Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Titanium I – Ken Howes

“I left work straightaway, and when I got home I couldn’t find him, I was yelling out and thought he must have been out the back, and there he was, sitting up there. And you look at someone when they’ve done that and it takes a while to sink in. Hang on a minute I thought, then I pushed his head, I kicked him, I thought he was just mucking around, then I started screaming. Ken was dead”.

That’s how Ken Howes wife Tania remembers the morning of the 8th of September, 2016. That was the day her husband took his own life. He was 57 years old.

Ken Howes was a National Park Ranger living in Merriden, a small town located in the central wheat belt region of Western Australia. He was a man’s man, tough as nails and born in an era where you just put up and shut up.

Ken and Tania married 31 years ago
He liked his job, but it definitely ground on him at times, like most jobs do I guess. He married his beautiful wife Tania 31 years ago after a brief courtship, and they shared the love of a good time, a good drink and a good laugh.

Tania seems like your typical Mum. Kind of heart, loving and affectionate, a bit louder and vivacious on the booze like most Mums get, and even though I could sense a feeling of vulnerability, she possessed the kind of warm embrace you’re always happy to nestle into as a child. Ken and Tania also have two boys, Jarrad, 31 and Braedon, 28. 

Jarrad is a skinny kid, with shaggy hair that falls down over his face, covering a cheeky grin of a boy that can be known to get into a bit of mischief. Braedon is a stockier, bull of a fella. Built a bit more like his old man, but with similar facial features to Jarrad, Braedon is wise beyond his years.

Both boys have dark eyes that seem to squeeze narrower the happier they are, and after spending some time with them recently, I can vouch for them both being generous, loving, and caring souls who just want what’s best for those closest to them. Pretty admirable qualities.

Jarrads cheeky grin and Braedon having a laugh
Ken was the vice president of the Mid-West Easyriders Motorcycle Chapter. The Easyriders are basically a drinking club that rides bikes, according to Jarrad. They do charity rides, holiday trips and just enjoy each other’s company on the road. Ken also suffered from depression. 

It was a Thursday morning at about 7:45am when Tania, dressed and ready to head off to work, got into a heated discussion with Ken about ‘nothing in particular’. “I feel really bad because the last time I saw him I walked out the door, he was sitting there in his work clothes, I looked at him and he looked back at me, but said nothing, so I turned, shut the door and left, because I was over his shit,” she said.

By 8:30am Tania received a call from Ken’s work saying he hadn’t shown up. She thought he must have had a fall or been a bit crook so she took off home to make sure everything was OK, and that’s when she found Ken.

“He was still warm,” she said. “I just walked through the door, expecting him to have hurt himself or something and instead he was dead. I never expected in my wildest dreams to find him like that. And it was in that moment that it felt like my life ended.”

Australia's suicide rate is around the highest it has been for at least ten years. 

In 2015, 3,027 people ended their own lives in Australia.
That's 12.6 people in every 100,000.
That's more than eight people every single day.
One person every three hours.
People of all ages and all walks of life. Many just like Ken.

Once she began processing exactly what had happened, Tania’s attention quickly turned to her boys. “All I kept thinking was what am I going to tell my kids, I thought they would blame me. But the police took my phone before I could do anything. Kens phone as well,” Tania said.

The police said they had to go through her phone for messages and call data that might have tipped Ken over the edge.

The news was broken to Jarrad, the older of the two sons, via an unlikely source. “My uncle told me. I was even more worried when his name flashed up on my phone because he never calls me,” he said. “My uncle asked if I’d spoken to the Merredin police. He asked if I’d spoken to my mum. He couldn’t tell me what was happening, but after asking him for a while I finally got it out of him. I asked him if my Dad was OK and I’ll never forget his response, ‘no sorry mate, your dads dead’.

Younger brother Braedon failed to hear the news until later that day after missing call after call whilst at work. Like many people his age, Braedon didn’t answer a number that he didn’t recognise. He was busy at work, the same strange number kept calling and calling, and it wasn’t until family friend Chris ‘Happy’ Gilmore got hold of them that he learnt what had happened. A distressing and unbearable situation made even harder not knowing what their poor mother was thinking.

