As I turned the key to open the front door, I paused to take a deep breath. I only managed to exhale that deep breath out once I closed the door of my parents’ apartment behind me.
As I entered, I saw my mother standing just a few feet away from me. She had just come out of the bedroom. My sister was behind her.
My stomach sunk and my eyes started to well up. My mother knew immediately what had happened and she took a step towards me. I would like to say we hugged in a very caring loving mother-son kind of way, but we didn’t. It was more like an awkward attempt to hug a stranger.
As quickly as that hug began, it ended. My mother turned to my sister and they embraced. I didn’t want to see if their embrace was more meaningful. I wheeled Dad’s suitcase into the bedroom he shared with Mum and once again the runny nose and tears started, making me feel ultra miserable.
I felt more alone now than ever.
I missed everything about my time with Dad, and would you believe it, that Palliative Care Ward. I missed Roger, the nurses, and the courtyard. I missed our nights watching tennis.
And I missed watching Dad staring at the stars.
My sister turned to me as I exited the bedroom and asked;
“Are you OK?”
The frostiness of the question almost matched the frostiness of the relationship we had all our lives.
I nodded my head and then I walked past them into the bedroom I used since I moved in with my parents. I sat on the bed and bawled my eyes out. Uncontrollable sobbing, the kind you do when you are three years old and someone takes away your favourite toy.
My favourite thing for the past twenty-five days had been taken away from me. It was my father.
My mind rushed back to the hospital and all of a sudden I remembered the photos of Dad that I had taken. I took my phone out of my backpack and entered the pin code to unlock it. I then went to the Gallery icon and clicked on the last photo that I had taken of Dad.
There he was, lying still in the bed. His eyes closed. Frail, and still, and finally at peace. A tear dropped onto the screen of my phone as I stared at it.
At that moment, Mum came into the room. She saw that I had my phone out and it was obvious that I was looking at the pictures. I asked her if she wanted to see Dad.
All she did was shake her head; no.
She left the room.
I wondered why she had come in, perhaps to say something, to comfort me; neither happened.
The three of us dealt with the situation alone. Or, more like, my mother and my sister would go about their stuff and I would be alone again.
I sat in the room for about half an hour. I could hear Mum outside talking to people over the phone. She misquoted Dad’s time of death, and I could often hear her say, “Yes, Mark was there” somewhat coldly to anyone who asked.
I felt hungry and decided to make myself something to eat. My sister and mother were seated in the living room. As I opened the fridge to see what was on offer, I turned to them and I said that Dad had passed peacefully.
I don’t know why I said it. It wasn’t exactly the truth and, for some reason, I didn’t want to tell them that Dad had struggled in those last minutes. I simply didn’t want to explain the whole situation. I wanted that memory selfishly for myself.
I put some oats in a bowl and while waiting for it to cook in the microwave, I asked my mother and sister if they knew what Dad’s wishes had been at the end. I didn’t know.
Mum said that Dad was to be cremated, which I guessed was going to be a fairly quick procedure.
My oats were ready and instead of choosing to eat them in the presence of everyone at home, I returned to my bedroom. That bedroom had been my sanctuary the entire time I had been back in Australia.
I spent nearly every single night in that room. I would chat with friends from around the world online or watch Youtube videos. I would write for hours on end about all kinds of things; business ideas, dreams. I started books I wanted to write.
As I ate the oats, my mind flashed back to the hospital again. I picked up my phone and continued to scroll through the gallery. I had taken tons of pictures in those last twenty-five days.
There were pictures taken by the nurses of Dad and I eating fish and chips and having a beer. There were pictures of us watching cricket together, of Dad in bed asleep, of Dad outside in the courtyard of the Palliative Care unit.
There were pictures of him with Mum, with my uncle and aunty and one with my sister.
There were pictures of some of his visitors from his bowls club. I wished I had shown Dad those pictures more often; he was happy and smiling when his mates were around.
As I looked at the dates on the pictures, I could almost remember exactly what happened on that particular day, like the day I first took Dad down to the garden at the first hospital.
