The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly on what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

When in Greece – part 1: “Good” to be here

When I was learning Greek as a child, I was taught that there were three words that one could use as a greeting, or parting wish, at different times of the day: Καλημἐρα – kalimera – good morning, Καλησπἐρα – kalispera – good evening, and Καληνὐχτα – kalinichta – good night. That was it. Those three things.

As the years have passed, however, more “good” greetings and “good” wishes have been added to the Greek lexicon.

Now you have to understand that in Greek, notwithstanding a few variations, the standard seasons greetings all begin with “good”, for example, Καλὀ Πἀσχα – Kalo Pascha – Good Easter, Καλἀ Χριστοὐγεννα – Kala Christougenna – Good Christmas, Καλἠ Πρωτοχρονιἀ – Kali Protohronia – Good New Year.

But alongside these and the standard greetings I learnt as a child, there has been a steady increase in other wishes, so that you now regularly also hear:

– Καλὀ πρωϊ – kalo proee – good morning (this is different to the good morning above which is a greeting, whereas Kalo proee is said when you’re heading off and the morning is still ahead of you)

– Καλὀ μεσημἐρι – kalo mesimeri – good lunchtime (which is the period from about 2pm-5pm and takes in the siesta)

– Καλὀ απὀγεμα – kalo apogema – good afternoon (the period between about 5-9pm; different to Kalispera in the same way Kalimera and Kalo proee differ)

– Καλὀ βρἀδυ – kalo vradi – literally “good night time” but used in the sense of good evening (the period between 9 and whenever you go to bed)

– Καλὀ Σαββατοκὐριακο – kalo sabbatokiriako – good weekend

– Καλἠ εβδομἀδα – kali evdomada – good week

– Καλὀ μἠνα – kalo mina – good month

– Καλἠ χρονιἀ – kali chronia – good year

– Καλἐς γιορτἐς – kalles yiortes – literally “good holidays” used in the American sense of “seasons greetings” for either Easter or Christmas

– Καλἐς διακοπἐς – good diakopes – good holidays, in the Australian sense of good vacation

Then about seven or eight years ago I became aware of even more “good” wishes that had been added:

– Καλὀ ξημἐρωμα – good ximeroma – good day break (said the night before, either instead of or with Kalo Vradi and/or Kalinichta)

– Καλἠ ξεκοὐραση – kali xekourasi – good rest (usually said before the siesta)

Don’t you think that’s a lot of wishes? I mean, in comparison to what we say in English? And yet, on this trip I heard a new “good” wish which seems to have emerged between now and my last trip to Greece in January 2013.

People now say, Καλἠ συνἐχια – kali sinehia – good continuation.

You hear it everywhere: you’re at a shop, the teller puts through your things and wishes you a good continuation – i.e. of your shopping. Or you wish them a good continuation – of their working day. You’re travelling on a long haul coach or train, the conductor checks your ticket and then wishes you a good continuation – of your travels. Basically whenever you’re in the middle of something, any person you interact with can wish you a good continuation – of whatever it is you’re doing.

I often joke with a Greek-Australian friend who lives in Greece about all the “good” wishes that people pass on in Greece. Where will it end? we wonder. What will they come up with next?

My friend called me when I was at the first “OXI” rally about a week ago (that is, a rally supporting a ‘no’ vote in the Greek referendum held on 5 July). I told her that one of the speakers at the rally had just announced the long list of artists who would be performing at the rally concert. At the end she signed off by saying, Καλἠ συναυλἰα, καλὀ ΟΧΙ και καλἠ συνἐχια – Kali sinavlia, kalo OHI kai kali sinehia – Good concert, good ‘NO’ and good continuation.

“Did she really say “Good ‘NO’?” she asked incredulously, and we both laughed.

The next night I told the same story to another Greek-Australian friend who has lived in Greece since his teens. He also saw the funny side. As I ended the call I wished him, Καλἠ τηλεὀρασι – Kali tileorasi – good television!

I truly am amazed – sometimes hilariously so – at the way the Greek people are constantly finding new ways to wish each other well.

