Louise rejected God for most of her early life. It’s not hard to understand why when you hear how her life started. She was born in the Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany to Jewish parents and abandoned by them when she was two years old. In adulthood she faced new traumas: a violent husband, a son with schizo-affective disorder and a foster son with severe intellectual disabilities.
In the back yard of her house in Western Sydney, amid the mint, ginger and parsley she grows, her foster son intermittently comes to give her a hug and the family dog plays at her feet. In this oasis, the question that burned in her for so long still resonates. “I couldn’t understand why a loving God would let my parents abandon me,” she said.
She now has a very strong relationship with God and credits her faith with keeping her going through the tough times. It’s been a long journey to this point with many twists and turns. Louise’s parents left her in the wash house of a migrant hostel soon after they arrived in Australia and, during her childhood, she was placed with 11 foster families, some of whom were abusive.
One effect was that Louise frequently misbehaved at school. Her boarding school in rural New South Wales was unsure how to help her. Finally, a committee member of the school volunteered to foster Louise. At age 12 she became part of a very nurturing family where Christian faith was part of life. Louise remembers that she once mumbled an angry comment about her birth parents to her foster mother. “She came straight back with, “Forgive them for they know not what they do’,” said Louise. The verse from Luke 23 made her think and something started to shift in how she viewed her life.
Louise said she understands that she was conceived in extreme times and her parents may not actually have wanted her. “My father was traumatised because of what he had seen,” she said. “His first wife and their children were put on the train to the camps where they died. He was held back and had to watch them go.” Her father and her birth mother later met in the camp and married on the ship to Australia after the war. While she did meet her parents at different times in her childhood and adult life, they seemed resentful toward her. On the occasions she met her father, he was emotionally distant and he never spoke about having abandoned her.
Louise’s change in thinking about her parents allowed her to think differently about God and, as an adult, she headed to church. However, the other parishioners kept their distance when they saw the bruises on her face that her husband at the time had given her. She knew they were praying for her but she really wanted someone to step forward and talk to her. At the same time, she was also struggling to help her son, Richard, end his alcoholism caused by his mental illness.
Things were only set to get more difficult. A former partner of Louise’s visited her one day with his intellectually disabled grandson, John, in tow. The two-year-old couldn’t walk or communicate and the man was not coping with caring for his grandson. He asked Louise to take on full-time care of the boy. While Louise did try to find John a foster family, each time he met a new family he would become very distraught and cry about leaving her side. “I knew my place had become his home. How could I send him away?” she said. Then and there she made John a promise. “I’m going to make you better and we’ll become great friends,” she said.
With all this going on, Louise eventually found a very supportive community of faith through a solicitor she saw when she found herself in precarious financial circumstances. In each meeting, he told Louise a bit about his church and asked her to come along. After thinking about it for a while, she eventually turned up at the church and found a group of people who were generous with their time and eager to help Louise and John. “That’s what I call a family of Christians,” she said. “Christianity is about the help you provide not the Bible verses you spout.”
She credits her faith with enabling her to continue to care for her sons as well as to feel nurtured herself. “God has a way,” she said, talking about the hope she has now. When she is in a bad space, she opens the Bible and starts to see a way forward. “I think that things happen in the most mysterious way without you realising.”
With her characteristic never-say-die attitude, Louise stuck with her sons. Richard’s schizophrenia was making him increasingly erratic and in one incident he destroyed some of the furniture. Louise didn’t want to ask him to leave as he had nowhere else to go. So, she asked him to move into the garage as a compromise.
Louise was studying for a university degree at the time and finding it difficult to get her assignments done. The university referred her for counselling at Wesley Mission. She undertook counselling for many weeks and was eventually referred to Meaghan Devane, the Network and Outreach Coordinator in Wesley Mental Health Services. Meaghan was able to tell Louise about the resources that could help Richard. “Wesley Mission also taught me that I had to take care of myself and not fall in a heap,” Louise said.
Richard eventually took part in an innovative program run by Wesley Mission for people with severe mental health issues that teaches them to navigate social and work situations better. He eventually found a place in a rehabilitation program which proved very successful. Richard now attends AA meetings regularly and he has come a long way in stabilising his mental illness. However, he still struggles.
In the days before Richard went to AA, Louise once booked him in to see a very good psychologist. However, on the day, Richard was so drunk he could barely walk. Louise was there to accompany him. When the appointment ended, Louise took Richard by the arm and said, “C’mon Mr Wobbly, let’s go home”. The psychologist was surprised at Louise’s patience and graciousness, where many parents in her position feel nothing but anger for their alcoholic children. “If you become aggressive, the person in your care will be aggressive back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what state they’re in, they’ll bite back.”
Through many hours of hard work and persistence, Louise has also taught her foster son, John, to walk and has taught him to communicate through hand signals. She also bought a dog as a way to help John engage in outdoor play and to help him learn to share. Louise’s hopes for her sons are coming to fruition and she still credits God for giving her the strength to face her continued challenges.
It’s not surprising that Louise thinks back on her parents with some hurt even though she understands their motivations. In her continued struggles to help her sons, she does have moments when she asks, “Why me?” At those times, she reads the Bible. “I read about other people who have been through suffering and know that I can handle it,” she said. “I think you can struggle with your past and your life but it just makes you aggressive. “It just saddens you even more and you’re always searching for something. But if you say, ‘OK it’s all over and done with’, you get on with life and make a life for yourself.” She also finds that the biggest challenges in her life are her greatest motivations to keep going. “John has been the catalyst,” she said. “His needs are so great, it stops me from wallowing.”