June 1, 2014 Posted by damian in NEWS


In 2001 my cousin and mate Pete Anderson was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and was told his life expectancy was 2 years at the most. He was happily married to Leanne, was besotted with his 6 month old daughter and had just returned to teaching at Mt Lilydale College: The school that had nurtured his love of teaching and introduced him to the love of his life for good measure. What followed is one of the more amazing life stories I have witnessed.

Pete & I were born a month apart in late 1964. Our mums, Kathleen and Margaret were close. They had different interests growing up. Mum would spend most Saturday afternoons sprucing herself up for a dinner dance while Margaret was screaming for the Magpies at Victoria Park. However their sisterly bond was impenetrable and despite being separated by several dozen Melbourne suburbs our two families shared a similar bond.

Pete & I by virtue of our arrival into the world at the same time were thrust upon each other as companions. Pete's dad Vin captured many moments of us together as babies on his Super 8. Mostly it's focused on Pete, with me as a blurry bonneted afterthought in the background. That would have been easier to digest if my parents had paid similar attention to capturing me on camera - They didn't. As the youngest of 5 there was a noticeable gap on our family mantel piece next to the portraits of my 4 elder siblings. Apparently the baby photographer had passed away in the interim years and they never bothered to look up the yellow pages. I'd go on for longer about this slight on my infancy but this piece isn't about me.

As younguns Pete and I weren't that close. I was introverted as a kid but from the age of 5 Pete already had a swagger. Mum would faithfully take me along to his birthday parties and I would spend most of the time explaining who I was to his dubious mates feeling somewhat like a cousin amongst his preferred peerage. 'Who's the kid with the shit metaphors?' they would say.

As teenagers we got on better but Pete was always so prodigiously cooler than me that I was a tiny bit intimidated. He was everything I wanted to be: He could talk to girls without having a nose bleed, he didn't wear home made clothes and he clearly had jurisdiction over how he wore his hair. However as adults, as my insecurities washed away, I realised that what I had mistaken for aloofness was a guy who was immensely comfortable in his own skin.

We both came to teaching via different paths and we found we had more mutual ground. We both loved teaching but I remember talking to him about whether there was more out there for us. His foray into HR roughly coincided with my decision to make a go of a full time crack at comedy and he couldn't have been more supportive. He and Lee would bring a host of mates to each and every show I put on and we'd catch up for drink after and his zeal for my career change was infectious. His stint in HR didn't last as he felt the pull of the strong vocational pull of teaching. Even though I'm happy with the career I've eked out in the arts, I still have pangs for the collegial nature of education that I've never fully replicated in the more isolationist world of entertainment.

When Pete was diagnosed with MND he was at the top of his game. Pete was already in the higher echelons of 'top blokes I know' but the years that followed saw him continue to rocket through charts. He is quite simply the most inspiring person I have ever known.

Rather than wallow in the cruelty of his circumstance he battled the disease stoically with a constant eye on the needs of those who loved him. As piteous as his condition quickly became he continued teaching for as long as he could and when he had to succumb and leave his beloved job he set about writing to leave a legacy for Eliza. Encouraged by journalist Neil Kearney who saw brilliance in his prose, he began to compile his work into a book. After 10 years, long after he had lost speech and the ability to type 'Silent Body, Vibrant Mind' was published and I had the honour of launching the book in The Jim Stynes Room at the MCG in October 2012. In my introduction I suggested that given he had been at it for 10 years, I was little disappointed at the slightness of the book. One of the little known symptoms of MND is that emotions are greatly exaggerated. Sadness is amplified, Joy leads to delirium. I've done a number of benefit shows for Pete and MND over the years so as his distorted groans grew louder it wasn't the first time that I thought that one of my jokes might actually kill him.

But this story isn't just about Pete. It's about his ex students who organised fund raisers and created the momentum to get the book published, his friends that cooked meals for 13 years and helped modify their home, the carers who bent the rules because this man had moved them and the countless people, who made themselves better than they already were to help out a family so cruelly stricken.

Pete has touched so many lives as has the bravery of Leanne and Eliza and my bloody brilliant Magpie loving aunty and their families.

I was in the town of Goolwa in SA on tour on May 19th. It was the first day of a tour. The show is called 'Road Trip' and it requires our team spend 48 hours in a town with a view to compiling a 90 minute live show based entirely on that town. It's exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. I was being filmed talking to a local artist as she showed me her glass eye ball collection when my phone throbbed in my pocket. Something made me ignore the camera rolling and I looked at the phone screen. I saw that it was Pete's brother Mark and my heart sank. I'd been to see him the preceding week and knew the situation was dire. I don't recall much of the next 10 minutes as I feigned interest in this woman's bizarre obsession. I remember even less of the period when her husband took over to show us his collection of caps that hung on the shed wall.

I've often questioned the fairness of life as Pete's quality of life became worse and worse as I tripped about the globe pursuing my dreams but never has my life felt so transparent as I sobbed in the bush adjacent to the Eye Ball Museum. My self pitying moping didn't last. The grief burned but I knew Pete would have no truck with that train of thought. I hauled my sorry arse back into the charmed life I lead and found myself 2 hours later dressed a ghost in a haunted old police station.

The funeral, which Pete had meticulously planned himself, was worth the ridiculously convoluted, sleepless journey. My time was tight so I barely got to speak to anyone in any depth other than my brother Chris who came miles out of his way way to collect me at the airport and drive me all the day back to ensure I got the flight back so I could go and be an idiot in the next town on the schedule. Chris and I talked all the way and without saying it we both realised that Pete had brought us, and all found themselves part of his story, closer together.

So farewell old mate. Tomorrow when I'm judging a foot race between the 12 hairdressing salons in Warragul, I'll think of you and remember that every second is sacred.

NB - To hear the story directly from him, I highly recommend you read Pete's book 'Silent Body, Vibrant Mind' ... google it, you'll find it
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