She Smiles at the Future – Rhonda’s Story
I was born in rural NSW in 1952. As the youngest of my parents’ eight children I enjoyed a more relaxed upbringing than my siblings. Whilst my older sisters helped my mother out in the house I was allowed to shadow my father around the property. Everything about my father was larger than life to me, his strength, stature, confidence and especially his humour. I was definitely daddy’s little girl but growing up on a farm in rural Australia meant that I was more of a tomboy than a princess.
One of the defining moments of my childhood was learning to ride a horse. My dad took me to the top of a high rocky hill, told me to stay there, and rode off. When he got to the bottom, he called me to come down. I was terrified but was determined to show him I could do it. I rode to the bottom and learned to overcome my fear and have a go. His confidence in me gave me confidence in myself. If I wanted to achieve something and had a go, I would succeed. This was to remain a life lesson that influenced many of my actions in the future.
Taking risks was all part of growing up. I rode my bike five miles to school across the paddocks and along the highway with my sister in early primary school. I trapped rabbits before dawn and learned how to kill and skin them. We roamed freely in the mountains, fought bushfires, and swam in dams and creeks with snakes, turtles, and frogs. All with the advice to ‘be careful’ but with no adult supervision. As far as I was concerned school was an interruption to real learning. Catholicism, especially the guilt, was embedded in me by the nuns and priests during the few years I attended Catholic school.
The fires of hell were far more prominent in their teaching than the love of God and so I had little interest in knowing anymore.
I went to school for eight years and changed schools seven times. My parents bought run-down properties and, after improving them, sold them making profits; hence, my first four moves. The last three related to the lack of love the nuns had for me perhaps borne of my independent streak… or maybe some of my actions were not very reverent. Because of the frequent school changes, I had to learn rapidly to make friends and fit in. I found the easiest way to do this was to be the class clown and make people laugh at my expense. I do recall being told by one nun, ‘You are incorrigible and will never amount to anything.’ Such words only inspired me to prove her wrong. I left school just before my fourteenth birthday. During the following year, I experienced sexual abuse and an attempted rape, all at the hands of men who should have been able to trust. I was told that if I said anything no one would believe me so I stayed silent.
With no school certificate, I had two career choices: secretary or nurse. Neither appealed to me. I started a secretarial correspondence course, but I knew I would not be happy sitting at a desk all day. I had a variety of jobs over the next couple of years: domestic on a large wheat property, veneer worker, timber mill hand, service station attendant, domestic-type duties for rich retirees, and carer in an orphanage. Somewhere along the line, I reluctantly decided nursing was the only real option. I did the nurses’ entrance exam, and began my training – it took six changes of employment and seven years before I graduated. I managed the practical and theoretical aspects of nursing very well, achieving a high distinction, but asking questions was not the role of the nurse back then, and in this, I failed miserably!
When I was 16, I met the man who would become my first husband. When I discovered that I was pregnant, my Catholic upbringing meant that I saw no other option than marriage. By the time I was 19 I was married with a son and living in Mount Newman where my new husband had employment at a mine. I became pregnant again and in 1972 I gave birth to our darling daughter, Sherin. The day before she was born we were told that she would not survive more than a few hours after delivery. They let me hold her for a very brief time and then insisted she was dead and they had to take her. I argued as best I could in my drugged state that she was not dead, and I wanted her to stay with me. When I received the death certificate, it confirmed that she had lived for three and a half hours. I had been determined she would die in her mummy’s arms, but she died alone. The decision was taken from me and left me with a lifetime of guilt. I left the hospital and walked home alone. I was a broken woman.
My marriage was already on very shaky ground and did not survive the death of our daughter. I took my son and moved back to the east coast to continue my nursing training. By the time I was 21 I had already experienced the trauma of sexual abuse, divorce and the death of a child. So much pain, loss and grief had to go somewhere but I was a single mother in the 1970’s, grieving was not recommended or supported.
I picked myself up and got on with my life.
I threw myself into my career and I loved it. It was during my time as a nurse that I met my second husband, Paul. He was being treated for a back injury and over time our relationship became romantic. This was complicated by the fact that he was actually a Marist Brother who taught at a local Catholic school. He eventually left the brotherhood and we were married in 1976. Our beautiful daughter Larissa was born in 1977. Over the next 10 years I juggled motherhood, part time work, university study and a growing interest in political activism. My husband was also advancing in his academic career but as our professional lives flourished our marriage was fraught with problems. We divorced in 1987. Sadly, it was not an amicable parting and my former husband did not make things easy for our family. I hated him for how he treated the children. I have not seen my son nearly 20 years – no doubt my divorces hurt him and our relationship also suffered.
My commitment to work and academia was relentless and provided a welcome distraction from the guilt and pain that lived just beneath the surface of my otherwise successful life. I worked hard and my efforts were rewarded with opportunities and achievements that no one ever expected would come to someone who left school at 13!