But how much does it say about the spirit of a people that has been going through so much hardship in the last five to eight years that they continue to find the positivity required to give these upbeat good wishes to each other?

It’s like people know that together they can give each other strength to carry on, in spite of what life is throwing at them. Every “good” wish implies that the person saying it to you cares for your wellbeing. They want life to be good for you. So they keep coming up with new and innovative ways of giving each other that strength and support.

The truth is, notwithstanding all my laughter, I actually find something profoundly beautiful and admirable in that.

It’s a numbers game

The other day I went shopping for four birthday cards. A card for each of two friends who are turning 45, another for a friend turning 50, and the last a card for my mum who is 75 today.

With a few notable exceptions, the numbers are tending to be on the big side for everyone in my circle of friends and loved ones.

Of course, ‘big’ is a relative term. I remember one day when I was twenty-two and working at VicRoads, my mum came in to pay her car registration. Later that day she asked me who the ‘young good-looking man’ was that had served her. I racked my brain. As far as I knew, there were no hot guys my age working at VicRoads at the time. I asked for more details.

“The Indian man, with the moustache” she volunteered.

“Mum! He’s not young! He’s forty-four!”

“From where I’m standing, that’s young!”

She would have been fifty-three at the time.

Forty-four seemed positively ancient to me back then. But that’s the thing about these numbers. They all seem ancient until it’s your turn.

I remember being eighteen and working with a woman who was twenty-one. That seemed lightyears from where I was. When she turned twenty-two it was as if she’d declared she’d officially finished with her youth and joined the world of the adults. She was no longer one of “us” – she was one of “them”.

I also remember having a romantic fling with a nineteen year old in Florence when I was twenty-one. I considered him a “younger man”.

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-two – they all seem incredibly small numbers now. As does twenty-seven. Though when I turned twenty-seven, I felt incredibly old because it suddenly dawned on me that I was only three years from thirty.

The irony is, I’ve discovered, as you do with age, that I’m actually getting better and better as I get older. I am more and more my true self, comfortable with who I am, and much less inclined to care what anyone else thinks about that. They say the majority of people get happier as they get older for that exact reason: you care less about faking it for the sake of what others will think about you.

One of my friends has confided that she is not at all happy with turning forty-five. “I have a real problem with that number,” she told me recently.

On the other hand, I’m not only comfortable with forty-five, I’ve projected ahead and I’m comfortable with all the numbers in my future.

Okay, it is true that, when I really think about it, I still can’t believe I’m actually going to be fifty in five years’ time. But I don’t feel fifty! And I don’t think I look fifty – whatever that looks like.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with my mum when she turned sixty and I asked her what it felt like. She said, “Len, you know, sometimes I look in the mirror and I expect to see a twelve year old girl looking back at me. That’s how I feel on the inside!”

I always put that down to my mum being a very youthful person, full of energy and with a young-at-heart spirit. But as I’ve gotten older I can relate to her experience a lot more.

I’m stuck at nineteen. That’s how old I feel inside. And I know Mum and I aren’t alone in this phenomenon. A woman I worked with many years ago told me whenever people asked her how old she was she always answered “twenty-six” because that’s how old she felt. She was in her forties.

Funnily enough, just the other day my mum mentioned in passing that the time that her family lived in the heart of Thessaloniki held her happiest childhood memories. They lived there in 1952. When she was twelve.

Looking back to when I was nineteen, that year was hugely significant in my life. It was definitely the happiest year of my youth, if I had to pick one.

Mind you, I should’ve said ‘I used to be stuck at nineteen’, because as I’ve become happier and happier with my life these last few years, I feel less my nineteen year old self, and more like my very happy forty-something self. And loving it! – as Maxwell Smart used to say.

The other thing about turning fifty in five years’ time is that, the way I look at it, it’s kind of like the transition from being in primary school to being in high school. One minute, you’re top of the kids, the mature Grade 6-er. Next thing, you’re at the bottom of the ladder again. You’re the young newbie Year 7 kid, looking up at all the older kids who know so much more than you.

Fifty is like being the youngest of the oldies.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself; I’ve got lots of days between then and now. And I plan to savour every single one of them, including all my birthdays. If life is a numbers game, I’d like to play them all.

