed later than usual this night.

As the Landcruiser pulled up to the house my brother was about to descend the few steps out of our old workers’ quarters-converted home to shower in the makeshift bathroom area attached to the side of the building at ground level. Our home was rudimentary to say the least — a few years later when friends from university dropped in they drove right past our home heading towards the back of the farm because they were in disbelief that people would be living there.

Mum asked my brother to remove the keys from the Landcruiser before going for a shower.

My brother passed by Dad while fulfilling Mum’s request.

The fighting erupted immediately on Dad ascending those few steps straight into the kitchen-dining room which was contiguous with our living room where I sat apprehensively.

The encounter was brief and it ended as abruptly as it began with Dad storming out yelling “I don’t even know why I bothered coming home!”.

I heard the door to the Landcruiser open, and then a moment later shut as my father would have noticed that the keys had been removed. Then a few seconds later I heard through a window opposite me the brush of grass, and then I heard the rock from the old one-piece concrete set of stairs which always gave a dull thud as it’s centre of balance shifted about the fulcrum with an ascension.

I knew where he was headed and I knew what he was doing. But I was paralysed with fear and sat there motionless, feeling like I was quaking.

After what seemed like a long time but must have only been perhaps a minute, my mother asked where did my father go. She knew all that I knew.

As she approached me still sitting on the couch (sofa), she gestured for me to stand. And then we crept along the dark open veranda towards the still darkened room of my parents. All along Mum cowered behind me as if I was her shield. I cannot blame her for also being scared.

When we reached their room she hung back. I was alone as I peered my head into the even darker room which was oriented at right-angles to the direction of the veranda. I needed to step a metre or two into the dark room beyond the line of large closets to be able to see to the right and to the foot of the bed where the cupboard was which housed Dad’s guns.

He was not there. But as I slowly panned my vision further to the right through the darkness I caught sight of my father, standing flat and motionless against the closets aiming to avoid detection.

When I said “Dad, what are you doing in here?” he knew his efforts were in vain and he stepped forward. I did not get a glimpse of the gun in his hand until he was half way towards me.

I cannot say with certainty when it was that I first gripped the revolver, the next few moments have always been a blur. I do remember that by the time we were back on the veranda with my mother I had the gun in my hand and I had collapsed on the floor sobbing uncontrollably, repeatedly saying “why, why, why would you do that”.

Before long we had moved back into the main living space of our home, and Mum and Dad began yelling at each other again. The fighting escalated and at one stage Dad tried to push past Mum to take the gun out of my hand but Mum just kept punching him in the arms and shoulders.

It was at this stage that my older brother came up from his shower to see his 15 year old brother holding his father’s gun — without knowing how it got there — and with Dad attempting to surge past Mum to get it from me.

I am certain to this day that he has never been told how the gun got to be in my hand, but I doubt that he needed any explanation — everybody at home that night sensed the build up and knew that things were going to explode that night!

We were still standing in the middle of the living room, with my mother between me and Dad, with the gun sitting limply in my hand as I sobbed and turned to protect myself whenever Dad surged at me.

My brother took the gun from my hand and disappeared briefly. At that point things began to settle down. Dad placed all of the 6 bullets which would have fully loaded his revolver onto the fridge which overlooked our kitchen table, sat down and began eating.

We all quietly joined him, each in our own lost bewilderment, and began to slowly eat. Mum occasionally repeated “I now know what I have to do”. I think I knew then, but it certainly explains a lot about their relationship since then, that what she meant is that she knew that she could not challenge him and she needed to be subservient to Dad.

A few months later while rummaging through the large closet in our bedroom which held nearly every football jersey I ever owned I came across the gun. I quietly showed Mum and asked her what to do with it. She said to put it back in Dad’s cupboard.

Those 6 bullets, 3 standing and three lying on their sides, remained as Dad placed them on the fridge that night looking down over our kitchen table as a reminder for many months.

I never spoke of that night for nearly 10 years. One day I asked Mum for confirmation that it all happened. Her eyes glossed over like she entered a hypnotic zombified state and she at first denied it, followed by “never mention this to your father — he would be so embarrassed”.

