So few people ever get to meet their heroes, but I got to spend 11 days shy of 36 years with mine.
Dad took his last breath on February 1, his hand in mine, with mum and their niece by his side.
His body had been ravaged by Parkinson’s for years. He’d been fighting it for just about my whole adult life, and he just had no more to give.
Moments before he died, when the rest of us were talking about him, his late big brother, and their childhood, a tear rolled down his cheek. He knew. He gave a tiny smile, then he was gone.
After that magical moment, my tears came, of course they did, and I couldn’t stop them. But it wasn’t sadness that took hold of me. It was gratitude. I couldn’t believe then, and I still can’t quite believe now, that I was lucky enough to have the kind of bond with Dad that I did. To me, he was Superman, but he couldn’t outrun his kryptonite.
My father was a doer. He was a teacher, a 50-plus year member of the CFA who was twice a shire mayor. He was a confidant, a leader and a friend. He was also the smartest person in any room, and sometimes, when he felt like it, he’d tell you so. But he was also the most gentle, kind, warm soul. Dad looked for the best in everyone and in every situation, even his own. He loved people more than anything, and good god did he love Mum.
One day, I walked into his room at the aged care facility that took such incredible care of him and noticed him staring out the window and smiling as much as his body would allow. That’s the thing about Parkinson’s, it ultimately strips so much from you physically, so Dad’s smile was different. He smiled as much with his eyes as anything else, and his eyes that day were joyful.
“What are you thinking about, Dad?” I asked.
“I’ve just spoken with the most remarkable woman,” he said.
Mum had just visited.
There are three things I know I didn’t tell Dad enough before I accepted that he was sick and wasn’t getting better: I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m always thinking about you.
But I can rest easy in the knowledge that I made up for it by the end. In the past five or so years, in particular, I’d tell him those things every day. Sometimes two, three, four times. Every time I told him, either face-to-face or over the phone, he’d light up. I could see it and I could hear it.
I have to close my eyes, almost slam them shut, to conjure a memory of him from before he was sick. Before the disease took hold, before his dementia set in. But the memories that come straight to mind, when Dad was at his most vulnerable, are the ones I cherish most. The ones where there were no walls between us. Zero inhibitions. We said what we felt, and we said it all the time.
I used to have to run to keep pace with the way he walked. Later in his life, I had the honour of holding him up and of standing next to him with my arm around his shoulders so I could walk in step with him, sometimes just a few metres from his wheelchair to my car, sometimes a couple of hundred metres if he had the energy. His body would freeze and his feet would seem like they were set in concrete, but if I stood with him, counted one, two and then took a step on three, he’d move with me. He’d use me as a kind of human metronome, and I was grateful.
Dad wasn’t perfect – no one is. He was stubborn beyond belief, he could be argumentative to the point that he couldn’t be reasoned with and, most frustratingly, he had the intellect to back it all up.
As he faded, my concentration on his every word intensified. As he slipped away, I valued him more than ever. Often, near the end, we wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything, or say anything. We’d just be. Together.
When it was time, he was ready to go, though I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to let him go. It took me until a month ago to delete his number from my phone.
Tell your loved ones you love them. Do it every day, and don’t give it a second thought. Because on your days without them, when they’re not coming back, it’s those memories that’ll keep you going, that will keep you moving forward.
It’s the most liberating thing to know, with absolute certainty, what someone is feeling. With Dad, I knew, and the clarity that came from knowing I only had a few years, then months, then weeks, then days, and then minutes with him – that was just priceless. In our own way, we made every moment count.
Every day I’m sad we lost you, Dad, but I’m so much happier for having you in my life.
I know how chuffed you’d be at seeing your name in The Age because I know you read the paper, or had it read to you, every day since you were about 16.
Well, here it is, old boy.
Ian Bennett, I love you, I’m proud of you, and I’m always thinking about you. Happy Father’s Day.
Russell Bennett is a sports desk editor at The Age.