Category Archives: New Zealand

Good grief

Sunday 16 August,2015. I’m driving home and talking to my father on the car phone. It’s a winter evening but the days are getting longer.

 

Me (in a grave tone): Notice you can hear those chirpy birds at dusk now. The really chipper ones. They’re all happy and chatty …

Him: Ugh. I know, I know. They’ve been turning my stomach cold for the past couple of weeks. They may as well be yelling “Chirp, chirp!! Summer’s coming! Summer’s coming! Chirp!”  I’d like to shoot them.

Dad looking casually suave ... and me looking like a boy with special needs.

Dad looking casually suave … and me looking like a boy with special needs.

Neither Dad nor I are fans of the Australian heat.

 

Me: And they’re not even edible birds …what other birds do we eat besides chicken? Duck. I can’t think of any others …

Him: Royals used to eat swan.

Me: True. What other birds do we eat?

Him: Oh I don’t know. Geeses …

Me (laughing): You just said ‘geeses’ instead of geese! Idiot.

Dad chuckles. The energy of our amusement is accelerating.

Me: And turkey! We eat turkey.

Mum and Dad as Crusaders

Mum and Dad as Crusaders

Him: Yes! Turkey!! Ha, you squawked that word the way you mock me about squawking words when I’m excited! … But then I squawked it straight after you!

Me (laughing): Quail, we eat quail.

Him (speaking with a grin I can hear): Well I wouldn’t eat a bloody quail.

Me (still giggling): I know you wouldn’t. And pheasant, we eat pheasant.

Him: I wouldn’t eat a bloody pheasant either.

I continue laughing. Dad tries to laugh but it triggers a coughing fit and we end the call.

He dies a few hours later.

Both of us as adults

Both of us as adults

The following Friday, a cloudy day in late August, we bury him. My brother-in-law and I speak at the funeral, my mother reads Dad’s favourite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

At the grave, the wind blows robustly around us as his New Zealand relatives sing in Maori and perform a fierce and powerful haka.  It’s an impressive finale.

For the fortnight following his death I keep phoning him. We used to speak to each other for about an hour every day, and habits are hard to break. Our final conversation was a typical one and I miss those talks.

Dad was my father, confirmed by our unnervingly similar personality quirks and physical make-up. But mainly we were friends. We shared the same interests, held many of the same views, and had a borderline telepathic understanding of each other’s thoughts and responses.

Dad

Dad

I’ll miss our connection and I’m disappointed that I’ll have no new Dad-related anecdotes. But thankfully many of them are indelibly imprinted in my head (and I’ll soon repost two that I wrote in 2012, you can see them by clicking on these links – “Fatherly Advice” and “Balloon Friends”).

It’s a month today since Dad died.  (Though it wasn’t until Monday 17th that we knew).  It’s sad that he’s gone, but his death has ended his suffering. My grief is intense and will continue for a long time, but mostly when I think of him I smile (or chuckle out loud) at the endlessly (& often unintentionally) entertaining things he did and said. On balance, it’s a good grief.

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A reality check

In darkness, from a wooden boat on a still river, I’m staring up at the walls of a huge cave.  Its vast ceiling is covered in thousands of tiny, magical-looking lights.  Except they’re not lights … they’re glow worms.  An hour earlier, at the entrance to the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, I’d confessed to another tourist that I’d only recently realised that glow worms were real.  He responded, absolutely seriously and somewhat accusatory, “You must have read fairy stories when you were a child though and they had glow worms – what did you think the glow worms in those were then”? (Mentally, I’m sure he added, “What are you, an idiot”?).  Hmm … I decided to remain silent about the logic of using fairy tales to prove the existence of something.

Our diminutive tour guide proudly informs us that she auditioned for The Hobbit.  I think of a friend, an imposing 6’8”, and how constricted he’d feel in these tunnels.  On the other hand, my mother (5’1”) and her husband (5’0”) could quite happily set up their own hobbit home in here.  The atmosphere is surreal in these murky, ancient surroundings and my imagination quickly embraces a world where hobbits, fairies and giants might exist.

Our “Little Guide” (as she calls herself) interrupts my daydreaming.

Little Guide:  Who knows the name of the parts of the cave that drop down from the roof and the ones that come up from the ground?

Mum (without hesitation – she has more than a touch of the Lisa Simpson about her):  Stalactites and stalagmites!

Little Guide: That’s right. And which one is which?

Mum (pauses, unsure of the answer and internally reprimanding herself): Ooh, I’m not entirely sure but I think stalactites drop down from the roof.

She’s correct.  She always is.

Little Guide:  The caves have amazing acoustic ability.  Would anyone like to sing a song?

My mother looks at me and I telepathically plead for her silence; she visibly struggles to restrain herself.  Little Guide sings a lilting Maori song and then explains the lifecycle of the glow worm.  The scientific details don’t hold my attention – I turn and look in awe at the 24 million year old cave.  Absorbed in the wonder of the place, my mind easily drifts.  

Of Maori descent, my father grew up here – his family farm is three miles away.  He and his friends played in these caves (an image that conjures up the movies Stand by Me and Goonies; I’m clearly a child of the eighties).  They swam in this river and scared themselves with local stories about spirits who inhabited the place.  The fear is entrenched; to this day, he refuses to go underground.

My father’s imagination has been passed to me – a blessing and a curse, depending on your viewpoint.  In my mind, in this cave, and in this moment, times and worlds are interchangeable – aided by having been in four time zones in nine days, a recent immersion in the unreal and the absence of daylight.  In two weeks, I’ve read all four books in the Twilight Saga; the previous night I’d watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; at 3:30 this morning, I’d risen to watch the lunar eclipse.  Wizards, goblins, werewolves and vampires are floating through my head as the norm.  

Harsh light suddenly hits my eyes as we exit the cave and disembark.  Abruptly I’m returned to the physical world.  Leaving us on the river bank, Little Guide directs the boat away from us back into the tunnel.  I want to follow her into the enchanted cave and remain in The Shire with the hobbits.  Reality will never be for me.

 

Afterword

Since writing this, I’ve been to Rotorua’s thermal springs and the breathtaking Huka Falls.  I’ve walked through dense forests and by crystal clear rivers – I’ve never seen comparable natural beauty.  New Zealand fuels the imagination in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  I don’t think I can bear to tell my father he was right about this country … it’s magnificent.