This week marked the anniversary of the death of Western Australia’s celebrated Engineer-in-Chief, C.Y. O’Connor, on 10 March 1902. O’Connor, exhausted and suffering intolerable stress—much of it caused by vitriolic personal attacks on him in the press—rode his horse into the sea in the early morning and shot himself.
On Wednesday morning, I joined O’Connor’s descendants at the beach that bears his name, as I do every year. It is always an uplifting gathering, in spite of the sadness at the core of the memorial. Flowers are cast onto the water and members of the family carry them out to adorn the bronze horse-and-rider statue (the work of sculptor Tony Jones) anchored to the sea bed 100 metres offshore.
I always bring sunflowers, to honour C.Y.’s artist daughter Kathleen (Kate) O’Connor and the close relationship she had with her father. Brilliant sunflowers worked in oil are among Kate’s most famous paintings, and she painted them obsessively late in life.
This year’s commemoration was made more special, and more poignant, by the presence of four beautiful horses among the swimmers.
As I watched Kate’s sunflowers float away, I also remembered standing in the same place a year ago, on the day the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. I think it was only just dawning on me that I wouldn’t be going to Europe in April, as planned, but I had no sense that the world was about to change so dramatically. That people would lose their livelihoods, their homes, their sense of security, their loved ones. That families would be separated, people would be stranded, and the world would become infinitely more uncertain. That well over two million people would die in the next twelve months.
I feel immensely grateful to be here, grateful and hopeful. I hope that ‘this’ is not forever. That the incredible effort put into developing vaccines will bring relief the world over. That what we’ve learned over the past year—new ways of working and communicating, new ways of experiencing the world from afar and looking more closely at our own backyards—will have lasting benefits. And hopeful that we have come far enough in our attitudes towards mental health, over the past one hundred and nineteen years, that people suffering intolerable stress will feel more able to reach out for help.
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