Tania still doesn’t have Ken’s phones back after weeks of asking, and it wasn’t until an honest conversation with one of the officers that she finally gave up trying to retrieve them. Police reportedly instructed Tania that the reason for the delay in the return of the phones was because ‘they have Kens brains through them and they have to be cleaned before we give them back’.

Ken died in the morning, so the house was off limits for most of the day, before Tania went back that night to get some clean clothes and bits and pieces.

One of the first things she encountered was Ken’s toothbrush. It had to go in the bin. Then she walked into the bedroom and his shoes were on the floor. She had no choice but to throw them out as well, along with his work clothes from that day, otherwise she said she’d ‘always be waiting for him to come back and put them on.’

She also couldn’t help but take a peek at the patio area. What she found was something that still haunts her. She spotted some mess, where Ken lay earlier, some blood that had obviously escaped the cleanup of the police, and had to ask someone else to come over and clean it up, for her own well being, and for fear the kids might see it when they arrived.

A friend of the families arrived promptly and tried to scrub away the remnants left on the ground. Another man, the same one that helped identify the body earlier in the day, arrived to help as well. Soon both men were cleaning, and sobbing, whilst they wiped clean the patch where their dear friend laid dead on only hours earlier – an action they must still struggle to comprehend to this day. Tania may not have made it well known, but she is eternally grateful to these two men for doing such a dastardly job.

The Howes family awoke Friday to a raft of new challenges, none moreso than the threat of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event. 

The boys, Jarrad and Braedon, with their Dad
For Jarrad, this type of behaviour seemed to set in straight away. Days had started rolling together. He would wake up and make a beeline for the fridge to grab a beer. He would sleep, a lot. Hours and hours in the middle of the day whilst his little girl went off to school. And he would keep calling his dad’s phone, just to hear his voice. ‘Hi, you’ve called Ken Howes’ phone, I can’t reach your call at the moment so leave a name and number, and I’ll get back to you shortly’.

“I just call to hear him because I forgot what he sounded like. I know that sounds kind of stupid but I don’t want to forget his voice, that’s why I call, to keep that memory in tact,” he said.

The fact his mother does the same thing means that thankfully Jarrad isn’t the only family member grieving in a similar way. “I was with him for 33 years and I couldn’t remember his voice after a few months,” Tania said.

“So I would call his phone to hear the voicemail as well. I thought I was losing it. It just kind of brings him back a little bit, because it feels like he is slipping away. I keep waiting for it to get easier but its not. To have someone sleeping next to you one night, and then be gone the next. Sometimes I will just sob because I want him to walk back through that door.”

For Braedon, the disappointment of losing his father led him down a different emotional path. “The anger I have for Dad at the moment is still so out of this world and hard to explain,” Braedon said. “We had so much planned in life from motorbike events to hunting trips. I was going to get my gun license just like Dad. I wish I could make a life size doll of him so I could just punch the shit out of it and take all my anger out,” he said.

Ken looking over his first granddaughter Sophie
He’s also upset that his Dad will miss out on spending time with his grandchildren. “I mean he will never get a chance to meet my kids if I have them, and he had such a good relationship with Jarrads oldest, Sophie, 10 now he won’t ever get to experience those moments again.” 

The truth about what happened to Ken is something that Jarrad has decided to withhold from his eldest daughter for the time being. “My little girl is dealing with it really weird. Sophie is only ten, and she’s smart, way smarter than me, but she doesn’t seem to want to talk about it or grieve. They were best friends, Dad and she. She’d run straight past Mum yelling out for Dad. We had to tell her Poppy was sick otherwise it would just mess her up and ruin her schooling,” Jarrad said. A heartbreaking conversation saved for another day.

You can tell the boys are both dealing with the tragedy in their own way. Jarrad wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s emotional, occasional destructive – not to anyone else, just himself – and will always ask the question ‘Why Dad?’ leaving you feeling like he has a slimmer of regret or a feeling that he missed out on some special moments with Ken.