Vale Gough Whitlam

In 1972 my mother was a member of the Dandenong Greek Community’s Women’s Committee when Gough Whitlam was campaigning for the federal election under the banner “It’s time.” As part of that campaign he visited the Dandeong Greek community on the feast day of its patron saint, St Pantaleimon.

The celebration was typical of such events: lots of food, music and people everywhere. The Dandenong Greek Community president introduced Whitlam to the ladies of the Women’s Committee. What impressed my mother the most about the man was that after hearing each woman’s name he greeted her formally pronouncing her surname, no matter how long, in flawless Greek. “How do you do, Mrs Lambrellis?” and so on, down the line of women. Each one addressed personally.

It wasn’t just the sort of campaign hand-pressing and photo-opportunism that we’re used to seeing now. Whitlam made it clear in his behaviour not only that day but in the policy of multiculturalism that he championed, which was groundbreaking at the time, that he understood and valued the migrant communities of Australia. He understood and valued their history and what had driven them to leave their homes and come to Australia. He understood and valued what they offered Australia both in enriching the culture and in building the nation. In championing multiculturalism, he championed them. And they loved him for it.

Three decades later when my brother was working as a contractor in IT, he would impress and awe his much younger colleagues by telling them that he’d gone to university for free. No, he hadn’t received a scholarship; university was free for all back then, a legacy of another Gough Whitlam policy to abolish tertiary education fees.

I enjoyed a year and a half of free university education myself, before the policy changed and fees were re-introduced. The policy had been in place for 17 years. An entire generation had been afforded the opportunity for a higher education irrespective of their financial position. With his “free university education for all” policy he had democratised education and truly paved the way for Australia to become the clever country.

These are just two examples of personal touch-points for my family in relation to the incredible, iconic and visionary Gough Whitlam, who passed away today. Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975, Whitlam’s vision for Australia was transformative and nothing short of revolutionary.

You can read elsewhere the long, long list of achievements of his government, and you can read about his life in his obituary, including the political mistakes he made and the flaws of the man.

More telling is the outpouring of respect evident in the speeches made by both sides of politics in Parliament today, and the outpouring of love evident in the comments left by readers in online forums, a lot of which begin with an expression of thanks for the ways in which the writers’ lives were enriched by Whitlam’s policies.

He was visionary and brave and a man of intellect and great ideas. What I admire most about him is that he was an egalitarian who appealed to people’s better nature. He reached out to the “men and women of Australia” and asked them to build with him a modern Australia that was fairer for all.

One of the The Age’s online forums includes my own comment on Gough Whitlam’s passing:

“I was only a small child when Gough Whitlam enacted his vision for a modern Australia, however I have been a beneficiary ever since. There was never anyone like him, nor, in these risk-averse, over-spun political times, are we likely to ever see anyone truly like him again. A visionary who believed in a better Australia and had faith in Australians. What a lucky country we are to have had him; can’t even imagine where we’d be without him. Thank you Gough Whitlam, and may you rest in peace.”

Portrait of Gough Whitlam

My top 5 tips to help you survive (and maybe even thrive in) redundancy

a green field with a tree on the right, and a path on the left leading to the horizon, and a bright blue sky

After writing stories about loss for three weeks, it’s time for something completely different with a post on surviving redundancy. Though now that I think about it, losing one’s job is also a type of loss so perhaps not as different as I first thought.

I was first made redundant in 2011 when I was working for the State government. A change of government led to different priorities and my job was suddenly obsolete. Instead of letting me go and paying me out, I was redeployed into another job within the Department and the short version of the story is that ultimately it was a fantastic outcome for me.

Twelve months later, a massive restructure and substantial funding cuts resulted in my role being made ‘surplus to requirements’, along with a couple of hundred other roles. Many newly created or rationalised jobs were ‘spilt’ and people who did not find their existing role within the new structure could apply for those jobs.

It took about six months from finding out I would lose my job to actually leaving, giving me ample time to think about what I wanted to do next.

