Hilary’s Seventh Cervical Vertebra and our Minister for Immigration

Please prepare to write a letter. Gather your wits. Gather pen, paper, envelope and a stamp. Or prepare your keyboard. Now read on:

Around 1985 my former classmate Hilary rolled her car and fractured her seventh cervical vertebra. The damage to Hilary’s spinal cord resulted in her quadriplegia: for the past thirty-odd years – half of her lifetime to date – Hilary has ridden a wheelchair.

When your legs don’t work, when your hands are too weak to crack an egg, when your bladder and bowel are deaf to the commands of the brain, you need a lot of help. Hilary receives a lot of help. Good help is proverbially hard to find. And easy to lose. Hilary is about to lose Ilaisaane, one of her two good helpers.

I visited Hilary a couple of days ago and I met Ilaisaane. I hadn’t seen Hilary since we left school. That was half a century ago. It’s not as if Hilary lives far from me. It is not as if I had not heard of her situation. I felt a horror, the primitive horror of looking misfortune in full gaze and I kept a coward’s distance, a guilty silence.




 I walked through the door and there was Hilary and there was the schoolgirl grin. As a child Hilary grinned at life; nothing and no-one seemed able to cow her. Plenty of us tried. And here was Hilary, offering me a hand, thin as a wafer, the fingers fine and delicate and very white. Her handclasp light as fairy floss. And that grin, so vital, so charged with – there! I can’t avoid it – charged with hilarity. Hilary introduced me to her carer.

The name is Tongan. With her ready smile and her winning manner Ilaiasaane may be hard on the tongue but she is easy on the eye. The two ladies gave me some Tongan elocution training. You pronounce the name, ‘ill-eye-saah–neh’. Hilary calls her, ‘my beloved Saane’.

I asked Saane, ‘What do you do for Hilary?’ Uncertain how candidly she should respond, Saane looked towards Hilary. Hilary said, ‘Everything.’ ‘Everything’ includes cooking, preparing, serving, clearing of meals. It includes showering, dressing, undressing. It includes the most intimate elements of personal hygiene and toilet. The needs of a human body arise by day and by night. The carer needs stamina and a sense of humour. The person cared for depends utterly upon the carer; she must surrender autonomy. Dignity hangs in the balance: either party can fracture it. Rage must be the natural state of a person whose body will not obey her, but grace is the quality she needs. Few would possess that quality. I wondered that this person, known until now only as that unformed being, the schoolchild, might.

As Ilaisaane and I talked, I wondered who’d want to deport this charming, mild, good humoured person. She didn’t strike me as a danger to Australia. The opposite seems to be the fact: while here she has become a State Enrolled Nurse, studying in her Hilary-free days. She plans to become a Registered Nurse. Meanwhile she works, Hilary pays for her help, and Ilaiasaane pays taxes. Hilary herself works from home, spares the government costs of institutional care and pays taxes.


I asked Hilary how she earns her living. ‘I’m a social worker. I see and counsel clients here, at my home. I specialise in working with male family violence. I also run reflective supervision groups for other therapists.’

I nodded. Numerous psychologists of my acquaintance are her paying clients. I had a further question: ‘So, all three of you – Iliasaane, you and O.G. – all pay taxes. And losing your carer could tip you into institutional care? In that case, the Commonwealth of Australia foots endless bills for your care while losing three sources of income tax?

‘If those are questions they are three not one. And the answers are “yes”, “yes” and “yes.”’


So what is the problem here? The problem is the man smiling in the photo. His name is Ogolotse. ‘You say the ‘G’ as ‘H’, Ilaisaane informs. Hilary refers to him as O.G.


O.G. comes from Botswana. Years ago he studied Multimedia at RMIT. After graduating he returned to Botswana and worked in television before returning here, completing a Masters degree at RMIT, then working in his professional field on a skilled worker’s visa. That employment has evaporated in a mist of obfuscation. As a result O.G.’s visa lapses. And we will shortly evict him.  


Why should we care?

Hilary explains: ‘It takes a long time to find a good carer, a longer time to train her. She needs to be able to work around the clock. Saane works 38 hours over three days, plus 3 sleepovers. She’s been with me five years…’ Unspoken is the bond, the intimacy and the trust between the two women. I feel it flow as I sit between them, like a warming current of regard. Hilary continues: ‘We have a hearing at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on August 28. That’s a favourable sign; we have a chance. On the other hand our lawyer has sacked O.G. because he can’t pay the legal fees. We’ve been advised we need one thousand physical letters of support to appeal for ministerial discretion to produce at the hearing.’




1. Address letter to:

The Hon Peter Dutton

Minister of Immigration
Parliament House

Canberra 2600

2. Copy letter to Hilary at quincetree@gmail.com

3. Draft letter (sample follows)

Dear Minister Dutton

I, the undersigned, wish to express my alarm that this couple, named above, could be dismissed from Australia. I believe them to be excellent, honest, hardworking people.

I have heard about Ms Kalavi’s employment as a carer for a social worker who has quadriplegia. Ms Kalavi shares this job with one other person, so her work there is vital to the woman’s wellbeing and continuing to be a productive member of society. I have no doubt that if Ms Kalavi had to leave suddenly it would cause a damaging crisis in this woman’s life.

