A tribute to my dad

My father died early this year at the age of 90, after a long but slow slide into dementia. The discussion on another thread about euthanasia and mental capacity has led me to decide to post the eulogy I delivered at his funeral.

My dad was still relatively compos mentis at the time of his death (at least a fair part of the time), but he also had almost no blood circulation in his lower legs. That resulted relatively frequently in bits of his feet becoming gangrenous and needing to be chopped off. It was that which eventually killed him; moreover his life wasn’t very pleasant for a couple of years before that. Often his legs were too painful to let him sleep, and he would just sit up all night in his recliner chair covered by a blanket.

Although he had been a highly intelligent, well-read and curious man throughout his life, my dad was unable to muster the concentration either to read or even watch TV for any significant period of time. His world had shrunk to the dimensions of a disabled recliner chair.. He was just waiting … Hence my own interest in euthanasia options.  Anyway, the eulogy is over the page. I apologise if you find it self-indulgent. I hope some of you might find it worth reading.

The eulogy

Quite a few years ago a man was walking with playwright Samuel Beckett, author of the deeply depressing Waiting for Godot, in Paris on a perfect spring morning.  The man said to Beckett: “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”

I don’t think dad ever reached quite such a low point: he still enjoyed a beautiful day. But you couldn’t help but notice over the last year or two that his “get up and go” had got up and went.  Damage from a heart attack a couple of years ago left him often struggling to find the words to express a concept formed in his still agile mind. He found it very frustrating. A voracious reader and a man possessed of a deeply curious intellect and prodigious debating skills that partly inspired and challenged me to become a lawyer, dad had reached the point where he no longer had the energy or concentration to read or even watch TV. Mostly he just dozed in his chair all day. He never actually said so (at least to me), but I suspect if asked he might well have expressed the agnostic version of the Nunc Dimittis: “I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.”

As Cec Parish’s oldest child, it is my job to trace the outline of that full life over the next few minutes, to commemorate it and give thanks for a life that was not only full but well and nobly lived. My brother Gordon and sister Susan will add their own observations to the picture I hope to paint.

Cecil Parish was born at Greenacre in Sydney’s south-western suburbs on 3 November 1923. His life therefore spanned most of the momentous events of the 20th century: his childhood shaped by the Great Depression and his early adult years by the Second World War. He was the youngest of 4 children, all boys: Len, Ern, Dick and Cec. In fact I recall being told that there were originally five boys, but one died in childhood. Their parents, Alfred and Ada, had migrated from England about a decade before. Grandpa Alfred spent his whole working life at Eveleigh Railway Yards near Redfern, while grandma Ada (who died at 99) stayed at home, minded the kids and ran a family chook farm for some years in the backyard at Greenacre. She made truly excellent apple pies too. Dad said that she had been a lady’s maid before migrating to Australia.

Dad attended Canterbury Boys High School, which was a selective high school in those days. Former Prime Minister John Howard also attended there some years later. Nowadays we associate Sydney’s south-western suburbs with ethnic crime gangs and drive-by shootings, but in those days it was almost wholly Anglo-Saxon and staunchly working or lower-middle-class. Dad did reasonably well at his studies and obtained a respectable Leaving Certificate (the equivalent of today’s HSC).

He had ambitions to enter journalism, but unfortunately dad’s timing wasn’t quite as good as it might have been. He finished school and turned 18 just one month before the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and began their military advance down the Malayan Peninsula and on through the Indonesian islands and New Guinea, perhaps with Australia as their final destination. He could have waited to be conscripted at age 20 but that would have meant being confined to serving within Australia. Instead he chose to enlist immediately as a volunteer.  After a period of training he found himself part of an artillery battalion, man-handling heavy weapons up and down the steamy, muddy, jungle-clad mountainsides of the Kokoda Track. I suspect he may have falsified his age to get there, because at least according to the Australian War Memorial website, 18 and 19-year-olds were legally precluded from fighting overseas, and dad didn’t turn 20 until the Kokoda campaign was almost finished.