Emotionally that period was a rollercoaster: there were highs and lows. I not only survived it, however, I went on to thrive. I am now doing what I love for a living, and while my work life doesn’t always go to plan, I do consider myself to be living the dream. Redundancy could’ve been the worst thing that happened to me, but instead I consider it to be one of the best. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say stuff like that but for me it’s true.

So, on that basis, here are my top tips for how to survive – and maybe even thrive in – redundancy.

1. Empower yourself – take back control.  In most cases, redundancy is something that happens to you, out of your control – kind of like a natural disaster. It often leaves you feeling powerless and somewhat helpless. How you respond, and all the decisions you make after you’ve been made redundant, however, are up to you.

Decisions you can make include your attitude, your approach, your next career move, what assistance you seek.

With every decision you make you will feel more and more empowered and less and less like so much flotsam and jetsam floating along in the wake of the company’s restructure tsunami.

In my case, the first decision I made was not to panic. I then chose to see redundancy as a huge opportunity for positive change in my life. During my second redundancy I decided not to apply for one of the roles that were up for grabs in the new structure because none of them suited my career goals.

2. Create a blue-sky vision of your work life.  This is probably something that is good for everyone to do at any point in his or her career, but it’s especially helpful in the case of redundancy.

Creating a blue-sky vision involves thinking about what your work life would look like if it could look like anything at all. What would you be doing? Who would you work with? What kind of company? Self-employed? Work from home? Full time or part time?

And don’t come up with a vision but then dismiss it because it’s not feasible or likely. It’s supposed to be a blue-sky vision. Not blue-sky-with-rain-clouds.

This is not about dreaming or fantasising for the sake of it. It’s about building an identifiable vision of your future so that you can make decisions in the present that will help you get there.

You create a blue sky vision so that every decision you make takes you closer to doing what you love, not further away.

In my case, I’d created a blue sky vision of my work life about a year before I was first made redundant. I knew I wanted to work part time as a freelance technical writer. I’d use the down time to write creatively on whatever personal project I wanted.

With my vision in place I was able to negotiate a move back into IT when I was first made redundant. It was one step closer to where I wanted to be. When my team planned out the year’s work, I selected all the writing projects up for grabs. Another step closer. When I was made redundant the second time and had more decisions to make, I had my vision to guide me. Now I’m doing exactly what I dreamt of four years ago.

3. Get your facts straight.  As well as having a blue sky vision to guide you in your decision making, it’s critical that you are making decisions informed by facts as you navigate the post-redundancy world.

Get a handle on the following to help you assess your options and make decisions quickly and confidently:

• your payout figure
• your bank’s flexibility regarding any loan repayments
• the health of the job market in the areas you’re interested in
• the assistance available to you, whether provided by your employer or other
• any other factors relevant to your situation

In my case, once I was told what my payout figure would be and had spoken to my bank, I had a greater sense of financial stability and security, despite my looming unemployment. This in turn gave me the confidence to take a financial risk and move into contract work (as opposed to seeking another permanent full-time role).

4. Find your purpose and keep busy. Irrespective of whether you are let go on the day you are told of your redundancy or you have a long period between finding out and finishing up, it’s imperative that you keep busy.

If you’re kept on at work as I was it can be difficult to find the motivation to even go into work, let alone finish projects you are working on. You can find yourself thinking, “Why am I bothering when they don’t value my work and are letting me go?”

The reason is you. Keeping busy will help remind you that you are a capable, valuable contributor to a workplace who can finish projects. It’s to help keep your self-esteem and self-belief intact.

If you’re let go on the spot, you may feel you need a short break to get over the shock of what has happened. Calculate a timeframe you’re comfortable with (a couple of days or a week, perhaps) and then get stuck into something. It could be intensive job seeking, or home projects, or planning and going on a holiday. Whatever you do, don’t just sit at home and stew about what has happened to you.

We all need to have a purpose in life to help us get out of bed in the morning. Find your purpose and get to it. Trust me, it will keep you feeling good about yourself.

In my case, there was very little work for me to do in the six months after I found out I was losing my job. I was starting to doubt my usefulness and my skills. I ended up taking on a big project that was outside my normal duties that helped me to leave my workplace with my head held high, knowing I’d made a valuable contribution.

