My Dad, a Man Briefly Known

This post I have ummed and ahhed about, I realise, for 6 months now. You will note that I started it way back in March. It is really easy to share about other people’s lives who have been gone for a hundred years or so, but in comparison, when it is solely about you and those closest to you, that is a whole lot of anxiety right there.

But as that old saying goes, if you are going to talk the talk…..so, here goes. This is my Dad, Gary Hugh Macvean.

There is quite a bit that I would like to share about my Dad, but this is the story that I want to tell now. How I found out he was dead.

Today is the 14th March 2021, one day after my 52nd Birthday and the 9th anniversary of my Dad’s passing.

Gary Hugh Macvean Funeral Notice
Figure 1: Courtesy of Herald Sun

This listing above was posted online. At the time it posted, I did not see it.

It wasn’t until 2.5 weeks later that my Mum, who was living with us at the time, came running into the house and informed me that she had just stumbled onto it whilst looking up to see who out of her group of friends might have passed away.

Gary Hugh Macvean Legacy Listing
Figure 2: Courtesy of Legacy.com

It is sad to say, but I wasn’t surprised. I always knew that this would be the way I would find out about Dad’s passing. Up to that day of finding out, it had been six years of silence from him.

I don’t have a photo from that last time together six years earlier, but this one below is the final photo taken of us as this version of the Macvean’s. It was only months after this that Dad was gone.

The Macvean’s, 1984 (Graham, John, Gary & Patricia)
Figure 3: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

This is how I remember Dad. With that vaguely annoyed stare that could turn, in an instant, from docile disinterest to seething anger. The contempt for me literally oozed from him at this stage. I didn’t know then why, but the answer would come in a couple of years’ time from this photo. The effects of that knowledge, I’m still dealing with now at fifty-two.

The last time we spoke before finding his funeral notices was when I went to Tasmania to visit him in hospital.

His Wife, had rung me at home the week before, out of the blue, and told me that Dad was in intensive care and not expected to survive. Complications of a failing liver and a lifetime of alcohol abuse. I remember feeling stunned, and an instant realisation washed over me that I needed to go and see him.

This is a photo from Dad’s 2nd wedding. I only have this as my cousin shared it with me. I wasn’t invited, in fact, in true soap opera style, I only found out Dad had remarried when Mum tracked him down and took him to court to try and get some maintenance money from him for my brother.

Mum returned from the court hearing and told me. I remember my world shifting when Mum told me that he had step-children and that Dad was looking after them. I was floored, I’d been giving all of my pay bar $20 and my weekly bus ticket to Mum to help cover their debts they had when he left.

Figure 4: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

Dad, obviously later in life. He and his family lived in the Huon Valley and were involved with horses. I’m assuming that this must be down there in Tasmania. I found this online via a Google search.

Figure 5: Courtesy of Facebook

I had no money, I was working part-time as a Customer Service Officer at the local Community Options program. Calan our second born was only a couple of months old and Alex was already back at work as she had no maternity leave as we hadn’t even been in Forster for 12 months. So I did the only thing I knew to do, I asked Mum for her help.

She of course gladly and very generously helped out with a ticket to Tasmanian from Sydney. Just one thing, she was coming with me. I remember thinking for a split second of asking her not to go and let Alex go in her place and her stay and look after Xander while we took Calan with us, but the grateful, dutiful son stepped in and stopped me. I think now, almost 16 years later, how different things might be if I’d had the courage to ask her to sit this one out.

What Mum failed to see then, and I didn’t put together until much later, was, that her time with Dad was done. This was about my Dad and me, not her. At the time, it was 21 years since they split up and roughly 16, 17 years since they divorced. He had remarried, he had another wife and family, who had been part of his life for many years.

When we arrived I rang Dad in hospital and told him I was there to see him. He sounded genuinely over the moon to hear that. We arranged to come straight over. When we arrived he was by himself. It had been nearly six years since I had seen him. I shared about the boys and Alex and he shared about his life in the Huon Valley.

While we were there two friends of his who owned a Pizza take away came in to visit. I think they shared more about Dad and his life in Tasmania, than they intended too but I think they were really happy for Dad that his “…long lost son…” was there visiting. They invited us to come and get Pizza from them if we were going to drive down to the Huon to have a look.