Dad was wounded during the Kokoda campaign, and suffered sinus, ear and related problems for the rest of his life. He claims it was just from diving into a river and misjudging the depth, but he had a medal for it so there might have been more to it. Then again there might not. Dad was notoriously reticent about his war service although he was also quietly proud of it. He participated in the annual Anzac Day March most years when I was a small child, but that tailed off as more kids were born and the demands of fatherhood increased.

Towards the end of the war dad undertook commando training and was transferred to a commando unit. He served on the Indonesian island of Ambon for a time but I don’t think there was any active fighting there at that time.

After demobilisation at the end of the war, dad apparently attempted to realise his postponed ambition to become a journalist but found he couldn’t settle into study after four years of jungle warfare. Consequently he joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a clerk with what is now the Department of Veterans’ Affairs but was then known as the Repatriation Department (Repat). He spent the rest of his working life there, steadily moving up through the public service ranks. He mostly worked in the beautiful art deco Grace Building in York Street, Sydney but some of the time at the Concord Repatriation Hospital out near what is now the Homebush Olympic Stadium. Shortly before retirement he attained the exalted status of acting assistant commissioner, but for some years before that was a departmental director in charge of finance and computing functions.

This ultra-cautious approach to career and employment also characterised dad’s solid, prudent approach to home, family and financial affairs generally.  In those respects he was a typical child of the Depression. It may well be that enlisting in the army and faking his age (if indeed he did) were the only reckless decisions he ever took.

In 1947 dad’s luck changed decisively for the better when he met and started going out seriously with a beautiful young auburn-haired Repat secretary from Bondi named Helen Rose Cadigan. She was not only beautiful but highly accomplished, having topped all the public service exams in both typing and shorthand. Mum was the fastest gun in the east, although like dad she has slowed down a tad in recent times too.

Mum and dad married in 1949. Their 65th wedding anniversary was coming up soon, but in fact it was a 67 year Grand Love Affair. Mum was indisputably the love of dad’s life and vice versa. They were devoted to each other. That was brought home to us forcefully very recently when we had to make arrangements for them both to move into a nursing home as their health deteriorated and dad could no longer care for mum at DY Gardens retirement village. The one non-negotiable condition that dad laid down for a nursing home was that they could under no circumstances have rooms on different floors, even though one was classified by the bureaucracy as “high care” and the other “low care”. They had to stay together or no deal.

After their marriage mum and dad initially settled down to live in a tiny flat at Stanmore in Sydney’s inner western suburbs, where they saved assiduously for the house they were going to build for the family they intended to have. It took them four years of careful saving and hard work to gather the money, although dad had the not inconsiderable advantage of being eligible for a War Service Loan at a concessional interest rate.  Even better, one of their wedding presents, from dad’s Uncle Tom, had been just over half an acre of land on the northern beaches, high on a steep rocky hillside at Harbord (now called Freshwater).

There they built their dream home, a tiny two-bedroom brick house at 47 McDonald Street, Harbord with sweeping views across the Brookvale Valley to Allambie Heights, Beacon Hill and Narraweena. Their home was finished within two weeks of the birth of their first born child in September 1953. That was me. Dad and mum moved from Stanmore to Harbord as soon as mum was discharged from hospital with new baby in tow. Given that this was long before the invention of the birth control pill, we can only speculate as to how dad and mum managed to achieve such precision between the timing of the birth of their first child and the completion of their family home. I don’t think Mum is going to tell us. They lived there for the next 50 years until they moved into DY Gardens less than a decade ago when a big house on a steep hillside (which is what dad eventually created) became too much for them.

Dad immediately embarked upon a massive landscaping project on the hillside at Harbord. He invested in a pick, shovel and mattock as well as a full set of stonemason’s hand tools, and began single-handedly quarrying tonnes of sandstone blocks and dressed flag-stones. In addition to sandstone paths and patios, over the next decade or so dad constructed a series of huge dry stone retaining walls, then backfilled behind them, covered the resulting flat areas with a thin layer of topsoil, and laid grass sods which were brought from Bondi by mum’s father Denis Cadigan in backpacks that he lugged across on the Manly ferry on his frequent visits to McDonald Street. I’m not entirely sure where the grass sods actually came from; there certainly wasn’t any grass at nanna and grandad’s tiny house in Bondi. I suspect there might have been occasional unexplained bare patches in the lawn areas near Bondi Beach reserve.

