Honouring a friend

Honouring a friend
Posted on Fri 18 Jun 2021

Written by Dr Robert Higgs

I first met my friend Robert Lomax in 1987, when he was 47, at an anniversary of the opening of a church. When I first saw him my immediate thought was that he had some dreadful terminal illness. I knew very little about cerebral palsy and immediately jumped to a false and, I now know, judgmental conclusion.

We got talking towards the end of the evening and were both pleasantly surprised that we had a lot of common interests, classical music being the main one but also literature, some forms of cooking (he had completed a cordon bleu cooking course only recently), good Scotch and the history of Sydney.  It took only a few moments to discover that he was extremely intelligent, widely read, and had a rare capacity to take a real interest in what other people said, no matter what the topic was.

If I had to sum him up in a single clause I would say: “interesting and interested”. I must also say that he was one of the three bravest people it has ever been my privilege to meet.

There was one feature of Robert which he, and many others, found very difficult: some of his speech was, at times, almost completely unintelligible because of dysarthria. This was far worse when he was on the telephone or was fatigued, and resulted in a distressing degree of social isolation. Had his phonation been "normal", he would have been a very popular person with a very busy social life and though he knew a very large number of people, he had few real friends. 

Apart from two tasks he would have found impossible (drinking without a straw and changing a light bulb) Robert lived completely independently until the last two years of his life, and was a customs officer at Customs House at Circular Quay, a job he held for many years. It was not easy for him but he never gave in to things many of us would find intolerable.

I have never forgotten the staring by passersby, the infantilisation as though he were a child, the lack of due and proper promotion at his job, the difficulty of buying clothes and especially shoes, which readily wore out at the toes because of his gait, the failure of people to keep in touch after they had said they would ring.

I made sure that he was invited whenever I had guests for dinner, and he made excellent company with his old-school graciousness and camaraderie and occasional cheek – but we all quickly learned to give him time to speak, never to interrupt or talk across him, and to eat at a more leisurely pace than is perhaps usual so that he was not embarrassed by taking longer to empty his plate. 

Robert had an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything to do with old movies and their history, and on retirement opened a “movie memorabilia” shop in Enmore. He himself did all the designing of the shop and it had an enormous stock of old DVDs, books, posters, postcards, and facilities for making coffee if a customer wanted to linger and chat. It was a very niche market but unfortunately was not a commercial success.

I knew that the movie industry was his biggest passion in life and the desire to open such a shop his lifelong goal, and am glad that he fulfilled that aim even though the result was a commercial loss. Had he known that would happen, I am positive he would still have gone ahead with his pet project: in more ways than we can imagine, he found it immensely fulfilling.

Robert was born in 1939 and grew up in Kellyville. I have a clear memory of a photo he gave me of him sitting at a desk in a classroom with other children practicing his writing at about the age of 8 or 9.

The speech pathologists of today were not then available to him. If they had been I often wonder how much different his entire life would have been: it would have been entirely normal, if one can ever define what normal means.

He died in a nursing home on 1st May 2012. I lost one of my greatest friends and not only that, someone who without words taught many of us small things which we might think inconsequential, but are of enormous import to someone with a disability that affects them socially. Robert very rarely complained about his health, always being far more interested in how others were.

When very weak and not far from his death he said to me, “I’m going down but I’m going to go down fighting.” That statement summed up the courage he displayed in life.  

Having had the privilege of knowing Robert for 25 years until his death in 2012 has inspired me to name the Cerebral Palsy Alliance as a beneficiary in my will, so that I may in some way continue supporting such a wonderfully noble and necessary organization.

If you would like to know more about leaving a gift in your Will to transform the lives of people with CP, please contact our Fundraising Relationship Manager, Carol O’Carroll on 02 9975 8955 or carol.ocarroll@cerebralpalsy.org.au.

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