Later in life when I was challenged emotionally by a number of significant stressors, I knew that I could no longer run from my fears and anxieties that grew from that night. In the lead up to that period of my adult life on a visit to my parents (new) home I did not sleep at all one night — I placed a mattress on the floor while placing pillows under the sheet on the bed to make it appear that I was lying there, all the while listening and watching anxiously for my door to open.

As I began the process of sorting out all of my deepest fears and anxieties in many sessions with a therapist I soon realised that I had many questions stemming from the main one – why was my father fully loading his gun that night? – had haunted me all of my adult life. What could have happened if the gun was loaded when I entered the room in the dark as he hid flat against the closet? What could have happened if he refused to let go of the gun? What could have happened if he decided to surge past mum to take the gun back from me, because I do not think that I was in a state, emotionally or physically, to be able to keep him from taking back the gun?

Even though he never explicitly expressed it, I knew he had a pious belief that it was his right to take from the world what he brought into it.

Ultimately I had to accept that I was never going to know the answer to these questions, and that it did not matter because it is irrelevant to my life now.

What DID happen is that I found the courage to step up and protect my father and my entire family from a build up of suppressed emotion which could have destroyed us all on so many fronts.

This is why it hurt so much that, as I began the process of recovering from this difficult period and trying to deal with the psychological baggage that I had repressed, my siblings turned their back on me and we became estranged.

I had saved my family, yet in turn I became the lightning rod for all of the ills of my family. I was the convenient excuse for all that went wrong for each of them.

In my brother’s case, having gone onto the farm when I decided not to return after University, I was the cause of all of his lost opportunities and his needing to knuckle down to a disciplined and (in his perception) impoverished life on the land. Moreover, he felt that I was disloyal to the family because I did not stay committed to keeping the farm in family hands.

Of course, my family has needed to make sacrifices to keep the farm, but the reality is that with such a significant asset as backing my parents and my brother’s family have never been as impoverished as they perceived. The rhetoric of the rural “battler” has been absorbed into them, together with those early struggles, such that they have developed a victimised and besieged culture.

Such a culture is not unique to my family. It is a culture that is widespread in rural Australia.

It does, however, reach it’s greatest penetration in farming families, I believe.

I recall watching a program some years back about a young lad from a farming family who committed suicide as he was overcome with emotion during a battle to keep the farm in family hands when battling a mining claim on the land.

I suspect the reader would not be surprised that I became quite emotional watching the show. I felt hurt and empathy for the young lad, but I also felt angry — angry towards his parents and even the television producer for presenting the story in the way they chose.

I understood that they were being respectful and sensitive to grieving parents. But the one big question that was never asked is inferred in the title of this post.

How can a grieving father sit there and express all of his anger and disappointment at the mining company and Government for putting his family in that position, but not look at why this young lad, with his entire optimistic and wonderful life ahead of him, became so despondent and withdrawn that he saw no other way but to end it?

My family has now sold our property. For the first time in over 100 years it is owned by other people without our surname. After the earlier very difficult period, where Mum and Dad were convinced that the bank might foreclose at any time, they experienced a better period where they and my brother’s family enjoyed a more prosperous period. However, a series of cyclones, forecast to increase in prevalence and intensity due to climate change, and the debt taken on to recover from them, made it impossible for them to earn a living from the land.

Whereas 20 years ago he explained to me that it is appropriate that the son that stays on the farm rightly is entitled to all of the assets of the family on his and Mum’s passing, Dad is now so angry with my brother, who he blames for their financial predicament, that he plans to give him nothing from whatever proceeds were left from the sale of the farm.

My father is so angry with the world that, to his own family, he is constantly irritable and impossible to be around for any length of time. I love my father, but as my previous posts show, the differences between us are becoming expressed so strongly that there is a real cost to my life and wellness, and to that of my family’s, from spending time with him.

My mother has battled mental health issues for many decades and before an family intervention a few years back, which I instigated, gave all of the appearances of having given up on living life.

