Christina, Mia, Sean
“I don’t think I even registered that meant there was something wrong. I was just like, oh, that’s what they always do.”
The week Tom and Christina found out their baby might not survive, they sang a song in church with the words, “all of my life, in every season, you are still God, I have a reason to sing”.
“I remember just thinking, ‘No, I don’t,’” Christina says.
“Even though logically my reason to sing is that I am eternally saved and no matter what happened to the baby I would see them in heaven, I really felt like I had absolutely no reason at all to praise God.
“I just couldn’t understand why God would let that happen… to anyone, not just us.
“I mean, I know the logic behind it, I know that suffering needs to occur because he’s not going to make everything perfect now, but I really struggled with the idea when it was happening to us.”
Even though she was angry with God, even though she questioned him, she didn’t turn away. She felt like even if she tried to, he’d still be there.
“I felt like I couldn’t,” she says.
* * *
Tom was a little more optimistic.
“The way that God works with him, he hears.. kind of more directly,” Christina says.
Tom kept coming back to the words of Jeremiah chapter thirty-two, where the prophet is told to buy land in the enemy camp as a kind of promise that Israel would one day return to it.
It was this passage that helped them decide to buy a cot and prepare a room for a baby who, based on the odds, wouldn’t come home.
“Tom admits that just because he heard that, it didn’t mean Alexander was going to survive,” Christina says.
“Maybe we would one day have a baby to bring home, whether it was going to be Alexander or not—but I think in his heart he really felt it was going to be Alexander. He just didn’t want to give me a false hope.
“So I think he had a lot more basis to believe everything was going to be okay; more than I did.”
* * *
As Christina’s due date approached, there was talk about inducing her at thirty-eight weeks so they could control when the baby was born. At the same time, they kept saying that the bigger the baby was, the healthier he’d be, she says.
“In the end we asked them to let me go to forty weeks, so I was really hoping he would come naturally because then at least he would be, in some ways, ready to come rather than being forced out before he was ready.”
The labour did begin naturally and was pretty normal, except that they had to be extremely careful delivering him.
There was a lot of tearing and a lot of pain, but the most traumatic aspect wasn’t physical, Christina says. It was knowing she wouldn’t be able to see or hold her baby when he was born, and not knowing whether his tiny, ill-formed lungs would even be able to draw a breath.
* * *
“They took him straight away, his bed was set up in the room, and they just took him and put a tube straight down his throat to help him breathe. He’d kind of made a weird sound, like he’d tried to cry, I guess, so I knew that he was born alive, and then they put the tube straight down his throat and, I don’t know what they were doing. I don’t even really know how long it was.
“Then they wheeled him past my bed and said—I remember, it’s really odd, I really clearly remember the doctor’s face, not Alexander’s, and I just remember him saying—‘Here he is, we’re going to take him away now, we’ll stabilise him and you can come and see him when he’s ready’.”
* * *
About five days later, Alexander was stable enough for surgery to patch up the hole.
The doctors told Christina she could stay the night of the surgery and go home the next day. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in a hospital room with nothing to do, waiting for him to come back from surgery. So I chose to go home,” she says.
It was a strange night. They hired a movie, got take-away, and tried to escape reality. The movie was something ridiculous they’d already seen—‘Ace Ventura’, perhaps. “I don’t really remember any of it,” Christina says.
All they wanted was a phone call to let them know the surgery had gone well, but when Tom’s phone finally rang it was an unknown number, so he didn’t answer.
“He was like, ‘I’m not answering it in case the hospital rings’. And then a voicemail came through and I said, ‘You should just listen to the voice mail’,” Christina says.
“It was the surgeon calling from his personal mobile. We purposely didn’t answer it because we were waiting. Before Alexander was even back on the ward he called to say that it went well… as well as it possibly could have.”
* * *
“I think I was on the footpath, no, I must have been on their property because they did escort me from the premises—they did call the police.”
One of Mia’s greatest passions is the banjo. She remembers seeing one on the wall in an antique shop when she was about twelve and begging her mother to buy it. Her mum reminded her of the “thousands of phases” that had come and gone before and refused.
In the end she bought her first banjo while she was at uni. It wasn’t a phase.
* * *
It was through music that Mia met Adam.
