Well, it’s done.
That first step has been taken. There’s no going back now.
I feel anxious, nervous, lost, inadequate and utterly overwhelmed.
But hey … what’s new?!
As time goes by
Not a month goes by where I don’t hear the words, “I knew your father”, or “Wally helped me <insert achievement here>”. It never gets old either and I love hearing the stories.
A couple of months ago, I did a lecture at a university and a student (Matt Jones) came up to me after and said: “Wally is the reason I’m getting into sports journalism”. That was special and it struck a particular chord.
My biggest fear, which I relayed to the student, is that no matter who dad was, how many people he helped or what he achieved, there will be a time when a generation coming through says, “Wally who?!”.
That statement from that student told me his memory was safe for at least one more generation.
But it won’t always be.
Don’t just sit there
I was given a suggestion by a friend about a month ago via email: “You should write his biography”.
“Hah!,” I thought. Where would I start?! I don’t even read biographies (bizarre, given I’m a journalist, I know). I’ve read two, maybe three. Andre Agassi’s acclaimed Open is on my must-read list … it’s also still on my shelf.
How would I structure it and who would I need to speak to?
Then the questions turned to statements: leave it to someone who’s capable of doing it right, because you’re not.
Moment of truth
Then, there was the most poignant.
You didn’t know him well enough to write his biography.
My relationship with dad was fairly strained for much of my life; I fought fiercely for my independence, while he resisted in his battle for control. We were caught in a war of attrition.
The result was, more often than not, farcical: he loved sport, so I distanced myself from it; he couldn’t use technology, so I embraced it; he loved the beach, so I loved PlayStation; he loved country music, so I released a hip-hop album. On and on it went.
It changed towards the end. About six months before he passed away, we started getting on really well. I think I grew up and stopped being a total wanker. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a wanker (many would say I still am), but I just wasn’t as much of one.
I’d like to think that by the time I rushed out the door on my way to work and yelled bye as he hung out the washing, we were back to being friends.
But six months is nothing. And when the ABC aired its TV special the day after dad’s funeral, I found myself seeing people I didn’t recognise and hearing stories I’d never heard.
Memory is not the only victim of time and those people who shared their stories with the ABC and have shared them with me along the way, well, at some point they’ll be gone, too. And their stories, dad’s history, will be lost forever.
You know the hardest thing about losing people? For me it’s that inability to communicate with them in any way. The “one more time” conversation that is endlessly wished for, but impossible to grant.
A lot of people say, “He’s with you, he always will be”. I appreciate the sentiment and the thought, but honestly, those words are mostly uttered by people who have never lost someone. People who, try as they might, just don’t get it.
He’s not there with me in the way I need him to be.
When I left home that day – ironically under a beautiful, pure-blue blanket, November day – dad never replied. He couldn’t hear me. “Mum, tell dad I said bye”. Those were my last words to him; a relayed message through mum.
There’s so many things I will always regret, but inaction does nothing more than build on those regrets. It certainly doesn’t quell or reduce them.
Publish or perish
So it’s time to suck it up.
I didn’t know dad as well as I would have liked and those who knew him better than me aren’t going to be around forever. If there is one thing I’ve learnt through the polar-opposite of life, it’s that forever is non-existent. The longer I wait, the more those regrets are going to grow.
I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel good enough or capable. I have no idea what to ask, or to whom to ask it. But I likely will never feel completely comfortable.
The irony that has been in front of me all along is that, if I already knew it all, I wouldn’t have these regrets about not knowing.
I mentioned the idea of a biography to my brother-in-law a couple of weeks ago over dinner: “My biggest problem is that I have no idea how to structure it. If I had a structure, I’d have an end point and if I had an end point, I could build a starting point”.
He nodded. I could see he knew something I didn’t. Of course he did, the guy’s brilliant … and annoyingly modest, which makes it hard to hate him for it. But he’s always been so measured in topics involving dad, purely out of respect.
So, after pausing for a moment, he said it: “Well, you probably already have your end point. You know who he was and why people loved him so much. So really it’s about how he became that person”.
It was one of those moments of clarity – but far from a moment completion – like placing the final border-piece of a jigsaw; there was the framework and, all of a sudden, it wasn’t so unassailable.
The first step
If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for taking the time.
I said that I had taken the first step. It’s not ground breaking. I haven’t finished the first chapter or anything. But I’ve arranged the first interview. My 96-year-old grandad, Eric. One of those to whom time is of the essence.
I contacted my aunties, dad’s sisters, who see him regularly and asked them to broach the subject with him. They thought it was a great idea. Ok, that was the easy part.
I called my aunty Jill today. We set it all up. Two Mondays from now is the first, and we’ll chat every Monday after that. Half-hour dates.
I feel intimidated and I don’t know what to ask him or where to start. But it’ll work out. It has to.
As for the second, third and every consecutive step after that; at least I know where they have to lead to now …