Losing someone you love is always difficult, but for me the loss of Barb has left me feeling as lost and abandoned as the Ancient Mariner she often wrote about.
She never wanted to leave – the world in particularly, her family specially, or me – most of all. She got me a little black and white kitten so I wouldn’t be alone. Lucy is wonderful company. But she’s not my Barb.
Barb was a passionate writer who loved life and all it had to offer, particularly reading, gardening, cooking, cryptic crosswords, Nordic noir, conversing, cats and gongoozling – a word she delighted in – meaning to stare idly at the ocean.
Born in Otorohonga, New Zealand on February 27, 1957, Barb was the fourth of Patrick and June Farrelly’s eight children.
She survived a flood that washed the family’s pigs away when she was only one, and, at 15, not long after the family home burned down, started work as journalist on a regional newspaper.
A born writer, by the age of 21 Barbara was the news editor of four Auckland suburban newspapers.
Barbara was also a playwright and had three of her works performed in New Zealand – Which Side of the Wall? and Women and Madness in the Waikato Arts Festival, while The Waiting Room opened the 1977 Women’s Convention.
A lesbian feminist activist as a teenager, Barbara objected to International Women’s Day as it was “one day for women and 364 for men”.
She found New Zealand parochial, recalling the first pizza shop in Auckland where people thought the olives were grapes. When a police officer sexually assaulted a gay man she left in 1981 for South Australia where the premier, Don Dunstan, wore pink shorts and valued the arts.
There Barbara worked for the Adelaide Advertiser, ran a women’s art festival and produced radio programs for 5MMM.
In 1983 she was employed by the South Australian Health Commission to research and write ‘Child sexual abuse: a report based on the Adelaide Rape Crisis Centre incest phone-in, March 1983’. It was the first of its kind in Australia and resulted in the implementation of mandatory reporting laws.
Barbara moved to Sydney the following year and became news director at 2SER. There she taught aspiring journalists and won an award for a report on AIDS.
In 1986 as publications officer in the NSW Government Premier’s Department, Barbara wrote, among others, a report on domestic violence.
In 1988 she was funded by the Australian Film Commission to write Sisters, an urban Australian comedy. This resulted in an invitation to study in America with writer Gill Dennis, who was later nominated for an Oscar for Walk The Line.
She again was funded for a screenplay, Interference, based on the true story of a woman who murdered her husband after she discovered his incest with their daughters.
Despite a lack of legal training, Barbara appeared in court in 1990 and successfully defended her brother John who was facing deportation. A woman of many talents, Barbara also played soccer, tennis and ran a marathon.
In 1992 Barbara began working as a reporter at the gay and lesbian community newspaper Sydney Star Observer, becoming its first female editor the following year.
This was the height of the AIDS epidemic in Sydney and each fortnight the paper contained dozens of death notices.
While there she won an award for her story Taunted – an eyewitness account of a gay death in custody. She also wrote about the Sydney Opera House’s refusal to light the sails pink at the launch of the Mardi Gras festival and Cadbury Schweppes’ withdrawal of ads from TV show Hey, Hey It’s Saturday over a planned live cross to the Mardi Gras Parade.
She also won an award from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation for her comprehensive and insightful coverage of the illness.
It was while organising the Reclaim the Night rally in 1992, Barbara and I first crossed paths. I was rather peeved as my magazine, Lesbians on the Loose, hadn’t been sent any publicity about the rally, and we argued.
We met later that year, and began a relationship in March 1993. A year later, I persuaded her to leave the Star and join forces at LOTL.
Barbara’s nose for a good story and lively writing style were rewarded with huge growth in the magazine’s readership.
Stories about Australia’s first lesbian to run for parliament – Susan Harben, comedian Ellen Degeneres’ coming out, Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker’s New York wedding, the lawyer who kept Ivan Milat out of jail when he outed a couple of lesbians accusing the backpacker murderer of rape, and a lesbian couple and their son denied family cover by Medibank Private saw the circulation rise to 20,000 as many of these stories went on to be picked up by mainstream media.
Singer Melissa Etheridge was a keen reader and told Barbara the magazine was “substantial, meaningful and informative”.
What most heartened Barbara was knowing that many lesbians who had previously been isolated were now, through LOTL, getting to meet others.
We used to wear matching outfits to the Mardi Gras parade each year and went as schoolgirls, 1970s feminists in badge-covered overalls and, following a story about the difficulties faced by a Muslim lesbian, wearing chadors. This was the ’90s though and many parade-goers thought we were nuns.
One year dressed as Crimean War nurses, we were watching the parade from the Taylor Square VIP viewing room when a medical emergency occurred. The then health minister thought we were real nurses and asked us to help.
Barbara’s health began to suffer during this period. Following a hospitalisation she was advised to move away from Sydney and in 1999 we sold LOTL and moved to the South Coast.
Barbara became active in the local community, joining Meals on Wheels and the organising committee of the Currarong Seafarers’ Festival.
In 2001 she was diagnosed with stage 4 COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease). There is no stage 5. Her lung capacity at the time was 30 per cent and one doctor likened it to living at Mt Everest’s base camp.
