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  • Geoff Cordner

Father to Son

Ben Cordner first greeted the world on 16 October 1997, 34 years and 111 days after his Dad had done the same - the latter being a man born 34 years and 99 days after his own father. And in doing so, there being no further siblings to challenge him for the title, Ben would thereafter share with his father the mantle of being forever the youngest sons of a youngest son.

On Saturday, 4 October 1997 I had taken my father out for lunch. This was something, I admit somewhat sheepishly, I had rarely, if ever, done before. As the two of us basked in the beautiful spring sunshine, at what we now know as the Opera Bar, alongside arguably the most beautiful harbour in the world, I asked Dad why he thought I had chosen this particular day to spoil him. His birthday being nearly six months away (or more than six months earlier, depending on your perspective), he was at a loss to explain. Those of you who are mathematically minded, and who have been reading carefully, may be able to hazard a guess at the solution my father was unable to provide?

“Today Dad I am the exact age, to the day, that you were when I was born” I explained.

“So I thought this lunch would be a fitting way for us to acknowledge that milestone, and for you to give me some insight into what life was like for you back then, when I arrived into your world”. (I talked quite formally in those days it seems). He was delighted, as I hoped he would be, with that quirky concurrence of events. Even moreso given that the arrival of his eighth, and final, grandchild - a boy, to be known as Ben(jamin) Thomas - was then imminent. And so we spent the next few hours eating, drinking, comparing notes, swapping stories, reminiscing, and generally learning more about each other’s lives.

It was a special day.

Not that long before Ben died I spoke to him about that father/son lunch back in October 1997. Almost before the story’s full significance was discernible he had assured me with compelling sincerity that we would be doing the same when our own moment arrived -

a date we then calculated as falling on 4 February 2032; ie the day upon which, all going well, he would find himself the same distance from his birthdate as I had been from mine on the day he was born. Oh, to know what tales we might have shared on that day, now still almost nine years away, my boy and I.

My father and my older brother both earned University degrees in Science. When time came for me to choose elective subjects for my final two years at high school my Dad convinced me that, whether or not I enjoyed them – which I definitely didn’t! – I would probably be well-served by selecting physics and chemistry.

Hmmm. As it turns out, not so much.

35 years later Ben and I would find ourselves having essentially the very same conversation my father and I had had all those years before, only in reverse. That is to say, this time it was me counselling Ben against taking too many science-based subjects for his HSC, fearing an outcome similar to my own. His response was quintessential Ben.

"Thanks for the advice Dad, but I'll be right".

Which, of course, he absolutely was. So much so in fact that he would not only pass those subjects with flying colours at school, but would go on to emulate his paternal grandfather and uncle by obtaining tertiary qualifications in Science. I could no sooner have done that than fly to the moon - something, incidentally, Ben would have loved to do.

Different as we have been in many respects, including our academic preferences and talents, I am obliged to concede, upon reflection, that Ben and I are also very much alike. By way of example, we are both heart-on-the-sleeve people in emotional terms, for better and for worse. We have very similar senses of humour. We enjoy a lot of the same movies. We love to dance. We are not especially uncomfortable being the centre of attention. (Indeed there may have even been occasions when we sought the spotlight?!) And we both value knowledge, and love to learn.

An incident in early November 2018, just a couple of months before Ben's death, when Linda and I were holidaying in the Barossa Valley, emphasised to me at the time how similar my younger son and I are. This particular night Linda and I were recuperating after an exhausting day's wine-tasting by watching an episode of the British TV crime drama, Endeavour. At 10.48pm, as the show reached its conclusion, I sent Ben a text:

“These numbers are the clue to a killer’s identity 74 17 18 19” (they being the hymn numbers placed on the wall of a church by a witness to the Endeavour murder). At 11.40am the next morning Ben texted back: “I can’t get it”. My response was cruelly brief:

“Clue: think scientifically”. In less than four minutes Ben had the answer: “W Clark”.

Within that short timeframe he had worked out that the 4 numbers I had given him the previous night corresponded to the atomic numbers for Tungsten (symbol W), Chlorine (CL), Arsenic (AR) and Potassium (K) in the periodic table. My heart was absolutely full - not just because he had arrived at the difficult solution in such quick time, but because it had mattered enough to him to go to the trouble of doing so. On such small but precious moments are the foundations of our most important relationships built.

The reality of the similarities between the two of us was further sheeted home to me at the function that followed the Celebration of Ben's life on 13 February 2019. The first guest I encountered that evening, at the reception held at the North Ryde RSL Club, was a man I had sat next to in my first year at high school some 44 years earlier, and who has remained an admired and close friend ever since. (As it turns out, he also shares a first name with our first born). Back on that unexpectedly uplifting late summer afternoon Old Tim reported to me in animated fashion that the descriptions he had just heard from the teachers and the principal of Epping Boys High School regarding Ben’s transition from cheeky and disruptive troublemaker into a valued leader virtually exactly mirrored my own path through the minefield that is high school.

The first part of that analogy is indisputably true. I was, without doubt, an utter pain in the arse throughout the first few years of my secondary education, accumulating a quite phenomenal number of detentions (and canings) from years 7 through 9. And though there can be no doubt that the descension of my testicles resulted relatively quickly thereafter in a corresponding drop in the frequency of my punishments, the fact remains that Ben’s contribution to school life, as recorded and reported by those who knew more about that subject than anyone, far outweighed mine.