Braedon on the other hand seems almost stoic in his attitude towards his father’s death. He is adamant in moving on with what he can control and takes solace knowing he bonded with his father over their joint love of bikes and the outdoors. More than anything I think he just misses his ‘best mate’.

Most recently for Tania, she’s been consumed by emotionally draining thoughts. “Not long ago for example I was going to work and I just thought ‘This really sucks’. Then I arrived at work and ended up bawling my eyes out and had to leave to come home,” she said.

“Other days I’m just pissed off at him. If he were still around, I’d say why were you so selfish? To the kids and me. I’d probably slap him. How bloody dare you do that? Especially when it could have been sorted out if we just talked”

It’s been that way for weeks now and she can’t understand why, every five minutes she wants to cry, or is angry, or upset, but why, after months of being without him does she seem to feel even worse now.
Me with the lovely Tania Howes
Tania still often feels the pressures of her different life now. She’s a mental illness sufferer herself, and has been on medication for the best part of 15 years, a situation made all the more difficult after Kens death.

“I just don’t know what to do sometimes. I get so much paperwork now after Kens death, I am inundated with all types of shit that I have no idea what to do with. Sometimes I think maybe he had the right idea, get away from all this stuff that I don’t know what to do with,” she said.

The suicide rate among those aged 55 to 64 years surged by 54 per cent in the 10 years to 2014, to 15.1 per 100,000. This rise was steeper among men in this age group – 58 per cent, compared to 50 per cent for women. A worrying sign for our aging population.

And one thing both boys agree on, that they are worried about their Mum.  “Mum has talked about killing herself because of dad, and that’s upsetting to hear. It breaks my heart to the point that I don’t know how to feel or how to act in life knowing I can’t help because I’m so far away,” Braedon said.

Jarrad was more perplexed by the admission from his mother, saying “Why on Earth would you be thinking that when you’ve seen how hard it’s been for us all after Dads death. I don’t want to lose my Mum as well,” he said. Before offering to go to counseling with his Mum in the hope they can both work through it together.

Tania said one of the most saddening things was that weeks before Ken died she said to him “What’s the matter?” “Nothing” he replied. She demanded he talk to her and he said ‘he just liked to keep things bottled up’.

Time has passed since that September day, and earlier this year an event held to honour the lives of both Ken and another past Margaret River Hockey Club player Stuart “Scar” Campbell, who also tragically took his own life late in 2016.
Spraypaint on the grass before the match

The club hosted the inaugural ‘Scarred for Life’ memorial match, where past Margaret River players and teams, as well as both families, friends and loved ones of both men took part.

It was then that I first learnt of the story. I was invited to attend to speak to the large crowd that had attended that day, and it was pretty early on in the piece when I first noticed the strain on the boys in particular, Jarrad and Braedon.

The match was about to begin, and club president Colin Fox was outlining the plan for the day, when Braedon kind of keeled over. Tears started flowing from his eyes, and brother Jarrad tapped him on the shoulder to make sure he was ok. Actually, it was more of a brotherly slap. A bit jovial, as I suspect both boys were struggling to understand how to tread their way through the day.

The match was played in good spirits, and afterwards, both families were involved in the presentation and settled in for a few drinks and some good country food. Tania seemed to enjoy the day, rekindling some lost friendships and meeting up with a lot of people that she hadn’t seen in years.

The 'Scarred For Life' charity game
But the weight of the world came crashing back down on the family once the lights dimmed, the barbie stopped sizzling, and the laughter and stories slowly disappeared into the night, especially for Tania and Jarrad.

Jarrad continued on a bit of a downward spiral after the charity game. He says the hardest part of his day is after he’s dropped Sophie off at school and returns home to an empty house where it is just he and his thoughts. A lot of the time, he’d just grab a beer, to take the edge off a bit you know. Or he’d lay on the couch and fall asleep again. Why?

“To escape reality for a little while,” he said. “Then I don’t have to remember the shit that’s happening. It’d just make me happy, even though I wasn’t. Especially when my mates came around, I felt like I was dragging them down. I really like the company.

