Father’s Day Memoir Conclusion: The Land of Saltwater and Steel

Wollongong_from_summit_of_Mt_KeiraFor Part 1: Click Here

If you’ve ever been skydiving you will know the initial stages of free-fall are overwhelming. One second your feet are firmly planted on something solid and then in an instant, you are at the mercy of nothingness. Your feet flail as you try to find traction and the wind slams through you whilst you helplessly plummet towards the ground.

Now imagine taking the magnitude of the initial free-fall experience and with laser-precision concentrating all of it into your chest. It feels like your heart is going to explode! That’s what it feels like to lose a loved one. Furthermore, the feeling follows you everywhere and can take the ground from you at any time. Nowhere is safe. You could be brushing your teeth and suddenly you’re falling, talking to a friend and now you’re plummeting, watching TV and collapsing or lying in bed and sinking.

 

Calling from on top of the world

I get out of the thick rich snow. I have never experienced anything like it. It is a glorious day. I excuse myself from my fellow travelers and seek out a phone. I have an international calling card with a few bucks left on it. What a perfect time to call home. Mum answers and I tell her where I am. She is shocked and asks me if I am safe. “I am”, I reply and we chat a little longer before I ask for Dad.

“Dad, guess where I am?”

“Where are you now sonny?”, he says with great curiosity.

“I’m on top of the world! I’m on top of one of the highest mountains in the Swiss Alps.”

“Wow”, he says and begins to laugh, “wow, that’s good.”

“Mum said I was crazy to be up here.”

“Don’t worry about her, she’ll be fine. Are you having fun?”

“Yes Dad.”

“You sure? Do you need anything, if you need anything…”

“No Dad.”

“You sure.”

“Yes Dad.”

“Okay good. Keep going sonny.”

“I will Dad, I will.” It is a magnificent day.

I’ve never been to a Macedonian funeral before. Rather than being a simple procedure where I am given the space to mourn, it feels like a bizarre circus show. None of us know the rules (and there were dozens of them) for a Macedonian service. We scavenge what information we can from friends of the family and do our best to follow the endless array of dogmatic procedures.

The Church service is in an old Macedonian church dialect. We all struggle to follow what is going on and then it is to end. This is ridiculous I think, none of us had even a chance to say anything about him. Clearly, unlike the movies, the traditional Macedonians aren’t big on eulogies. No, I think. We’ve all been pushed along all day completing all sorts of personally valueless rituals. God only knows why, because we sure didn’t. I move towards the priest and with a stern look in my eyes I tell him I have something to say. He appears surprised and is weary of the time. I do not move and hold my gaze. He relents and points to the spot.

 

Graduation Drive

University was over and the day had come to take care of the paperwork. Not the university paperwork, I was sure that would be fine, I was focused on the ‘I’m outta here’ paperwork. I was instructed to wake up Dad, a long day lay ahead of us. I moved into his bedroom and even as a young adult, I couldn’t help myself. I held his nose, tickled his moustache, pulled his funny ear lobe and pinched his arms. “Get up Dad, wake up”, I said as I squeezed his toes, “today you’re taking me to Canberra.” After all, we both knew my car wouldn’t be able to get me there.

It was a lovely day. We drove to the embassy and he joined me inside as I presented all my papers. Soon, I had it. It was in my hands! A UK work visa, the most beautiful sticker I’d ever seen. For all I knew, I’d be meeting the Queen herself. He looked at it and then towards me and smiled. Everything was perfect. The day was brilliant and I felt so safe and comfortable with him on the long road back that I decided to take a nap in the car. With Dad at the wheel beside me, the hum of the road and gentle vibration of the car lulled me to sleep and I dreamed wonderful, adventurous dreams.

I take my position and look out onto the crowd. At least half the people there can barely speak English but I don’t care. I have prepared a poem, a simple poem, one that at least a few of the pidgin English speakers might be able to grasp. I have no notes, it has to be recited by heart and from the heart. I sigh, and take a deep breath.

The Greatest

A mountain climber he was, for he reached the summit of parenthood,

A diver also, giving away his pearls of wisdom.

Undisputed champion in the ring, of holy matrimony,

Designer and constructor of magnificent bridges, linking different generations.

A policeman he was, for he locked away our fear,

A tamer of the wild beasts of aggression that lie within us.

A pilot, soaring on the horizon upon a star, In the game, he was the board.

He was a Pawn, for he did sacrifice,

A Knight for he protected.

A Bishop ready to give advice,

From our humble Castle, us he directed.

With compassion he still, he still, he still watches over his children and Queen,

He is King of hearts, honourable graduate from the ‘University of Love’ and forever ‘the Dean’.