In 1996, I was appointed as Foundation Professor in Gerontic Nursing at La Trobe University.
I have served on numerous national and international boards and committees, advised a number of government ministers, published extensively, presented at conferences worldwide, and educated literally thousands in the areas of aged care, dementia, leadership, and research.
After my divorce, I was fortunate enough to begin a relationship with a wonderful man named John. He was a widower with two children and our partnership has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. Navigating life with our blended family presented numerous challenges but we have now been together for more than 30 years. John has always been a great supporter of my career but his support became even more important when my health began to deteriorate.
In 1999, I began suffering from a range of health challenges that significantly affected my ability to work and enjoy life. In January 2000, I was diagnosed with Sjorgen’s Syndrome and Lupus. The symptoms of these autoimmune conditions include crippling fatigue, joint aches and pains, swelling and tenderness, gastrointestinal upsets, dry mouth and burning eye pain. I had always prided myself on my resilience and independence but some days the pain was so intense, I struggled to complete the most basic tasks. There were cracks beginning to appear in my carefully constructed emotional armour and I did not like it one bit.
Things became even worse when my cognitive ability began to deteriorate. I experienced a debilitating level of ‘brain fog’. My memory was unreliable and I was unable to drive for more than 15 minutes. I was eventually given the additional diagnosis of CNS Lupus. I was devastated but at least now we knew what we were dealing with. The treatment protocol included periods of high doses of steroids and there were times when the pain and fatigue were unbearable. I eventually made the difficult decision to retire. This was not the way that I wanted my career to end but I had no choice.
The emptiness and loss of identity was overwhelming.
On a positive note, when I retired, John and I moved up to the North Coast of NSW. Since moving I have undertaken a couple of small professional projects and do my best to keep my body, spirit, and brain active. I am now physically stronger, my relationship with John is the best it has ever been, and we are relishing the opportunity to spend time with friends and family, especially our precious grandchildren.
Throughout my life, the ups and the downs, I have always had an awareness of God. At times, our relationship had been strained to say the least; at times it took a backseat, but whenever I faced a major life event or decision, God and I would chat. My earliest experiences of institutional religion were not positive but a few years into retirement I felt an increasing desire to start attending church. Many years earlier my daughter had become a Christian, and then an ordained pastor. Whenever she was visiting she would invite me to come to church with her. She attended a Pentecostal church and her version of church was a lot more animated than what I had experienced in the Roman Catholic mass of my childhood.
I enjoyed it, but sixty years of scepticism and disillusionment regarding ‘the church’ would not be dealt with overnight.
I began attending a local, protestant church but even after a few months it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me. One weekend, my daughter was visiting and we decided to go to Elevation Church – Tweed Heads. From the moment I walked in, I loved it. There was an incredible atmosphere of love, joy and celebration. When the pastor began to speak I felt like he was speaking directly to me. I returned the following week and this time my partner, John came with me. At the end of the message, Lachie, the pastor, asked if anyone wanted to respond by praying and committing their life to Jesus. My eyes were closed and my hand shot straight up into the air. When I opened my eyes, I was genuinely surprised that I was the only one who had responded. It was one of the easiest decisions that I have ever made.
Three months later I was water baptised at church. As I stood up out of the water it felt like 60 years of guilt and heaviness lifted off me. The boundaries that I had always felt stood between Jesus and I no longer existed. God was not up in heaven, he was right beside me. John and I are now regular attenders and I love being a part of such a vibrant and encouraging community.
When I look back over my life I can see now that God was always there. Despite my stubborn insistence that I could do it ALL on my own, I am now allowing God to bring healing to some of the darkest experiences of my life. I had no how idea how much the weight of my past was effecting me until I began to release it. The grief at the loss of my baby daughter, family relationships that still need healing, I have placed them all into God’s hands. Anxiety that I had carried for years has now been replaced with a sense of peace that is life giving. I am learning what it means to live free.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.
Proverbs 31:25 (NLT)
I was 21 years old (I am now 42) and I remember telling my mum I had encountered Jesus! I was so excited I couldn’t help but rave on and on about my experiences of His grace and power… I was ignited with a new hope, but she thought I’d joined a cult!
One day as I prayed for her I felt the Holy Spirit give me a picture of my mum with her hands raised high praising Him, she was full of freedom and joy. I believed God whispered in my heart that day that mum would follow him with all her heart. I have held onto that picture for 20 years. I remember even telling Mum about it from time to time, and every time I shared it she would dismiss me and laugh it off.
Well, who has the last laugh because that day came! In March 2019, my mum came out of the waters of baptism with her arms stretched high, fully surrendered to her God and heart abandoned to Jesus.
God gave me that picture to hold onto for 20 years and as tears streamed down my face I thought, how kind God was to have included me in my mums journey, to have had me pray and believe along the way and to have now allowed me to witness this defining moment. God’s kindness is never ending.