Soon I will be 50, and it surprises me how fast that age seems to have arrived. As with all lives, I have had a wealth of experiences – fun and foolishness, love and loss, mistakes and right turns, rich and poor. But the hardest experience, and one I think we all shy away from, is the loss of those we love. As I get older, I’m more aware of my own mortality and that of the people I care about. Grief and loss are like so many things, unless you have been through it yourself, it is hard to understand. I was talking to a friend who recently lost her dad in similar circumstances to the way my dad died – a painful slow illness. It is agonising to watch men who have been the big strong guy all your life dying by inches – and it is painful to lose a parent. They are not meant to die, that isn’t the deal, they are meant to live forever.
My friend is now on the first part of the journey of grief that I went through, and it is one of those things that no matter how much advice and comfort we seek from others, it is a road we travel alone.
I was once given some advice by a psychologist that all loss and grieving takes at least four seasons times two. Each season in the first year brings a cue and a memory that we have to face – the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first anniversary of an special event – winter, spring, summer, autumn – all carry a moment and a memory. Then the second year is the beginning of healing – the second time is easier – the loss less painful, the memory special.
Grief is painful and hard – you just want it to end, the tightness in the chest and throat to go away, the sorrow and the tears. But it does go away, and now I understand that it is all part of the process. We grieve because we loved, we cry because it hurts, and as time passes, the memories transform and become not painful but tender and we change with it. It is life.
A week or so before the Christchurch earthquake, some 19 months after my father died, my family gathered to scatter his ashes. He had often joked that he wanted them to be spread in the sea near my parent’s home so he could float in and out on the tide and keep an eye on my mother.
There was no good reason why we didn’t do it sooner, and it took a great deal of persuasion, several arguments and a tad of negotiation to get us together on that afternoon. Behind our reticence lay one thing – we weren’t ready to say goodbye.
No matter who we are, everyone has a story – their own story or a story of others. This is our story about our Dad.
When we were little, Dad was a force of nature where anything could happen. We were swung high in the air and felt on top of the world as he carried us on his shoulders. He played sword battles against us with rolled-up newspapers, and we would race downstairs, tumbling over each other to be the first to his car when he came home from work.
He taught us many important skills; such as how to pour a beer properly – you tilt the glass just so with a little bit of froth on the top, and any excess was sipped off by the nearest available child.
We discovered that Santa Claus particularly enjoyed cheese sandwiches and a bottle of DB, and we knew this to be true because it was always gone on Christmas morning.
Dad didn’t believe in taking us to playgrounds. Instead we explored boatsheds, played among rowing boats, got grease off the oars on our clothes, and swung on boat trailers.
We thought it was perfectly natural to spend our summer holidays at rowing camps, swimming in the weed at Lake Karapiro or camping up north at Ngunguru Primary School. While Dad was coaching, the three of us roamed the countryside doing whatever we wanted to, and when he got back he took us rally driving on the shingle roads.
“Reach out and grab a plant for your mother, kids,” he’d say as we skimmed the hillside. And when we got back: “Don’t tell you mother.”
Ngunguru, Matapouri and Whale Bay were the beaches of our childhood, where we built sand castles, explored rock pools and went fishing. We went there summer and winter, and the resting place of my brother Michael’s toy tractor remains forever buried beneath the sands of Matapouri, despite Dad’s best efforts to find it.
He was chief rescuer of all things; repainting the outside toilet at the bach after Michael set fire to it, removing the fish hook from the cat’s mouth, buried dead pets and dispatched all rats, mice and creepy crawlies. As we grew older, it was restarting flat car batteries, buying us new tires and checking the oil on our cars.
Dad gave us a love of reading and books. He was a voracious reader, and especially loved science fiction. Because mum wouldn’t go, the three of us would be taken along to obscure science fiction movies. We would sit with baffled expressions on our faces, with no idea whatsoever what was going on. During the car ride home, he would attempt to explain them to us, but to this day I have no idea what the Russian movie Solaris was about, or the meaning of the large stone slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
He had an enormous interest in the world and science, and loved anything about the solar system and space program. He had the knack of conveying complex issues simply and was a very proficient and knowledgeable refrigeration engineer.
As we grew up, we were press-ganged into service as coxswains, speed boat drivers and general hands at the rowing club. We spent most of 1978 painting pontoons and buoys for the World Rowing Championship course at the back of Fisher and Paykel on Carbine Road.
Our parents gave us the quintessential New Zealand childhood. We had the quarter-acre section with fruit trees and space to bash and crash our way around. They introduced us to sport, which buffered us from the hazards of the teenage years, and as we grew older, they widened our horizons.
