We recently visited the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania. It was an overcast day and a light drizzle greeted us. Port Arthur was an infamous penal settlement which grew to a population of more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civil staff in 1840. A number of iconic structures remain including the Penitentiary, the Guard Tower, the Hospital, the Asylum, and the Church.
We went on a 20 minute harbour cruise passing the Dockyard, Point Puer Boys’ Prison and the Isle of the Dead. The small island is the final resting place of more than a 1000 people including officials, administrators, and convicts including both paupers and lunatics.
The highlight for me was the Memorial Garden which has been created to commemorate the tragic day in April 1996 when a lone gunman, armed with three high-powered automatic firearms and a large quantity of ammunition, went on a shooting rampage. In a quiet and tasteful setting the layout of the garden incorporates the remains of the Broad Arrow Cafe, a tranquil pool and the memorial cross inscribed with the names of the 35 visitors and staff who lost their lives.
Open to the wind, rain and sky, the peaceful garden and bare walls of the cafe are touchstones for your thoughts about what happened here. I was impressed that the memorial deliberately chose not to name the gunmen. It would have been an uninvited distraction.
There is a verse whose lines capture the inner musings of the heart. It reminds us that compassion triumphs over adversity. It is a verse of hope.
Death has taken its toll
Some pain knows no release
But the knowledge of brave compassion
Shines like a pool of peace
The retaining wall bears an inscription. It reads
May we who come to this garden
Cherish life for the sake of those who died
Cherish compassion for the sake of those who gave aid
Cherish peace for the sake of those in pain
The words ‘Cherish life’ remind us that life is precious. Some would even suggest sacred. Life is to be respected and we should be grateful for every breath. Many of the patrons of the Broad Arrow Cafe had no inkling their life would be taken from them in an instant. They were victims, living targets of a gunman whose intent was destruction. I thought again of my son Adam and felt conflicted. I was standing in a room where death entered uninvited while my son looked for death and found it. In the stillness of that moment I understood the universality of pain and felt solidarity with all who suffer.
There were coins scattered randomly on the bottom of the pool. I took what loose change I had from my pocket. I watched as each coin glided down into the water and joined the glittering company. This simple act was a celebration of the lives of those who had tragically died. It seemed reasonable and respectful to include my son Adam.
David Whyte is an English poet who wrote
“The Well of Grief”
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on this well of grief
turning downward into its blackwater
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink
the secret water, cold a clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for