My family fractured under the weight of the stress from the battle to keep the farm. When I look back now there was a progression. First, as the stress from not being able to meet debt obligations due to low global sugar prices increased, Dad became totally consumed by work and pressure increased on myself and my older brother to join with him in his toil. The only time that he appeared to enjoy spending time with either of us was when working.

As the battle intensified, when prices remained low, at some point the concept of family became entwined with the farm such that they were synonymous. The two were inseparable and alone were irrelevant.

Then the farm became more important than the family, and certainly more important than any one family member. It seemed that everything, including us, were just resources to be used up in the battle to keep the farm. At this point it honestly felt that the death of any one of us would just be considered collateral damage to the end goal of keeping the farm.

I think the entire family felt that, and it created a bitterness within and amongst my siblings and I, and I think it created a deep repressed guilt in my parents that they will never acknowledge. Instead of recognising this it is easier for them to develop narratives about each of us to explain why our family is so fractured.

“Oh Brett moved away and married an Asian woman — that is why he does not get along with his siblings. His brother, who stayed on the farm, married a woman who was spoiled and pampered, wanted nothing but the best, and managed money poorly.”

Years back Mum relayed to me a story. When rummaging through old documents, she and my brother found Dad’s uncle’s dairy where he entered the date at which he sold the farm to Mum and Dad. Mum noted that it was approaching the 30th anniversary and suggested they organise a celebration. My brother responded that there was nothing to celebrate.

My brother was always very bitter at me for not returning to the farm as I had intended to do as a 16 year old. My return would have been his opportunity to escape.

Problems between my sister and I arose while I was still at university and she was in the first years of her career having just finished a degree. I pressured her to do more to help Mum and Dad financially to aid in the battle to keep the farm, and I considered her selfish for not doing so.

I now realise how deluded I was and I find it surreal to think about just how warped our perspectives had become. Sadly Mum and Dad remain right there and, I am certain, will until their end.

The anger that has been most difficult for me to deal with has centred around why my parents chose for our family to remain in that situation even though the damage it was doing to us as individuals and as a family was clear. It is pretty hard to deny that to yourself after you have taken the step of loading a revolver to end your life and potentially those in your family who were at home that night.

There is no point, either, in suggesting that they felt trapped because selling was always an option.

Worse still, I recall my father getting off the telephone one night no more than a year after that terrible night, potentially just a few months after it (that period of my life is hazy because of the shock in which I lived), telling my mother that the caller had just offered to buy the farm and for a price greater than what they eventually sold for 35 years later. He said that he rejected the offer outright.

All I can remember is sitting there on that couch wanting to cry because it was our chance out of the hell in which we had been living and my father, on behalf of our family, just refused to even consider an alternative life for us. His ego could not bear that.

Dad always felt a strong sense of duty to keep the farm in family hands. Nobody bestowed that duty upon him other than himself. The power was always in his hands to abdicate from that duty and choose to prioritise the wellbeing of the family that he made over honouring the family he inherited.

My relationship with my father is now almost totally gone. During his last visit he made a number of racist comments, which I have mentioned in other articles, and which he is well aware would hurt me deeply. I think his bitterness and repressed guilt has caused deep self-loathing which has taken its toll and he has set about proving he is a bad father and pushing away his family, or at least me.

During that visit he also told my Mother, his wife of almost 60 years, and I that at the time of their courtship he was contemplating moving to New Zealand. It was news to my Mother. We were both taken aback to think that these things are in his mind after all of these years. No wonder my Mother and Brother have lived with their insecurities which my Father has done little to assuage.

I have no doubt that if he had become successful on the farm these things would have been long forgotten. Even if sometimes he acknowledges achievements in his life, mostly he stews on his regrets, feeling sorry for himself and about the loss of the farm.

One night during that last visit I woke in the morning crying from a dream that culminated with my father lying cradled in my arms dying. In the dream we had been running across grassy hilled fields carrying heavy rucksacks in a frantic rush from one station to another in some sort of orienteering-like race. I kept looking back and pushing Dad to hurry up, and at some point I pushed him too hard and he collapsed.

