11 November 2015, Wattle Park Chalet, Melbourne, Australia
A few years ago, when dad was home alone facing what he felt at the time was a medical emergency, he began to write us an email. He thought his time was up. The subject line was:
Time on, final quarter...
As happened many times with dad, that time he defied the odds and got to play on!
Dad was eternally optimistic about his situation when it came to medical issues. Maybe it was more pure stubbornness or defiance-he was never going gentle into that good night. He certainly wanted to rage rage against the dying of the light.
He never complained. He didn't bemoan his situation, nor moan about pain. At times he grimaced, as if he were trying to deal with a jolt of electricity to his limbs. Once I thought he was groaning about the antics of us kids, getting progressively noisier and more drunk as we downed another bottle of red. No, he wasn't annoyed at us, of course he never was! He was in pain, but sometimes we hadn't known it. He was permanently of good humour, with a great sense of fun, a wonderful laugh and a love of stirring.
Football, and barracking for Collingwood, was a bond we shared as a family, though mum was the outlier as a nominal Blues fan. Going to the G with dad as a kid was one of those rituals which makes me think of the MCG as a cathedral-a field of drama and endeavour, of high emotions and passions. It was certainly a place of worship. We went throughout my childhood, and I have great memories of sitting side by side on the old wooden benches. Sometimes Arfur would nearly get into some argie bargy with an opposing supporter. Just for the hell of it! I will always remember him yelling, in a guttural mangle : GO COLLINGWOOD!
In 2010, we knew things were bad when Dad wasn't well enough to come to the Collingwood St Kilda Grand Final with us all. Thanks goodness the game was a draw! We were all there the next week to see the Pies bring home their first flag in 20 years. It meant so much to us all that Dad could be there. There are some great photos from that day, though the sad faces belong to Noah and Mark who barrack for the Saints. (Yes, it was a very tough week in our household!)
Growing up in our gorgeous house in Camberwell, I have many wonderful memories of Dad. The smell of mower petrol on his gardening pants, the greasy feel of the fabric, as I touched the trousers, hanging in the shed; the scent of freshly cut grass after he had mown three or four levels of lawn. Him laying bricks to pave an area under the tree, or making a tea-tree fence to shield us from the railway station. That fence is still there.
One of the strong images is of Arfur standing on the back verandah in his undies, smoking one of his many Marlboro cigarettes of the day. Sometimes we took the cigarettes and burned them-he never really got mad at us; he always had more!
When we were teenagers, Dad ran for election as a councillor in Camberwell. He didn't get involved for personal glory, or from ambition. He wanted to preserve the amenity of the area and make a useful contribution. He went to meetings nearly every night, giving his time to constituents. Many years later, I also stood for election to local government in Darebin, along with my partner Mark. We didn't get elected but I know that having seen Dad get involved in local democracy had inspired me.
Some of this spirit goes right back to the Eureka Stockade, where Charles Sublet de Bougy fought for the rights of the diggers. Robert’s Swiss ancestor, Charles, came from a small village called Bougy. He came in search of gold, but found a home instead. Robert's involvement with Eureka's Children was something I was keenly interested in, and we all attended Ballarat marches and museum openings, working alongside Gough Whitlam, who was patron at the time that Dad was heavily involved.
I found an old essay on my political socialisation that I had written at Uni. Here is what I had written about dad:
'Dad...conveyed a strong sense that equality was of paramount importance amongst any group of people. H(e had a) fair, just, anti-selfishness and anti-greed stance...'
When writing about my respect for (or lack of respect for!) authority, I wrote extensively about how little I respected the hypocritical teachers at my school, and also politicians of all persuasions (funny that!). However, I wrote:
'I have not been totally disillusioned due to the effect of dad's calm and steady, unobtrusive and smooth-running depiction of control.'
Dad didn't force his views and values upon us-he wanted to allow us freedom to explore ideas and beliefs.
He and mum had been married in the Catholic Church, although he was an agnostic with no interest in adhering to religious belief systems. I always marvelled that he never actively undermined mum's religion; he never said 'that's rubbish' to us as young kids. When he married mum in the church (because he would do anything to marry her!) he made a commitment to bring us up with a Catholic education. Just to say: it didn't stick! But he was a man of his word. As Pete sings in his song 'what you say, you do.'
Arfur was a man of constant, constant love. It never wavered. He was reluctant to show too much emotion at times, while at other times he let it be clearly seen. He had a great laugh and was great company-he even made connections across language barriers. He had a beautiful voice, and was also a good dancer. He was a loving and funny grandfather, always good for a hug. He has given countless hours of advice and support to all of us, even as adults when we came to him for his solid wisdom. He was so generous with this love and support.
He was also a helpful and encouraging critic, when it came to my writing. I am glad he got to see some of my words published, especially about an issue in which he had a stake of personal family history: the Eureka Stockade. I will miss sharing political observations and discussions with him.
We left for New York when he was fairly unwell but he had been unwell before. He wanted us to go and enjoy my 50th birthday celebration, and I believed he would be fine, as usual, and his time of muddle and complications would be got through as invariably happened.
This time it went wrong. We decided to fly home early when we learned he was not able to receive dialysis. Charlie tells me he raised his arms with two clenched fists when he heard we were coming home. We didn't make it back in time to see him, but I know he heard me when I spoke to him from LA airport. I was so sure he would hang on til we got home, but maybe knowing we were on our way was enough for him. And now, it must be enough for us...
I drank a lot of negronis in New York City to toast my dad. I didn't know we'd never share one again.
Time on, final quarter, but this time the siren has sounded to end the game.
Cheers, to Arfur! Well played.