real life

One year after his family were killed at Port Arthur, Walter Mikac had a painful encounter with a friend.

It was the day before his 34th birthday.

Walter Mikac, a father of two young daughters, was playing in a golf tournament sponsored by the pharmacy he owned in Nubeena, Tasmania. It was a Sunday, and he had suggested his wife, Nanette, take their daughters, Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3, to the historic site of Port Arthur for the day.

In the early afternoon, Mikac heard the gunshots from across the bay.

At the time, he thought nothing of them, assuming they were part of a re-enactment. It wasn’t until he was sitting in the clubhouse and a young couple ran in, shouting that people had been shot at Port Arthur, that he realised they were real.

When he arrived home, the house was empty. A family friend delivered the news that Mikac’s wife and two daughters had been killed by a lone gunman who shot 35 people and wounded 23 more. Later, Mikac visited the scene, and held his loved ones.

It’s a story few of us can hear about without being overwhelmed by a profound feeling of sickness. The fact that a person can wake up in the morning, on a seemingly normal day, and hours later be coming to terms with the senseless murders of the people they loved most is a thought many of us try to avoid.

Walter Mikac with his family. Image supplied.

But instead of turning away from these kinds of stories - the ones that fill us with profound grief, horror and sadness - Walkley Award-winning journalist Leigh Sales decided to turn towards them. Her new book, Any Ordinary Dayexplores what happens when life deals us unexpected blows. How do people cope with the worst thing that happens in their life? Whether it's the sudden death of someone close to them, or a terror attack or a natural disaster, what comes next?

In her book, Sales speaks to Mikac, a man whose face is seared into her memory.

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"I remember a very famous news photograph," Sales writes.

"It's a picture of a man in a suit, dark hair neatly combed, leaving a church. He clutches three irises in his hands and a bright pink hair elastic is wrapped around one wrist. His eyes are cast downward, face contorted in grief as he weeps uncontrollably. A man on either side grips his arms, holding him upright. One of them is crying and the other looks desperately grim, as they half escort, half carry the stricken man from the church."

This image of Mikac is perhaps one of the reasons Sales was scared to meet the 56-year-old. She was nervous because this was a man who had experienced the unimaginable. What if she started crying? What if she couldn't help but treat him differently? What if he noticed?

During her conversation with Mikac, however, Sales learned she's not the first person to fear speaking to him. He recalled a painful story about an encounter with a friend after the massacre.

"The one I think about," Mikac told Sales, "was my friend Doug, who I played cricket with and who was the dad of the girl who worked in my pharmacy. And one day, I was walking down the street and he was coming the other way. As soon as he saw me he turned and started walking the other way. I sort of had to make a split-second decision. What am I going to do? If I let him go, we'll probably never have a conversation ever again. So I started walking quicker. As I started walking quicker, he was nearly running. I caught up to him and put my hand on his shoulder and as he turned around, he just had tears streaming down his face. I said, 'It's okay, Doug, you don't have to say anything.'"

Walter Mikac. Image via Getty.

Mikac said having people avoid him because they didn't know how to act was "one of the worst things" he experienced after losing his family.

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"It's more loss," he told Sales.

Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, had a similar experience after his wife Beth was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012, and died within weeks. He told Sales he accepted he would have to be the one to face any awkwardness head-on, just as Mikac had done with Doug.

While deeply painful, Sales' exploration of stories such as Mikac's offered her a valuable insight into the resilience of the human spirit. It was a lesson she drew upon when just weeks before her book was released, her father died suddenly.

Speaking to Mia Freedman on Mamamia’s No Filter podcast this week, Sales said interviewing people like Walter Mikac helped prepare her for her own "very sad story".

“Dad was on life support and I knew that I needed to be there when he actually died – which I think I might have been scared to do before I wrote the book,” she told Mia.

“I was powerless to stop it. But I knew what was happening, and I took some solace in the fact it was normal.”

“Life just goes on. I couldn’t just lie down in the gutter and scream with grief and irritation and unfairness,” she said.

You can listen to Mia's full interview with Leigh Sales here. Or download it from your favourite podcast app.

You can pick up Leigh Sales' book, Any Ordinary Day, at all good bookstores.

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