This is the time of year when memories of my dad are especially top of mind. His birthday was June 30, and today is the anniversary of the day he died, back in 2002.
As I get older I find the lessons I learned from dad are coming far more obvious on reflection, and I find comfort in being able to recognize the influence that he had on me which helps to keep him close and his memory alive, not just for me but for our kids who never really had the chance to know him.
Dad was not a particularly expressive man – other than when something made him furious, when he found ways to express himself using words that the rest of us didn’t even know existed! – so the lessons were more implied than directly taught, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to see how they have shaped and contributed to my approach to life.
The harder you work the luckier you get
Dad was a huge believer in the importance of working hard to maximise every opportunity you got. He had an incredible work ethic, and when he was committed to delivering on a task or a project nothing got between him and the completion of it. When he decided that the best way to deliver the home he wanted for his family was to build it himself, he worked every evening after his day job and every weekend for 3 years to do just that, doing every task that didn’t required a certified trade himself from laying the bricks to tiling to plastering. When we moved into that house some people said how lucky we were to have such a spacious home, all with our own bedrooms and an ensuite bathroom for Mum and Dad – which back in the early 80’s was a far from common feature – but luck had played no role in delivering that outcome, we could afford that house because Dad had been prepared to commit that level of time and effort to it, with Mum and his mates as his trusty TA’s.
The importance of mates
On the subject of those mates, it’s taken as a given that women have a strong network of friends who are there for them through thick and thin, but it’s not necessarily as common for male friendships to play the same role or be treated with the same importance. So many of my childhood memories involve Dad laughing with his mates, who were a constant presence in our home and our lives. Dad had a great group of mates who had each others backs through thick and thin. If one of them had a job on it was a given that the others would all be there to help, usually roaring with laughter as they enjoyed each others company and rehashed stories that the rest of us were sick of hearing. Those men have nearly as much of their DNA in that house as Dad, working side by side with him as it rose from the ground. When Dad was diagnosed their initial disbelief and sorrow quickly turned into support, and they were there for him in an even greater way, keeping him company and helping out with any of the jobs he refused to outsource to anyone else. I see this as a real commonality between Stuart and Dad, both are men who understand the importance of male friends and put a lot of emphasis on valuing and nurturing those friendships, and I’m sure the recognition of this similarity contributed to the strong bond that they quickly formed.
The value of family
Dad’s mates were important to him, but so was his family and he kept a close bond with his family despite the physical distance between them. Mum helped with this of course, being the one who wrote the letters and made the phone calls that kept us in the loop of what was going on in their lives, but while it was always a challenge to get Dad to stop working to engage in any kind of relaxation pastime, there was never an issue with downing tools for the weekend if there was some kind of family get together happening. When I was a child that usually involved us all loading up in the station wagon and making the trek to Geelong where his parents and some of his brothers lived, and as we got older the same priority was placed on trips to Beechworth were Sharon lived at the time, or Melbourne when I moved there. In some of our midnight chats during the final weeks of Dad’s illness, he was at great pains to emphasise how important it was to make time for your family, and he was thrilled that we’d all grown up maintaining close contact no matter how far away we lived.
The importance of maintaining your health
Dad viewed maintaining good health and fitness as vital, but would have laughed himself silly at the idea of joining a gym or having a trainer. Instead his strength came from the physical nature of his work on the farm, and I think the only thing he regretted about finishing his role at the SEC was the loss of the cardiac exercise that the 10km each way cycle had delivered. This initially saw him cut back on his nightly bowl of ice-cream, and pinching his belly to make sure he wasn’t putting on any weight (he wan’t a vain man when it came to his appearance, but he hated gaining weight, I suspect because he saw it as a sign of weakness in the personal discipline standards he expected of himself) but before long the extra hours of physcial work he was logging by being able to work full time on the land meant the ice cream could be added back into the mix. I can clearly remember my shock and disbelief when Mum rang to let me know Dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He’d never smoked in his life, and didn’t have any of the lifestyle factors that could contribute to cancer. Unfortunately that didn’t mean anything, it was the asbestos exposure by his employer 30 years previously that had done the damage, and his otherwise excellent health had actually masked the symptoms until the cancer was very well advanced. He hated seeing any of us lying around idle, and was always threatening to send us out to pull tussocks out of the paddock if we needed something to get us moving. Our kids would tell you that I might not have any tussocks to pull, but I’m always quick to find something they can do if I think they’ve been lying around on the couch for too long!
Love can be demonstrated in many ways
As I said above Dad wasn’t a particularly demonstrative man, and he far preferred to express himself through actions rather than words. When I’d been away from home for an extended period of time after he’d given me that initial welcome home hug, he’d ask for my car keys and head straight outside to do a quick check under the bonnet to satisfy himself that all was in order. At times this could be frustrating and I remember saying to Mum he clearly wasn’t that fussed to see me, but she always used to tell me that was his way of showing how he cared and I began to see it in a whole different light. My car was never in better working order than when my first marriage ended suddenly and I retreated for home to lick my wounds, I think Dad stripped and rebuilt nearly every part while Mum and I cried inside over multiple cups of tea. People express themselves in different ways, and being able to understand this through my experience with Dad has definitely helped navigate relationships with the myriad of different personality types that I’ve worked with throughout my career.
So today as I find my eyes filling with tears writing this, and wishing I could be having this as a conversation with my dad instead of a blog post, I’m incredibly grateful for these and all the other lessons he taught me. Thank you Dad, you might be gone but you’re a very long way from forgotten xxxxx