My father was born 100 years ago today, at home in a terrace house in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. He was at least six weeks premature and was no bigger than my grandfather’s hand. They kept him in a shoe box and wrapped him in cotton wool. They fed him with an eye-dropper. He should have died. I should not be here. But something in that stubborn little baby’s make-up enabled him to somehow keep breathing and hold on to life.
Nowadays, premature babies are cared for with modern equipment in neonatal intensive care units. If these things had existed in 1911, perhaps my father would not have suffered as much damage to his under-developed lungs that left him with chronic bronchitis for all his life. Maybe my grandparents would not have had to leave Sydney and move to a farm so that “little Georgie” could grow up with fresh country air to breathe. Maybe he would have grown-up a street-urchin in a working class suburb instead of growing up on a farm that is now drowned beneath Warragamba Dam. Maybe he would not have lost an eye in a farming accident. Maybe he would not have been discharged from the army when they found out that he had a glass eye. Maybe he would have died on the Kokoda trail. Or maybe he would never have met my mother, and married someone else. So many things could have been different that I may never have existed.
So much for the “what ifs”. The fact is, 55 years later I was born. My mother was 42. I had a grown-up brother in the army (he had been conscripted to Vietnam), an 18 year old sister (who was like a second mother to me), and another 11 year old sister. Having a father 55 years older than me didn’t seem strange to me. He was just my dad. I remember how upset I would get when shop assistants would ask me if I was having fun shopping with my grandfather. “He’s my Dad!” I would angrily reply.
My father died when I was 13. He was 67. Ironically, it wasn’t his chronic bronchitis and smoking induced emphysema that killed him, but an accident. The silly man fell off a ladder when trying to gather mandarins from a tree in our backyard and hit his head on some concrete. He laid in bed all night in pain and cursing himself about what an idiot he was. He probably should have gone to hospital, but he was a stubborn man, and we were poor. The next morning he called me into the bedroom and asked me to help him stand up to go to the toilet. When he stood up, something changed. He face just went blank. He had suffered a massive stroke from a burst aneurysm.
He spent a few weeks in hospital in a coma before he died. I only visited him once. I played tennis at the hospital tennis courts once a week, so I snuck away and went to visit him by myself. I could barely recognise him. This prone and seemingly lifeless body wasn’t my father. He looked so small and vulnerable. No, to me the person who was my father had died in front of my eyes when I saw his face go blank when he had the stroke. I held his hand for a few minutes and said my goodbyes, but I didn’t want to visit him after that.
Realistically, I only remember the last 8 years of his life. He never knew me as an adult and I only knew him as a frail and prematurely old man. Our lives were so different. He grew up in a world of gas-lights and horse-drawn carriages. I grew up in a world of transistors and moon-landings. He grew up on a farm and knew how to ride horses and milk cows and fix fences. I know how to use computers and record digital music. He lived through two world wars. I lived through the Internet revolution. He carried his swag in the Great Depression. I was on the dole during the “recession we had to have”. He never went to high school. I dropped out of Uni.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a man that is still 10 years younger than my father was when I was born, and 15 years younger than how I remember my father. How can I compare myself with that memory. Are we alike or different? Would he have liked me? Would we have been friends, or just a father and son related by birth and genetics? There are a few clues of course. This photo shows my father and I at around 4 years of age.
The thing that amazes me is that we are standing in the same pose with almost the same expression on our faces. Did I learn that from my father, or is that just something I inherited from him? I guess I’ll never know.
A few years after my father’s death my mother told me that he worried about being so much older than me. He worried that he was too frail to kick a football with me, or do all the other physical things most dads do. That was true, but before he got too old, he did take me to see 2001 A Space Odyssey at the movies, and he also took me to my first Sheffield Shield game. Both excursions were extremely influential to me. But I also remember a few years later walking to the shops with him. When we tried to walk up the steps to cross over the railway station, he was so short of breath that he wet himself. That must have been so embarrassing and demoralising for him. He never took me anywhere ever again.
If I could go back in time and just tell him one thing, it would be that none of this mattered to me. He was my dad. To me he was strong and smart and perfect. He still is the wisest person I have ever met. I love the fact that he was so old and so different from my friend’s dads. I loved his stories of growing up in the bush. I loved the fact that you had to say “Dad!” at least three times to get his attention when he was watching sport. I loved his smell. I love that fact that, the older I get, the more I start to smell like my dad. I wish he’d known all this before he died.
I also know first hand how much he loved me, because he once saved my life. One day when I would have been only 6 or 7, we went for a walk. When we started to cross at a set of traffic lights, a car failed to stop in time. My father pushed me out of the way and took the impact of the car himself. He was not badly hurt – just a badly bruised hip and some scrapes – but being so frail it knocked him around a bit…and he stayed in bed for a week afterwards. When put to the test, my safety was more important than his own. That’s love…what more could you ask from a dad!
So, Happy Birthday Dad! I love you and miss you still.
My Father’s stories of his life are published here.
John James is a Mamamia reader and frequent contributor
Did the age of your parents impact you in any way?