I’ll walk through the fire, with my head lifted high And my spirit revived in Your story And I’ll look to the cross, as my failure is lost In the light of Your glorious grace Let the ruins come to life, in the beauty of Your Name Rising up from the ashes, God forever You reign.
Glorious Ruins – Matt Crocker/Joel Houston
In the English summer of ’65, shortly before Jean’s 22nd birthday, Jean and Mike Sheppard tentatively welcomed their fourth child, Michaella Jane Shona, into their modest terrace home. Their bright and boisterous baby girl (me) brought their brood to four under four – daunting for any young family. Within eighteen months another sister brought us to five.
One can only imagine the challenges raising five children on a single salary brought.
On December 10, 1971 this young family of seven embarked on a 26-hour journey to new horizons. Jean longed to be reunited with her mother and brother, and Mike hoped this would bring them the life of contentment they wished for. Now 6, I was filled with excitement and imagination for what this promised land of Australia would bring.
Within months the challenges of a new country, employment and making ends meet, took their toll. I often bore witness to endless arguments and physical showdowns my father inflicted on my mother. I too, along with my siblings, often bore the brunt of dad’s anger and depression as we were forced to sit for hours on timber stools in the kitchen.
After numerous visits from the local constabulary, Mum did what she thought best for the safety of her children and herself; clearly something she did in desperation. She moved in with her boyfriend and his family, uprooting us younger three girls to go with her across Sydney to Lidcombe (my sixth home in six years). The older two boys moved in with our Nan in Willoughby.
Maybe this would bring the peace and stability I so yearned for. Mum seemed happier; this was good. But life changed for me. Here I experienced the distorted need of another, abusing my desperate need for fatherly love. Any time we were left alone, even for just a short while, he used me to gratify his own needs, with no understanding of the unravelling within me.
Just a few months later, this torment was laid to rest with a tragedy far greater. One weekend I was awoken in my bunk on the verandah by a great deal of noise and concerned kerfuffle. Moments later I was told: “Don’t ask Daddy where Mummy is – he’s not feeling very well.” Within hours my sisters and I found ourselves being whisked away by Mum’s best friend. That trip in the back of her panel van was filled with anxious questions and awkward silences. Rose was to bring us girls to Nan – she would tell us what was going on when we got there.
The grief in Nan’s face was tangible. “Mummy has been in a car accident, she’s at the hospital”. Mum had been a passenger in her boyfriend’s car; he had fallen asleep at the wheel and collided with a truck. She suffered spinal and head injuries and was in a critical condition at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Nan was determined to protect us children; no hospital visits were allowed. Mum’s hospitalisation continued over Christmas. I remember this first Christmas as Nan, family and friends were determined to make it the best they could at this tough time.
Early in the New Year Mum was transferred to a nursing home, but contracted pneumonia shortly after and died before her 30th birthday, leaving five children aged 6-11 to begin life without her.
Children were not allowed at the funeral.
Life went on.
Nan was incredible. In her early sixties and soon to retire, she took us on with such determination and gusto I even began to dream again … maybe Nan would bring the peace, love and stability for which I longed.
To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
Isaiah 61:3 (NKJV)
Returning to Willoughby Primary, I attempted to rebuild my childhood. I was angry and troubled; teaching staff often bore the brunt of my turmoil. I stole other children’s lunches, was rude to teachers and bullied other students. At the beginning of Grade 3 my teacher moved my desk out on to the enclosed verandah and advised me that when I was ready to behave, my desk would be returned to the classroom. At the end of Grade 3, my desk was still out there!
Over the next five years, Nan was forced to move rental homes four times, each time around my birthday. I also fell victim to sexual abuse from three other men in my world.
Amongst all this hurt there was a light – Willoughby Gospel Chapel. It was here I first experienced unconditional love and acceptance. I wanted the love and joy these people had; they were happy, kind and generous, and they loved and blessed me and my family beyond measure. It was here that I learnt that Jesus loved me, unconditionally; despite what life’s circumstances told me, God still loved me. Here at Every Girls’ Rally one Friday night, I gave my heart and future to Jesus. Life didn’t change and the abuse didn’t stop, but I knew God loved me and that He was with me – always.