I remembered the day he was admitted, how he was frustrated to answer the hundred and one questions posed to him by the hospital administration staff, and then the nurses and doctors.
I thought about the two hospitals where I had spent twenty-four hours every day in those weeks and how the process is still going on. Some people come in, get well and go home, while others are admitted and never come out alive.
Life is so unpredictable.
One minute we are here and the next we are gone. There would be no more moments of Dad entering the apartment and placing his car keys in the grey pottery bowl that sat atop the glass table near the front door.
There would be no more library books sitting around the apartment, and no more of him sitting on the chaise lounge in the TV room, sitting in the sun, reading. He used to spend hours upon hours reading.
My father was the most well-read person I had ever known. I used to joke with him about going onto one of those TV shows like Mastermind etc. I used to tell him that he could clean up large. Dad was never about money. He was a simple man with simple values and simple dreams.
Dad never understood the world in its complexities, politics, or social media. He would rather watch Rugby, his favourite sport, and the All Blacks, his passion. He loved to watch golf, and tennis and would be as passionate and energised as any armchair commentator or coach.
Dad was a very proud New Zealander and there had never been a better time to fire up some good old hearty banter than when he was at his bowls club. Dad loved his bowls club and in the days to come I would find out how much the bowls club community had loved my father.
As Dad grew older and weaker due to health issues, he lost the number one thing that he had always been able to rely on his entire life, his fitness.
I remember how, when I was a young kid going to school, every morning come rain, hail or sunshine, Dad would ride his pushbike for eight kilometres to his place of work. At lunchtime, he would ride his bike a few kilometres to the local council swimming pool, swim a mile, have his lunch in the sun and then cycle back to work. After work, he would cycle home.
I couldn’t tell you how many years he did that.
He loved playing golf. In their last place of residence, Mum and Dad lived in an apartment in a golf course complex. Ironically, Dad never played more than a handful of games on that course.
His frustration of being unable to do physical things would eat away at him and he would complain. I remember a time when I was taking him to a physio appointment. As we were crossing the road to go back to the car, Dad fell and hit the ground pretty hard.
I was frightened beyond belief. How he fell, I don’t know until this day. He miraculously didn’t end up injuring his head. He did, however, hurt his hip, grazed his arms and cut his finger. Blood was all over his clothes by the time I got to him which was microseconds after the fall.
He was so frustrated with himself as he laid there in the middle of the road that he said to me: “Just leave me here!”
Dad endured some terrible falls in the last couple of years. There is nothing worse than seeing an elderly person fall. While most of the time it looks as if everything is happening in slow motion, the outcomes are usually very unpleasant. Plus, there’s the emotional impact that a fall has on them.
I had found the entire emotional impact of my care-taking days to be overwhelming. There was no doubt in my mind that after two and a half years of doing that, I was suffering from depression.
I often spared a thought to caregivers all over the world who were in the same or similar situation. It is such a difficult task. Unless you have been there and done it, you will never understand, as it is with most things in life, I guess.
Watching your parents become shadows of their former selves is another hard reality to swallow. I used to fear for Mum and Dad when they still drove their car. I think that driving should be banned for anyone over the age of eighty, bar no one. It is just too dangerous. I bet that hits a nerve with many.
You may be thinking, it’s only natural to worry about our aging folks. How did all of that turn into depression?
Well, things went downhill from there. My mother turned into the woman I had despised most of my life. Before all the people reading this say, hang on a minute, your mother brought you into this world, she looked after you, she housed you, and she fed you for those first years, why are you being so ungrateful?
Yes, she did at all. I will never deny or reject this.
But let’s get some facts straight though.
I was an unexpected child. My sister, who is five years elder to me was the apple of my parents’ eyes. I mentioned in a previous chapter how my mother had some complications with the birth of my sister and was told that she would not be able to have more children.
As the story goes, five years lately yours truly appeared, and my parents had to go through the dirty diapers and hissy fits that I was apparently a master of providing at anytime day or night.
