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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My two daughters

On another occasion I wrote about my stepson, Christian, and what a great person he has grown to be in his twenty years of existence. It would be remiss of me not to say something about my own two daughters before this blog comes to a close. 

   I'll let them tell a tiny bit of their stories in just one image and one piece of writing, both connected intimately with me, and you can make of them what you will. 

   Firstly, let me say that I could have chosen as illustrations any number of photos of them growing up, but I haven't. Pictures of other people's kids tend to be just pictures of kids if you don't know them (think of new-born-baby photos, swooned over by parents and doting grandparents, but just another baby to nearly everyone else). 

   The one below was taken on Sylvia's birthday in February 2010, just a few weeks after I had had as much of a brain tumour removed as possible and in was the middle of radiotherapy and chemotherapy in Melbourne. My prognosis by then was a likely eight months, taking all factors into account.

Alice, me, Sylvia. February 2010.

This note was written when Alice was about six, the day after my Ph D graduation ceremony. She just decided it was something that she wanted to write; to get her feelings across to me. It was a typically "Alice" thing to do.

   Alice is the scientist, always the ardent sportsgirl who would be in a game of anything and a keen watcher of any sport on TV.

   On the day she was born in a quiet little Intermediate hospital at Corinda (Brisbane, Queensland), it rained ceaselessly. Joy at the moment of birth was cut short by the fact that she did not cry. She gave a short cough and that was it. Her stomach was swollen and greenish. The doctors huddled, made a decision, and then one came quickly to us with those words no parent wants to hear:

   "There's something wrong with the baby."

   An ambulance was called to rush her and her mother to the Mater Hospital.  If you know Brisbane in the 1970s, you'll be aware that's a long way.

   "What do I do?"

   "If you want to be there, you'll have to drive behind the ambulance."

   I desperately wanted to be there. The rain belted down. My eyes were streaming as well. In the state I was in, no way should I have been driving, but I was determined to go. When the ambulance went through red lights I followed, ten metres behind. Blinding, drumming rain. All I was seeing was the back of the ambulance. I stuck to it like glue. No-one tried to stop me and much more by good luck than good management, I got there in one piece.

   She was operated on later in the day. 

   "Now we see," said the surgeon. "I can't explain why this has happened, but we've drained the fluid from the stomach cavity, checked as thoroughly as we could for any intestinal leaks – we can't detect any – and put her back together again."

   He allowed himself a smile, which was very heartening.

   "This leak must have occurred some time ago and to have healed. Lucky she was four days early or we would have probably had serious infection to contend with. We don't."

   She was placed in a humidicrib in a room with premmy babies, and for a week was fed intravenously. Then, to cut a lengthening story short, she was brought out, and she fed naturally (and ravenously!) the moment she smelt mother's milk. Her first oral food; and it was the first time either parent had touched her.

   "Right, you can take her home then," we were told, to our great surprise and joy. Apart from the usual coughs and colds and normal childhood illnesses like chickenpox, she's not had a day's sickness since.

   One thing she would do as a baby was to play happily in her cot until we got up, regardless of the time. That, I think, is quite remarkable, and certainly wasn't Sylvia's approach to mornings, for she felt that 6.00 am was time for all to be about their business and anyway, where's breakfast?

   Once while playing contentedly in her cot, Alice amused herself by stuffing a large felt eye button of her Raggedy Ann doll up her nose, and the doctor, armed with forceps, located it well up in her sinus area several days later, when she started to sound like, well... as if she had something up her nose. It was a pretty grisly, smelly find and Raggedy Ann remained very one-eyed for the rest of her working life.

   Alice was always a quiet and obedient schoolgirl, although she had her own ways of rebelling at times. A couple of weeks' worth of school sandwiches with a filling she wasn't fond of mysteriously found their way down to the far recesses under her bed, I seem to recall. The fetid smell of some mouldering foodstuff finally gave them away, and the practice promptly ceased.

   She went to Wollongong University to do her science degree, and then to Melbourne to find a job, staying for some time with her much-loved Aunty Kay and Uncle John before moving out on her own when a research job at Melbourne University came up. Jobs, let me say, were not easy to get for new graduates with no experience, but intelligence and persistence pay off in the end.

   Subsequently, she's been a researcher at Monash University and now has an administrative role based on her biological science experience. Her big personal moment in sport was being in the winning team in her division for the National Hockey Championships last year.


Sylvia read this letter to me earlier this year when she and Alice came to visit. She had things she wanted to make known to me. I think it speaks for itself, for it says at least as much about her as it does about me. More, I think. I was much touched by it and I'm happy she let me publish it here.

