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the Last Days of Leo : a eulogy by andrew

i might add some more words and pictures of leo soon, but for now there’s this:

Firstly, i would like to acknowledge the Darkinjung people who are the traditional custodians of this land.

eighty years ago today, in the front bedroom of a house on the pacific highway opposite waitara station, Leo was born. his mother was 31 years old, his father was 49. his big sisters clare and dorothy, and his brothers George and Jack, were all at home. it was a very windy weather, very rainy, and the scottish midwife said to clare “come in and see what your mother’s got.”

he lived at home with his family until he was 18, when his father died. he continued to live there for another 18 years, until he married Leah. people said he’d never be able to marry a blind woman, he hadn’t cooked himself a meal or ironed a shirt his whole life. but it went ok. he lived with leah in glebe, albury, the solomon islands, and umina for another 18 years, until leah died.

i’m going to pre-empt the new testament reading now. i’ve told lots of you how easy leo was to care for, what a generous and gracious patient he was. and sitting with him over the last few months i keep thinking of the words of 1 corinthians 13:

Leo was patient, Leo was kind. he was a gentleman. always early, always polite, always well-dressed. he didn’t care what he looked like, he had no shame, he’d be happy to go to the theatre in his undies (although that’s another story). but he wanted a party to look good, he knew that if you’re stepping out with a lady (or a female impersonator) you should make an effort. let that be a lesson to you young chaps. i’m not a great nurse. i don’t know how to roll a person over, i’m no good at wheelchair transfers. the first week dad was out of hospital in november he thought he was in a hospital in the third world – he had a hospital bed in a whitewashed room, with no routines and me and phil for nurses… i think the standard of care had dropped so much that he thought he was in india. but when he was sick and needed help, and when we weren’t very good helpers, he was so patient, so kind, so appreciative of us being there. we’d apologise for our keystone cops approach to nursing, and he never complained.

Leo did not envy, did not boast, was not proud. he kept his light under a bushel. he made anonymous donations (except where there was a tax advantage, in which case he’d make donations in the names of people who needed the money more than he did). he threw parties for others, but never for himself. he was proud of leah, proud of his children, but when the limelight fell on him he didn’t want to know about it. one night cathy and i were drinking at the angel place hotel in george st, and he said “the last time i was in here i was packing a gun” – he went on to speak about his youth, how he and his friends thought they were tough, thought they could walk around town with a gun. another time cathy asked leo if he knew george freeman, the standover man, leo said “oh no, thank goodness, i would have been boasting all over town that i knew george and got myself beaten up”. sometime in the next forty years those attitudes changed, i have heard lots of stories from his wild post-war youth but in all of them he repents of his youthful pride.

Leo was not rude, was not self-seeking, – he was welcoming, accepting, hospitable, generous. he must have invited thousands of people to stay, friends and acquaintances from near and far, i’m amazed how few people have accepted. i’ve seen him sit with people who were so rude, i’ve seen him wait graciously on people with no grace, and i’ve never seen him ask for anything in return. so many times in the last month someone has come over, one of you, and he’s been in his wheelchair, unable to stand, and he would apologise for not getting up. did i say he was a gentleman?

was not easily angered, kept no record of wrongs. actually he was angry about the burning of the great library at alexandria. and he was pretty angry about the big banks, the insurance industry, children kept behind razor wire, but for his friends he was endlessly forgetting, always giving another chance. last night i asked Phil what leo was angry about, and after i had said a few of the things on that list he said “i was having trouble, i was trying to think of something closer to home, but maybe there is nothing.”

Leo did not delight in evil but rejoiced with the truth. he has a whole bookcase devoted to miscarriages of justice. the Stuart case, the “Bringing Them Home” enquiry, the Mickleberg Stitch, Robert Johnson the boxer… come over and have a look. films too. Rabbit Proof Fence and One Night the Moon, The Fringe Dwellers and he had an enquiring mind, he loved a mystery, loved a good car chase – but he wanted to support those who were invesigating real mysteries, forgotten injustices, hidden crimes, in the hope they would be brought into the light.

Leo always protected, always trusted, he worked hard for the dismepowered. many of you know him through st vincent de paul, or youth angle, or … he was good in institutions – working for the tax office, he met my mum on the counter where they provided free help to people who were unable to do their own tax returns. teaching at TAFE and in the solomon islands, he had lots of stories about students who he had to shield from the rules. in the solomons he had student who asked for a few days off because his wife was having a baby, and was refused. leo told him to go, and for the next three weeks he forgot to mark the roll every morning, until the day the student returned – then he remembered, got out the roll, and asked the class whether everyone had been present for the last week. that young man had got a lift on a copra boat to his island, then taken his wife by canoe to the hospital in bougainville. he had worked the copper mines for two weeks until his wife and baby were ready to be discharged, then caught a boat back to TAFE. the principal thought he would go home and never come back, but leo trusted him.

always hoped, always persevered. he had plans and schemes my dad. we’ll never know many of his secret plans now, we’ll never know all the ways he hoped the world would change. he called himself cunning. he made plans to improve our lives, complicated plans which he didn’t reveal until it was time. so many theatre tickets he bought me before i started buying my own, so many flyers in my letterbox, so many reviews for Performance Space and Bangarra Dance, reminding me of the things he wanted me to appreciate. he worked slowly on his dreams. i’ve seen schemes play out over decades, and i’m know he had half baked plans which are never going to be finished.

i’ve run out of words now. come over to his place after mass, we’ve got some lunch organised and some music, leo’s bedroom is just as he left it if you want to spend some quiet time there, and we can tell each other stories.

but leo’s grandson josh has something to say, and he’ll speak for all of us.

–> Leah’s memoir