“There’s a mythical story that I’m sure isn’t true,” she says. “I was looking after an art exhibition at the Long Gallery and he was having coffee downstairs. I was playing banjo while I was watching the art exhibition in the gallery space and he came upstairs and showed me how to actually play the banjo.”
Adam is a physicist and a musician who was born in Eastern Europe and somehow ended up in Australia. He married a fellow physicist in his early twenties, but they divorced about five years later. She went on to become a pilot and a Buddhist Nun.
By the time Mia met Adam he was in his early forties. He had a good job, a crap car, and a small flat. He washed his clothes in the shower and boiled water on the stove. He lived a few minutes’ drive from a large shopping complex, but had never been there.
His minimalist lifestyle wasn’t caused by a lack of money so much as a desire to spend it on expensive instruments and gourmet food rather than appliances. Mia says he probably did his grocery shopping at Norman & Dan.
I ask how she reacted to unsolicited banjo tips from a near stranger. Perhaps even then there was something between them, because somehow, she didn’t find it annoying.
But that wasn’t actually their first encounter, she says.
She’d gone to a local whisky bar looking for musicians to draw a while back. She’d sketched each member of the band that was playing, then asked them for their names.
Adam was the only one who didn’t comply. “He wouldn’t tell me his name, just made up something, and I was like, ‘Idiot!’ I think that’s the first time we met.”
* * *
They also crossed paths at a local folk festival some time later.
“I tried to join in the top jam session with my like, three chords,” Mia says.
They chose one of the few songs she knew, but played it in a different key. She started to cry.
“I was a bit like that at that time, which is embarrassing now that I think about it—to just start crying. They were like, ‘Oh, okay. What? Okay.’ I don’t know, it’s a folk festival, they’re used to weirdos I guess. Then Adam was worried about me, which was nice, and he rang to check I was okay, which was nice.”
* * *
At some point, perhaps even before the folk festival, Mia joined an amateur string band that happened to be led by Adam. At another point, she went to his house for help with an essay and stayed chatting for hours. Sometime after that, they became a couple. “It was a gradual, gradual thing.”
I ask how old they each were when they finally got together. “I was twenty-one, he was forty-five,” she says, and then pauses.
“Wow, this is not going to be very anonymous… Now, which of Emma’s friends protested at McDonald’s, has a big age difference, plays banjo—could be anyone! Wow, I’m scared now. Can I proof-read this? I’m saying any old rubbish.”
I assure Mia that I won’t publish anything she’s not comfortable with, even if it means removing her character from the piece all together. I try not to make the words sound forced, but they are. What I’m thinking is, “No! It won’t be the same without you! Please let me keep you! Please?”.
* * *
I ask Mia how her mother reacted to the relationship. “I think she was a bit worried at first,” she says.
Mia and Adam had already caused Pam one sleepless night, when she’d sought his help for the essay and ended up at his flat.
“I was doing an essay and we talked about banjos… we just got talking and were sitting and talking about banjos till about two in the morning.”
Meanwhile, Mia’s mum was panicking. Her daughter had borrowed the family car and she had no idea where she was. When she arrived home in the early hours of the morning, Pam was standing there in her nightie. You can imagine the look on her face.
“I was just talking about banjos,” Mia says. “Poor mum.”
* * *
Before Mia introduced Adam to her mother, she started trying to talk him up. She wanted to reassure Pam that she had nothing to worry about. She tried mentioning he was a doctor.
“I thought, ‘This will make him sound responsible,’ but I think she was thinking, ‘Midlife crisis doctor? Like, in a sports car?’
“Then he turned up in this clapped-out Corona, and it was all okay.”
I ask Mia whether she freaked out at all when she realised she was falling in love with Adam. It seems completely ridiculous now, but I remember trying not to fall for my husband because of the age gap, and ours is, well, quite a bit less.
“I’ve never really cared, I’ve just always thought age is irrelevant,” she says. “He was more freaked out, it was probably harder for him.
“We have had people say, ‘Is this your daughter?’… I just laugh. It’s this funny, painful thing—I’m laughing… they’re dying.”
* * *
“I guess rebellion begins with going: actually, what can your parents really do when you’re a teenager?”
Sean was living in Melbourne, in the back room of a house that belonged to a friend’s mum, when he found out his own mother was dying of cancer.
