top of page

A House is Just a House

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

We no longer reside in West Ryde. After serving us so well it seemed the time had finally come for us to move on from our house in Falconer Street in the latter part of 2021.

But it wasn’t easy.

Fourteen and a half years. The longest period of time I have lived in one dwelling during the course of my entire life. Fourteen and a half years, representing more than half our married life. And more than half of Tim’s life. And even though Ben was there for only eleven and a half of those fourteen and a half years, it was still the place he called home for more than half his life too.

Of course there have been other family members during that time. Our devoted and selfless dog Oscar spent almost ten of his 14 years at Falconer Street. I will always remember the heavy pall of sadness that surrounded our family discussion back in June 2017 - when we agreed, the four of us, that we needed to put Oscar out of his pain once and for all. And we were all there with him, arms wrapped tightly around one another, when he drew his final breath at the local veterinary clinic on a bleak weekday winter’s morning.

Because that’s what being a family means, doesn’t it? Together always - for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

And beyond as it turns out.

One of the major attractions the house in Falconer Street offered when Linda and I first walked through it just days after it had come onto the market back in 2007 was the secluded local park nestled just over the back fence. And although it never got quite the amount of use we anticipated it might at that time, I still hold very fond memories of watching Tim and Ben, and a bunch of the neighbourhood youngsters, playing touch footy together out there on numerous afternoons. Games that almost always concluded with the entire group sitting on the grass in a large circle, sharing stories and laughter as the shadows lengthened around them.

Our boys were both younger than just about all of the other local lads, who had been using this park for many years before we arrived; but thankfully that never once gave us any cause for concern. The youthful associations boys make can change the course of their lives – for better and for worse. How blessed we were to arrive in a neighbourhood filled with young men who respected and looked out for one another.

And still do. A couple of them recently invited Tim to share a house with them. They have quite possibly realised, as we certainly have, that Tim cannot be our security blanket forever ‑ comforting as it has been to have him operating within our immediate orbit these past three challenging and disorienting years.

That park out the back played host to many memorable moments over the years – including Ben’s 10th birthday party, just months after Falconer Street became our new home – as well as the burst water mains that turned it into a giant Slip ‘N’ Slide not once, not twice, but three times during our residency.

Over the years the back fence copped plenty of punishment from those burst pipes, and from a number of major rain events, that occasionally saw raging torrents cascading unimpeded down the grassy slope. But more commonly the damage was caused by a colourful array of soccer balls, rugby balls, cricket balls, golf balls, tennis balls, and many other balls besides. I guess in a house full of active males it is almost inevitable that balls (and ballgames) will become the order of the day.

A ball game the boys and I often played in the early years at West Ryde was one they referred to cryptically as “The 4-6 Game”. Tim and Ben would take turns throwing a tennis ball to where I was standing on the paved area of the back yard, at which point I would hit it back at them using a tennis racket or cricket bat. Competing together as a team ‑ by far the preferred way for brothers to participate in a backyard ballgame scenario, at least from a supervising parent’s perspective ‑ they would attempt to catch the ball on the full, or field it cleanly on the bounce. Points (runs) would be awarded against them each time the ball bounced, or was fumbled, or catches were dropped. After 10 clean catches we would repeat the process, and the boys would try and come in under their previous score.

Both of them had very good hand-eye co-ordination, but little tolerance for errors – especially their brother’s! And of course Ben was a master at putting a little bit of extra mayo on his saves and catches to make them look more spectacular than they otherwise might have. A consummate showman even then.

In truth the back yard at Falconer Street didn’t need too much doing to it when we arrived, but Linda’s green thumb soon saw it transformed into an even more pleasant and peaceful oasis. And the construction of a modest swimming pool about 18 months into our tenure completed the picture.

The poolyard was the scene of what was, looking back, an amusing interaction between Ben and I not that long after it was finalised. By way of background, in the back park, just beyond the property’s rear fence, there stands a large gum tree. It is, unsurprisingly, even larger now than it was when we first arrived. And its presence was given scant regard when the new pool was being mooted, approved and built. Big mistake. It has been a bane of my life ever since.

Anyway, on the day in question – circa 2010, with Ben aged around 12 or so – I asked him to help me clean the leaves out of the poolyard area. I’m talking literally thousands of leaves. Needless to say he was not impressed. “Why bother? There’s only going to be more of them there tomorrow”. His argument was a difficult one for me to counter, but I tried. “The more we leave lying around, the more that will end up in the pool” was my response. And for good measure “Anyway mate, you don’t get asked to do a hell of a lot around here. It would just be nice if you came and helped without making a federal case out of it. So whaddya say?” He didn’t say much as it turns out. But he did follow me, albeit begrudgingly, into the pool area where we got our mammoth task underway.

