Colleen McCullough and The Thorn Birds pulled me through one of the strangest times in my life. I was living in Nashville, 1990–91, and working at a group home for severely mentally and disabled males. It was quite an isolating experience. The state said that during the day there could be two staff members, but at night, there could only be one. So it was left to me to lay on a wood veneer single bed off the kitchen of the home only to wake in the middle of the night to find one of the house members naked and brushing his private hair with another tenant’s toothbrush.
When you work in that industry long enough, you can find the humor of/and at the individuals. Such good times when you’re driving a van full of clients and one who shouts out directional commands randomly. So you’re burning down I 65 in Nashville when he stands and screams, “Stop.” Your foot goes to the break about to fishtail the van toward an exit, when he sits, looks round and says, “Okay. Go. Go now.”
I was engaged to my now husband. Conveniently, after dating the majority of people in my hometown, I had found someone in Australia who hadn’t heard of me. We had one official date and the rest was done long distance. Even in the early nineties, we didn’t have many Australian imports, movies or celebrities or beer. My mom asked, “Well, have you read The Thorn Birds?” I was already developing my literary snobbishness and didn’t want to read anything I could purchase off a spinning, wire rack. But I found a copy somewhere with the four dollars a week I was getting paid to clean food off the floor, and walls, and ceiling. And someone’s private hair.
So I began to read it at night, as I listened out for any body getting up out of his bed. Thankfully, it was a long book, and it sucked me into this whole different world far from the one I was living in. On a cold, wet Nashville night, I was in the dry, hot outback.
My position as a caretaker wasn’t just hard work, it was sometimes socially unacceptable. We had a certain amount of money where we could take them out to eat once a week. People sat upright when they saw us coming in—guys with flailing arms and lolling tongues, the one who, when he got nervous, just pulled his dingdong constantly. It was hard to remain stoic and keep the thought no, this is a good activity for them and, hell, why shouldn’t they be able to eat at Shoney’s. I’ve seen worse. There would be a look of disgust on people’s faces as they watched mashed potatoes become face lotion on some of the individuals. I don’t blame them. I can’t stand the stand the sound of chewing coming out of my own offspring.
One time, after not getting to eat and running around the table sweating, helping feed each guy and wipe his face and hands, an older couple came up to me and shook my hand. The man said, “We really appreciate what you’re doing. Our daughter did this for a while.” They left a $50 bill in my hand, and I really question who deserved the $50.
Each night I’d flip through The Thorn Birds, thrilled to have some escape from a day where I saw that these young men weren’t going to get better, they weren’t going to learn how to speak, they didn’t know what was going on most of the time. I dove into a world that made me feel close to my fiancé as well as not being dragged down into the tasks of my day. The heartbreak of the story gutted me. So when I woke to one of the tenants taking all the bags of peas out of the deep freezer and putting him in his bed, I rolled out of mine where I was most likely dreaming of verandas and gum trees, and felt guilty and thrilled that I’d someday go there.