“She’d been diagnosed and treated and was slowly going downhill and I didn’t know anything about it.”
Sean flew home. By the time he arrived the cancer was very advanced, and she was on various medications that meant she wasn’t always lucid.
He remembers her casually saying one day, “Oh Sean, why are you here?” and the unspoken words, “because you’re dying”.
It was sad, he says, and weird.
The conflict before he left had been so extreme, and the situation he returned to was so extreme, that to unpack it—to try and have “some big momentous speech like they do in movies”—to relive all the conflict and confusion, seemed impossible.
“A lot is unspoken, I guess. You go: I am here.”
He was sixteen when she died.
* * *
Afterwards, Sean remained in Hobart. Not a lot changed until a charismatic punk-rocker atheist friend who he deeply respected had a drug experience, started investigating religion, and became a Christian (he’s now an Anglican minister).
“I began watching that happen, and being intrigued by that,” Sean says. Through this friend and then through a church, he began looking at Christianity with fresh eyes.
As he did, a few things struck him. First, he experienced a kind of “intuitive apprehension of truth”.
In the same way he intuitively accepted the existence of the external world and individual personhood, he began to accept the existence of God.
“You can’t prove these things, but they’re almost like, immediately apparent to you—you just go, ‘As I open my eyes, the world presents to me as an external world with me as a subject in it’. There was a sense of an apprehension: there is a God.”
It came as he was sitting on a friend’s roof, watching the sun set behind Mount Wellington. It was simply an immediate, intuitive, “Uh huh!”.
“Not just ‘Uh huh—now I’ve seen and I never realised before,’ but more the feeling was like, ‘Uh huh—I’ve always kind of known…’—that was the sort of feeling.”
Sean also started engaging with who Jesus really was. “That went right back to arguments with chaplains in high school: What do you make of Jesus himself? Who is he? Who was he? Was he a liar, was he a lunatic, was he a Lord?
“That’s not a knock-down argument, but he is a compelling figure and even now when I go through seasons of doubt, one of the parts of the bible I go back to is the gospels, just contemplating this personality that we meet in history.”
He also started piecing together the way Christians look at the world, and found it cohesive and compelling.
He was attending a bible study run by the wife of a philosophy lecturer, listening to eloquent preachers, and reading the writings of CS Lewis. He found Christianity was making sense of the world in a way nothing else had, and began to think, “this really works”.
The remarkable thing is he wasn’t alone—a bunch of equally “unlikely” teenagers, many from his own circle of friends, started turning to Christianity. They stopped doing drugs and drinking too much, threw illegally copied CDs over the Tasman Bridge, and started attending the same very traditional church.
“It was received by some with great delight,” Sean says. “Jesus says the angels in heaven rejoice when a single sinner repents, and I think that’s true amongst Christian people, not just angels. So there was a lot of that.”
Others found it difficult. “The church that we came into was a church that was struggling with the process of change,” he explains.
The wave of so many young, pierced, dreadlocked new converts put pressure on “an already strained system”. The minister came up with a solution that was as radical as it was obvious: to start a new church in their honour.
* * *
Sean was seventeen when he began to call himself a Christian. It was 1997—his last year of high school.
“I was so captivated and inspired by it all, I just soaked it up. I just wanted to learn and apply and listen and do, it was just, ‘If it’s true, then it’s worth everything’.”
He was asked to help lead an afternoon youth group for grade three and four kids, and then continued to serve in whatever way made sense.
He wasn’t trying to earn God’s favour or atone for anything—Christ had that part covered—he was just expressing his convictions and his gratitude in whatever way made sense.
“Being a Christian, morally and spiritually, and being a Christian in terms of ministering and serving and speaking and organising, it was all of a piece, it wasn’t like there was a step from one to another, it just obviously went together, both in my experience and in the teaching I was listening to, so whenever opportunities or needs came to minister or serve or speak or organise, I just did it.”
At the same time he completed an Arts degree at university, read a bunch of theological books, and began preaching sermons. “As opportunities came up I took them, it was a really steady process.”
For the next two months, Tom and Christina spent all the time they could at the hospital, which was only five minutes’ drive from their house. “Tom would drop me on the way to work and pick me up on the way home, and he would stop in for half an hour or an hour depending on how his day was going.
