Story by Ian Baker

SO many of us grow up hoping to say it, and so few get to say it: “The highlight of my life has been my marriage.”

Former jockey Ian Duckling wed one-time Miss Australia contestant Shirley Dean on 7 August 1965. He was 28, and had lived for five years with a complete T3 spinal cord injury. She was 29, and had shared some stern words with her parents.

“It’s been a great union,” Ian says simply.

“I said, ‘I’m going to marry him and that’s all there is to it’,” Shirley recalls. “The only thing wrong was that he barracked for Collingwood.”

Ian has had other big days. His winning rides. His representing Victoria in four diverse sports. His raising of two children with Shirley. The children’s presenting the pair with four grandchildren.

The low point of Ian’s life since he married? That began just this year, in June, a few months after he celebrated with Shirley his 80th birthday. He was admitted to the Austin Hospital with a dangerous pressure sore. He received surgery to clean up and then fill the cavity that had opened under his skin, and spent the next four months in bed – watching TV while he lay on one side.

Ian had known for nearly 18 months that he had a weeping wound, in a particularly vulnerable place on his bottom. And he had known how, in an ideal world, he could have allowed it to heal.

He should have kept off it, he recognises. He should have kept off it “twenty-four seven”. He should have spent at least a few consecutive weeks confined to bed, with all of his needs met by others.

It had seemed to Ian, however, that others who could sustain him were few. The couple had lived independently in Melbourne’s south for 52 years. Their son and daughter, now in their 40s, lived nearby, but each had a family, and Ian had always resisted making his problems their problems. Disability support workers looked expensive, intrusive, constraining, and novel. The only obvious person to whom he could turn, as he saw things, was Shirley.

Shirley was awaiting eye surgery, and had been encouraged to refrain from driving. If necessary, she had been told, she could make short trips near home. Ian had stepped in as chauffeur.

He was not going to have Shirley do all their driving, shopping, banking, cleaning and cooking, while she waited on him, disposed of his urine bags and helped manage his bowel care. All for a tiny little sore. Similar spots had appeared in the past, and with just a little care they had always cleared up.

  • June 30, 2021

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