I HAVE SOME SOUTH PACIFIC PEDIGREE being born in Honiara in 1960 where my father was chief engineer for the Solomon Islands. We lived on the small island of Tulagi.
My memories of the islands are vague as we left in 1964 and moved to Sydney. But my love of the water and the island lifestyle stayed with me. And deep inside there are parts of me that remain unconsciously South Pacific.
I was surprised a couple of years back when, in Thailand, I bit into a tropical fruit and a flood of memories came back from those early years. Amazing how tastes and smells bring back memories.
My dad loved the South Pacific life. He had stories of canoes sinking while crocodile hunting (who was hunting who), 360 degree views of paradise, the locals cooking freshly caught seafood, and late night gin-soaked games of Mahjong.
Life in Sydney never quite measured up for dad, with long hot drives to and from work wearing away his patience and leaving us kids with an often angry father. As a young child I found my escape fishing in the local waters of Dolans Bay.
Then later, as a teenager, surfing the waves off Cronulla Point. Confused by my parents rocky relationship and the apparent hypocrisy of some of the Catholic brothers and priests who schooled me, I could not make sense of the loving God they proclaimed.
The Cronulla surf scene in the early 1970s was awash with drugs and I quietly and naively slipped into the chaos of heroin addiction.
In 1980 two friends and I decided it was a good thing to get out of Cronulla, get back to basics and kick heroin. Our first step was to take off up the coast for a couple of weeks of surfing.
On 6 January 1980, we had been to see a band and decided it would be fun to do some bush bashing. I was in the back of the car, not paying much attention to what was happening. The driver lost control and we fell off a cliff.
After the fall and subsequent bouncing around, I knew I’d broken my back. I could not feel my legs and I had severe pain around my chest.
I lay at the bottom of the cliff, salt water splashing on me, and hoped the tide was not coming in. Even then, I knew my life had changed forever.
The driver and passenger in the front seat were not injured, so they went to get help. Ten hours later, after the drama of getting me to the top of the cliff and into an ambulance, I lay in a hospital bed and received the news I would never walk again. So here I am, a T5 complete paraplegic as the result of a severed spinal cord.
For those of you unfamiliar with spinal cord injury, the adjustment to the new condition is huge.
For two months I lay immobilised waiting for my spine to repair. Then nine months of intense rehabilitation to regain some strength, learn to dress, manage the basic bodily functions of bowel and bladder, acquire the skills of getting about in a wheelchair and so much more.
Then what to do with my life? My identity, surfing, was taken away from me. Sexuality, who was I as a male? How did I, as a paraplegic, measure up to the way society measured the worth of a man?
Work, my apprenticeship as a sheet metal worker, was gone. What could I do? And still, despite my rejection of the concept years before, the question of God kept coming up. Why God? Despite myself something inside me wanted to make sense of it all, I wanted a ‘theology’ to live life by.
I fought hard to get access to a mechanical engineering course, and luckily had good advocates. My drug addiction did not disappear, though. I did not want to use drugs, but kept using them. I was sick of living. I wanted out.
I persevered for two years, waiting for my will to kick in. Promising myself I would stop tomorrow. Until I got to the clichéd rock bottom. And I could not go on.
I prayed to a God I wanted to believe was there. “If you are there, please help me!”
Within two weeks I was in a drug rehabilitation centre. It was 9 March 1990 that I last used heroin, used alcohol, smoked dope – I have been clean for 33 years. A miracle to me!
For seven years I worked the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous. The 11th step is, “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
I was hearing lots of theories and ideas on who God was, from traditional to contemporary to frivolous - GOD equals ‘Good Orderly Direction’.
But after the first 10 steps of NA I knew I was still not in control, that I needed a power greater than myself. But what was that? Who was it?
I was spilling my thoughts with a new found friend one day and she said something which stopped me in my tracks. “If you want to know God, get to know Jesus!”
She was so sure and so direct! It was so not what I wanted to hear. But I didn’t ignore it. I went back to the Bible, to the source, and started to read. And read. Jesus found me and brought me to His saving grace. In the cross I found the answers I had not wanted to hear before.
Thus I became a Christian, I accepted the death and resurrection of Jesus as the sacrifice and atonement for my sins. My questions on how could a good and loving God permit the things that were happening in my earlier years are answered in the Bible.
Despite what we humans do, God is still a good and loving God. My life is not meaningless or purposeless; there is a reason for my life and the things that happen.
So 16 years later, I am working at my desk and I get an email from someone called Robin saying he knows a spinal cord injured person in Papua New Guinea who has health and equipment needs.
I read the email thinking it is from Robin, a female bible translator I know who works in PNG. I respond with some thoughts.
For a week I communicate with Robin until one day I get a call from a bloke saying he is Robin and he thought it would be good to touch base with me about his friend in PNG.
So here I am, I believe through the providence of God, back to my South Pacific pedigree. Francis’s story is compelling, you don’t need me to tell you about the challenges he has faced.
But the great thing is that we have an inbuilt spirit that strives to overcome adversity. I am often struck at the amazing frailty of the body and the incredible resilience of the spirit.
The opportunity to be a part of someone’s struggle is a privilege, an opportunity for intimacy. I for one am too often not strong enough to let others know of my struggles.
To Francis, thank you for sharing your journey and the challenges you have and continue to face. I hope you will continue to be encouraged and touched by the support of your friends around you and by the good and loving God you have put your faith in.
I sincerely hope the equipment you require and deserve will be provided and that, in a short time, you will be able to get out and enjoy the fresh South Pacific air, a just opened coconut and the company of your friends and family.
Malcolm Turnbull is managing director of Seating Dynamics, a Sydney-based company specialising in equipment for people with disabilities