“Some nights we’d have dinner, and I’d just cry, and I’d go, ‘I just need to go back’. And it was so amazing that I could just jump in the car and drive five minutes down the road and go in and see him and still be home by ten o’clock and have a decent sleep.”
* * *
Christina had to wait three weeks to hold her baby, and when she finally did, it was terrifying. He had only been in her arms for about thirty seconds when the nurses realised he wasn’t breathing—he was going purple—and put him straight back on the ventilator.
“Because of that awful experience, the next day they were like, ‘We’re going to make sure that you get a proper cuddle,’ even though he was on the ventilator,” Christina says.
Normally this isn’t allowed because of the risk of knocking and disconnecting the ventilator, but they found a way.
“They got me to lie down and they shifted him across the bed to me and he just lay on me for two hours. It was amazing. I got to have him for two hours.”
I ask whether Tom was eager for a hold too.
“He just really wanted it for me,” she says. Later, there were more opportunities, but every time he’d say, “No, no, it should be you”.
I ask Christina whether she ever felt like Tom couldn’t understand what she was going through because he didn’t have “the whole maternal thing” going on. She says she never thought this way, but she thinks perhaps he did. “I think he felt very disconnected.”
By the time Tom and Christina were able to hold their baby, ours had been born too. He was our second healthy child. The hospital staff told us everything was fine—there was no reason for us to stay, so four hours after the birth, we went home.
I remember thinking it was too soon—I was in shock, I needed sleep, I wasn’t ready to go home.
I didn’t realise it was a kind of miracle.
* * *
I think I mentioned there were four kids to contend with when I interviewed Christina. Two of them were mine. The other two were a bright, brave two-year-old and his brand new, beautifully healthy, baby brother.
Mia had been seeing Adam for about six months when she found out she was pregnant.
“It was the last year of my degree. I was like, ‘Why am I so tired? I can’t do any work, I’m too tired’, and the doctor’s like, ‘Do a pregnancy test’, and then, ‘Yep, you’re pregnant’.
“And then I started crying.”
She called Adam in tears. He must have thought something terrible had happened, cancer or something, so when she finally found the words he was relieved.
“It was crying from shock—wow, that’s a lot to take in all of a sudden.”
She went off her medication immediately and instead of getting worse, her mental health improved.
“They had all these warnings on my medical history, all these warnings for post-natal depression, all these alerts to watch out for,” but the depression didn’t return after pregnancy, and hasn’t since.
* * *
Mia was the first of my friends to fall pregnant, and the first to have morning sickness. I have a clear memory of being on a road trip with her and another friend, and having to stop for her to throw up. While she was spewing by the side of the road, we took the sandwich she’d been eating. “She definitely won’t want that now,” we thought, and got rid of it.
I ask her if she remembers. “Oh yeah, I was so angry, that toasted sandwich was mine!” When she got back in the car the first thing she did was ask where it was. We retrieved it from somewhere, the glovebox, maybe, and she said something like, “You cannot take that toasted sandwich from me. I need that,” and proceeded to eat it.
We watched, open mouthed, with a mix of horror and fascination.
Now, having experienced morning sickness myself, I understand completely. “I’m so sorry!” I say, “We knew nothing!”
* * *
“The prenatal thing,” Mia says, “I wasn’t in the zone.”
She attended some classes at a private hospital where everyone else seemed to be thirty-something and, well, a little too ready.
“They’ve got their station wagon all ready, car seat’s all prepared, they’ve decorated the nursery or whatever, and they’re all like, ‘Yay!’ I was just like, ‘What?’
“And then, when they did the thing where the nurse was like, ‘And this will be a typical twenty-four hour day: feed… feed… feed… feed,’ I put up my hand.”
Mia was pretty sure she was missing something. In a confused, and slightly apologetic voice she said, “Sorry, that’s through the night as well?”
The nurse nodded.
“I was like, ‘Um, when do you sleep, though?”
Now in our thirties, each with two kids, we find the question hilarious.
There was a time when being the pastor of a church would have been one of the last occupations Sean would have chosen for himself, but before long, it seemed to choose him.
“I think early on I had the idea that I’d be like a poet or a rockstar or something and I still thought that’s what I wanted to be, even after becoming a Christian,” he says.
“But as I got more and more captivated… it wasn’t a decision to abandon something so much as there was more to do, so why not do more?”