I was desparete to try and connect with Dad. He told us where he lived and I genuinely felt that he wanted us to have a look. We then left on this mad eight hour road trip with me trying to discover something, anything of my Dad’s life in Tasmania that I wasn’t a part of, with his ex-wife, my Mum as my driver.

I look back, with a mix of sadness and anger, at my lack of courage and Mum’s decision to go. If only she had realised and let me go by myself. I would have had some time by myself with Dad. Maybe Dad’s Wife, wouldn’t have reacted so badly to me just turning up. Instead, she absolutely lost it when she saw Mum and I at the hospital.

My memory of the final moment with Dad is his Wife storming out of the hospital room and Dad being so deflated and uncomfortable laying there in his bed. I knew instantly that we had to go. I could see that it had cost him greatly, us being there. He handed me the small photo album back of the boys, his Grandsons he would never meet. Alex had made it up for him. I ordinarily would have said, “…no, that’s for you to keep…” but I knew it was too much for him. I remember Mum hugged him and said goodbye, and she waited outside the room.

I cannot remember my exact words, but I know I wanted to say, something about, now that I was a dad two times over, just like him, I couldn’t understand how he kept me out of his life. I wanted to know why he just threw me away? What had I done?

Xander, Calan & John, March 2006
Figure 6: Courtesy of Bebe Jacobs Photography
John & Gary, abt: 1971
Figure 7: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

Gary & John, abt: 1970/71
Figure 8: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

His final words, when he left us back on Father’s Day 1984, were never far from my mind when I thought of him. They were delivered to Mum who I was standing next to at the door of our unit “…when we get back together, it will be without him” and he angrily gestured his head towards me. Why, what was my offence at fifteen years of age that warranted that level of devastation? I remember looking at him, frozen to the spot, I couldn’t say anything, I just watched my Dad leave.

This photo below is where we were living at the time, 78 Undercliffe Road, Earlwood. Our balcony was in the middle row, second in from the left.

78 Undercliffe Road, Earlwood
Figure 9: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

I don’t have a photo of that day he left, but I do have a photo of the doorway where it all took place. The one on the left. When I look at it, it is the same as looking at a photo of a bad accident. This is where this version of my family died.

Figure 10: Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives

It’s just nothing, isn’t it? So non-descript for a space that would be so important to me. I say would as the split hasn’t happened yet in this photo. This was taken at my 15th birthday with two of my mates from school, Martyn and Pat. It was a crossdressing party, (Culture Club had just hit it big) it’s the last birthday of mine that my Dad was ever at.

Gary, Kath (my Nan) and Patricia, 1984
Figure 11: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

Im sure you can tell what my Dad thought of the theme. His effort was his tuxedo bowtie attached to his jockey singlet top and his ever present stubbies.

This photo below is from my 17th birthday, 18 months since it happened. Right behind the girl sitting on the left. Mum stood just outside the doorway in the centre I was on her right and Graham my brother was standing in front of her and we were all looking at Dad who was in front of us about to go down the stairs.

Figure 12: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

No, as I stood there in that hospital room in Tasmania, looking at Dad who was obviously so sick, no questions about these incredibly wounding words delivered in this very doorway above, came out of me.

I just said in a halting tone, “… I love you Dad, I always have, and I forgive you.” We held on to each other tightly in that awkward embrace when leaning over someone laying down. I remember he had this high, hoarse whispering tone that he got when he got emotional. It was almost like trying to deliver something casually, while it was obviously steeped in emotion.

In that tone he was saying “…it’s all good mate, don’t worry. It’s all good.” I was trying to hold back the tears at this stage, and I did see the tears welling in his eyes. We both hoped it wouldn’t be the last time we would see each other, but it was. These were the very last words Dad said to me.

It is thirty-seven years and one month since the episode in the doorway above happened, and this is the first time I have ever written anything down about it. When reading over it like this, it is like I’m pulling apart my own DNA. It is one of the defining base pairings of who I am.

You might be wondering at this stage, why am I sharing and at such a personal level? Well, I hope there will be some value gained from it for someone down the track. For my boys, Xander & Calan, or maybe their children or their children’s children if that happens. I know the value it can hold, words with this depth.

If you have been reading any of my earlier posts about my 3x Great Grandfather, George R Nicoll, and me discovering his ancient words at the National Library, put to paper in 1890, you’ll know how important that has been for me in understanding the people who came before me. Hopefully, my words might have that same effect in the future.

