The Fighter: A True Story is an authentic account of a working-class hero, Henry Nissen, a former champion boxer who works on the docks. But his real passion is providing practical support to street people and the disaffected.
The author, Arnold Zable, captures the heartbeat of inner suburban living. He explores the struggles faced by postwar immigrants in constructing a new life while dealing with their troubled and traumatic past.
Henry Nissen’s mother, Sonia, was also a fighter. She survived the Holocaust, married, gave birth to five children, made it to Australia, but remained traumatised by her experiences. Sonia was a loving and caring mother, despite it all. Yet she also could not control the forces that had possessed her, the relentless, destructive voices that robbed her of her sanity and drove her to madness.
Zable describes Sonia’s inner turmoil: the loneliness, the desperation, the fear, and the unpredictability.
“The rooms are closing in. The house is cramped and the voices are baying. Strangers are taking hold of her mind, and the children are withdrawing. Keeping a distance. When she finally succumbs, it can go either way: wrath or suicide attempts. She has overdosed several times.”
Little is known of Sonia’s past, the chaos of war, the brutality, the pain, and the wounds that will never heal.
“She is a fierce guardian of secrets. She can never utter what became of her mother and of her father and her brother as she fled. Yet the price she has paid is terrifying – a journey from vast exteriors to dark interiors, from the commerce of daily life to silences.”
Sandra was Sonia’s only daughter. They enjoyed a special bond. It is Sandra who does all she can to keep Sonia at home. She ferries her mother to and from appointments and respite centres. She is present when Sonia is discharged. She takes her home and helps her settle.
Years later Sandra evaluates her motivation, her thinking, and her actions to support her mother and to preserve her life.
“It is a human right, Sandra will say, to choose whether to live or die. Why did we prolong her life? Why the need to keep her alive at all costs? To live is to hear, and my mother heard too much. To live is to see, and my mother saw too deeply. And what she saw and heard terrified her. So why did we force her to live? The questions still plague her long after her mother is gone.
Yet even as she ponders it, Sandra knows she would do it again. She knows she would try to keep her alive, and would do whatever she could to lift her spirits. Despite it all, she longed to put it right.”
There is a tendency to view suffering in isolation and to believe that we should do everything in our power to eliminate it. Some even argue that any individual who is experiencing extreme pain has the moral right to end their own life. But as Sandra rightly concludes, suffering is a shared experience and is passed from one generation to the next. Sonia’s suffering was Sandra’s suffering and they needed each other to find a way through.
In his book, The Good Life, Hugh Mackay writes,
“The good life is a life lived for others. The starting point is the recognition that we are inseparably part of each other and that our human destiny is to accept and nurture our connections.”
It is our connectedness that is to be looked after. It is our connectedness that needs to be preserved. It is her connectedness that enables Sandra to support her mother through the darkest night. Cancer eventually claims Sonia who is remembered for her courage and her love of crystal.