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Family

Remembering my dad - a tribute from a daughter who lost her adored father when she was 12

''I love Dad now as I always did. And I feel his love and care for me, some 32 years later.''

By Fiona Fraser
My mum likes to tell a story. It's about the time I applied for a job at the local New World supermarket. I was 14 and was looking forward to wearing the fire engine red, zip-front polyester uniform and name badge, using the clocking-in machine and earning $3.75 per hour, should I be successful.
The owner, a man of community note, asked me a few questions. "Ah, Fiona," he said, peering first at the application form, and then at me. "So I see here you'd like a part-time job. What does your father do?"
My response was rapid, blunt, but entirely truthful. "He's dead."
I got the job, possibly out of pity.
What I could have answered, had I not been so affronted to be assessed for my suitability on the accomplishments of my father, was this: that although he'd recently passed away, he had been a farmer, a freezing worker, a fisherman, a businessman, a double bassist, a political aspirant, a traveller, a truck driver, a skipper, a protestor, an entrepreneur, an orator, a horseman, a poet, a cook, and most importantly of all, a father. A very good one.
Fiona's adored dad, John
My divine dad, John, died aged just 43.
Forty-three! I was only just that age myself until July. And for the entirety of my 44th year on earth that information was like a scab. It would get itchy, I'd scratch it, I'd bleed a little, heal, move on. I'd get a headache and think, "Well, Dad died at 43. It's probably a brain tumour."
I'd chat to the millennials at work and realise they probably thought of me as really old and I'd smile to myself thinking, "But I'm not! I'm like you!" and then the reality of my father dying at the very age I now was would wash through my body. And I'd realise that yes, it's possible to be someone living their best life, their still-young life, and then die.
Dad was born in 1943, and his parents and two older sisters were instantly smitten. He had that effect on people – he was curious, charming, erudite, and as he grew into a young man, and gained control of some fairly enormous ears, was also lucky enough to bag the trifecta of tall, dark and handsome.
My early recollections are of a smiling giant of a man who, unlike many of his contemporaries, loved openly and fiercely. There were always hugs and plenty of kisses. He was not shy about expressing his feelings. Threats of being "spiflicated" for bad behaviour were never followed through. Not least because there is, in fact, no such thing as spiflication.
He was adventurous, too. As a young man, he left rural Southland on a live sheep export to Peru, back when live sheep exports were not subject to an MPI investigation. And when he got there he worked in a bar and picked up some Spanish. And then some guy wandered in and said, "Buddy, you've got the gift of the gab. How about I fly you to Panama and get you a job selling De Havilland aircraft to the folk up there?"
So Panama became home. He started his first business there, Agencias Cruz del Sur (Southern Cross Agencies) – importing farm machinery from the USA to sell on to the people growing whatever crops were popular in South America in the late 1960s and early 1970s… And when my mother turned up to visit one Easter, having dated him for a few months back home in New Zealand and travelling the world herself, she never really left. They married in 1971.
Fiona (in red jacket) and her sister with their father on the farm