Looking back at the death notice above, there is not one mention of me, my brother or my mum. It was like we were nothing, we didn’t exist, and yet he was my dad. He had been such a huge part of my life however short his time in it. I remember again that feeling washing over me, I had to try and see him even if he was dead.

I don’t recall the exact conversation with Alex but she was once again supporting me and saying “…go! we will make this work.”

There are just not enough words and I don’t have the writing skills to share with you just how amazing it is to have this phenomenal, generous presence in my life. My beautiful best friend and partner in everything, Alexandra. But hopefully, you get the sense of just how amazing Alex is to me and that she is the most important thing in my life with, of course, our beautiful bambinos.

It was Monday the 3rd of April, I know this because we have a photo of me leaving the next day.

Alex, John & Calan
Figure 13
Figure 14
All courtesy of the Macvean Family Archive
Alex, John & Xander
Figure 15

Dad’s funeral was on the 20th, so I was fourteen days too late. But it didn’t matter, I just knew that I had to head down to Melbourne to the funeral home. It was the only place I could be certain of that Dad was maybe still at, or at least they might have some information for me as to where he was buried.

It’s funny to think but when I left I was driving off blind as to where I was going or what I was going to do, I was just so certain I had to get in the car and figure it out as I went.

I was alone this time. Wishing once again that Alex and the boys were with me, but we just couldn’t make that happen at such short notice back then. I had however developed enough strength to make certain that Mum wasn’t coming with me this time.

A shitload of stuff had happened to me by the time these photos were taken of us on that April morning. Stuff that shone and continues to shine an intensely bright light on just how destructive my parents’ relationship was on my development as a person and the impact that it had and is still having on me.

I headed to Sydney and stayed with my Nan overnight. I rang the funeral home and they of course couldn’t confirm any details for me except to say that Dad’s family hadn’t collected his remains as yet. Meaning that he had been cremated. I sent Alex and the boys a picture from Nan’s balcony the next morning before heading off.

I look like I was pretty calm. I was, but I knew this was one of those shift the world slightly moments. Things were different now.

Figure 15: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

Now this is surreal, but I headed down to Melbourne via Canberra and I timed it that one of my breaks would coincide with dropping into the National Library to view George Nicoll’s book. At this stage I wasn’t really aware of the handwritten manuscript but only of the book. The Librarian that booked the viewing of the book informed me of the manuscript.

This was all organised from the car on the drive down on the hands-free speaker. I mean, what was I thinking? I was only there for an hour to give myself a break, but I regret it now. At the time, I was worried that the break would cost me my chance to be with my Dad. But I knew there was no way that I could make it to Lillydale to the funeral place before 5pm closing on that day. The earliest I could do was first thing the next morning, the Thursday.

I made it to Benalla and camped the night.

Figure 19: Courtesy of Google Maps
Figure 20: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

Lillydale was still 2.5 hours away. I got there right on opening Thursday morning and Dad was already gone. I had missed my chance to say goodbye.

Figure 21: Courtesy of Google Maps

I can’t remember the names of the people who were working there that morning, but they were so kind to me. They obviously knew what the story was. I did hear one of them let slip that the threat of legal action had been mentioned in relation to me being there. This didn’t seem to worry the guy looking after me, he said not to worry and opened the chapel were Dad’s funeral was held and played the music and photos that were played at Dad’s funeral. They brought me a cup of tea, some biscuits and said to me to stay as long as I needed.

Figure 22: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

I sat there by myself in that chapel where sixteen days earlier Dad’s family had sat to send him off, and I howled. I’d only ever done that once before, when I left Alex at the hospital after we lost our second baby, Orson to miscarriage.

The pain just wracks through you and comes out. I don’t remember for how long this happened, but I vaguely remember the staff bringing in some tissues and me taking this photo. I remember I rang Alex, and I know I phoned Mum and demanded that she find someone for me to talk to that was at the funeral. She was in contact with an old friend Jeff who was still in Dad’s life.

Somehow she managed to organise for me to receive a call from Wayne, my Aunty Karen’s 2nd husband, who I hadn’t seen for over thirty years, he had been at the funeral. I honestly don’t remember the conversation, just the absurdity of it and the fact that this poor bloke who only knew me fleetingly as a 13-year-old was trying his best to help me out all these decades later. I hope I said thank you to him, it meant so much to talk to someone who knew Dad at that moment.

