CHAPTER TWO: We Were Young Once
Haley De Martin’s three-year-old son Lewis is proudly naming the colour of each pencil he picks up to draw with. He’s smart, adorably cheeky and has a wicked smile; he loves Paw Patrol, and sneaking onto his older brother’s and sister’s computers to play Minecraft. While he chatters away, Haley talks about her grandfather, Caesar Galea, at times smiling, others crying. You can’t help but think Lewis and Caesar would have been fast friends.
But the Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire robbed them of that chance.
“He was a very structured man, very clean,” the mum-of-three tells WSFM. “We would laugh that he would buff and polish his car until there was no paint left.”
Talking about her beloved “Grandy” is hard for Haley, even now. November 18 was just the start of her family’s heartache; her grandmother, Valentina, died a few months after the fire, something the family attribute to a broken heart. But, after “five years of running from the hate”, Haley is determined that her grandfather be remembered for the great man he was.
“He cooked, like you would not believe,” she laughs. “He made the best schnitzel and gnocchi and cannelloni and pancakes you would ever imagine.
“[I have] big memories of him complaining, ‘I was up since 4am cooking these pancakes’” – she’s gesturing with her hands, mimicking his accent – “and it takes us 20 minutes to literally demolish stacks of [them].”
She pauses, now, and her voice breaks.
“I just miss him so much.”
For Ceasar Galea, family was everything
Like many of the residents of Quakers Hill Nursing Home, Caesar Galea had emigrated to Australia, moving from Egypt after the second World War. After six long months at sea, he settled in Waterloo with Valentina and their eldest daughter, Rosanna; their second daughter, Haley’s mum Patricia, was born soon after.
“What I remember most about my grandparents was the love they had for their family,” Haley says. “It was all about family, getting together on the weekend and huge, big, foodfests.” She says her grandparents’ fibroshack house was bursting with warmth and laughter.
The decision to move Caesar to a nursing home was not an easy one, but, at 82, he was finding it harder to move around; they decided to act after he had had a few falls. “There’s only so many times you can call an ambulance,” Haley explains.
“It was lonely for my Nan [but] one of us would take her over five days a week. It was OK, they were doing OK. He was older, but he wasn’t ready.
“Everything was fine, until that day.”
Haley De Martin fondly remembers her grandfather
Lorraine Osland also describes the anguish of moving her mum into a nursing home as “devastating”. Lola Bennett was 86 at the time of the fire, and had been a resident at Quakers Hill for just over a year.
“We had a look at a lot of places,” Lorraine explains. “Most places, when you walk into them, had this terrible smell. But [Quakers Hill] didn’t. It was very clean. It was a nice place. So we chose there.”
Lorraine is steady, unwavering, as she voices the thought that has been on a near-constant loop in the heads of every family who lost a loved one to Roger Dean’s incomprehensible actions.
“When everything went wrong, it put us all in a position of, ‘Oh God, if we hadn’t put Mum in there. Maybe one of the scungier places, she would have been safer.’
“But you don’t know that at the time. What do you do? You think you’re doing the right thing, choosing the right place at the right time.”
Verna Webeck had moved into Quakers Hill more than 10 years before the fire, when complications after a bypass operation led to a series of strokes and the loss of her right leg. Sue promised her mother that, when the time came, she’d bring her home. She kept her promise; sitting on her mantelpiece in the living room is an urn with Verna’s ashes. Sue says she talks to her mum every day.
“My Mum was a stunner when she was young,” the 59-year-old explains proudly, pointing out the photos lined up on top of the TV unit. “And you can still see those eyes if you did the wrong thing.”
The daughter of a shearing family, Verna Webeck would regale her five children with tales of growing up under the stars, of sleeping under the family’s wagon as they moved from farm to farm. The nomad’s life didn’t stop when she married a shearer; in fact, Sue laughs, it wasn’t until she was bitten by a snake that her mum decided enough was enough.
She didn’t like presents but couldn’t resist a flutter at the TAB. She was cheeky and clever and, according to Sue, could read her kids’ minds.
“I don’t want her remembered as a victim of murder,” Sue says firmly. “But, sadly, that’s how they are remembered. She was a strong, independent lady. A beautiful lady.
“She’ll always be my best friend.”
“We’re all going to get old,” Donna says as she taps her finger on the table as if to emphasise each word. “That person who was elderly was once young, like we are. They were in the Wars, they were young too. Just because you see them like this doesn’t mean they haven’t lived a life to get there.
“So why is it that the elderly are subject to the least amount of care?”
After five years, Donna’s anger is still palpable; losing her mother, Alma Smith, in such a horrific and heartbreaking way has irrevocably changed the way she views older Aussies. Something as simple as going to the supermarket has become an ordeal – Donna will see someone who reminds her of her mum and have to turn away, focussing on dresses and hats in shop windows until she can swallow back the tears.
This photo of Donna and her mum Alma is the last happy memory she has of the two of them
Her grief hasn’t been helped by the feeling that a lot of her history died with her mum. By her own admission, Donna doesn’t know much about her early years; Alma kept a lot to herself.
“I had a lot of questions,” she says. “I kind of wrote them all down, put them with her.”
Donna, who has her mother’s name tattooed on her arm in memory, is still trying to find a way to turn her experience, her sorrow and fury, into something positive, she says. To be an advocate, a voice for the elderly. She’s not sure how, but she will. She’s determined.
“Everyone’s got a story,” Donna’s finger has stopped tapping now. Her hands are back in her lap.
“She didn’t deserve… None of them deserved to go like that.”