essay: My Brother Peter

My Brother Peter    1954-1971                                                      16.4.2011

Peter Muir Anderson was my younger brother by four years; he died at seventeen from the autoimmune disease Goodpasture’s Syndrome.  He was a handsome child and young man, with his father’s blue eyes and even facial features; in fact as a toddler he was picked out as a Sun ‘beach baby’, with his photo on the front page of the tabloid.

I remember more of our early childhoods together – I suspect that four years becomes an enlarging gap after primary school years – so my memories of Peter are more about early family holidays in Sydney, at Portsea, or at Kalorama in the Dandenongs.  I have one clear memory of him clouting me with a small cut log as I sat defenceless on the outside toilet near the woodpile of the lovely property we rented for bush holidays at Kalorama.  Peter loved reptiles, so we had a long succession of lizards, snakes and tortoises at home, causing some concern among the neighbours.  Once he had a small, harmless Queensland green tree python which escaped and achieved brief notoriety on the front page of the local rag when dispatched by a spade-wielding granny in the next street.  Peter’s paediatrician John Court, with whom I corresponded many years later over a different matter, recalled Peter being a bit of a devil and a tease – apparently he came to one consultation with a sack and emptied a large (non-venomous) snake onto the doctor’s desk.

As I reached secondary school, we probably began to grow apart – I was becoming successful at school, and doing the important things that bigger boys do – certainly less concerned with the ‘little kids’.  I think Peter began to differentiate himself from me by being naughty and provocative at school; eventually a decision was made that he should leave Brighton Grammar and go to board at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop school near Mansfield.  It would have been considered a less academic and more stimulating, practical type of education.  Peter had a number of good friends – particularly Tim (later Dr Tim) Shepherd at BGS, and later Richard ‘Buzz’ Bailleu at Timbertop.  Peter didn’t stay long at Timbertop; I suspect his behaviour was becoming more than naughty.

His hitherto fairly happy life changed when he developed diabetes at age nine – a big challenge for a child, and he didn’t readily accept the necessary insulin injections.  As he entered teenage there were lots of big arguments with Dad; the old soldier / politician, leader of other men, knew little of modern child psychology and struggled to cope with what may have been the biggest challenge of his own full life.  The same was true for Mum, whose conservatism /traditionalism would have made coping with a very difficult child even more so.  Peter left school early and drifted into bad company and minor crime.  By then I’d been dispatched to board at Trinity College – the home environment was considered too fraught for wonder boy to get on with his medical studies.  Peter moved in and out of home, at times sleeping rough, known to local police and having terrible fights with Dad – on one occasion threatened him with a knife.  I’m uncertain of his relationship with our younger sister Kim, five years younger than Peter, but I think it was awry; Kim has said that Peter abused her, but to what extent I don’t know.

In John Court, Peter had a top paediatrician, and was also seeing esteemed child psychiatrist Peter Eisen.  The latter apparently sourced Peter’s acting out to a strongly held belief that he would die young, and had therefore to pack a lot into a short life.  It’s even more disturbing that this is just what happened, especially as diabetes is not a deadly condition.  At age 15-16 Peter developed Goodpasture’s syndrome, a rare and in those days fatal autoimmune disease of lung and kidney.  He survived less than eighteen months – in the end it was uncertain whether high doses of cortisone would kill him before the disease did.  A decision was made to cease treatment and Peter died within days.  The awful scene in ward 3E of the Royal Childrens’ remains etched in my memory as Peter took his last breaths once the oxygen was turned off.  Goodpasture’s is curable today, I believe, but in 1971 there was little other than big doses of cortisone to try to suppress it.

It’s hard to know what to make of Peter’s short life and miserable death – certainly a huge tragedy in our little family, from which Dad and Mum probably never fully recovered.  I guess children have always died of diseases and continue to do so, even in today’s wealthy west, let alone the myriads who die in poverty.  As my then girlfriend said to me – ironically not long before Peter developed his terminal illness: ‘Until you experience loss you won’t fully appreciate life.’  He almost certainly did pack much experience – sex, crime, living rough – into a few short years; in doing so he probably made the right call, and I hope it brought him joy.

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