Happily, it took us a lot less time than we were both anticipating it would to get the job done. Many hands make light work they say, and four definitely beats two, even when half of those four are attached to a doubting (Benjamin) Thomas. And the pay-off, apart from a temporarily clean poolyard, was the opportunity the exercise provided for the two of us to chat about life in general, and in particular Ben’s early experiences in Year 7 at high school. The sort of chats you only have when your audience is captive, but that are worth their weight in gold.

When the job was finished I think even Ben felt a sense of accomplishment at what we had managed to achieve in such a relatively short space of time. A useful life lesson it seemed to me, which prompted me to ask the ill-advised question: “So do you reckon you’ve learnt anything from today?” There I was optimistically expecting something along the lines of: “Yeah Dad. Definitely. It’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it, and work as a team”. Instead what I got, after a moment’s thoughtful deliberation was: “Don’t build a swimming pool next to a gum tree?” Touché.

Another attractive feature of the Falconer Street house was a rumpus room out beyond the garage where the kids could do their thing without having to worry about prying eyes or ears. God knows what they got up to out there through their teen years. Certainly video games like Call of Duty and FIFA were a popular pastime. There was a stage when I thought maybe Ben might be developing a bit of a gaming addiction, but as time went on I realised this was his preferred way to clear his mind and re-set after a long studying session. Exactly as I had done when I was the same age - only in my case it was the pool table in our family rumpus room that had served the purpose.

The back of the house has a large leafy patio which looks out to the yard, and the park beyond. It captures the sun beautifully in the winter months, but thankfully avoided much of the direct heat during the summer. That patio proved to be a wonderful place to entertain over the years, although, it must be said, much less often from 2019 onwards. Though I have little doubt the boys hosted parties out there much more regularly when we weren’t around than when we were, there were a few standout occasions when Linda and I did play a hosting role. The most notable of these were probably Ben’s 18th birthday (celebrated, at his insistence, on the very day, and thus right in the middle of the HSC exams), and Tim’s dart‑themed 22nd birthday (a surprise event held exactly one year later than it probably ought to have been, as Linda and I had been swanning about overseas, celebrating our second honeymoon, at the time of Tim’s 21st).

Another “get-together” that sticks in my mind was a relatively minor affair that Ben, not unusually, informed us about on the afternoon it was to take place, and which involved a small but zealous group, who more than made up for their lack of numbers with volume and enthusiasm. My most vivid memory of that night is emerging from my sanctuary up the hallway as things were winding down to find Ben and one of his close mates urinating side by side between the balusters off the edge of the patio, apparently attempting to douse an invisible wall of flames in the side lane, with their beers in one hand and their firehoses in the other. I freely admit I didn’t react as coolly to that sight as I might have liked.

The front section of the house comprised four bedrooms – one for Linda and I, one for Tim, and one for Ben, with the fourth playing the role of my home office. I remember, with unease even now, taking a distraught phone call from Ben in the main bedroom late one night towards the end of 2014. That day our youngest son, who had been grounded earlier in the week for some unrecalled indiscretion, had pleaded with us to be allowed to borrow the family car to attend a party in the Balmain area that simply could not be missed. He assured us he would not be drinking, but would instead play the role of chauffeur for some of his friends. Against our better judgment we relented.

When the phone call came it took only seconds to understand why Ben was so distressed - having been involved, just minutes before, in a car accident at Epping, a few short kilometres away. I made it to the scene in no time flat, and realised straight away that the result could have been far far worse than just a crumpled front bonnet, and some steering damage. It seems Ben had either misjudged his speed, and/or the distance involved, as he approached a T‑intersection, resulting in a forceful collision with the opposite kerb. Had there been another vehicle travelling either way in the perpendicular direction at that moment a dire outcome would have been almost guaranteed.

As we relocated the vehicle out of harm’s way, I did my best to manage Ben’s severe, but understandable shock, and guilt. I was left in no doubt that we as a family, and Ben in particular, had dodged a potentially fatal bullet that night. But I also sensed that, if anything, our shared experience dealing with the fallout from those events had brought he and I even closer together.

What I did not fully appreciate until much later, and accordingly failed to properly address at the time, is that the Russian Roulette of risk‑taking which characterises the early lives of so many young men can be played with more than one cartridge. And unbeknownst to us the one that would take Ben’s life a little over four years later was still sitting in the chamber, waiting patiently for its moment to emerge.

I think I knew before we started that if the house at Falconer Street was ever to be sold, the task we would need to successfully undertake at some point was the clearing out of Ben’s bedroom. The room that had seen him grow from an intelligent and funny, but occasionally self-absorbed and exasperating boy into the brilliant, passionate, and loyal young man we will remember whenever we think of him – as we continue to do every hour of every day since he left us.

