I saw down to write this piece a few times. Near when it happened. Near his birthday. About a month ago when the mere realisation the anniversary was coming up and caused me to have a near breakdown at work. I’m now sitting here in a carpark in Wollongong, having run the same run I did the day of his funeral, and since writing has always been my escape, written therapy, seems a good time as any to talk about it now.
On the 24th of September 2017 I was house-sitting a friend’s house. It was a long-ish stint and I’d ducked back to my own apartment that Sunday afternoon to get some more clothes. While I folded clothes ready to take with me I’d put on an episode of the tv show Wrecked, a funny little comedy about people stranded on a desert island that I now have an overly large sentimental attachment to. I was enjoying it enough I rested into the couch and watched several more episodes when the phone rang.
It was my brother Aaron.
“I don’t have much info, but Dad’s had another fall and is being rushed hospital in an ambulance,” he told me, his voice calm. “He has a DNR thought so this could be really bad. I’ll keep you updated when I know more.”
Dad moved up to Wollongong, about 2 hours drive away, when he and Mum split up when I was 18. The weather was warmer there, and having had several heart attacks by that stage the cold in Canberra affected him too badly to want to continue living here despite encouragment from almost all his children to move back to Canberra, or even to Sydney, to be closer to his kids
I called Mum to let her know the news.
Despite the DNR, despite the fact his health hadn’t been great that year, I still thought he’d be okay. He had a few falls that year already. Trips to the hospital like this were nothing new.
Forty minutes, and another two episodes of Wrecked later, the phone rang again. My sister Rach this time.
She was keeping it together, but her voice was cracking and I could tell she’d been crying.
“Are you alone right now? What are you up to?” Unlike most of my other siblings, I had no wife or kids or girlfriend that I would be with at that moment. Since most of my friends had partners and/or kids of their own, the question was a fair one. I spent a lot of my time alone after all.
I just wasn’t totally sure why she was asking.
“I’m at my apartment about to head back to Jamie’s, I’m alone. Are you okay Rach?”
“After we get off the phone you should go to Mum’s. I don’t think you’ll want to be alone.”
She was crying now. I was worried about her.
“Is everything okay, Rach?”
“Dad didn’t make it.”
How we ended the phone call is a bit fuzzy. I looked over at the tv. The episode was paused. I didn’t unpause it.
I lay back on my couch in silence. Head silent in a fog. I lay there staring at the ceiling in a numb state.
I was 33 years old.
And my father was dead.
I’m not sure how long I lay there in silence staring at the ceiling trying to process what had just happened.
For every minute I lived on now would be a minute my father wouldn’t. Everything that happened to me from that moment, Dad would never know about. If I achieved some sort of success in my professional life, I could never tell him. If I met a girl I’d never be able to introduce her to him. If I got married, he’d never be there. If I had kids, they’d never meet him.
Eventually, I think it was probably an hour later, I found it in me to drive to Mum’s where I proceeded to break down.
My Dad and I never had the greatest of relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are fathers who were way worst, and I never hated the guy, we just didn’t get along. We didn’t talk all the much, though one of us reached out from time to time.
Yes – at times it had been years between times in which we’d spoken.
And if I’m being totally honest, because why not? It is his anniversary after all and I guess I owe him that, I always felt like I was a bit of a disappointment to him. I had never really achieved greatness in any form like my other siblings.
No university degree. No financial success. Yes – this is stuff that would have impressed him, but I’ve always known, from overheard conversations back home, to ones to my face, that stuff wouldn’t have mattered so much because he measured success another way too.
The success of loving someone romantically and having them love you back.
Maybe having children. He already had a multitude of grandchildren by that point so the first part probably mattered more.
I always wanted to be able to tell him that I had a girlfriend some day. Sure, we didn’t talk a lot, but I knew he’d like to hear that.
So here it is: sometimes it was hard to reach out because I knew I wasn’t a success.
He died before I could tell him I met a girl. He died before I could show him I was ‘okay’.
