A long walk in memoriam
If I had to tell you my first memory of our cousin, Jackson, it would be this: he is running down his driveway with both hands in the air and he is smiling. We have just arrived in Gosford from Canberra and we are yelling through our windows, “Hi Jackson!”, but Jackson doesn’t hear us because he has already scaled the tree above our heads. He is four years old and swinging by one arm from a tree branch and the wind is going woooshhhhh and he is laughing. Jackson is laughing because the world is not full of monsters and there is no pain and the wind is catching his laughter and spreading it over the land like a fever.
The day Jackson took his life my brother, Harrison, was in Scotland. Jackson was 17. Harry was preparing to hike Spain’s GR11: an 850-kilometre coast-to-coast hike that begins on the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic and runs close to the French border to finish in the Mediterranean. That afternoon he received a message from our mum that began, “Dear Harry”. He’d received messages like this before. He knew something was wrong. He read the message and yelled for his girlfriend. He kept saying, “Fuck.” He felt how we all did: that if only we knew something was wrong we could have helped; that if only we were there we could have done something to prevent it.
At the funeral, my uncle Tim, Jackson’s father, stood in front of 300 people and told stories. He looked at friends and parents and family and he told them the things they already knew but didn’t know. He told them Jackson had taught himself to tie his shoes and his technique was unlike anything Tim had ever seen. He told them when Jackson was three he made $24 going door to door selling macadamia nuts he had collected from his backyard. He told them when Jackson was six he was on a soccer team but he wasn’t much of a soccer player so they put him in goal but when the ball came Jackson had gone to piss on a tree. Jackson was cut out for so much more than stopping round balls from entering nets.
And then a video of Jackson played and Tim told us other things. He told us how he and Jackson’s mum, Karen, had life bans on PayPal and eBay because when Jackson was under-age he had used their accounts to import waterproof iPhone cases to sell locally, making thousands. He told us how Jackson had a laboratory in his bedroom where he was constantly creating. He had power tools and test tubes and workbenches he had made himself. Tim told us how they would search for free microwaves on Gumtree so Jackson could disassemble them, and about the evening they drove to a Burger King car park because Jackson had bought potassium nitrate from some guy on the internet. He was sending rockets into the air and building bunkers in his backyard. He wanted to be a rocket scientist, or if that failed an engineer, or if that failed he would just work at Bunnings. He had plans. Big plans. He was figuring out the world and how things went together; he was destroying the rules and creating something new.
The day Harrison found out about Jackson he called Tim and cried. He told him he would fly home for the funeral. He told him how distraught he was and that he would be on the next flight home. But Tim and Harrison spoke and they decided on another plan. They decided Harrison would raise awareness for suicide prevention by completing the hike and partnering with Suicide Prevention Australia. They agreed it’s what Jackson would want them to do.
So a few days later Harrison set off. Our friend Paul was in the area and when he heard about the idea he agreed to go too. Their first week was gruelling. They carried 20 kilograms on their backs. They walked along fence lines. They walked more than 20 kilometres a day in 35-degree heat. It rained. It stormed. The sun came out and they baked. They thought about quitting. They kept going. They were doing this for Jackson. They were doing this for the people who couldn’t do anything anymore.
The blisters were savage. Their boots were stripping the skin from their feet and they could peel it back in sheets. They had only walked 130 kilometres and still had so far to go. So many people had donated to the fundraiser and they didn’t want to let them down. They were doing this for Jackson, and for others they had known who were no longer here. They had read that marathon runners sometimes superglued their blisters to their feet so they poured superglue on their red skin and pushed the dead skin down too. They bought sandals. They hiked the next 350 kilometres in their sandals and after that they strapped gauze and cotton wool to their feet and they did what they could: they walked.
When Harrison and Paul finished the hike I flew to Barcelona to meet them. They raised $5300 and hiked 850 kilometres in 39 days. That night we went out for drinks. The bars closed and we bought beers off the street and sat on the pavement behind a bus stop. We spoke about the hike and our lives and the lives of others. We spoke about Jackson and how nobody had known anything was wrong. Harrison told us about growing up in the Brisbane skateboarding scene and about the two skateboarders who took their lives on their 18th birthdays within a year of each other. He told us about another friend who attempted the same thing in high school. And Paul and I spoke, too. About the people we had lost. About feeling scared and the times we thought there wasn’t anyone to talk to. About the difference between dying and wanting the pain to stop. We spoke about youth and the idea that if you’re a man you can’t cry or show emotion. We spoke about burying the terrible things inside us and feeling good again once more. But then we went silent because now we knew a new truth. We knew the monsters we were taught to fear as children – the ones that lived next door and under the bed – were the wrong monsters. We knew that the monsters we buried long ago could grow inside us. We knew the real monsters could live right inside our heads.
How do we tell the stories about the people who are no longer here? Tim finished his speech and Jackson’s casket was placed on the shoulders of many. People had written messages on the casket. People had written: To the moon, Jackson. People had written: I wish we could have talked. People had written: See you there. Then the casket left the church and “The Final Countdown” played over the church’s speakers. People looked around. People smiled. It was Jackson’s favourite song. It played for 4 minutes 55 seconds and we smiled our crying smiles because we realised he would never listen to it again.
Harrison didn’t want this article to be about him. He tells me what he and Paul did wasn’t remarkable. He says it was stupid to walk for that long. And this article isn’t about him. And what they did wasn’t stupid. This article is about Jackson and the family and friends who grieve him. It’s about a beautiful boy and a broken society and the people we’ve loved who are no longer here. It’s about not knowing the reasons people do things but discovering them before it’s too late. It’s about honouring the dead and hope and pain. It’s about all of us. It’s about the conversations we need to have and feeling less alone. It’s about you.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "The long road". Subscribe here.