The text arrived in the middle of a meeting. My iPhone was sitting on the table in front of me and I glanced at the message that flashed up on its screen.
“I have been admitted to hospital. Please don’t worry, but call me when you can. Lots of love, D, P, O.”
It was how he always signed off; shorthand for Dad, Pete, Opa.
I excused myself from the room and called him straight away. I can’t recall exactly what he said, but I do remember the words “Lung cancer,” and “Maybe three of four months – if I’m lucky.” I felt like the ground had been pulled out from under me.
Over the coming months my wife Lizzie and I would bundle Frankie, our seven-month-old daughter, into the car and make the drive to dad’s house twice a day. We’d spend at least an hour with him, drinking coffee in the morning and a beer at night. Frankie would run around the room with crackers coated in Marmite and smear dirty fingerprints all over dad’s furniture. “You are the light of my life,” he would tell her.
We’d talk and laugh and sometimes I’d cry, but mostly we’d sit and just be together. These will forever be my fondest memories of time spent with my father.
Between October and March my mother, dad’s ex-wife and still good friend, travelled down from her home on the Kapiti Coast to visit every three or four weeks. She’d cook him roast chicken dinners to make sure he was looking after himself and then freeze some for us to make sure we were too.
Dad’s brother, Gijs, phoned every day and flew down from Kerikeri once a month to spend time with him in his workshop. Gijs even managed to find them tickets to the long-sold-out opening match of the Cricket World Cup in Hagley Oval. While Gijs queued to buy his brother pies and coffee, dad would sort out hidden spots in the stadium where he might sneak a quick smoke without gaining the attention of “anti-smoking, politically correct grounds attendants.”
John, dad’s best mate who he met working for Royal Insurance in the 1970s, flew down from Wellington for one last bash, only to return a month later to share one more for the road. He arrived the second time on February the 26th, Frankie’s first birthday. I drove them both to the supermarket to buy some beer. In the car park of the mall dad seemed to lose it. For a short time he had no memory of where he was and I had to guide him out of the way of the oncoming traffic. I didn’t realize it at the time – perhaps I didn’t want to – but in hindsight this was the moment he really started to go downhill.
Everyday we saw him, dad would tell us how lucky he was to be leaving this world knowing how happy our little family was. “A job well overseen on my part, I reckon,” he’d say with a wry smile. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than witnessing my only child grow up to be happy, in love and married with a beautiful daughter. Honestly, what more could a man want in his life?”
In the end, things happened so fast I find it difficult to remember the true course of events. Dad was admitted into the Nurse Maude hospice when he could no longer take care of himself. “It’s the end of the line for me,” I overhead him say to mum while I packed his overnight bag.
On our arrival the duty nurse asked dad a set of routine admission questions, including his occupation. He told them he was a retired insurance salesman before adding, “Mate, after the earthquakes, I’m totally embarrassed I was ever associated with that dodgy lot. I’m glad I got out of the game when I did. Put me down as a woodworker. I never earned a living from it, but that was my true calling.” Two days later, he was in a coma.
For three days, with mum, Lizzie, Frankie and extended family and friends by my side, I sat beside dad’s bed thinking about what he had said to the nurse. I thought about how, as a child, I’d stood in front of my classmates and told them that I wanted to grow up to be just like him; that I wanted to someday be a father and an insurance salesman. My best friend had just finished reciting a story about his father who was a police sergeant. The last time I’d seen his dad he was covered in bruises and slumped in the passenger seat of a patrol car. Through a gap in the window he explained to my parents that he’d led a raid on a local gang house and come off second best. The story my friend recounted for the class had ended very differently. I didn’t know exactly the nature of my dad’s work, but being able to make me laugh and build anything you could imagine in his workshop made him a hero in my book.
I remember a leisurely night sitting outside with dad while he smoked a cigarette and sipped from a tumbler of gin and tonic, the blue sky slowly turning dark when I told him I wanted to work for Commercial Union; that I wanted to grow up to be a man just like him. He stubbed out his cigarette and leaned towards me, the chair he sat on creaking as he shifted his weight. He placed his hand on my knee and shook his head, exhaling smoke through his nose as he looked directly into my eyes. “I think you should aim a bit higher than that, Tim,” he said. It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to realize he was desperately unhappy and drank large amounts of gin to forget. What exactly he wanted to forget I’m not sure. I’m not sure he even knew himself.
After my parents divorced I chose to live with dad. We found a little flat together, just a short walk from the school I attended. At nights, he’d sit smoking on the front porch while I played guitar in my bedroom. We’d eat microwave dinners while watching television, laughing at all the cheesy jokes in the adult cartoons and late night movies. He was a brilliant father, loving, attentive and supportive of everything I did. I loved him more than anything but, like a lot of teenagers, there were times when I resented him and in my case I felt I had more reason than some. I hated the heavy drinking and the way he had ruined his marriage with my mother; broken our small family. More than anything I resented feeling responsible for him and powerless to do or say anything to help.
The turning point came many years later. I had stopped in to see him on my way home from work one evening and found him in a horrible state, hardly able to talk. By the time I had got him into bed I was in a pretty emotional state myself. I told him that I loved him; that he was a great father and my best friend, and then I told him how much I hated what he was doing to himself. “If you can’t… if you don’t change, dad, it’s over. I’ll leave and I won’t come back. Just like mum, you’ll lose me too.” He looked up at me from the pillow, not making a sound while his groggy eyes slowly filled with tears. It was a terrible sight and when I couldn’t look at him any longer I turned off the light and left him to sober up.
From that night on, he was a changed man. Except one or two beers at family gatherings, he simply stopped drinking. I’m not sure how he managed to quit like that. He must have had an extraordinary resolve. He had lost my mother and I guess he was determined he would not lose his son too.
Sitting beside dad in the hospice during those final days, I tried to remember all the conversations we had had while sitting in his back yard. In the weeks leading up to this he spent a lot of time recounting his feelings about the life he had led. “You know mate,” he told me. “No one is perfect and I’m certainly no exception, but I’m proud to say I’ve spent my last years trying my best to be a good person. I hope, through my actions and words, I’ve made amends for some of the things I regret. I hope I’m remembered as a good person. I hope your mother remembers me as a good friend. I hope you remember me as a good father. I hope Lizzie remembers me as a good father-in-law and that Frankie will know I thought she was the most precious thing in the world. I hope my friends remember me for who I really am.”
My mouth was dry and I struggled to find the right words, a way to tell him how much he meant to me. “Dad,” I finally said. “I will be the best person I can be and one day I hope to be the man you are now.” It wasn’t much of a speech but it was the truth, pure and simple.
Tim J. Veling
Tim J. Veling is a photographer and senior lecturer in photography at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, New Zealand. He is the director and primary administrator of the Place in Time archive.
Tim gained his MFA from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 2006, for which the project Reb Bus Diary formed his research thesis. Red Bus Diary was later published by Place in Time in conjunction with the University of Canterbury and Hazard Press, and exhibited as part of Platform Arts Festival, Christchurch, 2006.
Since then, Tim has undertaken a number of long-term projects that unpick aspects of the psychological, cultural and socio-political landscape. Broadly, his work is an ongoing investigation into concepts of home, belonging, place and time made visible through a subtle blending of the genres of fine art and documentary photography. His main modes of output are exhibitions and artist books.
Tim is currently engaged in a series of long-term projects relating to the aftermath of Christchurch’s devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. He has exhibited and worked nationally and internationally and his prints are held in private and public collections.