Robert O’Brien was one of five writers with disability who received an inaugural Write-ability Fellowship in 2013.
Robert and his wife Jean were the first couple with cerebal palsy to be married in Victoria. At a time when even romance was frowned on for people in their situation, their commitment and determination paved the way for other couples in their community.
In this extract from Robert’s memoir, A Boot Full of Piss, he describes how they met and fell in love.
A Boot Full of Piss
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a disability is not wanting of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be (as if people with a disability have feelings or opinions!), on his first entering a neighbourhood this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding society, that he is considered as the rightful property of… well… he’s just considered property, really.
Getting married was probably the furthest thing from my mind that morning, when my friend Faye gave me my latest in a long line of dares. In a bedroom in another ward, our friend Jeanie was lying in bed in her room, waiting for her attendant to come and get her up. Faye dared me to sneak in and give Jean a kiss. But since a walking frame makes your ‘sneaking’ speed about the same as your ‘walking’ speed, I wandered right in and kissed her.
I can’t explain what happened. I really don’t know what changed, but I immediately fell in love with Jeanie. I pulled away with a feeling of surprise and total happiness. I had known her all this time, but all of a sudden, I couldn’t imagine living without her. It was like a light switched on. I started noticing every little thing about Jeannie, like the way she giggled when she spoke, her favourite colours, books, music. We started spending more and more time together – we would go for walks together, with me pushing her chair in lieu of my walking frame. It didn’t take long before I knew I wanted to marry her.
At the time, Jeanie and I were working at the Chelsea Workshops in Mordialloc. I packed engine and mechanical parts for Bosch, and Jeannie worked in the tile department. The staff there were very friendly and open minded. Two individuals in particular stood out. Neil was the manager of the workshops and a bit of a ratbag like myself, so we got on great. Margaret was the head of Jeanie’s department and quite close to Jeanie. When word spread that Jeanie and I were a couple, Neil and Margaret helped the two of us spend lunchtime together, and being able to share our time more often, Jeanie and I fell deeper in love.
Word of Jeanie and I spread in other directions however, and reached the ears of the Matron of Rattray-Wood House. She was a stern and austere woman, who stood with her hands behind her back, and seldom smiled. The staff were directed to discourage Jeanie and I from spending so much time together. Most didn’t bother – it kept me from causing trouble for them – but the few times they had to, usually under the Matron’s gaze, I remember feeling furious, and betrayed. These were the people who were supposed to enable my life, assist and help me but suddenly there was this arbitrary rule against it, and it came across as a very personal attack.
Back at the workshops though, things were much brighter. Neil and I were talking, and one day I floated the idea of marrying Jean. Neil was surprised at this, but told me I should go for it. A gear seemed to click in his head and he was fired up, ready to arrange things. But the more wound up he was, the more nervous I became. It wasn’t just an idea in my head anymore, it was real.
That afternoon I spoke to Faye and another mate, Bob, when Jeannie wasn’t around. I told them that I was planning to propose to Jean, but I think they could tell I was on edge. In an inspired move, when it looked like I was about to back out, Faye said “I dare you to propose to her right now!”
In a flash, I was myself again, ready to one-up Faye’s dare. I walked up to Jean’s room as fast as I could – again, walking frame, one speed only – and stepped through the door. Jean was lying in bed, looking out the window, just like the first day I kissed her. When I came in, she looked up at me and smiled. I walked over to her, put my walking frame aside, knelt down beside her and put my arms around her. “I love you. I want to marry you. Jean, will you marry me?” I asked, doing everything I could to not start shaking. “Yes, darling,” she replied, and I kissed my fiancé for the first time.
© Robert O’Brien 2014
Writers Victoria acknowledges the generous support of the Grace Marion Wilson Trust for this program. The Write-ability program is a partnership between Writers Victoria and Arts Access Victoria made possible by the generous support of the City of Melbourne and the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. Write-ability is grateful for the previous support of the Copyright Agency Ltd, the Ian Potter Foundation and the Victorian Government.