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Getting the Message

I have in my wardrobe a pair of socks bearing a picture of a hand with forefinger raised, and the words “Number One DAD” imprinted on them. There is also a pair of boxer shorts emblazoned with the words “BEST DAD” over and over and over.

I cannot now recall exactly when these items were given to me, although I can be fairly confident of who the donors were. What I do know with much greater certainty is that for some time after Ben’s death I could not bring myself to look at either, let alone wear them.

But more of that later.

Going back many years I harboured vague ambitions - like many of us I guess - to be really really good at something. Whether that be in sport, business, or the arts in some form I wasn’t really sure, but I just knew that I wanted to fully realise my potential in some life-defining endeavour.

By the time I had reached my mid-forties it had become pretty apparent that my dreams of doing something truly extraordinary with my time on the planet would remain unfulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, I knew full well that, in the lottery that is life, I had been fortunate enough to draw a number that allowed me to enjoy the sort of security and comforts most of the world’s population would envy.

But at my performance reviews, conducted periodically to an audience of one, I could never bring myself to tick the box labelled “OUTSTANDING”. And you know what, I am pretty sure I had rationalised as the years passed, albeit begrudgingly at times, that a grade of “VERY SATISFACTORY” demanded exactly that response from a fair-minded person.

I am very sad to say that it was around this time, as I approached my 46th birthday, that my nephew, Daniel, took his own life. Dan and I had been, I suspect, closer than the average uncle and nephew through many of his 16 years, although perhaps a little less so following his move to Coffs Harbour a year or two earlier. His death was as traumatic as it was unexpected ‑ especially, of course, for those closest to him.

I was extremely grateful to be asked to deliver a eulogy at a service held in Dan’s honour in Sydney a couple of weeks later. Speaking at a funeral was something I had never done before, but I knew instantly upon being asked that I did not want to let the opportunity to express my feelings about this very special young man pass me by.

Over those couple of weeks following Daniel’s death I had also thought long and hard about the fragility of life, and about my relationship with my own boys – aged 14 and 11 at that time. I realised there were things I needed to change in terms of the way I approached my role as a father. Indeed it dawned upon me that this, this was the thing I needed to aspire to be great at. Not playing pennant tennis or golf, securing big contracts, or writing award-winning detective fiction. What I needed to do was get my own house in order, literally, and attempt to become the role model my sons deserved.

It was a painful privilege to be able to speak of my love for Daniel on that solemn day back in June 2009. As I said then, and it remains true, “what will live longest and most deeply in my heart when I think about Daniel in the days, weeks, months and years ahead is the way he made me feel. When Dan delivered that wide and handsome smile, as he did so often, it warmed me in places that can only be touched by a generous and giving spirit. And when I looked into his dancing and mischievous eyes I saw the endless possibilities life has to offer reflected there”.

But in the course of writing and delivering that speech I also laid down the challenge to myself to do whatever I could to ensure Dan’s death did not ever become just an empty statistic, or a bunch of withered and forgotten flowers tied to a telegraph pole. I urged myself to try to be the best father, husband, brother, son, and friend that I could. In doing so I hoped that I would not only honour the life of my beautiful nephew, but that I might do my part to ensure no-one for whom I felt such responsibility would ever be lost before his or her time again.

Which brings me back to those boxer shorts and socks I mentioned earlier.

Nine and a half years after losing Dan the unthinkable occurred a second time when, at the Royal North Shore Hospital on that Saturday evening in late January 2019, Ben drew his last breath within a stone’s throw of the place where he had drawn his first just 21 years and 102 days before.

The hurt of that loss cut me deeply in places I did not realise existed. And, irrational as it may seem, I could not help but experience a sense of accountability for what had occurred.

How could I now purport to be the Best Dad possible, let alone Number One Dad, when my son’s life had ended way before its time, whilst he was still living at home, ostensibly at least, under our protection and influence? I had had one job to do. To become a father worthy of my amazing boys – and keep them safe. And far from achieving the greatness I had aspired to, it seemed I was, in fact, an abject failure.

Now bear in mind all of these thoughts were rushing through my mind in the first few hours and days after Ben’s death, when emotions were at their rawest, and clear logical thought an elusive commodity. It didn’t take long though for me to realise this self‑indulgent self‑loathing would in all probability destroy me, and at the very least ruin my relationships with those most important to me, if I let it. So I forced those feelings of culpability into the back of my mind’s darkest closet, albeit without ever actually turning the key on them.

As the days passed in a blur, it dawned upon me that if I could not bring myself to accept that Ben’s death, like Daniel’s before him, had been something I could not have prevented, then I would continue to beat myself up mercilessly about my failure to do so. Having concluded that Option 2 was, in effect, a one-way ticket to a house of mirrors from which I could never escape, or at least not with my sanity intact, I settled on Option 1. In other words, I reached an uneasy truce with myself. Not one I was entirely comfortable with, but one that allowed me to survive those early dark days.

Then in the lead-up to Ben’s (private) funeral, and the very public Celebration of his time amongst us, when I was reflecting on how to pay appropriate tribute to his extraordinary life and legacy, I stumbled across something that would change my mindset significantly. It was a handwritten letter Ben had posted to me some four and a half years earlier, whilst on camp with the elected group of prefects in preparation for his final year of high school. On re‑reading that letter all this time later, I realised that in it Ben was telling me exactly what I now needed so desperately to hear.

Firstly, that he loved me unconditionally.

Secondly, that he was proud of me.

And thirdly that, whether or not I could lay claim to being the Best Dad Ever, I had done the best I knew how. And in doing so had contributed to him becoming the incredible young man we will all remember forever with such admiration.

And that is, when all is said and done, the most I could reasonably have asked of myself.

Isn’t it?

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I have, as time has passed, been able to bring myself to wear those boxers and socks again – not because of what they say, but because of what they mean.


I originally wrote this article almost a year ago, but I could not bring myself to publish it throughout the intervening period. It just felt too raw, and seemed to expose too much.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I watched a movie called Last Flag Flying. Prior to viewing I didn’t really know anything about the film, other than that it starred three actors I admire – Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. It turned out to be a tale with which I connected strongly.

LFF is the story of a man (played by Carell) who enlists the assistance of two old comrades, with whom he served in Vietnam, to help him collect, transport and bury the body of his 21‑year old son. It is a road trip in the great tradition of such films - filled with unexpected disclosures and developments, snippets of humour, and lashings of sobering reality.

In the final scene of the film Carell’s character contemplates a letter that has been written to him by his son, Larry – to be read only in the event of his death - and delivered by a member of the unit with which Larry served in Afghanistan. The letter reads, in part:

Don’t feel bad that my life was so short.

It was a good life.

I had the greatest father, and I love you.

And somehow, just like that, it felt like the permission I needed had been given.

The Beniverse works in mysterious ways.


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