The last thing I wrote
with a beginning
and an end
was my Dad's eulogy
It’s not easy to put 84 years off life into a few minutes. But I can offer some personal snippets of Dad’s life.
When we were children I remember going to stay with Nana and Tapu, or Ethel and Stephen Waymouth, Dad’s parents, at the vicarage in Puketapu. It was a big white and grey wooden villa set in big trees with the small wooden Anglican church (much like this) nearby. Belinda and I slept on camp stretchers in Tapu’s study. I woke in the morning and through my bleary child’s eyes, I thought I saw something on Tapu’s desk, which could only be Jesus’s poo. Him being a man of god it seemed pretty obvious. I was convinced, but no one at school believed me when I told them. It was probably tobacco. Tapu smoked a pipe. And so did Dad, until the price of tobacco went up to $15 a packet and he quit on principle.
Dad was in the Navy for 15 years. Towards the end of his naval career, he took up the position of Defense Liaison Attaché at the New Zealand High Commission in Singapore. We packed up our family home in Bayswater, Auckland, and set off. Belinda (sister) and I thought we’d died and turned into princesses aged 6 and 5 when we arrived at the huge high commission house. To us, it looked like a palace. It did come with staff. The lovely cook, Chin Foo whose peanut brownies you could eat raw and who only wore his false teeth if we had guests. The chauffeur Maui, who drove Dad to the High Commission each day. The amah who watched raucous Chinese soaps on TV while Belinda and I skated along the wooden corridors in socks. Often gathering painful splinters. Or turned our large tiled bathroom into a soap-slide when Mum and Dad were out at cocktail parties.
Dad was always keen to explore new places. We’d head off in his white Rover 3500 (imported duty-free from the UK), to Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, Malaysia. There was a customs officer at passport control on the causeway into Malaysia who always chatted to Dad. Because Dad shared the same birthdate as Prince Charles and the officer thought they looked alike. Thought he was his doppelgänger. Maybe - but I thought Dad was more handsome, with better ears.
Belinda and I returned home to New Zealand with our mother around about a year into the three-year posting. We got teased mercilessly at school because our blonde hair had turned green from the chlorine at The Tanglin Club pool and we’d picked up British accents from our school. Dad remarried and so did our mother. We soon had two sets of parents. We missed Dad terribly and it took a while to adjust to this new arrangement. We kept in touch via aerogrammes and cassette tapes. Mum would make us fill a 30minute side each. The flipside for Belinda and I was the adventure of travelling overseas as unaccompanied minors to visit Dad during the holidays.
Dad stayed on in Singapore when he retired from the navy and worked for Vosper Thorneycroft, a military-oriented shipbuilding company. This was the start of his career in sales. In his later years, we would have quite in-depth conversations about things we’d never talked about before. One night a few years ago, he told me how he’d been ‘replaced’ at Vosper Thorneycroft by a guy from the airforce. “An American! What would he know about ships?!” said Dad. Let’s just say there were a few expletives involved in the telling of this story.
Dad’s work with Finance company Finexco took him to Paris, where 38 years ago he met his partner Hilary. At one point they had a posting to Nairobi. I went to stay with Dad there and was treated to some amazing trips into the Kenyan wilderness. Dad’s sturdy Mercedes managed most of these outback adventures on the rough potholed dirt roads amazingly well. On one trip to Lake Baringo, world renown for its pink ponds of flamingoes and pelicans, Dad was negotiating a partially flooded road leading up to the lodge. Two cars were already stuck. An askari ahead of us was indicating we drive through the left-hand puddle. Dad took the right. We got stuck and had to wait red-faced to be towed out. When Dad was having a cool beer to recover, half an hour later on the lodge veranda, I had to laugh at his choice of t-shirt that day. It read “Right or Wrong, I’m the Captain.”
I can thank Dad for a lot of things. A love of exploring the world. A love of birds. A love of the sea. Good table manners. Social etiquette. An appreciation of fine wine. Dad loved nothing more than a nice meal, a good red and lively discussion around the dinner table with friends and family. Especially if he was winning the argument. He was a man of principle and routine. He was a gentleman. He loved a sense of occasion. And always looked the part. He loved a fine motorcar. This probably started as a young naval officer at university when he drove around looking very dashing in a white jaguar soft-top sports car XJ120. He once lent his car to his mate Somerford, who was courting his future wife at the time.
Dad was also an immensely proud intelligent man, so it was heartbreaking to watch the confusion and frustration when his mind began to slowly succumb to dementia. Although I felt very close to him during this time. I only looked after him for a few short spells to give Hilary a break, but I always found him good company. Very mellow, and always charming and polite and unlike most of his life he was actually quite obedient. Or happy for someone else to be in charge. His sense of humour remained intact and we often had a good laugh and the old Mike would reappear. We’d sit on the veranda, staring out to sea towards Great Barrier and Dad would say, ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing today?’
When I visited Dad in his rest home we’d enjoy a game of scrabble. Dad sometimes made up new words or switched to French. Or he’d floor me with a difficult word, showing his intellect was still intact. Some of the carers at the rest home would add words in Te Reo Maori when they played with him to keep him on his toes. Dad would occasionally come out with random one-liners. Some are used verbatim in my Lily Max children’s novels by the sweet, dementia-afflicted character, Tilda Button. I’m glad I’ll never forget them.
Gradually Dad became less aware of his surroundings but he remained mostly content. Often like the great host, he was he’d look about the dayroom and make a tally of how many were coming for lunch. Then worry he’d have enough wine for everyone. One day he said, out of the blue, “We’re happy here, we have a good group of friends …” I’ll finish here. Love you Dad.