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Pity abandoned on the banks of the Parramatta


The winter sun hangs low on the banks of the river as I walk with my girls, seven and three. We nearly run into an eight-year-old boy peddling a unicycle with such ease he looks almost bored. Kaitlyn, the seven-year-old, grins, spots a stack of unicycles on the grass, and makes a run for them.

UnicycleA young man introduces himself: Ashley. He has sandy blond hair, a lithe body and an ease and grace with the kids. The lessons are free, but my daughter doesn't wait to for this explanation; she's already picked up a unicycle.

'You need a helmet first,' Ashley explains, and I tap my daughter's arm and sign, Helmet.

'Does she read lips?' he asks.

'If you could just look at her when you're talking,' I say.

'Okay,' he says with the slightest trepidation. 'She's d-d-deaf and I have a stutter.'

But he doesn't stutter when he speaks to my deaf daughter. Or if he does, she doesn't notice. The three-year-old pulls at my leg and I give her some crackers.

Something about this young man's unassuming manner reminds me of my brother, who used to ride a six-foot unicycle through the Georgia heat, juggling. I sometimes see the ghost of him in my daughter: that appetite for adventure, the intense keenness that was the death of him — what we loved and feared about him most.

Kaitlyn can't stop smiling as she holds Ashley's hand; half a peddle, stop, half a peddle, stop. She falls off and gets back up again. She keeps practicing while Ashley moves to help another girl, who's waiting, her mother in a Sari on this unusually warm August day.

Then a pretty young woman with hair cut short like a boy hops on and rides off straight away. 'You're a natural,' Ashley says, a beat before she falls. They laugh. He helps her on again.

I have a go, hoping I'll be a natural, too. I'm not. I feel like a child until my three-year-old walks in front of the wheel and I have to get off and go back to being Mum.

Two blokes with big tattoos and bigger muscles come by and give it a try. They hold onto the fence and pedal and swear; they can't balance. Ashley tries to help, but they finish his sentences before he can get them out of his mouth and then they give up. 'Too hard,' they say.

There are others — they keep coming — trying to ride this awkward contraption as the afternoon fades and the grass grows golden in the evening light.

And I think about the people who were here before us on the banks of the Parramatta: female convicts sewing clothes for other convicts in this, the second oldest Australian city, established in 1788. And before the convicts, the Burramatta clan, here for perhaps 40,000 years. Burramatta means 'the place where the eels lie down'. Today 27.5 per cent of residents were born overseas. And the river rolls on.

'Mum, look!' Kaitlyn yells. She rides a couple of feet on her own, just before she crashes, and I think how nice it would be to believe in heaven, to have my dead brother looking down on this now: the niece he never knew on a unicycle in Parramatta.

When I was five and he was 16, my brother taught me how to ride a bike without the training wheels. When I was 12 he took me on the back of his motorcycle and we rode so fast I peed in my pants. At 15, he showed me how to smoke pot out of an empty beer can. He taught me how to rock climb — 'Repelling's for wimps. You've got to climb up the rock face first.'

'Mum, look!' my daughter yells again. 'I got it.' And she does, sort of, or maybe not quite, but she's keen.

She pedals and falls and gets back up again. It's the getting back up that gives me hope. I close my eyes and make a wish that she will always get back up and that there will be many Ashleys in her life, with their quiet confidence, their inner understanding of imperfection.

The father of the boy who's the eight-year-old unicycling pro asks about Kaitlyn's deafness. 'It's so sad,' he says, 'so sad.' And he means well, but he's wrong.

It doesn't make her any less. Pity, I want to tell him, is one emotion better left abandoned. Look, there she is after an hour and a half of falling down and getting back up: she's still smiling.

Dusk arrives and Ashley has to pack up his van before he gets a parking ticket. We say goodbye and leave the river, winding on, as rivers do, mixing with salt as it bends towards Sydney Harbor and out into that great Pacific.


Sarah Klenbort

Sarah Klenbort is a US-born writer of fiction and non-fiction who also teaches literature at the University of Western Sydney.

Image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Sarah Klenbort, Parramatta River, deafness



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Existing comments


Tony | 21 October 2015  

Thank you for that beautiful reflection. It's made my day, which isn't bad given how early it is :)

DeC | 21 October 2015  

This proves hope and goodness. Thanks.

Peter Goers | 21 October 2015  

Please do not be dismissive of "pity". It has a bad press because it implies in our language and culture something condescending. but it is really an expression of empathy. What matters is what comes next, as Jesus himself showed us.

Eugene | 21 October 2015  

A beautiful, uplifting story to begin my day. Thank you Sarah.

Clare | 21 October 2015  

Thank you! Loved every word of it.

Annabel | 01 November 2015  

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