She gave up smoking and drinking, but was still able to perform many normal activities such as walking, gardening and cooking. She reviewed books for the local paper, helped organise fundraising dinners for the Shoalhaven Women’s Health Centre, managed art exhibitions for the cafe, Locavore, she bought with a friend, wrote a history of her ancestors perilous journey to New Zealand on The Ganges, Children of The Death Ship, and travelled to New Zealand for her 50th birthday and a family reunion. There we revisited the town of Barb’s birth, finding her teeth marks still on the church pews, while the hospital where she was born had become an old folks home. To mark the occasion she got a double kayak.
In 2011 Barbara fell off her bike and had a hip replacement. Years of taking steroids to strengthen her lungs had weakened her bones. She was considering a lung transplant at the time, but weighing up the odds of surviving the operation and the chances of organ rejection she decided against it.
In 2014 Barbara began writing about living with a nose hose in The Departure Lounge. She wrote thoughtfully about living a limited life and the pleasures it still offered to her. She railed against big tobacco, predator priests and politicians – especially Tony Abbott, but never lost her sense of humour, writing that she didn’t buy green bananas. She also wrote about the power of thinking positively. She told the story of a driver who died after becaming locked in his freezer truck. The refrigeration unit wasn’t turned on but, believing he would freeze to death, he lay down and did so.
Barbara’s lung function was down to 12 per cent. But her condition had stabilised and a love of life coupled with a good diet and three cats kept her going. She had the flu vaccination every year and hibernated in winter. Visitors were only allowed in warmer months.
I cut back my work hours and in 2015 quit my job, ostensibly to care for Barbara, but mainly so we could have more time together.
Looking after her was a pleasure. Barb felt bad about being dependent, but I always said we both give what we can. She gave me so much. Barb taught me how to grow veggies, passed on all her cooking tips, helped me lose 20 kilos, taught me how to do cryptic crosswords, introduced me to cats, taught me the value of kindness. One of her favourite lines was “soften your gaze”. She showed me that no matter how narrow your life becomes, there are always pleasures to be found. Instead of living broadly, you live deeply.
Barb never wanted to leave as she knew how much it would hurt me, but in 2016 a virus crept in and a 10-week exacerbation resulted in her receiving palliative care. Her weight dropped below 40 kilos, she went on oxygen 24/7, and she started being troubled by bouts of anxiety, but the kindness of the palliative team, some new medications, love and an hour each day on her stationary bike kept her going.
Barb felt hopeful again at the end of 2017 when marriage equality became law. We married on the first possible day, January 9, and she said it gave her a new lease on life.
“Our marriage has released pent up psychic energy of 25 years and we have never been happier or higher. Where once we could not have gone, we have taken the words betrothed and wife. At last, our love has a name and the State apparatus can see us,” she wrote.
She made it to her 61st birthday and then our 25th anniversary in March 2018.
Her lung function was down to nine per cent and her weight only 36 kilos. Antibiotics were failing to keep an ongoing pseudomonas infection at bay and she had a growth in her lung.
She decided to have one last try for a transplant. She had an appointment to see her specialist, but when it came around she wasn’t well enough to make the trip. We asked the palliative doctor to visit instead. She gave Barb permission to stop taking the antibiotics that were making her nauseous and said she could stop riding her bike every day. Even though Barb had willingly made the effort, she was so relieved to hear this.
The next couple of weeks were good. Barb ate a bit, loved raspberry milkshakes, wrote emails, talked to her family over the phone, watched Hard Quiz and Call the Midwife – she didn’t want anything with murders in it, and even wondered about renewing her drivers licence.
She was thrilled to read the study proving her hero, the aviator Amelia Earhardt died on Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940. Barb had always wanted to live to see her found.
Barb started to go downhill on Holy Thursday when she lost her appetite and had very little energy for anything other than breathing. On Good Friday she wasn’t able to do the Herald’s DA cryptic crossword. She’d always said if she couldn’t, she’d be dead. On Easter Sunday she began taking her drugs through a driver attached to her back. Her last time awake was Easter Monday. I wasn’t sure how conscious she was so I asked her if she knew where she was. She shook her head. I then asked if she knew who I was. She shook her head again. Then she gave me the biggest grin. She’d just been teasing me. Barb was like the Cheshire Cat – disappearing except for her smile.
Barb was always afraid she’d die breathless on the loo, but she passed away peacefully at home in bed on April 3, exactly two years after one of her heroes, writer Bob Ellis.
Barbara leaves me, siblings and their partners Chris and Sue, Myles, Rita and Bill, Patricia, Michelle and Grant, Cath and Aaron, and John; in-laws John and Andrea, Chris and Lindy, Cathy and David, Paul and Toni and nieces and nephews Isis, Ayla, Maree, Michael, David, Sarah, Gab, Anna, Julian, Jake, Harrison, Oliver, Jessica, Bronte, Lucy, Michael, Matthew and Emily, great-nephew Saxon and great-nieces, Emily, Zoe and Beth and our cat Lucy.
She gave me one last gift. We had our DNA tested just before she died. Mine came up with a match to a cousin I never knew existed. Now, courtesy of the family’s secret bigamous aunt, I have a whole tribe of cousins to connect with. Sadly, Barb’s not here to share this journey. She knew she was going to miss out on something big – she was right.