Ms Kalavi works as the woman’s carer for 38 hours a week plus sleepovers. She has been with her a long time, for 5 years. That level of training and familiarity would be extremely hard to replace, especially given how hard it is to find compatible staff for such a close relationship.

I urge you to grant residency to this couple as soon as possible.




(Passport No. – OR – Driver’s Licence No. – OR – Medicare No.) 

Email: minister@immi.gov.au

Email: peter.dutton.mp@aph.gov.au

 4. Hold your breath, say your prayers, hope that your ordinary goodness will pierce a minister’s heart.

And accept my heartfelt thanks,





“Slip me a Mickey”

Mum is about sixty. She speaks with her doctor son, aged thirty. He’s still a bit wet behind his medical ears.

Mum: One of these days I’ll have stroke darling…

Son, provoked: How can you know that, Mum? I’m a doctor and I’m not able to predict that. You can’t know you’ll have a stroke.

Mum: Well, I do have high blood pressure and my cholesterol is high. Those are the factors. Anyway, when I do, I want you to slip me a Mickey.

Son: You mean kill you? No! I won’t.

Mum: Alright, darling.

Son, contrite: Look Mum, if you do have a stroke, I’ll come and visit you every day. I’ll read every word of Dickens to you. And after that, I’ll read all of Shakespeare to you.

Mum: Thank you darling. That would be nice.


Son, six months later: Mum, remember how you asked me to knock you off if you had a stroke? Would you still want me to do that?

Mum: No, certainly not.

Son, triumphant: You see Mum, if you’d had a stroke, I’d have killed you – and you wouldn’t have wanted to be dead.

Mum: No, darling – I’d have been dead and happy, and you’d be alive and feeling guilty.



Fifteen years pass. Mum goes to see the Australian Ballet and suffers a mini-stroke. Her doctor – a specialist, not her son – starts her on aspirin. She suffers a cerebral thrombosis, a full sized stroke. Her hand is weakened and her memory is patchy. Her specialist decides she needs warfarin – rat poison – to thin her blood. After watching ”In the Name of the Father” with her doctor son she vomits suddenly. Son helps her to her feet, but she falls, a dead weight. Her son and her daughter in law heave and drag her to the car. They drive to hospital.

Mum’s blood has become so thin she’s suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Her specialist doubts she will recover consciousness. She does so. While she remains in her coma someone in the hospital relieves her of her engagement ring. She never sees it again.

Mum wakes up. Half her hindbrain is demolished and with it her balance and her ability to walk. Her champagne voice loses its sparkle. She speaks huskily now, coughing often, searching for sounds to carry her meanings.

She says to her doctor son: I reckon the next stroke will get me.

What do you mean?

It will see me out. Dead.

Son, not irritably: I don’t know, Mum. How can anyone know?

Mum: I’ve had two strokes now. Isn’t that what they say – ‘three strokes and you’re out’?

The son laughs. The old lady laughs too. A stroke is a nuisance – “boring” is her word for it – but time spent with any of her children is recompense.

Belatedly the son recalls his promise – Dickens! Shakespeare! Mum, remember I promised to read novels and plays to you?

Did you darling?

I did promise, but I never came good.

Never mind, darling.
She squeezes his hand with her own – the one that still works.

The son launches into reminiscences of the time, more than thirty years distant, when they lived in the country. His stories bring back the days when her young body obeyed her quick mind, when it was she who nurtured the stumbling child. He finishes his vignette. The mother smiles, squeezes his hand again and thanks him: That was lovely darling.

Son: You know what, Mum? I’ve got lots of stories from those times. How would you like it if I were to write them all down and read them to you?

Mum: I’d love that darling.

He starts to write the stories. He supplies them to Mum and to her oldest friend from those days. The two old ladies feast their tear glands on the stories.


Mum needs a helper now to shower herself. Sometimes the helper takes leave and bathing her falls to a son, the oldest one, not the doctor.

Mum: Isn’t this awful for you, darling? Bathing an old wreck?

Eldest son: When I soap your back, I remember with my skin how you soaped me. It’s a return, a coming home. I bless myself for the privilege.


The stairs in her old home are beyond Mum. The doctor son and his grown son carry her up and down on wrist-linked hands. Mum asks: Don’t you boys want to euthanase me?

Son: At last I can do something for you in return for carrying me all my life.


Mum and Dad settle into their new single storey home. After a time, the doctor son asks: Mum, do you remember a conversation many years ago? You wanted me to give you a fatal overdose of a sedative if you ever suffered a stroke. Now that you’ve suffered a few of them, do you still feel the same?

Oh no, dear. Certainly not. Do you know why?

Her emphasis makes her wheeze and cough.

Son waits for the squall to pass: No Mum. Why?

Mum: I thought if I suffered a stroke I’d be handicapped; and I was right. And if I was handicapped, I’d lose my independence; and I was right. I thought if I lost my independence I’d be a burden; and I was wrong.

A pause.

You know – I’ve never been happier in my life.

He stares at his mother.

Mum: And the reason is I am surrounded by people who love me.