In case it isn't yet clear, what I have been trying to say here in The Beniverse for some time now is that being a father has been the greatest joy of my life. But it has also had its complexities. Whereas on the one hand I’ve experienced enormous pride from seeing our boys grow into men, and in doing so discover and follow their own paths in a challenging world, I’ve also wished, on more than one occasion, that they might not end up resembling their most obvious male role model too closely. That is to say, I’ve always hoped they might not inherit my many flaws, nor repeat my many mistakes.

Though a lot of people who know me may well be surprised to hear it, I’ve taken more risks in my life than many; certainly more than I needed to, and probably far more than is recommended if one aspires to live to an advanced age. I’ve put myself in a position of physical danger on numerous occasions over the past 50 years – attempted physical stunts and challenges, both alone and in the company of others, driven in dangerous conditions, or in an impaired state, competed against bigger and stronger opponents, including nature itself, in circumstances where defeat and tears were almost inevitable, ventured alone into parts of foreign cities where safety could not be guaranteed, willingly put my mind and body in positions of stress, sometimes just to see what would happen, and, even very recently, participated in activities of which I am arguably no longer capable, and perhaps never was.

I don’t say these things to impress you, or to shock you, but rather by way of background to what follows.

Of course this propensity for risk-taking is a familiar characteristic of many people, especially young men, around the globe. It is part of what allows us to work out, over time, how far we can and can’t, should or shouldn’t go, in the pursuit of exhilaration and self-realisation. As the years continue to fly by I have, I hope, tempered my behaviour to take into account that there are others who care for and rely upon me, and who will suffer equally, if not moreso, for any major errors of judgment. But it remains a part of who I am regardless. For example, I am ashamed to say that as recently as April 2018 I all but forced my wife to witness my completely unnecessary demise as I battled heavy surf on NSW’s mid-North Coast; conditions she had implored me to avoid.

Mercifully something, or someone, was looking out for me that day.

This perilous imperative, combined with a treacherous optimism which provides constant reassurance in almost any situation that there is no need to worry because "everything will work out just fine", seems to have also been a part of who Ben was. (Although anyone who has seen Ben’s older brother, Tim, perform on a sporting field will know he lacks nothing when it comes to courage, his behaviour, to our eyes at least, has rarely exhibited the kind of recklessness that so often characterised Ben’s). And I fear these are qualities Ben may have inherited from me. Of course I fear that truth, the truth that Ben’s buoyant impetuousness descended from my own, because it seems clear it was that which ultimately cost him his life. And whatever force it was that saved me back in April 2018 was tragically absent when Ben most needed it in January 2019.

How do I live on with those painful realities you might wonder.

On the weekend of Fathers Day 2017 Ben was away in the Snowy Mountains with some mates. On the Friday night we got a call from him informing us he had had a skiing accident, thereby suffering a concussion which had required him to be taken to hospital. As the conversation progressed I became more concerned - as he seemed to be downplaying the incident, and there was no way for us to know how serious it had been. Ben and I had a bit of an argument as a result, a very rare event at that time, and the conversation did not end well. I immediately sent a text: “I say these things for no other reason than because I love you and I’m worried about you”. Ben responded an hour later with: “I understand but I am actually really upset and I don’t need lecturing about how bad everything is”. I couldn’t help but send another message: “However upset you are I can assure you I am twice as worried – being so far away from you and not being able to make sure you are OK”. Two minutes later Ben came back with: “The doctors wouldn’t have cleared me without me being ok, I’m taking it easy” which was exactly what I needed, and I told him so: “I’m glad to hear that”. The next morning I sent another text: “Hope you slept well and are feeling ok, with no ill effects. Love you”, but got no response for the remainder of that day.

Then at 7.59am the following day, Sunday, I get this:

“Happy Father’s Day Geoffrey!!! I’ll see you later today but I just wanna let you know I love you so much and I’m proud to call you my dad! You’re an amazing inspiration to me, I love that you’ve never been influenced by anything but just doing what you love and it’s definitely guided me. Love you [love heart]”

Reading that text all this time later I can feel the tears welling again. It was just perfect.

And I told him so: “Thank you mate. That is a wonderful message to wake up to. Hope you are feeling much better. Look forward to seeing you this evening. Drive safely. Take your time. Dad”

So how do I prevent that sense of responsibility for Ben's death from overwhelming me?

By choosing I guess, as often as I can, to remember, not the manner of his death, but of his life. By remembering him almost every hour of every day, not as a foolhardy daredevil oblivious to the consequences of his actions, but as a vibrant young man who was passionate, who was open-hearted and loyal, who was funny and cheeky, intelligent and wise beyond his years. By choosing to reflect not just on the parts of him that may well have led to his untimely death, but on the parts that made him someone whose memory will be collectively treasured forever by all who knew him.

And on my most optimistic days I perhaps even allow myself the fleeting pleasure of believing that some elements of those admirable and worthy qualities that made the world around him love Ben so much might also have been passed down to him through the years,

father to son.


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