A born leader

My sister and I were born following their return to New Zealand a few years later. Dad bought the family farm, and we lived amongst all the sheep and wheat and cattle that you could possibly imagine.
A born leader, Dad wanted to run for the National seat – much to my liberal, feminist, left-leaning mother's consternation – but he wasn't selected. He lived loud, enjoyed debating, entertaining, smoking. He loved words so much he and his best friends would exchange newly discovered ones in lieu of birthday presents. He started a couple of companies and built a houseboat on Lake Wakatipu.
But Dad got sick. Very sick. Something hadn't been right for some time – he'd been a bit clumsy and lightheaded, he'd collapsed, and he couldn't blame the Vidal pinot noir (his favourite drop). By 1980, he'd been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
And boy, what a brutal disease that is. First one walking stick, then two, and it wasn't long before Dad was in a wheelchair. But the indignities didn't stop there. Constant leg spasms, slurred speech, shaking, little control of his bladder, insomnia, problems with his vision, impotence.
For someone who had always – ALWAYS – been the life and soul of the party, it was hell.
Fiona and her dad after his MS diagnosis.
He could no longer stop trembling long enough to sign his own name, so I learned to forge his signature and quickly became his main accountant, bringing his chequebook on command and writing out payments for the electricity bill, school fees, whatever.
That was the easiest of the tasks my sister and I would perform most weeks. Others included helping him dress, eat, toileting him, trying to lift his dead weight when he fell, and dressing his wounds.
Mum's horizon also shifted –she became Dad's carer, cook and night nurse on top of working a full-time job, making lunches, and shuttling us to gymnastics, soccer and Girl Guides.
The farm was sold, and although he tried, Dad's high-flying role as the deputy-chairman of the Alliance Freezing Company was impossible to maintain. His friends tried to be there for him, and the good ones stuck it out to the end. But many couldn't bear it.
So, my chatty, warm, witty and wonderful dad, by now housebound and watching the world only through the window of our wheelchair-enabled house in Invercargill, crawled into a cave of loneliness and depression. Several times, we later learned, he asked his neurologist for "the exit pill".
Our love wasn't enough. He wanted to die, die, die.
So, I suppose, he did. It was pneumonia that did the job in the end.
A few weeks shy of his death, I'd performed in the school talent quest. No great shakes on the piano, I was already convinced my schoolmate Matthew Lowe would win the round. Then I saw the principal wheeling my father, past all the other parents and a sea of squirming students, right to the front of the school hall, where he parked Dad up, gave him a squeeze of the shoulder, and left him to watch.
Maybe it was the fact Dad had braved the humiliation of getting into his incontinence pants. That he'd combed his hair, and got Mum to load his chair into the car, and then out of the car, and then he'd braved the open stares of a hundred 11- and 12-year-olds, whose own dads mostly had jobs and two working legs and could feed themselves dinner and played cricket or badminton on the weekends.
Or maybe it was the fact that the school – a wonderful place – knew what was up, and that there might not be many more opportunities for a dad to watch his daughter play a Bach minuet in a talent quest. Whatever it was, I won.
John in the galley of his houseboat
Dad eventually lost his six-year battle with MS.
It was 1986.
My sister spent his final days in hospital drawing hopeful pencil illustrations of our family, featuring slogans like, "You can do it!" and "Keep on fighting!"
But jaundiced, wheezing, worn out, and defeated, Dad passed quietly one evening with those two devoted sisters, two loving parents, and my calm, courageous mum, not far away.

What I know

I don't have the monopoly on grief. Grief is for everyone – and we'll all have our turn at it. At 12, I got my first taste a little younger than some, but many are younger still.
But here's what I know. I know that the body has gone, and the memories get a little Vaseline around the edges, and sometimes the rose-tinted glasses come on (particularly once you're 17 and are railing against your mother over a boyfriend, or a possible tattoo), but that the love remains steadfast and true. I love Dad now as I always did. And I feel his love and care for me, some 32 years later.
I know grief doesn't define you for a lifetime. I hope my own son never experiences the loss of a parent while he's still young, bright and happy.
But sadness is a journey even kids can traverse, with support, talking, plenty of crying and laughter too. Sometimes kids are broken by their grief, for sure, but most show striking resilience.
And at 44, having passed that strangely significant milestone, having healed the wound again, I know that I don't want to have any regrets – not a one.
My dad, who did everything, traveled everywhere, loved everyone, who took risks, watched sunrises, smashed goals – even he had regrets.
We found this poem (below), written by him and carefully typed up, sitting in his study just after he died.
When I consider how my life is spent
Yet halfway through
My three score years and ten
Yet cannot do the things I wanted to
Cannot behave at all like other men
Cannot climb the peaks that I had set
My mind to and aspired to climb
Challenges I had cannot be met
Even though I still have time
It's time to sit and think
And live in memories of the past
Of chances that I have not grasped
And now, the halcyon days of youth
Are gone, forever lost
Not to be recaptured
At any cost
The mid-life crisis is more real
When all one's dreams are shattered
And gone are opportunities
The ones that really mattered
MS is a bitter curse
And I would say, quite undeserved
It makes one question faith in God
That he would do this thing to me
My past sins are not of
Any great enormity
I watch the people come and go
I watch the children play
I would that I could join them
Another life, another day.

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