It must be difficult for parents who aren’t expecting a child to be surprised by the unexpected turn of events.
My mother ruled the house with an iron fist. This, as I would learn years later, had been a
result of her authoritarian upbringing at the hands of a dictator-like father. With six daughters to manage, my grandfather employed a military regime to deal with ‘surviving’ a house full of females.
As a young kid, I was given little wriggle room. My friends at school were not allowed to come over to our house and play. The nearest they would get was to an adjacent field where we would kick a rugby ball around. I never entertained a schoolmate at our family home for a meal.
I was raised to be seen and not heard. In my formative school years, I was given dinner at 5.30 pm every night, told to help with the dishes, then go to my room, do homework and sleep.
I started to become a loner very quickly and I remember how I created a fantasy life to find some kind of happiness. I turned my wardrobe into my home office at the age of ten. I removed all the hanging clothes. Inside, I kept two shelves to place treasured items like my scrapbook I had about tennis.
I had a cash tin in there too, in which I would put my pocket money. I kept a balance sheet to track how my savings were growing. I also had a lamp in the wardrobe on one of the shelves, which would help me navigate around whenever I stayed in the wardrobe for hours.
It was my sanctuary. I felt safe and happy inside.
At school, I was bullied and my love for tennis ostracised me from the big rugby playing Kiwi lads whom all wanted to be All Blacks. I wanted to win Wimbledon from the age of four, not to win a world cup for New Zealand in Rugby.
My scrapbook on tennis was full of newspaper clippings of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. Local New Zealand heroes of Onny Parun and Brian Fairlie had not made their mark on the world stage.
I loved riding my bike. I had a couple of friends who loved racing with me and we would spend hours doing that when I wasn’t on the tennis court.
We had a concrete wall in our garage and I would spend many hours hitting the tennis ball against that wall. I would make up matches in my mind and pretend that I was in the final of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Opens.
Dad had a business friend he met when I was around about twelve years old. He was a real estate agent who had a nice tennis court in his backyard. He knew I loved tennis and he invited me to play one day. I whipped him pretty bad yet he offered me to use of the tennis court whenever I wanted to. The court had lights as well, so I was there whenever I found the time - night or day. That tennis court became my second home.
As soon as I was old enough to get out on my pushbike, I used to spend as much time away from Mum and Dad as I could. We never had anything in common. I wanted to see the world, I had huge dreams and I wanted to live them all.
My parents had stable jobs, didn’t travel much, and didn’t have any big dreams that I knew about. So when I was old enough, fifteen and a half to be exact, I had saved enough money to leave. I was out of there and flew overseas. Goodbye, New Zealand and goodbye to my parents.
That right there sums it all up.
From the time I left New Zealand, I became but a distant dream. I never really communicated much with my parents as I lived and moved around the world. I would return to Australia to visit them after they had moved there with plans to retire.
I went about living my life, building, and living my dreams. I am proud to be able to say that I have never borrowed even a dollar from my parents ever.
I made sure that I was always able to do well financially. I wanted to control my destiny since the age I received that cash tin. My favourite Grandfather gave me that cash tin and I kept it with me until I was forty-nine years old.
My parents never really took any interest in anything I did with my life. My mother would run me down for dreaming so big, laughing my ideas off and saying things like “that will never happen”.
The tagline for my business today is ‘never say never’. How appropriate, eh?
We seemed to always grow further apart as a family. I never felt like I belonged and even after my twenty-five days with my father and all that was achieved during that time, I still didn’t feel like I belonged.
As I sat in that bedroom then, thinking and reminiscing over those last twenty-five days, the fact of the matter remained strong in my mind. Yes, I had experienced many breakthrough moments with Dad. Yes, we built a bridge that didn’t previously exist.
Despite all of that, I was still alone.
Now with the family number reduced to three from four, I was left with the two whom I had the biggest issues with. I had to get out of here. It was time for me to move on.