Dear Dad,

To me, you’re ‘Dad’. When I think about it, I know you are and have been a lot of other things, to other people; teacher, husband, brother, uncle, PHD supervisor, blogger, twit (twitterer?? Ha!), coach, friend, student, patient, step-father, cousin, nephew, colleague, mentor and more. It’s hard for me to think of you as all those things. It’s hard for me to imagine that you’re anyone but ‘Dad’. I guess I still think I’m the centre of your universe – that your most important role, your overriding job is ‘Dad’. That’s really who you are – above and beyond anything else. At least to me.

Until recently, I’d taken for granted that you knew what an amazing Dad you are. I find it hard to grasp that you might not know that. It seems so obvious. I feel inadequate trying to articulate what a great Dad you are. I feel like I’m trying to describe how ‘great’ oxygen is to breath. How ‘fantastic’ it is that our hearts beat, that birds can fly, that rainbows appear, that rain smells so incredible, that waterfalls are so magnificent, that someone’s smile directed at you, can change your whole world. Words like ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘fantastic’, ‘wonderful’ all fail miserably at the task of describing you as my Dad. Even the title ‘dad’ seems insufficient. 

But I can’t stand the thought that you don’t know what a great, amazing, fantastic, wonderful Dad you’ve been. It hurts me to think you might not be confident in knowing that; that you might doubt it. So, I’m going to try and put it into inadequate words. And I’m going to resort to clich├ęs and wobbly poetic imagery. I might even have to steal some bad Phil Collins lyrics. I’m sorry. You did teach me better than that but hopefully you’ll get the gist. I’d be happy if you just get a sense of how important you are to me and my big sister and the truly magnificent job you’ve done as our dad.

So it’s hard to find a place to start. I guess the #1 job for a Dad is to just love his daughters; make them feel loved. Make them feel so loved that they don’t even have to think about it, that they never question it, that they always feel secure in that love, no matter what. In this, you would receive a High Distinction. No matter the turmoils and twists life’s journey has sent me on, I have always felt your love, like a safety net, ready to catch me if I fall. (I warned you about the terrible similes and metaphors, didn’t I? They’re coming, thick and fast.) 

In the moments of darkness and despair, when I’ve been terrified, when I’ve felt so lost, when I’ve thought I’d made the wrong decision, when things have fallen through, when I didn’t know my way, when I was 8 and I threw up in my bed, when the HSC assignment that I hadn’t started was due overnight, when my doctor was circling the perfect golfball-shape tucked snuggly inside my brain scan, I’ve always taken comfort in knowing you were there for me; you’re out there, on standby, ready. That all I needed to do was call out; that I could send some night-sky bat signal and you’d come flying down, on your monkey-magic travel cloud, in your superman cape to make things all right again (did I just mix my superhero metaphors?). 

What else? Maybe the next job for a Dad is to accept his daughters just as they are; support them in their pursuits whatever they may be, to let them be free to be whoever they need to be, to let them find themselves. Again, you would graduate with first-class honours in this field. I suspect my path in finding my way may not have appeared at times, particularly straightforward, sensible, practical, reasonable or even rational. I expect that some of my decisions and actions may have concerned you, caused you worry or left you with a sense of befuddlement. Maybe even worse. I imagine all dads must go through that but what you excelled in was making me feel like it was all ok – that I could do all the slightly odd, weird, left-of-field, maybe even slightly embarrassing things. 

Sure, I could make ‘cakes’ out of chicken food and eat them, make a pram instead of a helicopter out of meccano, as a teen I could desperately want an electric car-racing set instead of a make-up kit, I could chop wood and drill things together, I could dye my hair purple, ride off in cars with boys, move out and live with drop-outs, get a tattoo, choose Drama as my major area of study and be an actress, go to gun-toting Central America, pierce my nose, move to another state, be a bit gay…. But you always made me feel like they were my choices to make and you would stand right next to me the whole time and gladly hold my hand and be proud, no matter what you must have been thinking inside. No matter who I was trying to be and what ‘self’ I was trying to figure out, I knew I was and know I always will be, your little girl.

Another important job for a dad is to teach his daughters, pass on pearls of wisdom, lead by example and show them the way (there’s those lyrics I warned you about). Apart from lessons in how to tie a fish hook on right, how to clean spark plugs, how to write a decent essay, how to make a good curry, how to shoot a water-pistol straight in your opponent's eye, how to whack a hockey ball, ride a horse, feed a calf, build a sun room, drive a car, use a siphon effectively, get over electric fences, crack a macadamia nut and so much more, one of the most important lessons that you taught me, Dad, is that life’s too short. Too short for doing a job you don’t love. Too short to save up endlessly for that ‘rainy day’. Too short to be unhappy and dissatisfied. Life’s too short to be angry with others or myself, too short to worry about things over which I have no control, too short to stop doing things that make me happy just because I might worry about being judged. You taught me that life’s too short not to say ‘I love you’ at every opportunity, to jump in the deep end, and to do things that scare me. 

