Getting to know a man who fulfilled most of his dreams and died with few regrets and bathed in love made me question the value of chasing great heights in my career.
All my life, I wanted to be famous. When people asked child-me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was ‘famous actress’. This developed into ‘famous journalist’ from my early teens.
I did achieve a small profile as a journalist in Queensland and Australia.
After a couple of decades making it a couple of rungs up the ladder of fame, I’ve stopped climbing.
I know chasing fame is a mug’s game, that sucks most of the energy and time you could be investing in loved ones and that often, it’s a waste of time.
What really pulled me up though, was the death of my husband’s 92-year-old father in 2019. Reflecting on this man’s life, made me realise that being unknown and ordinary might be as good as or better than being famous.
My father in law was a physical education teacher, school principal, player of several instruments including bagpipes and clarinet, boat and camper trailer builder, boat skipper, massage therapist, amateur naturalist, Latin speaker, skilled photographer and Super 8 film maker, keeper of an encyclopaedic amount of general knowledge, father of five and grandfather of nine. My experience of him during the time I knew him in the last six years of his life was of a lovely man, full of good humour and wholesomeness.
His life included the hard yakka of being a teacher and principal in mostly country schools and lots of recreational time camping, composing and performing music, boating and road trips with his wife and children. While he and his wife went on one trip to Europe, he told me his only regret was not travelling more overseas, (though his sons tell me that as a motorbike rider, he had another notable regret which was buying an ex WWII army BSA when for the same price he could have bought a brand new Indian Chief).
He was offered the role of school inspector, but declined because he would not have enough free time with his family. He made a choice not to advance his career because he valued his personal time more.
Of course his life wasn’t all perfect and nor was he, but by most standards, his was a mostly happy family and he was a happy man. One of the first things my husband said to me the day we met was “I had a happy childhood”.
When my father in law was in hospital during the last days of his life, his room was full of people in the day time, with one or two family members sleeping in a chair at night. They included his wife of 60 plus years, his children, grandchildren, several in-laws, friends and a former school student. People wanted to spend time with him, right to the end. Some of his grandchildren stayed for hours and days. They didn’t just drop in to quickly and awkwardly say goodbye. They sat quietly in his room, going on some of that final journey with him. To me, this speaks volumes.
After he died and was farewelled at a Requiem Mass in a packed Brisbane church, I Googled his full name and there was not a single reference. He had done many notable things, but nothing to warrant an online or public mention. This shocked and saddened me, at first.
I’m a journalist and university tutor with a wide circle of journalist/politician/somewhat famous friends and relatives. Although a porn star has taken my name and pushed down my Google rankings, I have dozens of Google mentions of my published writing. When I lived in a capital city and did more media, people often recognised my name.
But was I/am I as happy as my father-in-law with not a Google mention to his name? Are online mentions a measure of a good or even notable life?
The Parents’ Tao Te Ching says
“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
I reflected on my father in law’s time on the planet, a life that maybe some would see as ordinary. During that life there was time to:
- build a boat and campervan, both of which the whole family enjoyed for years
- start a post-teaching career as a massage therapist and lead the Queensland massage community
- live an intensely practical life where he could build or fix almost everything
- maintain a deeply loving relationship with his wife of almost 60 years, Eileen
- teach his children well
- be available to build close relationships with his grandchildren
- learn the bagpipes in his 70s
- travel around most of Australia and gather a rich knowledge of native wildlife and plants
Any observer could see he enjoyed his life. His loving marriage was central to that, but I think the couple’s approach to life that celebrated the ordinary was important too. I see this in his children who live similar lives working hard while giving themselves the gift of time to deeply enjoy their own and their children’s passions whether these are singing, dancing, building, cycling, four wheel driving, restoring old cars, photography, bushwalking, spirituality, craft or music.
You know how some people are still handsome and beautiful in their 80s and 90s? Some of this is genes, but I think inner happiness and a well lived life play a role in the face you end up with. My in laws are examples of how your life shows on your face.
These lives lived well were not lived on a grand scale and the family are not given to grand gestures and statements. But they are all there, quietly, consistently for each other.
When my father in law was making his final journey in a Brisbane hospital room in 2019, his wife, children and grandchildren did not say big end of life things to him and he had simple messages for them. He said things like ‘Have a happy life’ and they said things like ‘Thanks for being a good Dad’.
I made a grand statement: ‘You are one of the best men I’ve known’ and he lightened the mood and showed his humility by saying ‘second best’. Classic.
On one of his last nights on earth, I heard his wife say ordinary words to him that were extraordinarily beautiful because they were the words of a life partner simply saying thank you and goodbye. Though he was very weak, he reached his head out to kiss her.
He slipped away peacefully a couple of mornings later with his wife and daughter nearby.
This departure happened in a fairly ordinary way and there was none of the high drama that happens when people die in my family. What was extraordinary to me was how my father in law affected people.
For example, his cardiologist (whom he’d known for years) choked up and left the hospital room hurriedly after telling my father in law he didn’t have long to live.
Witnessing this man’s life and being married to his son and being in his family has changed me. I’ll continue to write, because I’m a writer. It no longer matters as much if my work is published in prominent publications or if I become a famous blogger or win a Walkley Award. I have been published in mass media many times and it felt amazing and my name got recognised for a while and life went on and nothing really changed. What really changes my life for the better (or worse) is what happens at the micro level.
The surge of joy when I get photos of my great-nieces and nephews picking vegetables and fruit from the wheelbarrow gardens we made together. Helping celebrate the 50th birthday of my friend of 30 years. Discovering edible weeds in the garden and making an ancient Persian wild greens pie. Watching the dawn on the beach with my adult niece and her kids.
I no longer think it’s sad that there is no mention of my father in law on the internet. I know that his presence glows in the eternal internet of my mind and heart and in many others. I remember the times he did little things that kind of amazed me.
One day when he and my mother in law drove for four hours to visit us, he got out of the car and my husband and I said ‘Do you want a cup of tea? You must be ready for a rest after that long drive.’
This 89 year old man stood on our veranda in the crisp autumn country air, stretched his arms out and looked out at the view of our lush green gully and declared ‘I feel invigorated!’
Journalism students are taught news is when ordinary people do extraordinary things, or extraordinary (famous) people do ordinary things.
My father in law didn’t fit either description. When I told my husband the title of this article he said ‘I don’t think Dad was ordinary’ and I tend to agree. Although I only knew my father in law in the last years of his life, I reckon he made the ordinary come alive with the energy, wit, intelligence, integrity and good humour he brought to the things he did.
I hope I can do the same and not let pursuit of extraordinary joy blind me to the ordinary joy that’s available every single day.