Tomb Sweeping and Memories of those we miss…

In a world filled with opinion and the range of information available to us now, how is it that we can still get each other so very wrong? This past week would have been my late father’s 92nd birthday.

This post is about the nature of memory; particularly how we remember those who have passed away. It’s also in honour of the Chinese festival Qingming from the 4 – 6th April; the tomb sweeping festival – where people make efforts to remember their ancestors.

Jack Brady was a WWII veteran from service in the northern parts of Australia (Darwin and FNQ) and Papua New Guinea. He also worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) throughout the Northern Territory in Australia. He was one of the last lighthouse mechanics in the Australian Lighthouse service – travelling to locations around Australia with remote lighthouses before they were fully automated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Before an early retirement for health reasons he led a most interesting and somewhat adventurous life.

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He had ischemic heart disease and was retired with a veteran’s pension plus his own superannuation when he was around 50 and went on to live on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland. He boated and fished and had numerous medical interventions before his death at 79 in 2002. He was an amazing man with a thirst for knowledge about the world and a huge interest in people. I am here in China for a few reasons, but a significant one is because of my father’s legacy and shared interest in Chinese culture.

How we remember our loved ones when they are no longer here and sometimes how there are many, apparently different, but not irreconcilable views:

  1. My father’s words. There is so much more that I understand now about my conversations with my father that I did not understand years ago. What is sad is that he is no longer here with us to be able to ring him up and say “hey Dad, remember this? You were so right!” One of those conversations was about the Chinese people he remembered working with and growing up around in Melbourne in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was fascinated by Chinese culture and really wanted to come here. One of the things was that he, himself, loved being in his pyjamas and he used to say that Chinese people liked to wear them out. He used to joke with me that he belonged in China because there were days he didn’t want to get out of them. I used to laugh at him and think this was a stereotype. I was wrong. Daily I see people out in the street in their pyjamas and it’s just acceptable. Not in huge numbers but it’s noticeable. I am not about to say what this means, it just is how it is.
  2. Ideas about who said what. This relates a little bit to the above. My childhood was filled with crises about my father’s health. My mother and I have come to an understanding that we have very different views about the years between when my father retired and when he died. My mother firmly believes he was happy to retire and did not miss working life at all. My memories are that he missed the lighthouse service and his work out in remote areas of Australia. I think the reality is that it’s both. I also think that he told me information that he knew he could tell me and not upset me and vice versa to my mother. I think that there were days he hated being ill and retired, despite getting to travel and fish and do things in people’s workshops for fun and to keep his skills up. I think there were days he did not miss working and lighthouses and engineering workshops at all. I think our lives are a mix of emotions and feelings and that most definitely all of us will have regrets and moments we are extremely proud of. I do know one thing; he wanted me to follow my adventurous spirit that I inherited from him and do interesting things in the world like I currently am. I shall walk the Great Wall in his honour.
  3. “If only we knew then what we know now” in regard to heart disease research or “everything old is new again”. Medical science doesn’t have all the answers, but a good attitude, diet and exercise are paramount; regardless of what we think we do or do not know. The experts are not god, we are the masters of our own lives if we choose to be. My father lived to an age not expected given his heart condition. When I was born in 1970 he 47 and had a massive coronary when I was just ten days old. My mother struggled with the reality that she could lose the man she loved. She is twenty years his junior and doted on him completely.   She still to this day says how angry she is for him “leaving” her (she is referring to his death).  They stood by each other and had what most people refer to as a “fairy-tale” marriage.  But it was far from a fairy-tale, but a genuine story about how love  heals.   He was put through hell by medical science, often in the name of his health, seemingly life-saving, but a lot of it unnecessary, painful and intrusive. Again my mother and I agree to disagree on some of this – but she and I agree that the understandings about heart disease then and now were very different. For example they told heart attack survivors to not exercise; now we know getting back to exercise is very important and would have prevented a lot of surgical interventions that my father endured. I feel that if we had known that; he would have been prevented a large amount of pain and discomfort caused by severe medical interventions.  Mum feels “you do whatever it takes”. My view on “whatever it takes” is exercise and diet first and foremost; Mum sees it a bit differently, but we are both right. Again I think it’s about perspective.

11129711_10153216834156810_975965424_nMy Mum just wanted Dad to stay present  as priority and I wanted him to be in less pain as a priority – but we both fought hard for both to be achieved through to his death. It was me that invoked the living will for Dad to be able to go home and die (at his request). He entrusted me with this because he knew Mum would not be able to let go and that was the nature of their relationship.  But both my mother and I had different, but still complimentary roles in his life.

Western medical science is now giving huge weight to exercise and diet in regard to the treatment of heart disease, a value that they didn’t attribute in 1970. The balance is that Dad, in my opinion, only exceeded the expectations for his longevity because of his desire to stay alive as long as possible.

My Dad’s fighting spirit, compassion for others and longevity despite chronic illness are amongst my strongest memories of him. Medical science had a part in that, but he astounded Doctors over and over; the reason for that was his attitude.   On that my mother and I most certainly agree. The irony is that in China, heart disease is nowhere as prolific as it is in western culture – and people are much more physically active and tend to have better diets.  That this prevents and assists heart health is considered old knowledge not new.

Everything old is new again, no one is ever truly gone to us, they live on – in our memories, our thoughts and our actions.

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