I do not know whether it was a message from a greater power or my subconscious, but I understood its meaning. I am pushing my father in a way he cannot deal with, and if I continue then I am going to have to let go of him.

When I woke and dried my tears and emerged from the bedroom he was already up moping around. After a brief discussion where he was short and sarcastic to me, as usual letting out his hurt on those closest to him, I told him that he needs to stop feeling sorry for himself and start to move on.

He retorted sharply, totally ‘dropping his bundle’, and unwilling to receive compassion and understanding. Later that day he celebrated my 50th birthday by lying for hours on a couch at the beach-side unit we rented barely talking to me. My parents did not even hand their gift to me, they just left it on the counter for me to collect at some stage. I threw it away because I did not want anything physical to remind me of the day. My wife, who had put so much effort into planning, along with my family were so upset for me.

On the farm when we were young we were told all of the work that we were doing was for all of us. Then when I did not go back to the farm after university I was gradually being told that it is their preference that my brother receive all the benefits of that hard work in passing down everything to him in return for his loyalty. And then, finally, when he learned of the financial predicament that necessitated the selling of the farm, and with my brother looking to move off the farm searching for some financial security for his family, Dad was so embittered that he then felt that my brother deserved nothing of the proceeds from selling the farm after all debts were paid.

That final point was the final straw for me because it showed that nothing any of us did was good enough if he did not get what was most important to him, to keep his farm. What’s more, it made a lie of all of their talk about money not being important.

Ultimately I cannot escape the view that he meant what he was saying at the time, but by now his perspective has become so warped and deluded that he has totally forgotten all that was important and those who helped him along the way. None of us mattered to him without his farm.

I do not hate or dislike my father. I’m not even angry at him any longer. In fact I love him very much. But I have had to accept that I cannot give him that love, that I had to give up on that. While many will have difficulty in understanding that, others, perhaps more, will understand this situation for what it is and will relate to it.

You cannot give love to somebody who does not wish to receive it because they do not love themselves.

I have also had to accept that there will never be a ‘breakthrough’ moment like in the feel good movies, and there will not be a last minute reconciliation. Whoever leaves this world first, my father or I, will do so without him saying that he is proud of me and who I have become, and I will always know that in his mind he did not (even if, at some earlier times in our lives, he was – like when I was a promising rugby league player or when I received my PhD). And I have had to accept that it is an entirely rational and prudent response on my part to avoid spending time with him when all he wants to do is project all of his hurt and disappointments in life onto those closest to him. Doing so without guilt has been one of the greatest of hurdles.

My favourite song of all time is “The River” by Bruce Springsteen. In recent years I attended a Springsteen concert with my eldest son and during a lull in the crowd I yelled my request. To our delight The Boss heard me and played “The River” immediately! I was a bit of a hero to my son for a moment, but he did not understand the dark and very sad undertone to the lyrics which meant so much to me.

It tells the story of a very young couple raised in a small town who marry when she falls pregnant. Their hopes and dreams are curtailed but they enjoy their early years together. Then they fall on hard economic times and “all of the things that seemed so important… vanished right into the air… now I just act like I don’t remember, Mary acts like she don’t care”.

The final verse poses the same question that I wrestled with all of my adult life:

At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight, yeah
Down to the river
My baby and I

The day after the concert I was driving in my car alone and I played this song at full volume while crying my eyes out. I had not finished when the song finished so I played it again.

I remember a wedding when I was perhaps 10 years of age when my father gave the speech for the bride’s family. He was big and strong, still only 38, and full of confidence and optimism for life. He had the room in stitches recounting stories of shared experiences he and Mum had with the bride’s parents. I felt so proud of him. He felt so proud of himself.

I occasionally wonder what life would have been like if that man survived a little longer, for me and for my family.

In honour of my sons. While I remain unsure whether you will ever read these words, I hope that you realise that I have devoted my life to unlearning the negative aspects of my early mentor’s behaviours, and that is why I talk to you a great deal about a great range of topics, and it is why I endeavour to always share and express my feelings. Already I am certain you have learned these positive behaviours and I am confident that you will retain them.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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