Eventually there were four large grassed terraces cascading down the hillside. They provided fantastic play areas for us Parish children as we grew up, along with the bushland behind, the undeveloped residue of Uncle Tom’s wedding present. It was an extraordinary achievement of strength, determination and discipline for just one man, and dad wasn’t exactly a big bloke. But he must have been amazingly strong and fit in those days, quite possibly from lugging very large guns up and down mountainsides on the Kokoda Track. Certainly none of our neighbours bothered doing any such thing; their backyards remained steep, rock-strewn, overgrown wilderness areas, and they still look that way today as far as I know.

Now you might have thought that all this hard physical labour, along with daily commuting to a responsible job in the city, would have left dad completely exhausted. However, he clearly had quite a bit of energy left over because by the early 1960s, when my younger sister Sue was born, there were four of us Parish children. That presented significant logistical problems for a family with a tiny two-bedroom house. But dad wasn’t fazed. He elected to subdivide and sell the back half of the land they had been given by Uncle Tom. I vaguely recall being told that they got £500 for it. This was before the days of decimal currency. Together with whatever money they had been able to save, it was enough to allow them to add a third bedroom, sunroom and carport to the house. It still wasn’t exactly a palace; the third bedroom was very narrow to allow room for the necessary driveway to the subdivided block at the rear.

Moreover, it still left us with two kids in each bedroom sleeping in double bunks. In fact that expedient solution led indirectly to the only time I ever saw dad lose his temper. It was at a time when some rellies were staying with us (I can’t quite remember who just now) so that there was a divan bed in the room Gordon and I shared as well as the double bunks. I thought it would be really great fun to jump off the top bunk and use the divan bed as a trampoline to make a daring leap across the room. Unfortunately it had a very flimsy timber frame which shattered into matchwood as I landed on it. I copped a well-deserved flogging, but as best I can recall that was the only time dad ever hit any of us, even though corporal punishment had not yet become politically incorrect in those days. He was the most patient of fathers.

The carport at 47 McDonald Street, built as part of the early 1960s additions, was necessary because the windfall from selling off the back block was also enough to finance purchase of the family’s first car: a black Standard Vanguard. Prior to that the growing Parish Army had been forced to trolley around town by public transport. Acquisition of the Vanguard allowed dad and mum to expand their program of visits to grandparents and other extended family, transport us kids to a seemingly endless succession of sporting and social events, and last but not least embark on holidays up and down the coast and picnics and barbecues just about every weekend to every conceivable picnic spot within two or three hours’ drive of Sydney.

Dad also became deeply involved in his children’s sporting and community activities. He was president of the local scouting association for some years, presiding over prodigious fundraising efforts mostly consisting of biannual bottle drives that eventually succeeded in funding construction of a new Scout Hall.

Dad was also in turn president and secretary of the local Freshwater Swimming Club for many years, as well as driving us kids to swimming training at Curl Curl at 6 AM every morning between October and April. We didn’t always thank him for this when he dragged us reluctantly out of bed each freezing morning at 5:30, but we should have because it stood us in good stead physically for our adult years, even though you wouldn’t know it looking at me now. Essentially dad’s entire social life in those years (like mum’s) revolved around his children; he was anything but an absent father.

By 1968 or thereabouts the accommodation situation at 47 McDonald Street was again becoming perilous. My sister Lynne and I had reached our teenage years, and bunking with much younger siblings was getting a bit uncomfortable. More extensions were needed, but there was no more land to be subdivided and sold and not much in the way of savings because Mum had only just returned to full-time work after Susan turned five and started school. But again dad wasn’t fazed. He dragged out the shovel, mattock and stonemason’s tools from the shed and got to work. He dug and jack-hammered under the back half of the house, bashed holes in the double brick walls for doors and windows, jacked up the floors with Acrow props in order to knock out the brick piers holding them up; replaced them with big steel girders; and devised an ingenious and totally effective irrigation system to divert the torrents of water that poured down the hill under the house every time it rained. Dad managed to create two extra bedrooms, a second bathroom and a rumpus room. They weren’t quite legal height for approved living accommodation but they were damned comfortable just the same.