I finished it. I think most of them get it. Dad was a family man and a chess lover. It was that simple. Soon we are leaving the Church and another important moment arises. I’ve spoken these words to Mum many times, but I’m unsure if I’ve ever said them to my sister and brother. I tell them I love them and they return the sentiment. It is an important and poignant moment. What needed to be said, was said. A long day still lies ahead, but the hardest part is over.

 

Lemmy

When you crash a man’s car, he remembers. When you hit it two more times after that, he will wish he could forget it, but he won’t. It’s my first year at university and things seem to be going well Sure, I’ve banged up Dad’s car a few times within the space of a year, but he must know I’m a better driver now. One afternoon I come home and notice something odd in the driveway. I ignore it and step inside. Mum and Dad are in the living room watching TV. I throw Dad his car keys and say…

“What’s with that piece of crap in the driveway?”

“That’s your car,” says Dad.

“What?” I say incredulously. Mum begins to chuckle.

“You owe me $600,” he says.

“You’re joking.” Mums face begins to go red and she starts laughing louder.

I point to my Mum – “Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.” Actually it is kind of funny and I can’t help but begin to smile. Dad is now chuckling as well.

“Our lawnmower is bigger than that”, I say. Mum calls it a ‘Mr Bean’ car.

Dad passes me the key and we head outside to take a look. It’s a 1984 Subura Sherpa. A tiny two-seat hatchback. Canary yellow with rusty trim, AM only radio with a tiny bull bar at the front. There are also two sink holes in the footrest area inside the car. (I later found these to be highly useful in letting the water out when the car would flood.)

“This thing is a lemon,” I say.

“Your brother will help you fix it up,” Mum says.

“The best way to fix this is to blow it up.” We open the bonnet and inside is the smallest engine I’ve ever seen.

“You need a little car, that’s cheap to run to get you to uni and around town,” says Mum. Dad nodded in agreement. They laughed again. They were right, this would be the car that would get me through uni. Little Lemmy. Clearly, my days of driving his car were over. I should never have gotten him that darn chessboard.

The mourning process is odd. So many rules and regulations. My mandatory beard itches me. Once again I am living with my mother. My dream of living in Europe is gone. Everything appears the same, but beneath the surface it is very different. Someone is going to need to be with her for at least a couple of years. My elder siblings have their own marriages and families to attend to. Therefore, that someone will be me.

 

The Silent Watcher

At the age of fifteen, I realised I needed a new sport. Soccer was never really for me and Ping Pong just was too hard to get to. “Dad, I want to study martial arts.”

“Why, so you can be a streetfighter? Do you want to get your head kicked in?”

“No, because I’m interested in it. I’m not going to drop out of school and start fighting people.”

“Why can’t you play soccer?”

“I don’t like soccer. I’m doing it. I have a job and I have a bike, so I’ll pay for it and get there myself.”

It took him a little while to adjust to the idea, but it was a good school and he quickly came to accept my new sport and would often drive me and wait in the car. I didn’t want him to watch. But every now and then, especially towards the end of class I’d catch him peeking inside and smiling. Of course, as a fifteen year old I’d tell him not to do that, and of course as a curious parent, he ignored me.

I call my girlfriend. I have not seen her since her birthday, a tragic day neither of us would ever forget. That poor sweet girl, she’s only 19. Yet her maturity is off-the charts-beyond-belief and our love is fierce. She wants to visit me. I warn her, it’s not going to be a honeymoon experience. She is well aware of this, but feels it is important that she understand my life and do her best to connect to the spirit of my Dad. I have no doubt he would have really liked her.

 

 

Garage Ping Pong

One neighbour’s junk is a young boy’s treasure. It may have been half rotting with chipped edges, but to me it was beautiful. We set up the ping pong table and from the very first hit, I was hooked. Dad enjoyed ping pong and had apparently played quite a bit of it when he had done his national service.

I was relentless. His double shifts meant nothing to me. When he was home, I wanted to play. Dad would come home at 6:30am from another double shift and I’d be a little shark waiting. I’d immediately grab him and start rummaging through his bag.

“Did you bring me an apple pie?”

“Not today.”

“Can I have this highlighter and this pen, I need it for school.”

“Okay.”

“You didn’t bring me an apple pie, so you have to play ping pong with me,” I’d cheekily say grabbing his arm and pulling him to the garage. Mum would chime in with, “please, have a couple games with him.”

“Just half an hour, just half an hour – come on,” I plead as I hang off his arm and pull him with all my strength towards the garage. “Then you can go to bed.”

“Can I go to the toilet first?”

“Fine, but I’m waiting right here and when you come out, we’re playing,” I huffed.

Soon the sound of a recently flushed toilet began to fade away to be replaced with the clickity clack of a ping pong ball being swatted. Heaven!