In closing, I know that you might worry that I will be left with only remembering you now, as a patient, as a host for Brian, as a fallen superhero. I need you to know that this final phase makes up only a tiny portion of the amazing Dad that I know and love. My thoughts of you are dominated by images of you on your motor bike coming to pick me up from preschool, of standing on the rocks fishing as waves slammed all around you, of you posing in front of various landmarks in India, America and Europe, of mowing our enormous lawn in tiny shorts and a huge hat, of your proud smile as someone congratulated me on my performance in a play, of you singing “I like traffic lights” badly in the car, of your soft voice delivering lectures on tape, your look of concentration as you flicked the bat in French cricket, you working away deep into the night and early hours of the morning on the computer, your voice on the phone, calling me from China on my birthday, your look of concern as the Jets played their hardest in the Grand Final, patiently teaching us crib and yahtzee, you in your gown at my graduation, of you soothingly reading aloud to me by my bedside in hospital, and your beaming face when you stand next to Tracey. 

I thought everyone had a dad like you – that that’s what dads were supposed to be like and that’s just what dads did. I didn’t realise I was so lucky. It’s taken me a while to recognise just how fortunate Alice and I are, to have a dad like you. You have to know what a special dad you are, and that we love you so much. For ever and always, Daddyo, you’re the world’s greatest dad. Please know that.

From your No. 1 Daddy’s little girl.

   There they are. You can find a dramatic piece of Sylvia's life elsewhere, so no need to say anything about that here. 

   Neither of my No. 1 "girls" nor Christian put their parents through the hell some teenagers inflict on theirs. For that, we can feel very fortunate, and very pleased. 


  1. I've read the blog. Ive read the links. I have nothing to say but - this is the meaning of life. xxR

    1. And not even the Monty Python version! :)

    2. The birthday present arrived a few minutes ago. What great timing! Thank you both for the great idea. Now when I sit up in the 'hospital' bed with the iPad in front of me, I will think of you both. I wonder if anyone else can guess what the gift was....

  2. I am gob smacked by the way that Sylvia writes as you do - one more thing she learned from you!

    Happy Birthday tomorrow

    1. I have to admit, as I was putting that letter into Blogger, that thought also crossed my mind. That our styles are the same, i.e.

    2. I was much touched by the written letter. I have some idea, but probably still an underestimate, of the effort it took. It's not just the physical but mental effort as well, as I found when I wrote a couple of lines on a card to a friend a couple of weeks ago. Yours would have been multiplied by a large factor.

      Thank you.

  3. I sometimes think my children have actually brought me up to be who I am today. Your girls have done a fabulous job with you! (a backward way of saying they really do you proud).

    1. Our children teach us half, at least, of life from that perspective. In saying this I do not devalue for a moment the wisdom and experience of those who don't have children.

      Thank you.

  4. Denis, I'm moved to post my first ever comment on a blog. I've only known you as a kind, generous, widely-read and curious "twitterer" and that has very much been a privilege. And what a privilege it was to read those honest, beautiful words from your daughters. Leanne @MsLods

    1. I'm chuffed that the fabulous and delightful MsLods would write on my blog.

      Thank you, Leanne, on their behalf.

  5. Maybe the only Silver Lining that comes along with brain cancer is that at least some time is usually allowed during which there are opportunities for such heartfelt sentiments to be communicated. I love the description of the different jobs of a dad and the details of how you fulfilled those jobs so well. Your daughters seem strong and capable, and the pride and the love that they feel for you and that you feel for them is so evident and so touching.

    1. Yes, well said, Stephanie. I am sorry that your father had so brief a time to be with his family after diagnosis and the trauma of the treatment given. I know you thought the world of him and did everything within your power and judgment to extend his life, and he would surely have been aware of that. No doubt he thought the world of you.

  6. This post was a bit hard for me first read through - my father died when I was in my early twenties. I gave it a week and then came back for another read.

    This time = another happy sigh. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Jeni. It changes your world dramatically when a parent dies at practically any age [for the child] let alone when the child is young. My father died when I was 18, so I know how hard these things can be to face.

      I'm glad the piece meant something to you, although I would have preferred under happier circumstances for you.

  7. Well, shoot - I just found your blog.

    Bummer about the brain cancer; sounds like you've lived a marvelous life, and you have some truly amazing kids.

    Wish I could have gotten to know you better - you and your family will be in our prayers over here in Texas.

    Happy trails, dear man.

    1. Many thanks, Teresa. It's not the length of time but the quality, so with luck we have a little more to squeeze out of the orange yet.

  8. I've finally plucked up the courage to read this post because I knew it would move me deeply and it did. Indeed, Sylvia and Alice were very lucky girls to have such a Dad and perhaps their greatest tribute to you is that they feel able to express this so freely. I wish I had been as lucky! If all dads WERE like you Denis, the world would undoubtedly be a better place.


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