Reflections on Losing My Dad
He took his position in front of a brick wall in the backyard.
The two pot plants either side of him became our goal, much to the dismay of my mum.
And I proceeded to attempt to kick one passed him.
I was thirteen years old.
He was 51 at the time, and he had spent the majority of his adult life as a laborer, working on assembly lines and in meat factories.
A lifetime of backbreaking work meant that he wasn’t inclined to play goalkeeper, but he did so anyway, to appease my pestering requests… and to be my dad.
My dad moved to Australia in 1971.
He didn’t speak any English.
He had a fifth-grade education.
And he had little money to speak of.
His objective? To save up some money and return home to provide a better life for his family in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, then part of Yugoslavia.
Months later though, he had saved up enough money, not to fly home, but to fly down my mum and infant brother. The trip was a far more luxurious journey than the two-month ship voyage my dad had to endure. As an aside, 48 years later, we’re still yet to move back — somehow, I don’t think it’s going to happen!
My parents initially settled in Whyalla, a steel city in South Australia. Incidentally, this is the location of a delightful story my mum often tells. Finding herself in a grocery store, on the lookout for eggs, but with little command of the English language, she tried using sign language to get pointed in the right direction. But that didn’t work. All she got were odd glances and shoulder shrugs in return. She then took the cashier’s notepad and pen and proceeded to draw a picture of a chicken with eggs underneath it, circling the eggs. That did the trick.
Despite this inauspicious start, they moved to Melbourne shortly thereafter and both began working double shifts for the likes of Ralph’s Meat Company and Smorgon Steel.
By the end of the decade, this work ethic had earned them what would become an investment property in the then industrial suburb of Yarraville, in Melbourne’s inner west, and they‘d go on to build and live in a 4-bedroom ‘McMansion’ in the working class, immigrant-dense suburb of Sunshine.
It was around this time, in 1983, that I was born.
Reflections on Childhood
You could describe my childhood as Aristotelean, in the sense that my parents had cultivated a life for me and my sister at the mean of excess and deficiency. They bought me an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System when I was six, but it would be another twelve years before I upgraded my gaming console (a second-hand Xbox that I had bought for myself in 2002).
Super Nintendo? Nintendo 64? Fuggedaboutit!
Similarly, having scored my driver's licence in 2001, I quickly tired of driving my parents’ 1994 Toyota Camry around (I know right? Who would’ve thought such a thing), and decided to buy myself a very Australian 1996 model Holden Commodore. My dad said he’d match me dollar-for-dollar, so I scraped together $6,000 from countless $15 an hour, half-day shifts at retailer Target, and was on my way to cruising the city streets with Motley Crue’s Kickstart My Heart blasting through the car’s mediocre sound system.
This was another example of his toeing the line. He strove, whether deliberately or otherwise, to give my sister and I enough — not too much, to the point where it might make us complacent, but not too little, to the point where it might have a debilitating effect on our development. But just enough to lay the foundations for us to build upon, echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s sentiments in the book, Outliers: The Story of Success.
I didn’t know it at the time but these principles would serve me well almost two decades later when I entered the entrepreneurial domain.
He also sought to instill an appreciation of mathematics, income-producing assets, saving and the power of compound interest! On incoming-producing assets, he’d often play handyman at my first investment property, or bust out the jack if my car was playing up — which, as a banged-up, decade-old car, happened often.
Despite having grown up on a small village in Eastern Europe, he tolerated and even entertained some of my more antisocial, pop-culture tendencies, such as growing my hair long, dying it black, and wearing skull-adorned t-shirts with distressed ripped jeans. He bought me my first stratocaster guitar and Marshall valve amplifier when I was just13. I recall him haggling, successfully, with the shopkeep, despite not having any idea about musical instruments. He paid cash, of course.
Given Australia’s time zone, we’d wake up at ungodly hours of the night to watch football (aka soccer). I still remember having our eyes glued to the screen at 6am one Monday morning in Melbourne, watching the heroics of Brazil’s Romario, before witnessing Italy’s Robert Baggio embarrassingly miss what would become the decisive penalty of the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
Reflections on Adulthood
Having made the transition from teenager to young adult, I discovered what young adult males tend to discover at this age, alcohol, parties, and women.
My 20s could be characterized as play hard, work hard.