One thing I could do though was: write. My sister Susie was working on the Eulogy, I think in part because no one had stepped forward and offered to help. To be more precise, I wrote my own version, and then sent it to my siblings and asked what they thought. Worried that the child who arguably had the worst relationship with him had wrote about him wrongly. Turns out I did okay.
Then a few days later, his eldest and youngest children, stood up in that church and wished our father goodbye.
I felt like a failure for months. I kept it hidden, only confiding in one person and probably not admitting the cause. The reason.
I don’t think the grief ever goes away. It changes however. It becomes less sharp. It cuts less deep. It was months later when I had to spend three months travelling for work that the feelings of failing him drifted away. (I still absolutely suck at trying to win over the heart of the opposite sex… but I’m working on that)
My Dad was a good person.
And even when he made mistakes, and did bad things – which is stuff we all do, he still tried to be a good person.
Many years earlier, in a god awful time we like to call ‘high school’, I remember telling Dad about an argument I gotten into at school. It was for an end of year thing and each student in our class had to submit one personal line for the end of school prayer (yep, I went to a catholic school) so it was from ‘all of us personally’.
The girl organising it, Paige, (yeah, not her real name) asked what I wanted my line to be and I told her “I hope that we all do good things in the future.” a few days later she read out the full prayer and I sat listening for my one line only to hear it rewritten as:
“I hope we all do the right thing in the future”.
It was actually slightly out of character for me to confront her on this, but I did because it pissed me off just enough and high school was finishing anyway so what did I have to lose.
“What does it matter?” she snapped at me.
“It’s just, everyone else’s got read word for word and you rewrote mine.”
“Yours was worded badly ‘do good things’, ‘do the right thing’ was the correct way of wording it.”
“But they actually mean to entirely different things!” I told her. “How can you possibly not get that?” She proceeded to ‘not get that’ and stormed off.
That night I found myself venting about it to my Dad, who to my surprise understood immediately.
“Sometimes ‘right thing to do’ is a very bad thing.” And in a moment that stuck in my head, possibly because it was a little rare my Dad and I were on the same page, my Dad turned to me and said. “Always try and do ‘good things’ where you can. Bad people can convince themselves they’re doing ‘the right thing’ and can do very bad things. Horrible things. If you try and do ‘good things’ however it is harder to get lead astray.”
I made many mistakes over the course of my life. Everyone does. I’m not going to list them here. I failed a lot. I’m not going to list the failures here either. (That would take WAY too long.) And yes, this next part came as a shock to the only friend I confided this to, I don’t think I’m a good person, but because of my Dad I will ALWAYS try and do good things.
We had a shitty relationship but there were good times. I remember when I was kid in Melbourne and wanted to go to the Big Egg one weekend. We’d been there before with friends and family. To be fair, it wasn’t nearly as much fun without kids my own age, but still the fact he drove a fair distance to some comically large egg with a chicken popping out of it.
Not having many friends growing up he did other stuff too. Before his health got worse. Hell, before our relationship got worse. He took me to the Canberra show. He played chess with me. He let me rattle on about time travel and science fiction stories.
He did good things.
I am trying really hard to keep it together now so this last part will probably seem rushed.
We sang the entire 8 minutes of American Pie at my sister’s 40th birthday part on karoake. He picked up 75km outside of Canberra when the chain on my bike snapped on an attempt to cycle to Goulburn. He picked me up when in Goulburn when finally succeeded in making the 100km ride a few weeks later.
He walked my sister down the aisle at her wedding. He had a laugh you could from miles away.
He was a pretty scary driver in his closing years – it’s one of the reasons my parents sold their car when I was in my teens. (Can… can I argue this is where ‘driving prowess’ comes from?) He also taught me a valuable lesson in pulling over as soon as the car overheats because he killed his last ever car when it overheated and he thought he’d just finish the drive to Wollongong. The engine seized and the car died about twenty minutes later.
He was my Dad.
I wished we’d had more time. But I’m glad he’s at peace.
And every year I hope to drive to Wollongong and do this short 4km run in his memory.
See you in another life, Old Man.
And I’ll always try and do good things like you asked me to.