It’s the room where he and I talked over the years about his successes and failures, his aspirations and ambitions, about getting hurt and getting back up, about responsibility and commitment, about being a friend, and a leader, and about being in love, and the risk that brings of hearts being broken.

It’s the room that has continued to hold so many of the cherished items accumulated throughout the course of a young life well-lived. Including those favoured clothes and books we have been unable to part with these past three years - some of which we may possibly never relinquish. Along with the trophies, medals and awards, occasionally hard‑earned, that each mark in some small but important way the pursuit of excellence, and a realisation of potential. As well as the signed shirts from school muck-up days, and seasons completed, all bearing testimony to special friendships created, and enduring bonds formed – bonds that even death has not to date, and hopefully never will undo.

But more of Ben’s room later.

Because in truth the piece of that Falconer Street house that means the most to me – the part I have found the hardest to leave behind ‑ is not Ben’s bedroom, or the backyard, or the rumpus room, or the patio. It is a triangular area about five square metres in size bounded, at its apex, by the hallway door leading to the front of the house and, at its remaining corners, by the edge of the kitchen bench, and the spot where the end of our lounge rested for more than a dozen years. My most important memories of Ben in the house we no longer call home all relate to this space.

Almost every day my first sight of Ben would be his appearance through that hallway door, en route from his bedroom to the boys’ bathroom. And on almost every such occasion, in latter years particularly, he would greet us with his hands full – that is to say, one each wrapped around his most valued personal possessions: his phone, and his family jewels – and a resounding cry of “Morning bitches!” What I wouldn’t give now to hear that cheeky salutation one more time.

But there are three very specific memories as well. The first dates back to June 12, 2014. I know the exact day with certainty because it was the fifth anniversary of my nephew Daniel’s death, and I found myself late in the day sobbing uncontrollably as I recalled his beautiful smile, and thought about how much I continued to miss him. Perhaps I was a little more highly strung at that particular time, still recovering from severe facial injuries sustained in a pushbike accident just three weeks earlier, but the emotions and the sense of loss I felt were no less real for that.

I had believed I was alone that Wednesday afternoon, but as it turns out Ben was there too – having got home early from school sport that day. The sound of my outburst brought him rushing down the hallway to check on me. In the end no words were exchanged, or needed to be. Because Ben seemed to instinctively know exactly what was going through my head. And instead of asking what or why, he just took me in his arms and hugged me tightly. Only 16 years old, and not yet a man, but already man enough to understand what needed to be done at what might otherwise have been such an awkward moment for both of us.

The second memory comes from January 2017, a month after my father’s death. Although we had held a very private family service in the lead-up to Christmas, my mother, my siblings and I had decided that a public celebration of Dad’s life needed to be delayed for some weeks in order to (a) allow us to plan and arrange it properly, and (b) ensure that as many people as might wish to attend would be able to do so after the Christmas/New Year holiday period concluded. Ben’s mastery of most things technological proved invaluable at that time, as he assisted me in collating – and, in some cases, restoring ‑ a number of old photographs that were to form a part of my eulogy.

On this particular day he and I were conducting an audio-visual run-through of my presentation, and he was hearing aloud, for the first time, the words I proposed to say about my father and his life. As we matched my speech with the pictures Ben had been responsible for managing I was focussed on the logistics rather than the words, with which I was by this time fairly familiar. So it took me somewhat by surprise when, at the conclusion of the run-through, Ben rose spontaneously from his seat, strode purposefully towards the spot where I was sitting, on the edge of the lounge, and hugged me long and hard. “That was beautiful Dad” was all he said, but the emotion in his voice conveyed much more. And it was all he needed to do to have me feel exactly as I would have wanted my Dad to feel when we delivered our tribute to him together, for real, a few days later.

And of course, most importantly of all, my last ever interaction with Ben took place within those special few square metres on January 26, 2019. It was here that he and I talked for the final time, here that we shared the final precious hug that will now last me to eternity, and here that I watched him depart Falconer Street forever.

As we tidied Ben’s room, and worked our way through his belongings, on that Saturday afternoon back in early September, 2021 it struck me powerfully, and decisively, that there is no reason for us to feel any sense of abandonment; no reason to feel we are giving any part of Ben, his life, or his treasured memory away, by leaving Falconer Street behind. Although it was our family home for more than fourteen years, the house is no longer that, or Ben’s home, and it never will be again.

And that is quite simply because, as I now thankfully understand, Ben’s home is, and always will be, with us, no matter where we go.


bottom of page