5. Get your story ready for recruiters. Note I said ‘story’, not ‘CV’ or ‘résumé’.

When you see recruiters (and/or prospective employers), they are most likely going to ask you why you left your last job and what you’ve been doing since you left. It’s imperative that you are not only prepared for these questions but that the story you tell reflects positively on you as a potential candidate.

Despite the frequency with which redundancy plays out in both private and public organisations, there still seems to be a perceived stigma about being made redundant; some of the people I worked with expressed hesitancy about revealing to recruiters that they’d even been made redundant.

Firstly, there is no shame in redundancy. It’s a fact of modern work life. Secondly, recruiters (and other employers) know and understand this fact.

In any case, being made redundant is just the start of your story. What recruiters really want to know is how you have handled it (including what you’ve done since finishing up), as that tells them what kind of person you are.

It almost doesn’t matter what your story is, as long as you don’t come across as desperate, cynical or negative. If you haven’t worked for a while, instead of bemoaning that fact, tell recruiters how great it’s been to have the time between jobs to spend with your family or get into home projects or take up a new hobby or do volunteer work. Whatever it is, tell them you’ve been doing something and loving it.

If your story reflects a confident and positive outlook on life, you are more likely to come across as an appealing candidate.

Bonus tip: Road-test your story with someone who can give you honest, constructive feedback about how you come across.

In my case, my story included how I viewed redundancy (i.e. an opportunity), the decisions I’d made about my career options, and my vision of the future. When queried about the four month break since I’d last worked, I explained I’d decided to take time off to travel and enjoy life a little before taking up work again, and how wonderful that had been. I never sounded bitter about losing my job, and I never sounded desperate about getting work again.


Redundancy often comes as a great shock, and while it is the end of your current job, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Remember the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens”? Well, actually, I think there are multiple doors you can go through.

As long as you are empowered, visionary, informed and believe in yourself, you will be able to choose the right door for you, open it, and confidently walk through.

On Loss part 3: Wish you were here

My father died in November 2011, four days before my forty second birthday. There was no warning; he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Still, I was lucky enough to see him at the hospital in his last hours of life, though by that stage he had lost consciousness.

Until I lost my father, I felt pretty comfortable with the idea of loss. I had never shied away from the topic of death and felt, after years of observation and contemplation (admittedly at arm’s length), that I understood it.

I had rationalised it. I had intellectualised it. I knew about the stages of grief. I had counselled friends who had lost their parents in their teens, in their twenties, in their thirties. Perhaps, because of the phone call I’d overheard as a nine year old all those years before, or perhaps purely coincidentally, I felt as if I’d been preparing myself all my life to lose someone I deeply cared for.

As it turns out, I knew nothing. I was not prepared at all.

Just one example: Yes, there are stages of grief. But they occur randomly, in no specific order, sometimes all at once. Sometimes not at all.

Grief, as someone close to me at the time put it, is like waves that come to your shore. Just when you think you’ve got your balance in the tug and pull of the water, a large wave comes and knocks you off your feet. You can have weeks of nothing and then, out of nowhere, a tsunami.

I knew, given the sudden nature of dad’s death, that I was probably in shock to begin with. We all were to a greater or lesser extent. I thought the shock would wear off and that would be that. But it doesn’t work that way.

I realised upon arriving at work one day, about ten weeks after Dad died, that I had no idea how I’d come to be there, nor how I’d got home every day, nor what I did in the hours in between. I couldn’t account for anything. And yet I worked. I cooked. I talked to people. I walked the dog. I functioned. My inner self was in a fog, even while my outer self carried on with normal life.

On Dad’s death I’d declared to my brother that there would be no regrets; there was no point dwelling in the past. It was what it was.

This turned out to be completely naïve, especially given the relationship I’d had with my dad. Over time I found myself consumed with regret. Regret and guilt. Years after I’d tried to comfort a distressed man on a train, struggling to come to terms with the death of his own father, I found myself tormented by my own demons, my family struggling to find the right words to comfort me.

