June 30th would have been my dad’s 70th birthday.
Dad died of mesothelioma at 57, 13 years ago next month, as a result of workplace exposure to asbestos back in the 60’s when he was an apprentice fitter and turner with the State Electricity Commission in Victoria at Hazelwood Power Station.
Sascha was only 7 months old when he died, and I still clearly remember phoning mum on our return from our ‘babymoon’ to Fiji when I was 7 months pregnant and hearing the news that dad had lung cancer. Initially I was incredulous – how could a man who was as strong as an ox, had never smoked or drank a drop of alcohol in his life, possibly have lung cancer? As mum went on to explain the asbestos link, the reality hit home all too quickly. So many men of dad’s generation were victims of asbestos related diseases courtesy of their workplace exposure, and a trip to the oncology unit at the local hospital sadly also became the chance to reconnect with workmates unseen for up to 30 years.
Dad was a down to earth man, with little time for social graces and liked to call a spade a spade. He quickly accepted the reality of his situation, far more easily and readily than the rest of us it has to be said, and set about putting things in order. He had worked at the SEC for many years, working up to a management role after those early days as an apprentice, but was always a frustrated man of the land at heart. His work day started far before and finished far beyond the hours spent at his ‘day job’, as he built multiple small businesses delivering services ranging from sheep shearing, fencing, hay cutting and baling to the local community. By the time of his diagnosis, he was long gone from the SEC and had been able to fulfil his dream of being a landowner & running multiple properties breeding cattle, in addition to delivering all of those various services. Clearly mum wasn’t going to be able to take this over (although she and my brother did continue to run the farm for several years), and he didn’t want to leave his customers, many who had become great mates over the years, in the lurch so selected successors and set about passing his knowledge, equipment and client lists on to them.
Dad had a wicked sense of humour, and during the time of his illness took an inappropriate amount of pleasure in making jokes about his imminent demise. I saw him sidle up to a funeral director at a friend’s service and try to cut a deal, but when Halley’s comet was visible and he declared ‘well there’s another thing I won’t be seeing again’ I did have to remind him that given it only passes earth every 75 or so years Sascha was the only one amongst us who really had much chance of a second sighting!
The one positive that a terminal cancer diagnosis provides is that it delivers the opportunity to try and ensure that nothing gets unsaid or is left undone, as this can cause significant regret when a family member is lost suddenly and unexpectedly due to accident or the like. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend large amounts of time in Victoria with dad and mum during the course of his illness, and had more conversations about matters of significance with dad in those months than I had previously had in my entire life.
Dad was a traditional man of his generation. He took his role as provider for the family very seriously, and worked incredibly hard to deliver on that. To say he was not great at articulating his feelings would be one of life’s great understatements, he was far more likely to demonstrate his love by heading outside and changing the oil in my car than to ever say the words, but the chats that we had, often in the early hours of the morning when I was up feeding Sascha and he was restless and unable to sleep due to the discomfort in his chest, gave me a level of insight that I had never previously had and I will always be grateful for that opportunity.
He was only 57 when he died, and while that seemed too young at the time it is even more confronting now that I’m 45. Dad absolutely loved being a grandfather, and took a huge amount of delight in spending time with my nephew and then with Sascha when she arrived. It’s always a source of sadness that he didn’t get the opportunity to meet his other 5 grandchildren, but we all do our best to ensure he features regularly in the stories we tell, and Sam often comments on how Pa would have reacted when Geelong have a particularly bad game, so we’ve clearly not done too badly in keeping his legacy alive!
I think Dad would take enormous pleasure in the fact that we are all heading off on a family holiday together on the day of his 70th. Family was enormously important to him, and it was a source of great satisfaction to him that we were all well educated, owned houses, and had or were on our way to building families of our own by the time he died. Its a bit of a delicious irony in that there would have been no chance whatsoever that he would have agreed to go on a cruise for his birthday, even with all the family! He could never really see the point in holidays, unless they involved catching up with the extended family and included plenty of handyman jobs lined up to keep himself busy.
Sam and I were talking about what Pa would possibly have done on a cruise to keep himself occupied. We decided he would have headed straight to the engine room to get an understanding of how things worked (and no doubt provided them with his thoughts on some things they could differently!), and then tried his hardest to find a spot to drop a fishing line off the side of the boat, all the while extracting as much information as possible from others on board while revealing as little as possible about himself in return.
Dad taught me so may things, including the value of hard work, that entrepreneurship comes in many forms, and that life’s too short not to enjoy every day to the best of your ability. It sucks that he’s not here to celebrate his 70th with us, but it’s very cool that the rest of us are able to be together and share some laughs and no doubt a few tears too as we remember him.