While I often found myself at the bottom of many a bottle most weekend nights, I did manage to earn a bachelor’s degree in business, and a master’s degree in accounting, before scoring a gig at Ernst & Young and commencing my short-lived ascent up the corporate ladder.
Despite the association with a big brand name, for most of my twenties I was still just a punk kid on a modest, mid-to-high five-figure salary, living for the weekend.
This was something that my dad ultimately frowned upon. He didn’t approve of my alcohol-fueled reveling and believed that I wasn’t living up to my potential. To some degree, maybe he felt that I was putting his sacrifice and hard work to waste.
To translate as best I can, “I never thought a degenerate would come out of our family”, he once told me. I think he said it, not to hurt me, but to inspire me to change my ways.
Still, despite our differences and frequent verbal jousting, whenever I hit a milestone, such as passing a difficult exam, scoring a pay-rise or a promotion, my first instinct had always been to pick up the phone and call him. It had always been to let him know the good news before anybody else. Like most males, I sought validation from my dad.
His Last Days
But when I was 27, he was diagnosed with myeloma, a type of cancer that develops from plasma cells in the bone marrow. Over the next 18 months, he would frequently be checked into hospital wards, receive blood transfusions, and then be checked out.
Then a few days before Christmas in 2011, he complained of intense pain in his legs, and so it was off to the ER again. I recall having tickets to see Finnish metal band, Children of Bodom, play that night. As such, I was a little deflated to be spending the evening in the hospital for what I anticipated would be another routine check-in/check-out procedure.
But he wasn’t going home that night.
After several days of fighting for survival, with the team at the Alfred Hospital taking all sorts of measures to help turn the tide, my sister and I were pulled into an office by one of the doctors and told in no uncertain terms that there was nothing else they could do.
He only had days to live.
I remember breaking down crying moments later, before being consoled by my brother-in-law. I held back the tears and put on a brave face — something I would continue to do for the ensuing months that followed.
Having spent New Year’s Eve by his bedside, it was on the morning of 2nd January, while at home working out, and trying to sweat out the negative emotion, that my sister walked in and gave me a solemn, tearful look.
I knew that he was gone.
I gave her a hug, and so began the first day of the rest of my life without dad.
Before, during and after the funeral, I felt numb. Like none of it was real.
We spend our childhood and later years fearing the loss of a parent, as if it will be the most painful thing one could endure and be our undoing. But then it happens, and our survival instincts give us no choice, but to accept, adapt and move on.
I tried to move on with my life as best as I could, and in many ways succeeded in doing so.
Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until a year later, when I scored a job offer to take on a role I had coveted with Australia’s largest investment bank, that that instinct, to let him know the good news, returned.
For a split second, reality was suspended and I reached for my phone to let him know the good news. For a split second, he was still alive. And then reality set in. It was at this point, fourteen months after he passed away, that it finally sunk in.
My dad — that tower of strength who had always been there for me, who had worked his fingers to the bone to provide a better life for his children, who had instilled in me fundamental values that still serve me today — was gone.
And no amount of success in my own life was going to change that.
Since his passing, I’ve gone on to find success as an entrepreneur with several ventures, and have become a published author; feats that dwarfed anything I had achieved while he was still alive. Feats that, I think, would have lived up to, or surpassed his hopes and dreams for me.
Part of me will always wonder, and will always want to reconcile the irreconcilable; the idea that he left this world disappointed in me.
My mum, whose presence I am more grateful for now than ever, tells me that he wanted nothing more than to see me reach my potential, and that if he knew what I had achieved since his passing, that he’d be dancing in the streets like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
While our relationship was strained at times, for the most part, deep down there was a mutual respect. This respect is now manifest in sharing a glass of whisky, or Macedonian rakija (a fruit brandy), with him upon visiting his resting place on Father’s Day.
Do I regret the decisions I made while he was still alive? Not entirely, because in life, we often have to take a long journey in order to find the answers that may not be so obvious to us without taking these steps.
While he may no longer be physically present, his spirit lives on in my attitude, world view and approach to work.
The Tail End
At this point, I’m reminded of Tim Urban’s blog post, The Tail End. If one or both of your parents are still alive, chances are that you’ve already spent more than 95% of your time with them already. Put away your smartphone and make the time you have left count.
Nowadays, I try and visit mum at least once a week, and when I do, I still see those pot plants lined up against that brick wall, and I can’t help but smile.