I still regret that I didn’t make the most of my last hours with Dad as he lay in the emergency ward dying. I spent those hours holding his hand, but I regret not hugging him more, not kissing his forehead or his cheek. It was my last opportunity for physical contact with him and I missed it.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t realise that evening how keenly I’d miss his actual presence in my life.

Ironically, when Dad died I had consoled myself with the thought that it was only his physical self that I had lost. His spirit and his energy were both out there somewhere, I was sure of it. And he would always be in my heart and in my mind, right?

It was a completely naïve devaluing of the physical world, as if it meant nothing. But it’s the physical world we live in.

In the midst of the fog I was king hit by an intense physical longing and I struggled to come to terms with it for months and months. While it is no longer as overwhelming or as painful as it was, several years on I still crave the smell of his aftershave and the touch of his soft skin on my lips as I kiss his smooth, freshly shaved cheek hello. Quite simply, I miss him.

In my experience of loss I learnt of the pain of physical longing, the torment of demons, the disconnecting fog. Things that I couldn’t resolve with rational thought or intellectual argument.

My salvation came in the form of a revelation about the nature of life. It was the most important lesson that losing my father taught me.

Very soon after Dad died I realised that, in the end, all that is left is love. Everything else is unimportant.

All of the things we fought about, all of the strongly held principles I had furiously defended – all of them, trivial. All of the hurt, the anger, the arguments, the bitterness. Trivial.

And while this deeply profound and beautiful insight can’t help me go back and fix the wrongs of the past, it has helped me to heal the pain and conquer my demons. It has also completely changed how I view life and my relationship with all the people I love.

I only wish my dad were here, so I could tell him.
my father standing at a bbq with a smile on his face

On Loss part 2: The phone call

In 1979, when I was I was nine years old and living in Greece, life was pretty innocent. For me it was characterised by a love of family, the character Snoopy, the comic book Asterix and the TV show Charlie’s Angels, which I played out in the streets of my neighbourhood with my friends, recreating dramatic, thrilling and action-filled stories.

Way before they started popping up on Australian city corners, Greece’s main streets were dotted with large períptera, or kiosks/newsstands, every couple of blocks. They sold everything: newspapers, magazines, books, cigarettes, tobacco, lollies, drinks, ice-creams, postcards, toys, souvenirs and lots more. For me the drawcard was the selection of comics, especially my favourite: Asterix. I would look out for a new edition every month and take the opportunity to buy some chocolate or gum at the same time with my saved up pocket money. I couldn’t wait to read about Asterix’s latest adventures and laugh at his one-liners which I thought were hilarious.

Periptero in Thessaloniki with people standing nearby

Importantly, the local períptero also had a telephone that the peripterá (proprietor) would allow people to use as a public telephone for about 10 drachma. Getting a telephone installed in your home back then in Greece could take several years. If you didn’t have infinite patience you needed either a bit of extra money to help loosen the red tape or a personal contact in the OTE (Greece’s national telecommunications provider). Or both.

It was in 1979, standing near a períptero, that I first contemplated the idea that my parents would one day die. As I stood flicking through the comics, a man who looked about my parents’ age at the time, which I realise now would’ve been about 40 years old, asked if he could use the telephone. His call was short. His voice was solemn but not emotional. “Μítso”, he said, “Péthane i mána mou”.

Μἰτσο, πἐθανε η μἀνα μου.

Mitso, my mum has died.

That was more or less all he said, though if the conversation did last another minute or so I don’t remember. All I could hear were those words: my mum has died.

I remember distinctly feeling like my world had suddenly stopped as the words sunk in. All around me life was still spinning but my own inner world was perfectly still. I looked to the man’s face for some clue as to what he was feeling but there was no emotion there. His face was closed. Unreadable.

Immediately I understood the implications of this man’s phone call on my own life. This man had a mother. She had died. I have a mother. One day… One day a long way away in the future, I will have to make a phone call similar to this.

I looked for the man again, hoping to understand his experience better and through him gain some kind of insight into what my future held. I realise now that I had hoped to study him and learn how to deal with the situation, so I could be prepared for when it happened to me. But he had gone. And I knew then that I would have to figure it out – one day a long way away in the future – all on my own.