The Sad Tale of Sebastian Becker

By Jenny Zimmerman. Woodend, VIC

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My mother was a social worker and she told us stories about foster children. They were difficult. They were also very sad. They took chips and lollies to school instead of healthy lunches.

I couldn’t imagine not having parents who looked after you properly.

My sisters and I were fascinated when Mum told us that Mrs Becker was going to take in a foster child. Mrs Becker was short and brisk with a German accent. Curly blonde hair, gold-rimmed glasses. She was houseproud and a bit daunting, but not nearly as daunting as Mr Becker. He was very tall and very dark-haired. He always seemed to be dressed in a funereal black suit. His glasses were very thick, with dark thick rims, and he was a serious and unsmiling man.

Mrs Becker worked with my mother at Asthma Families of Victoria, and that must have been how she came across Sebastian. He was younger than the Beckers’ son and daughter. Lise and Otto were expected to take little Sebastian into their hearts and their family, and so they did. He was about eight years old when he first came to them, blonde and blue-eyed, as they were (except for stern, dark Mr Becker). Unlike them, Sebastian was stunted and dwarfish, almost hunch-backed, with a heavy pigeon chest that struggled for air whenever he had an asthma attack.

Our family saw the Beckers regularly, and amongst us kids there were games of Twister and cards and Monopoly. We played chasey, with lots of screaming and skinned knees, and murder in the dark. Sebastian was the youngest of us and often wheezing, but he kept up, cheerful and red in the face. He shared a bedroom with Otto, who was a good older brother and took seriously the responsibility of caring for this new family member.

I never knew a great deal about Sebastian’s background. An absent father. The mother had schizophrenia, and drugs were mentioned. I remember thinking that Sebastian was lucky to have found new parents and siblings.

I couldn’t imagine not having parents who looked after you properly.

Whenever Sebastian had to stop playing with us, to step aside and focus on breathing, Lise would look embarrassed and would try to distract me and my sisters with something else. She was fourteen and glamorously older than we were. Otto was my age. He would hiss angrily at Sebastian, “Use your puffer! Slow down your breathing! Remember how we practised?” I couldn’t understand his crossness and the urgent air of what I took to be disapproval. But then I saw how Mr Becker dealt with Sebastian’s asthma attacks and I saw that Otto’s anger was an attempt to protect his little brother.

Mr Becker was enraged if he came across Sebastian suffering an asthma attack. “Sebastian!” he would roar. “Stop it right away! Stop it! You know you don’t have to do this!” We kids would freeze, trying to look away, not wanting to be involved. We would watch Sebastian becoming panicked, starting to cry as he tried harder and harder to not have asthma. “Sebastian! You’re still wheezing! I can hear it!” Mr Becker would bark. “Stop it right this minute!”

Sebastian would gulp, hold his breath, tears bright in his eyes. He could not speak.

Sometimes Mrs Becker would intervene, fluttering at her husband’s shoulder. “Reinhardt, please, he cannot help it! He cannot stop it himself!” But she would be shoved aside. “Do not interfere please, Emma! You wanted this boy — you must help him learn to better himself. He’s only doing this for attention.”

Otto — or sometimes, Lise — would try to quietly lead Sebastian down the hall to a bedroom. My mother and Mrs Becker would embark on a bright new topic of conversation. My father would look down at his hands. We were all helpless before Mr Becker’s anger. With Sebastian, we struggled to breathe.

The second last time I saw Sebastian was at a Christmas party, held at somebody’s mud-brick house in the Dandenongs. Night had fallen, and the adults were laughing loudly. We children were roaming about, involved in a complex and chaotic game of hide and seek. I saw Sebastian in the dark with a bottle of wine, gulping it down furiously behind the house. I suppose he would have been twelve at the time. I was shocked to see him drinking alcohol.

Some time later — I was busy in my final year of high school — Mum told me that the Beckers had decided not to formally adopt Sebastian after all. He had become a difficult child in his early teens and he was returned to foster care. Mum didn’t like to talk about it. Mr and Mrs Becker had had “problems in their marriage” because of the whole thing. Otto fell into a depression after Sebastian was sent back to foster care. Lise left home and left the country, disappearing off to New Zealand.

I was in my twenties when I ran into Sebastian at a gig at a pub in St Kilda. He looked feral, wild-eyed and with filthy hair. His clothes stank of urine and dirt. He was oddly handsome and compelling in spite of — or perhaps because of — his wildness. He was obviously on drugs of some sort, but we talked. He fell upon me like a joyful puppy: “Remember me? Wow, it’s so good to see you! Do you ever see the Beckers?” I explained to him that our family had drifted away from the Beckers, and he was sad about that. “I think about them every day,” he told me. “I really miss them.”

He was living on the streets, he told me. It was a good life, plenty of freedom. He didn’t look to me to be very happy, truth be told. But there was no sign of wheezing, so perhaps he’d outgrown that one of his many problems.

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Helen McDonald
Helen McDonald
1 month ago

I love this poignant, powerful story, told with compassion and gentle humour. Written from the narrator’s perspective as a child, the hints of darker themes are even more profound. What a truly sad tale.

Margaret McCaffrey
30 days ago

I finds it fascinating that life catches up with us, and often the wheel will turn full circle. What are the chances of meeting Sebastian years later? He seemed, above all, to be forgiving. What a generous soul.

30 days ago

Hi Jenny, thank you for a touching story. I do hope that Sebastian at last found some friends and happiness and that he had indeed outgrown his asthma. I could hardly believe Mr Becker’s attitude towards Sebastian when he was having an asthma attack. That’s really child abuse.