“I don’t want to be a 31 year old alcoholic, but I want to be happy and fun. I want to take care of my two beautiful daughters, and I want my friends to think I’m good to be around. I know that I’m not helping the issue or fixing it by drinking, I’m just not confident enough to take that next step yet,” he said.

And Tania’s battle is compounded by her worry for both of her boys. “Jarrad’s got a bit more of a temper, that’s why I was more worried about him. Jarrad’s had a rough time of it for the last 10 years. He’s got a young girl, he’s a single dad, and has recently had another little baby.” Jarrad just seems to cop blow after blow and I’m not sure how much longer he can cope without saying ‘fuck this, I cant do it,’” she said. 

“Braedon doesn’t talk as much. Braedon just shoves it aside and gets on with it, like his father used to do,” Tania said. “He tend to worry about other people a lot more, but carries that worry around instead of sharing it with the world. He’s a good kid, and I think he misses Ken more than he lets on,” Tania said.

Braedon seems like he is doing as well as could be hoped. It’s almost a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind for Braedon at times, even though he still thinks about his Mum and brother a lot.

I recently watched Braedon play hockey on a frosty Saturday afternoon in Perth where he bustled his way up and down the left wing for most of the match. It was great to see him totally and utterly entranced by the challenge of the game, without a worry in the world. I even found myself cheering out loud when he broke through the defensive line, only to break into laughter when he had an air swing whilst attempting an outrageous shot from near the baseline.

Talking to Braedon after the match, I fall in love with his candidness, and he assures me he has his own way of remembering his Dad. “Every time I jump on my Dad’s motorbike, I can feel my old man. That bike means more than all the money in this world, it was his pride and joy,” he said.

“I used to give him shit about having a slow bike but he always said ‘it’s not how quick you get there, it’s all about the enjoying the ride and taking in the journey. I never really understood that, but I’ve since learnt that what he was saying is so true.

“I remember the day he got his new bike, the one I own now. He came down to my place the night before on his old bike, he woke me up early the next day because he was excited he was looking for a new one. He was like a kid in a candy store when we got to the bike shop,” Braedon said.

Ken proudly sits atop his new bike with wife Tania clearly thrilled
“I thought it looked like a space ship and like it was going to take off, and all he could say was ‘you’re a dick head’. I knew he wouldn’t want us to put it away and never ride it again, and I knew mum would never sell it. I would never admit it to him that I did really like the bike and up until he died,” Braedon said. A roaring reminder of Ken. 

Tania is slowly but surely getting back into the swing of life. She works a few days during the work as a cleaner, takes Sophie to school every now and then, which she says is the ‘highlight of my day’, and she hangs out with her 81-year-old Mum who she can have a bit of fun with.

“I had her out mulching the other day and I thought she was gunna lose a bloody hand in the thing. I’ve taught her to swear, so every now and then she tells me to fuck off which is always funny to hear,” she said.

I’ve told Jarrad and Tania that admitting that there is an issue is half the battle, and that they are much braver than they gives themselves credit for. That brought a big smile to Jarrads face, like a glimmer of hope had suddenly shone down on him. Jarrad messages me from time to time, usually a few days late, like most blokes our age, but I have developed a real liking for him, the skinny kid with a big heart. He also has a beautiful little puppy now, to go with two gorgeous daughters. Pieces of his life that are sure to provide many highlights long into the future.

But between these candid and enjoyable moments, the struggle for the Howes family will continue. I thank them again for allowing me the time and access to their deepest and darkest thoughts. 

And what was there motivation behind talking to me...well, they just want to help others who might be in the same situation. 

They, along with many others suffering from the same heartbreak, are the brave, courageous, vulnerable and inspiring. 

“Strength should not be measure by tears not shed, but by expressing the emotions of your heart”.

                                                       In loving memory of Ken

If you or someone you know needs help, or would like to reach out and talk to someone, try a friend or family member first. If that doesn’t work, please contact one of the following: Lifeline 131 114; MensLine 1300 789 978; Beyondblue 1300 224 636. 


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