Soon after the extensions were finished a few years later, mum and dad’s financial fortunes had become sufficiently robust to enable them to pay for the building of a very large deep swimming pool in the backyard. Sadly, its construction also necessitated the bulldozing and destruction of dad’s magnificent terraced back garden, which I still think of as at least equal in merit to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Moreover, by that stage I was pretty much grown-up and I moved out to go living in share houses with mates while I studied at university. I returned a couple of times when the money ran out, but I never really experienced 47 McDonald Street from a resident’s perspective during its Late Palatial Period.

In fact, I moved to Darwin in 1983 after graduating in law, and I still live there 31 years later. We have returned every couple of years for Christmas since then and always stayed with mum and dad at McDonald Street until they moved to DY Gardens. They were always happy to see us, but equally happy when it was time for us to return to Darwin. Dad and mum also came up to see us a few times in Darwin, not least when they were going through their grey nomad caravanning phase after dad’s retirement in 1988.

Nevertheless, I am not really the best one to talk about the last 30 years or so of dad’s life. I’ll leave that to Gordon and Sue.

I have been reflecting, as one does, on dad’s life during the dark watches each night over the eight days since he died. It was so unexpected, even though it shouldn’t have been.  People tend to spout a lot of sanctimonious claptrap, half-truths and outright lies at funerals. Perspective is unavoidably lacking, submerged as it is by grief and sometimes regret.  Maybe I am about to succumb to that syndrome myself. Certainly dad wasn’t perfect: but which of us is? That realisation is an inevitable part of developing a mature relationship with one’s parents.  Nevertheless I hope you can see from what I have said that dad’s life has beyond question been characterised by hard work, self-discipline, patience, quiet humour, sacrifice and most of all love.  Love for his children and grandchildren but most of all for Helen, our mother, the Great Love of His Life. Being as objective as it is possible for me to be in the circumstances, I honestly cannot think of a more thoroughly admirable man that I have known during my own 60 years of life.  I am proud to call him my father.  Thank you.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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9 years ago

A very touching post Ken. I almost wish I’d been able to deal with my own father’s death with the same good grace.

9 years ago

There is the option, of course, of not chopping bits of black off the feet, and allowing nature to take its course, aided by syringe drivers full of morphine. I offered this to a patient, and then another doctor came along and said ‘you have to have the operation or else you will die.’

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

9 years ago

Thanks Ken.

Wesley Parish
Wesley Parish
8 years ago

From one son of a Cecil Parish (a Kiwi) to another (an Ocker), my condolences. My father was also active in Papua New Guinea, though at a later date than your father’s service with the Australian Army. I remember him finding abandoned ammo in the Sepik District and handing it in to the local Patrol officers.

8 years ago

Hi Ken,

Very long time, no see. You may not remember me, but I am a boyhood friend of yours, back in Harbord, and I lived just over the other (Warringah Golf links) side of McDonald St on Marlborough Ave. In those days there was a passage through our back yard out to McDonald, and I always used to pass your house walking to school. We used to go to Harbord P.S but I think I was one year ahead of you. We often went down to the rock salt water swimming pools in summer with the school. I remember your family, and particularly your Dad, quite well, who took us out in the black Vanguard to RAAF Open Day at Richmond one year. I still have an old photo of him standing by the car. Gordon played with my brother Matt. We moved away in 1963 to look after my grandmother in a bigger house up the North Shore, and obviously lost contact, as one does. If you wish to re-establish contact, just reply back to this message and we’ll sort out a way to exchange emails.
What a surprise that a simple googling of names brought up your eulogy at the head of the results list!