They took the risk of moving us to Australia so Dad could work as a professional rowing coach. For two years we were Kiwi hillbillies. We would stand there, trying to puzzle out what these fast-talking Aussies were saying to us. Trips across Sydney became major expeditions, with one of us in the front seat acting as navigator following the map and as we tried to find our way across the convoluted Sydney road networks.
As always, rowing regattas were a major holiday destination, and Dad took great joy in the V8 Holden station wagon used to tow the boat trailer across New South Wales, even braving forest fires to get to regattas. We got given new jobs – applying sun screen to the back of his neck and ears, and waving the flies off his back in Penrith.
By that time Fiona and I were both rowing, so we spent the winters rising at 5:30 to go training. The drawback of having your Dad as your coach is that you never get to ring in sick. But he was a great coach, and we achieved so much when he trained us. Although we came to dread it when he said, “‘Turn around and we’ll do it one more time,'” because there was always another “one more time”.
Dad has his own unique vocabulary that we learnt to decipher:
“Who’s that singer, you know Herbert O’Neil.”
You mean Gilbert O’Sullivan?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
If he called someone dear, we knew that he had forgotten their name. If we got hit by our siblings and complained, “Well, you probably deserved it.”
He had many favourite expressions, He coined “Just do it” well before Nike, although he added his own twist – “Just shut up and do it.”
As we grew up, we all set off overseas. At one stage I lived in Johannesburg, Fiona in London and Michael was in Port Moresby. Over time, we married, had children, and came home. Dad had no hesitation in roping us in to rowing whenever he needed us. We took gym sessions for the school kids, jumped into master’s crews if he needed a spare, and were once again speed-boat drivers whenever he needed one. I remember complaining bitterly when he forced me to cox, even though I had long outgrown the space and had to perch on the gunwales.
He took up indoor rowing and quickly worked out the best strategy for winning. His technique for just not quite jumping the gun remains safe with me.
He loved having grandchildren, and was proud of all them, and to be their poppy. I think he was secretly chuffed that it was a small tribe of red-headed grand kids. Family dinners were always noisy, with dad at the head of the table, making silly jokes, and Frank Sinatra playing in the background. Dad loved Frank, as we all called him, and his grandchildren call them “poppy’s songs”.
He enjoyed writing for his grandchildren and for himself, and he had a wonderful imagination. He wrote several stories and was trying to finish a story before illness overtook him.
I think from an early age, we had no illusions about Dad. He could be difficult, stubborn and his temper is legendary. It would be disingenuous of me to say life was always rosy and cheery. Like every family, we had ups and downs, quarrels and disagreements, falling outs and lots of noise. There was the occasional explosion, several car crashes and a surprising number of fires.
One unfortunate incident stands out, when much to Mum’s horror, Dad trimmed the shrubbery to ground level with the lawn mower. As Mike told her at the time, “It’s all your fault, you should know better than to go shopping when Dad is working on the garden.”
But he also had a wicked sense of humour, and would do anything to make us laugh. I remember him giggling uncontrollably when his mother, our Nana, came to lunch. Because she was very deaf towards the end of her life, lunch involved a lot of shouting and Dad would invariably start us all giggling when Nana May said something daffy.
“Would you like a cup of tea, mum?” he’d yell. “A cup of tea?”
“No thanks dear, but I would love a cup of tea,” she’d reply.
Life is fleeting; storms destroy, houses rot, and financial markets crash. Relationships are the only thing that endure throughout our lives. We need each other. Although Dad was the iconic hard man, he was also the father who protected his family and who had “something in his eye” whenever we watched a sad movie. The people in his life were what mattered most to him.
Dad truly loved Mum. I have enduring memories of hugs and kisses in the kitchen, and dad’s never-ending quest to find an appropriate birthday present. When Mum and I first saw dad in ICU in March, one of the first things he did was to signal for something to draw on. He then drew a big heart and an arrow pointing at mum.
The universe becomes a very small place when you are sitting with your dad in a hospital unit, and although no-one realised it, we were given a grace period in which to reconcile past disagreements, and to say goodbye to him. It gave him the freedom to express the love that was in his heart that he couldn’t say before. I think the child in us believes that our parents will live forever, and I certainly never thought that my dad would leave us so soon. But all the onslaughts of the last few months were too much even with someone with such a big heart as dad. So goodbye Dad, we always knew that no matter what we trouble we got in, you would be there to rescue us, and no child could ask for more. We love you and miss you.
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color