Father’s Day Memoir: Life, Love and Loss in the Gong

Land of saltwater and steel

Land of saltwater and steel

Like many important stories, this one begins with deep, savage and heart-wrenching pain. However, I assure you, this story will not end that way. At some point in your life, if you haven’t already, you are going to get that call. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the middle of the night and you feel something is off. Your stomach churns and your heart flutters as you move towards the phone. You don’t want to answer it and you know why. As soon as you do – BOOM – the world you thought you knew is suddenly blown straight to hell.

Arrival

My parents arrived in Wollongong with nothing but a suitcase between them and a baby on the way. Joining thousands of other European migrants willing to take a massive leap of faith in the pursuit of a better life for their children, Wollongong was Oz, a far off promised land. But rather than milk and honey, this was the land of salt water and steel.

I was in Dublin, Ireland when I was informed 10 years ago this week, that my father was in an accident and my instructions were to return home immediately. It would be the most uncertain time of my life. I left on my girlfriend’s birthday, unsure if I’d ever see her again, jumped on the first of 3 planes in order to return to a place I had no intention of coming back to any time soon, in order to investigate the condition of my father, which to me was unknown.

Work

My Godfather recently told me that in the early 70’s, the Steelworks had a working population of over 21,000 people. Today, it is less than 7000. Massive streams of individuals would be seen clogging the footpaths making their way to work for miles on end. Somewhere amongst that multi-racial mass of people, you would have found my father.

If you’re relegated to a world of uncertainty, there is nothing quite like a long-haul flight to mess with your mind. Hour upon hour, upon hour of confined, semi-conscious and suffocating travel. Somewhere between sleep, wakefulness and exhaustion, fears and dreams blur together into a mystifying and translucent reality.

Primary school

The late 80’s were a very different time. Life appeared to be so much more relaxing. Maybe because I was a child, but when I think back to that simpler life without mobile phones and the internet, it comforts me. People seemed to be much more giving, and so did one workplace in particular.

I was one of a select group of kids that never bought stationery. I wouldn’t have even known where to get it. Why? Because my Dad worked at the Steelworks, and as far as we knew the Steelworks were there to provide young children with all they needed for their education. Pens, highlighters, liquid paper, notepads, rulers all branded with BHP Steel. He’d even use his meal tickets to bring home their special apple pies. Sure, we could have just picked one up when we went shopping, but it’s just not the same as sharing a couple of cream packed apple pies at 6:30am after Dad has come home from a “dubla” (double shift).

After an eternity of bended time, the plane lands in Sydney. I still need to get to Wollongong. Everyone around me seems so excited and eager to get off the flight. The bell dings and a cacophony of unclicking belts rattle through my ears. I slowly make my way towards the exit and I hear her getting louder. I want to avoid her but I can’t. She says “Welcome to Sydney, welcome to Sydney, welcome to Sydney…” Contact is inevitable. “Welcome to Syd … ney” her chirpy voice trails down and the sadness in m eyes is the emotional equivalent of a king hit to the face. There is a moment of shock and then I see pity in her eyes. I pull my head down and keep walking and she quickly regains her composure. “Welcome to Sydney, welcome to Sydney, welcome to Sydney…”

High school

Seventeen-year-old boys are idiots. That’s a polite description too. Young minds, testosterone-filled growth spurts and the keys to Dad’s car do not mix. Our stupid actions became so predictable that at school we made a betting pool around two questions. 1. Who would be the next to crash their parent’s car? 2. What kind of damage would they cause?

No official winner was ever announced, perhaps we were all equally idiotic, but I would like to think I would have been a major contender for the crown. I crashed my father’s car on his birthday! I borrowed the car to go and buy him a present, a $30 chessboard and in the process created $2000 worth of damage. Fortunately, the chessboard escaped unscathed. I hid from him for about a week. To his credit, although highly disappointed he never got mad, and perhaps most importantly, he still accepted the gift.

I see my sister at the airport. We hug. She apologises saying, “I’m sure this is not the way you wanted to come home.” I slowly nod my head as we move towards the car. She also does not reveal the condition of my father, only that it is serious. We drive in silence. Soon we are through the city and on the F6 freeway, taking us to Wollongong. I stare out at the once familiar vegetation in the blackness of the night. Nothing seems the same. The rocks and trees seem to be large and foreboding, and the sinister road, endless.

