It’s like it happened in the next room a few moments ago. That is how clear the memory is.
I’m ten or eleven. My dad is the editor of the local paper : the Kiama Independent. We’re (five children and two parents) living on top of each other in a three bedroom house. Which left everybody with nearly no privacy : especially for my Dad to do his job as journalist. As I have just found out.
It’s a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. With no particular reason, I walk from the postage stamp sized kitchen into the postcard sized lounge room at the front. It was completely taken up by an old sofa, a coffee table, the TV and the phone. And my Dad.
I enter the room and my first thought is,” Why is Dad talking on the phone like that?” He isn’t using his normal telephone voice. That was a mellow and clear baritone : perfect for dictating copy. He is speaking so softly I could barely hear any of the words. Then I caught a fragment of the conversation. One phrase. And that phrase was enough.
He said, “The name has just been released.” And I knew instantly what it was all about. A deathknock.
Right now, Dad is the second person talking to the next of kin who has just lost a loved one. The first person to inform them was the police. Then the name would be released to the media for publication.
Optionally the media would then contact the next of kin. That contact was nicknamed the deathknock : a name I’ll never forget. Right now, Dad is doing his job. He has to report the story. He isn’t enjoying it at all. If he could whisper away their grief he would. He knows right now that this phone call can only compound the grief being experienced by that relative or friend.
I want to leave. I feel like I have stumbled into a conversation in a foreign land. One that I didn’t want to hear, had nothing to do with me, was awkward as anything I would encounter. I left as quickly as I could. I didn’t hear him hang up.
That deathknock stayed with me for many years. It was the one factor that affected my career choice of being a journalist. Over the subsequent years, Dad did talk about the deathknocks but only to say he had done them (from a distance as it were). He never said who he spoke to nor related what was said.
But now I’m listening to my father’s deferential voice and manner to someone who just lost a loved one. I’m thinking this is the one thing I could not do as a journalist.
And yet I don’t have to look far to find the insensitivity of journalists towards people in that situation. I couldn’t do that either.