It’s hell! Not always, but there are more than a few moments. With so much anger, doubt, confusion and uncertainty constantly in the air, it’s hard to know what to do. We continue to follow the mourning rituals as best we can and my girlfriend, in the time she would be staying, does her best to respectfully follow along.

Many people from all sides question the value of our relationship, like it was some sort of romanticised fling or that we were together because of some strange feeling of obligation. The reality was it was a choice, and ours alone to make. We were from opposite sides of the world, but we were ready to go the distance. To me, all the skepticism didn’t make any sense. My lifestyle and my heart had already been broken, why would I want to destroy it completely? She felt the same way. All I knew was when I was with her, happiness was still possible. The free-fall feeling in my chest didn’t bother me as much.

 

The Stinging Blue Sea

Australia has the most creatures in the world that can kill you. Then there are ones that won’t kill you, but they will hurt you real bad, especially if you’re just a little boy. The closest beach to our house was a southern section of City Beach, which we called Conno Beach. You had to risk walking through the golf course and getting smacked in the head with a flying golf ball to get there, but it was worth it. Just keep your head down, your eyes open and walk fast.

I loved the beach. But not on this day. As usual, I was splashing around and giggling when I was suddenly struck by what would have seemed to be just another wave. Except it wasn’t. This freak wave was littered with blue bottles and three of them wrapped themselves around my chest.

I emerged from the water screaming! Dad instantly ran towards me and with no thought for his own safety grabbed the blue bottles and started peeling them off me. His fingers must have been throbbing and searing but he did not stop until every piece was removed. I would be in a lot of pain for quite some time, but the deepest part of me instantly knew it would pass and I’d be okay because of him.

A decision must be made. Wollongong is geographically stunning, but vocationally, choices are limited. I don’t want to do it, and I mean, I really don’t want to do it, but it is the best choice if I want to re-build my life and fulfill my commitments. I let everyone know that come the following year, I will be returning to university for further postgraduate training.

 

 

The Ear Lobe

When Mum told Dad she was pregnant with me he was shocked. At first, he couldn’t believe it and didn’t like the idea at all. He felt he was too old to have another child. He was reluctant and apprehensive about the whole thing until the very day I was born. On that day, he raised me up and he noticed that one of my ear lobes had a strange tear in it, just like his. That was it, from that very moment, the bond was set.

I’m so lonely. Most of my old friends have moved on and it will be months before I might see my girlfriend again, and even longer before university starts. I take long drives around the city. I drive to the major beaches and around the lighthouse, past childhood schools and parks and up and across the major two mountains. I drive past the university and I stop right at the base of Mt Keira. Something tells me, I need to hike up it.

The following day I return. It’s just me and the mountain and I’m ready to climb. The base is the steepest and I am shocked at how out of condition I feel. Nevertheless, I keep going. I climb log stairs and my lungs scream, but I keep going. I scrape my hands and butt my toes on rocks but I keep going. I slide dangerously over steep muddy ground but I keep going. I scale large and intimidating rocks but I keep going and going and going until I reach the summit.

 

Afterword

My face is glowing red, my mouth feels like ash and I’m breathing heavily. I wouldn’t change this feeling for anything. It is a magnificent morning and the top of Mt Keira is the most beautiful place in Wollongong. I can see everything from up here. The beaches and lighthouses, my old schools, the university, the homes I grew up in, the hospital, the cemetery and the Steelworks.

It’s been 10 years since losing Dad, and I have climbed up this mountain many times since then. With each ascent my heart has become lighter. I still remember the first time I climbed up here our after losing him. When I reached the top, I let out a deeply rich and guttural scream of triumph.

Today is a big day. I’m down in the Gong to attend a workshop and I’m sure I’m going to run into old colleagues and friends. I’m looking forward to it as it’s been years since I last visited the university. I also will see my Mum, visit the cemetery and Dad, catch up with family and old friends, one of which just had a little baby boy. Then tomorrow, I’ll head back home where my wonderful and loving girlfriend will be waiting for me.

As I look out to the sea I think about Dad and wonder if there is a way I could really honour his memory over the next couple of weeks. Maybe I should write about him and us and life in the Gong. Maybe his story, like many important stories which could easily be forgotten as time passes, could be offered to others to help them strengthen their connections. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to do it, but I will. My attention moves to the Steelworks and I wonder what it would have been like for him years ago well before I was even born as just one of the thousands of people building a life in this land of saltwater and steel.

 

Picture source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_Wollongong_from_summit_of_Mt_Keira.jpg

2 Responses to “Father’s Day Memoir Conclusion: The Land of Saltwater and Steel”

  1. Hi Aleks,

    I love your Father’s Day Memoir – what a wonderful testament to your relationship with your Father! Thank you.

    • aleks

      Thanks Kate, I’m very glad you enjoyed it. We should always aim to remember and celebrate those that have shaped us in positive ways 🙂