University

When I told Dad I’d be going to university, he was shocked. “You don’t study,” he said. That was only half true; I’ve always been able to cram when I needed to. Still, he was very pleased. Dad had a very black or white philosophy on life and received only basic schooling himself. He knew being a “worker” was not the best way to enhance your life. You were to never disrespect or question the value of education around him. If I ever said, “school isn’t everything”, his immediate response was, “what, you want to be a streetfighter?”. According to him, you were either in some form of education aiming to improve yourself, or your destiny would be that of a dropkick thug. A simple philosophy, but one not that far off the truth in a lot of cases.

Desperation is an extremely confronting emotion. Especially when you are bombarded with it by your very own mother. As soon as she sees me, she grasps onto me and is if trying to cast a spell, she continually repeats out loud, “never leave again, never leave again, never leave again, promise me, you’ll never leave again.” All I can say is, “I’m here … now.”

Graduation

My family didn’t take holidays. We just didn’t. On the rare occasions that we did travel somewhere, anywhere, it was only to visit family or friends of family. Over the years, this built up a massive desire in me to travel and explore the world. Half-way through university I made up my mind: as soon as I finish my final university exam – “I’m outta here!” It was time to say goodbye to the Gong. I had decided I would be off to England, and I would be travelling Europe. It would be a one-way ticket as I had no idea of when or even if I’d be coming back.

Dad refused to let me leave when I wanted to. “No, you’re not going until after the ceremony.” I didn’t like that. “The ceremony! That’s two months after I finish. Don’t worry, they’ll send the degrees in the mail.”

“No. You’re going.”

“Dad, come on…”

“No! After the ceremony.”

I felt like I was being punished. “This is how they treat me, I finished the thing, why can’t he just let me go?” I was right too. The next two months were excruciatingly boring. All my friends had moved on and I had separated from my girlfriend at the time a few months before. Life was dull. The whole time my attitude was: “how could they do this to me?” and remained this way until after the actual graduation ceremony when I finally understood. My whole family was there, which in itself was a very rare and beautiful thing, and we were all happy to be with each other. That’s when I got it. The graduation wasn’t about me, it was about them. This was their day. A victory needs to be celebrated with the people that have supported you, because without them, I’d probably have ended up as an idiotic-car-crashing street fighter. I sincerely thanked them all for coming.

It’s time to go to the hospital. It’s a short walk away and it feels like I’m barefoot and walking on glass. We move through the unnaturally bright halls and into the ICU. Then I finally see him, he is unmoving. My brother sits beside his bed. He tells me the truth. The truth is it’s bad. Very, very bad. Over the next couple of days I do everything I can. I kiss him, hold his hand, talk to him, pray for him, stroke him, willed him to awaken, but it all appeared to be futile. Then at some point, I hear the two most devastating words possible. “Brain dead.”

The Last Phone Call

I loved calling home from abroad. There was always something interesting to talk about. Phone calls had a specific pattern too. Mum would always be on the phone first and it wouldn’t take long before she would start crying and telling me to return home. Dad was different. He really loved what I was doing. As he would take the phone from my blubbering mother pleading with me to come home, the very first thing he would say is “Keep going sonny. Keep going!” (You could imagine the arguments they must have had because of their vastly different viewpoints.)

He was always eager to know what and where would be next. I was doing what he had never done and he was fascinated by my tales. As usual we laughed and joked about my escapades, and he specifically told me to ignore my mum’s wishes to return home. During all this, there came a moment of silence, a door had opened and I knew I needed to walk through it. I said something very rarely said, especially since becoming an adult. I didn’t know why I had to explicitly say it then, but I did. “I love you Dad.” There was a pause, I heard him sniff and with a broken voice he said, “I love you sonny”. Another pause, there was nothing left to say. Promising to speak to each other again soon, we said goodbye.

I decide to spend every moment I can with him. I don’t care if I sleep there. One night I try to stay up, but I slowly drift off. He does the same thing. Early in the morning, after a night of twisting restlessness I am woken. It’s over. He’s gone.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for part two on Monday. The conclusion will be happier one, I promise.

Part 2 Now Available: Click Here

2 Responses to “Father’s Day Memoir: Life, Love and Loss in the Gong”

  1. Peco Manevski

    A great recount of life in the gong as a macedonian Australian. Your dad would be very proud of you. You have made his journey to Australia very worthwhile …. Pozdrav

  2. aleks

    Thank you for your kind words Peco. I hope you have a great father’s day.