One of the things I had promised Dad in his last days was that I would make sure Mum faces no harm. I wasn’t too sure what that entailed. I always thought my sister would be the one taking care of my mother more since they were closer.
The fact that my sister had spent years living close to my parents and went holidaying with them meant there was a different connection and therefore relationship.
It must be said at this stage that I’m not playing the victim here. To the contrary. I had worked out at a young age what the family dynamic was in the Philpott family and I didn’t want to be part of that dynamic. It served me no good then, and it hasn’t ever since.
So when my mother started saying we should clean out Dad’s wardrobe as soon as possible, to get rid of any of his golf clubs or lawn bowls, I knew exactly how this was going to play out.
I had always seen my parents’ marriage as a dysfunctional arrangement that served neither of them well. Yet, it was their marriage, not mine. I had merely been an observer.
It was with this mindset that I would move forward with what was about to come. There was going to be a cleansing process for my mother. My sister, who wasn’t close to my father, would be there to make sure that Mum was okay and doing things the way that she wanted.
A daughter and mother working in unison was something not to be messed with. I would steer clear and do my own thing to honour Dad. I needed to rebuild my own life.
Needless to say, over the next few days when Dad’s things were quickly and clinically removed, donated to charity, given to friends or simply dumped, I was amazed at what over fifty years of marriage had resulted in.
I guess we all deal with losing a loved one in a very personal way. I was dealing with Dad’s passing in my way and my mother hers, each to their own. It was a lesson for me to become less judgemental.
I was asked if I wanted Dad’s golf clubs or lawn bowls. I gracefully declined both offers. There was nothing else offered to me or kept for me. I had what I wanted, a phone full of photographic memories and twenty-five days of living through the greatest gift my father could have given me.
The bowls club notified Mum that they wanted to organise an afternoon tea to honour Dad. Mum’s initial reaction was to decline the invitation. After it was pointed out to her that it would be rude to not show up, she decided to go.
I knew very well why Mum didn’t want to attend the bowls club event. The club had been Dad’s happy place, his sanctuary away from his marriage and the constant nagging that went on behind closed doors away from the eyes and ears of the world.
It was where Dad could be Dad. He would laugh and joke and display all the expressions that weren’t welcomed at home. It always made me sad yet it was the very suppression I felt all along as a young boy.
The days leading up to the bowls club event were increasingly difficult for Mum. Word was that many people wanted to pay their respect. I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the family. Mum was probably dreading that as well. I had a knack for throwing a curveball in most speeches.
The day of the event was just as I had imagined. Over four hundred people jammed into the bowls club and people came to offer their condolences to us. There was an amazing sense of compassion and love for my Dad, and the event brought me to tears.
My unassuming father had been a local hero at the bowls club. Everyone who came up to me that day recited an occasion that Dad had made them laugh, had acted like a fool, and had just made their days so enjoyable.
The sense of pride and honour I had for Dad that day was immense. I was proud to be his son. I went back to the bowls club several times before I left town to talk to some of the chaps and to spin a few more yarns about Dad.
My mother got through the day with not too much emotional damage. She was also even moved by the outpouring of love toward her late husband. She kept it all under control though; that was her when it came to emotions, it’s a no go zone, no matter what.
Dad’s cremation and subsequent spreading of ashes happened after that. It wasn’t a sense of finality for me, there was still too much to digest. A euphoric feeling remained from my time with him at hospital and from the event at the bowls club.
I never really understood the whole cremation thing. How can one tell that a person has become ashes? This is when life starts to get grey for me, and that’s not a place I want to go too deep in fear of something untoward happening that crosses the line of one’s dignity and respect.
My father’s passing and my family’s reaction had left much for me to think about. Life had to go on and I was interested to see and learn what that would look like. I had effectively put my own life on hold for the past two and a half years to take care of my parents.
My father was now gone and my mother’s health was poor. What the next steps were going to be were uncertain.
In the next, and final chapter of this book, I will reflect on how that period of my life has impacted me, and what last reflections my father and my connection has meant for me in finding peace today.