The new church needed leaders and organisers, so it made sense that those who were already natural leaders and organisers would become its founding leaders and organisers, he says.
Before long it had grown large enough to start churches of its own. “My number came up at the first church, so I just began doing that, first part-time then full-time after I graduated.”
He was about twenty-two when he started being paid, “such as the pay was”, he laughs.
* * *
Sean’s father has worked in the legal profession and in business, and is now a CEO in the not-for-profit sector. I imagine he and Sam’s Dad have a lot in common and, being Hobart, have probably met.
I wonder whether Sean’s father greeted his conversion with relief, or merely saw it as his son taking rebellion to the next level.
“Your relationship to spirituality is connected to your social and psychological life as well… that means you can sometimes dismiss people’s religious beliefs entirely by saying they’re entirely socially formed or psychologically created, so I think there was a bit of that,” Sean says.
“I feel like early on it was a rebellion thing and I was still just a rebellious person and it’s just the cause changed, so there was still a lot of idealism and conflict and arguing and debating and trying to win,” he admits.
But even after the idealism and conflict and arguing and debating stopped, the conviction wasn’t replaced and didn’t go away; it remained and remains still.
* * *
The next surprise for Sean’s father was the news he was getting married.
“A whole bunch of us were getting married early… again in that kind of simple idealistic way, going, well, marriage is a good thing and that’s the appropriate way to express romance and sex, we may as well just do it.
“It was totally a thing that family, not just mine, but lots of families, looking on—especially those who weren’t from a Christian background and didn’t share those values so strongly—were bemused, if not horrified about.”
* * *
By the time I met Sean, he and Stella seemed to have been together forever, despite their youth. I’d taken a break from my studies, done some overseas travel and was looking for a church to call home.
The first place I tried was a charismatic church. The main thing I remember was that so many people were jumping in time with the music that otherwise stationary things—the chairs, the floor, me—were moving too.
The second church I attended met in an old underground cinema on Murray Street. The preacher had a nose ring, dreadlocks and a warm smile, and his preaching made new sense of the bible. The previous service had felt like a performance, this one felt like a university lecture—I’d found my home.
I was also looking for a literal home, one closer to the uni. Sean and Stella were share-housing at the time, and one of their flatmates was heading overseas. The move meant I’d be living halfway between the main campus and the art school, with six friends instead of five siblings. I’d also be living in the same street as a boy I didn’t yet know, but would one day love best in the world.
He was already a regular at the house. We became firm friends, and his visits became increasingly frequent. A year or so later we started going out, and about eight months after that we got engaged. In 2006, Sean married us. Megan, Mia and Tori were my bridesmaids.
* * *
I wonder whether Sean thinks of his decision to work in ministry as a sacrifice. Church minister and campus director aren’t exactly the natural progression from rockstar and poet.
He acknowledges he could have chosen a more prestigious or lucrative job. He could have spent his twenties saving money rather than having kids and living off a very low income, but he prefers to recognise there will be benefits and difficulties no matter what you choose in life.
Besides, it’s not as if his life would have been perfect without the self-inflicted difficulties, and he gained so much more than he gave up.
“To live in a personal universe is a wonderful thing,” Sean says.
“When things are hard and when the world seems impersonal and cruel, and even people in your life feel distant and impersonal, knowing that there is actually a loving person in control of everything, that is an amazing comfort, and to have a hope… a hope beyond simply this life is an enormously sustaining thing, so having a hope that Jesus is risen from the dead… there is a hope for the universe beyond this world; that’s a wonderful thing.
“And, I guess, to have some sense of what your duties are is also really sustaining when you don’t have much left,” he says.
“When you go, the fire’s not there, there’s lots of stuff I feel out of my depth with and I feel overwhelmed by… at least I know my job is to pray and to read my bible and to love my neighbour and be faithful to my wife and to look after my kids and care for my church and to do good as I have opportunity to do. I know those duties and I know that’s actually what life’s about, even if there’s all these things I don’t know.
“There’s lots of things, right, but they’re all really simple things; it’s basically just: do good. Love God, love your neighbour—and that’s really centring, I guess.
“And the final thing is about being forgiven and shame and guilt. They’re not overwhelming things in my life, but when you do feel that, it’s an awesome thing to know that you’re forgiven.”