My uncle was a publisher – he was the only man in my life who was good to me. He was transient in our lives as he loved to travel, but I looked up to him and wanted to be just like him. I loved books; loved to lose myself in thick novels, loved the smell of new print, and one day I was going to be a publisher just like him.
Shortly after my 13th birthday, Nan made a decision to move us to Queensland. She was now 66 and suffered from Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease – a condition that left her gasping for breath in the winter months and increasingly short of breath throughout the year. It was thought a move to the warmer Queensland climate would be good for her health. So in December 1977, we farewelled our teenage friends and headed north to Bli Bli. There in a caravan park opposite the somewhat famous Bli Bli Castle we began again. Four women living together in 22 feet of caravan – no small feat! We enrolled in the local Nambour State High School and I was excited at the prospect of Animal Husbandry and Agricultural Science – this school had a working farm! Now that’s something we definitely didn’t have in the city!
A visit to the guidance counsellor put paid to those ambitions. “You must do science. What if you want to become a nurse? You must have science to do nursing.” I was furious, venting my frustration to Nan all the way home “A nurse! Who wants to become a nurse? Stupid woman, she wasn’t listening! I told her I want to be a publisher, not a nurse!” This was my first experience of God’s providence – His outworking in my life long before I was aware of it. No surprise to Him, I began ‘Registered Nurse’ training just five years later.
And I loved it!
By Grade 5 Michaella was renowned as a school bully yet cowering with shame as yet another man abused her
In Nambour my family and I planted ourselves in the local Uniting Church and here I developed friendships that would not only withstand my turbulent teenage years, but are still outworking 30 years on. My relationship with God also grew, as I worked through 20 years of pent-up grief and abuse.
The highlight of my nursing career was serving with Frontier Services in remote areas of Australia, including Mintabie SA, Menindee NSW and Coen Qld.
After two successful deliveries in these remote areas (without any midwifery training) I returned to Nambour to complete a Midwifery Certificate. It was here that an old flame was rekindled with the love of my life, and within 11 weeks of ‘going out’ we announced our engagement. Just ten long weeks later we tied the knot! Much to everyone’s surprise our firstborn didn’t arrive for another 18 months!
Over the next 15 years we moved to Brisbane, purchased a business, gave birth to two sons and a daughter, had Nan move in with us, watched Nan decline in health till her passing just after the birth after our daughter, sold a business, and began the all-encompassing role of parenting school-aged children! We began our business with the two of us just four weeks prior to our second son’s birth (and just six weeks after we began renovating our home). We worked relentlessly, many 60-hour weeks, to build it up, only to have it pulled out from under our feet. The toll was evident not only financially, but emotionally and physically. We attended church spasmodically and then not at all.
But God still loved us … He still held us close.
Through the children attending a local Christian school Jeff and I found ourselves attending church again. After ten years in business we sold it to cover our debts and moved on. We had made the decision early on in our marriage to work hard at our unity. This has been tested to its fullest over the past ten years as I struggled with depression and anxiety, culminating in hospitalisations for suicidal thoughts and actions. Despite a journey of love, forgiveness and release, I was living with the oppression of self-hate, mistrust, fear and hopelessness on a day-to-day basis.
Life had taught me never to trust anyone fully, never to aspire to more than life deals you, never to give with abandon. People leave, people die, people use you, money is short, life is shorter. God is teaching me otherwise. I am beautiful. I have the capacity to dream and live out those dreams. I was created on purpose, for a purpose. I have seen release, by trusting Him fully, hope, by aspiring to all God has created me to be and joy, by giving generously. It is a journey, God is not finished yet, but I am resolved to keep moving forward, gathering and empowering others through my pilgrimage.
Our past doesn’t need to define our future, but baggage is inevitable and it takes sheer guts, determination and a desire to be greater, to unpack and release the burdens that baggage carries.
And this is the heart behind this magazine. We all have stories. We all have challenges. We all have the capacity to be greater. I look forward to growing together, may we all be empowered to live more, give more, be more!
Photos: © Michaella Duncker