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Rebecca Wessels is dying to talk using the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Discussion Starter

Rebecca Wessels is the first person to answer questions from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Discussion Starter for Palliative Matters. While Rebecca is in good health, the questions are designed to inspire early conversations that matter with loved ones. Talking about what you want can make it easier for family and health workers to make decisions for you, should you become so sick you cannot talk.

Rebecca is the managing director of Ochre Dawn Creative Industries and has a passion for preserving the language and culture of her Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal heritage.

What are some of the things you value most in life?

Family and good health are the most obvious things, but I also really value being able to contribute to the community. I get joy from being able to make a difference to people, directly or indirectly, whether it’s being able to offer someone employment, develop their skills or career path, or more broadly helping a community. Having been a youth worker in the past, I don’t like to do things for people; I like to do things with them, walking by their side.

I feel passionate about preserving Aboriginal culture, heritage and language, so if I can play just a small part in achieving that through the arts and my business, then that’s really worthwhile.

My Ngarrindjeri heritage is quite well documented; there is a language team that has created a dictionary and is focusing on passing down stories. Unfortunately, from the Peramangk side, there are only a few words remaining from the language and for a long time historians thought the Peramangk people were extinct. I’m ever hopeful though, and so through my life and work it is my vision that our people are not forgotten and I can pass as much knowledge as possible on to my children and beyond. I’d like to leave some kind of legacy for the following generations and the broader community as well.

What brings you joy and happiness?

Laughing with my family and having crazy, silly moments together. My daughter is four and she is hilarious; what she teaches me every day is wonderful. She, my husband and step-son often stop to have a little dance party in the kitchen while we are cooking dinner.

Are there any cultural and family traditions that are important to you?

One of our most important rituals is very simple. We have breakfast out together after we pick up my step-son. It’s something we always look forward to.

Aboriginal cultural and family traditions are something that I have missed out on growing up. My mum is from the Stolen Generations. She was adopted as a baby into a beautiful and very loving white family. Mum didn’t know about her Aboriginality until her biological brother and sister found her about 20 years ago. Mum had no idea that she had a brother until then. It has been a very slow process for my Mum, and all of us, to find out where we come from and who our family is.

I believe our story is an important one to tell because it is such a common situation that is often overlooked. If you are Aboriginal, it is assumed you’ve been brought up with the Elders, had initiations and that you’ve grown up with kin and language. I’m learning a lot of that as an adult. The impact of the Stolen Generations has impacted not just my Mum; it flows on into my life and my daughter’s life.

If you were very sick, what things would you and your family get strength from?

We’d get strength from each other and also from humour.

I learned a lot from seeing how two of my aunties approached dying. They both had an incredible sense of humour and wit. I don’t ever remember a sense of sadness when either were sick; neither as a child nor an adult. They both just enjoyed sharing stories, good times and having a laugh.

I’d like that to be my approach too if I got sick because I like to have fun and jokes and be silly. Even if I wasn’t physically able to be part of that, I would want it around me.

I think you can achieve it, even in horrible situations; a bit like the way that clown doctors bring humour to children who are terminally ill in hospital.

I completely understand that many people are really sad and even angry when they are dying, and maybe even pull away and become reclusive. I can imagine that it would likely be my first reaction if I or a loved one were in that situation. I just think that if those feelings and behaviours are prolonged, it can be really devastating for family, even though that isn’t intended; people in that situation are probably not aware of the impact they are having.

It would be really important for me to make the process easier on myself and my loved ones by drawing as much positive and light-hearted energy together as possible, to break through the sadness and find some sense of peace.

Are there any fears you have about the end of your life?

I guess you’d call it FOMO – fear of missing out.

I would fear missing out on time and experiences with family and friends, and fear them missing out on time with me too.

It’s those significant things like being there to get your daughter ready on her wedding day or spending time with your grandchildren. I’m planning on being around for a long time. I don’t want to miss out on things like that and I have lots left on my to-do list!

What would you like to do before you die? Are there any places you would like to visit or people you would like to see?

I like to travel to non-English speaking countries that are rich in culture and rather than doing the touristy thing, I prefer to meet the locals and have an impact. I was part of a group that built a school in Bali for kids living in a rubbish dump and houses for people who were otherwise homeless. I really want to go to more places in Asia to do work like that, and I am determined to make it to Africa.

I’m heading to China for business for the first time this year and I’m really excited about that. I want to visit Japan too because I’ve been studying the Japanese language.

I’m really fascinated by the cultural nuances that are part of how countries do business and I think it’s a beautiful and really enriching thing to learn about. I have a vision of being able to travel to many other countries to learn those nuances and show them how Aboriginal people do business as well. That gets me excited.

I don’t want to just learn about the world from National Geographic, books and TV. I want to go, see and experience it for myself.

If you were sick and you were not going to get better, would you want all available treatments, even if they might make you feel sicker?

That is a really tough question for me because I am such an optimist. I’m always hoping that the incurable will be cured and I always hold out hope.

My instinct is that I’d want all available treatments, but I’d need to have a lot of discussions with my doctors because I know that the quality of my life would be important to me and to my family as well.

Ultimately, I think I would always want to fight until the absolute end because I’m such a believer in miracles that I’m sure I’ll always have hope.

How important is it for you to visit country before you die, or to be on country when you die?

For me, it isn’t as important because it’s not how I’ve been brought up. The spirituality of that. I haven’t been brought up with that spiritual connection but when I am on Country I do feel something and that was the case even before I knew that was our Country. I’ve always loved the movie Storm Boy, but who doesn’t! Whenever we’ve gone to the Coorong I’ve been really drawn to that area. It wasn’t until later in life that I found out it was our Country. The same goes for the Adelaide Hills region – I’ve always wanted to live there. It is very cold in Winter, but that appeals to me. I lived in Canberra for three years and loved the beautiful, icy winters there.

At the same time, I can’t answer for later in life because while I am going through this road of discovering in exploring my identity, maybe I might change my mind in the future.

How important is it for you to be buried or cremated on country?

It is really good to answer these questions because it gets you thinking about things. I haven’t ever thought about where I’d like to be buried or cremated and to start I thought that being on Country wasn’t so important for me.

It has made me remember one of my aunties who had her ashes scattered on the beach. One of her favourite meals was fish and chips, so for those of us left behind, it is a beautiful tradition for us to remember her by having fish and chips at the beach.

I quite like the idea of doing something like that in the Adelaide Hills area, because that is beautiful Peramangk country and I feel so comfortable there. Maybe people could come and have hot chocolate up there in the forest and think of me.

How important is it to you that your organs are donated?

Very, very, very important. I won’t be needing them anymore, so I’d want as many people as possible to be able to have them. I’ve always felt really passionately about that and I’d even be willing to be a living donor.

I’ve always been a regular blood donor, because I can’t stand the thought of there being a shortage and that affecting someone who needs blood. There is so much of it out there!

That reminds me. I haven’t given blood in a while. I’m going to make an appointment to donate, right now.


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