Mirella Arapian

“Tomorrow will be too late”, said the cardiologist who called to tell me my mother had just suffered a massive heart attack, “I advise you get here immediately to say your goodbyes”. Those are the only words I remember from that phone call. I booked the next available flight from Melbourne and arrived at the Gold Coast hospital around midnight to find my mother laying lifeless in intensive care, unable to breathe without a tube. Everyone around me was falling apart: my father, my sister, my mother’s friends, our family friends. Seeing them so incredibly distraught made me realise I had to pull my shit together so that I could be strong for dad, speak to doctors, convey updates, ensure everyone was eating (because as Armenians that’s our priority), and, should the unthinkable happen, make the necessary arrangements. 

Miraculously mum survived, had double bypass surgery and came home two weeks later. During this time I noticed dad acting strangely; forgetting his keys, repeating himself, putting books in the fridge. Before returning to Melbourne I asked mum to take him to see a doctor. A couple of months later she called to tell me he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. 

The news completely destroyed me. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t take care of myself and I barely left the house. This also meant I couldn’t work a 9–5 job—the catalyst for starting my own business because I could work from home and not have to see or talk to anyone from the outside world. No anxious commutes, no prying co-workers, no people’s idiosyncrasies, no external stimulus to trigger my emotions; just email and the occasional phone call that would connect me with clients. Design was my escape.

As dad’s memory and cognitive functions started to impetuously deteriorate, I flew back and forth regularly to help mum take care of him before he was eventually given professional care. I will never forget when he asked, “why is this happening to me?” It shattered my heart into as many pieces as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. The most intelligent, positive, funny, happy, and caring man I have ever known lost his battle with Alzheimer’s at 12:10 AM on 28 April, 2014.

My father Kirk is my True North, my biggest influence, and my most powerful inspiration. He is part of who I am at the deepest level of my soul and his light keeps me going through times of pain and adversity. He is why I am a graphic designer. I am so thankful he was still of sound mind when he learned I had started a design business. I know he would be proud of me and what I have accomplished.

Change in its most destructive form made me realise that my parents are not the immortal superheroes I believed them to be since I was young enough to register their existence and roles in my life. It made me question my own mortality, particularly being from a culture that goes out of its way to avoid talking about death. It can also be a force for good, because I would not be who or where I am today without the tragedies that befell my parents, and subsequently myself.  

Change is also constant—I write this from a hospital waiting room, where my mother is having surgery for bowel cancer. 

Mirella Arapian

Mirella Arapian is an Armenian-Australian designer. She is the founder and creative director of Vertigo, an award winning brand design studio, founder and director of Womentor, a global mentorship program for women in graphic design, and co-host of Australian Design Radio, a podcast providing the global creative community with conversations and commentary on Australian design. 

Mirella has worked across Australia and North America with leading brands including ANZ, The Age, Audi, Hieroglyphics Records, Sea Shepherd, Volvo, and WWF. She has spoken at design festivals, industry events, and educational institutions around Australia; her work has won awards, been published in international books and magazines, and exhibited in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, Romania. As a woman in design leadership and child of immigrants, she is an advocate for equality, diversity, and inclusion in creative industries. She believes in why before how and is passionate about social and environmental responsibility in design.

Mirella is also a criminologist at RMIT University’s Innocence Initiative where she investigates claims of wrongful conviction in the Australian justice system.

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