I literally have no memory of what I did when I left the funeral home, but I ended up back at the Benalla Tourist park that night. I headed back up to Sydney, to Nan’s the next day.

Whenever it was just the two of us, Nan would always take me to the Bardwell Park RSL for dinner. My Pop was one of the founding members, and it has always been a bit of a focal point for our family. And it was just the place and person to be with after the emotion of the day before. God, I remember feeling so far away from Alex and the boys at that moment though.

I got back to them the next day on the Sunday, a six-day life altering trip.

Figure 26: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives, Unfortunately this was the only photo I had of us this day. A still from a quick video.
Figure 26: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

I thought I would share this with you. The night I found out about Dad’s death, I wrote him a quick note and posted it on my Facebook page. I posted it to his online memorial, but it was never published.

Figure 27: Courtesy of Facebook
Figure 28: Courtesy of Facebook

You look at the photos of me in this post and it is so easy to put that smile on and look ok, but I find when I sit down to write something out that is when I can’t hide how I’m really feeling. This note says it all. That searing pain hasn’t gone, but it has dulled. Then some days something happens, and it reaches out and gives you a smack even after all these years. In another twist, and another thing to carry, I did find out years after that it was actually Dad who left instructions that I wasn’t to be informed of his passing or his funeral. It was all his decision and his family were following his wishes.

There is another bit of the story that I haven’t woven in yet, but in a nutshell I will give it to you now.

Before I left Dad at the hospital back in Tasmania in 2005, I did say to him that I would call to see how he was going. My problem here is that I didn’t say this in front of any staff and have it noted down that Dad gave his permission for any information to be shared with me.

The first couple of times I called the hospital, I got fed an obvious line that Dad was busy with a Doctor or something like that. On my fourth or fifth attempt, a Nurse took pity on me and told me that they had orders that nothing be shared with me and that she was sorry to have to tell me, that Dad went into a coma after I left and hadn’t regained consciousness. She said that the Minister of Health had been involved in the issue and that legal action was threatened if anyone spoke to me. I thanked her very much for having the decency to tell me.

Oh, the guilt was pretty palpable. I tried calling Dad’s family, but each attempt ended up with the phone being hung up in my ear. A short time after these phone calls I received a letter from a Solicitor informing me that my Dad had informed them that he did not want a relationship with me any longer and that they had instructions to commence proceedings against me for harassment if I tried to contact him, his family or the hospital. I also received one from Tasmanian Health, advising me of the same thing.

This nearly broke me at the time and if I’m honest it definitely still stings when I think about it too much.

Mum found out a couple of months later from the old family friend, Jeff, that Dad eventually came out of the coma, but he had to have a leg amputated due to complications with his medical conditions.

So, I’m finally nearing the end of this story. It has been a rough couple of months writing and thinking about what happened, but I’m glad I have done it. There is a postscript to add.

Three years after Dad’s passing, I literally stumbled onto a video that I noticed was titled “Ned’s Story”. It caught my eye as this was my Dad’s nickname. I could not believe it, but it was actually about my Dad. It was a video that his Wife had made with their local health provider discussing their experience through the health system at the different stages of Dad’s health declining. It was such a gift, and I was so grateful to Dad’s Wife for doing it. Not only that, but it gave me answers to so many questions I had for so many years.

I knew I had to offer my thanks, I searched and found Dad’s Wife on Facebook and sent one of those blind messages to someone that you aren’t connected with, thanking her and explaining what it meant to me to finally hear what had happened to Dad after all these years. I have only been able to watch it the once, as it also delivered one last almighty smack to the guts for me.

In it, I discovered that Dad made the decision to take himself off dialysis even though he knew that it would mean he would die. It apparently took two weeks for this to happen. As a father myself, I can’t reconcile how he didn’t send a letter, an email, a phone call a damn slip of paper saying something to me, his son knowing that he was going to be gone. It is a slight tear in me that I don’t see how it will ever close.

I did receive one final gift, however. A year or so after sending my thank-you message to Dad’s Wife, she found it and reached out. We’ve had some wonderful online conversations that I am so grateful to have had. We have been silent for the last three years, but I reached out last night to let her know that I was nearly finished this post. I mentioned to her a few years ago, that I was going to write my story and share it with her. It has taken awhile.

This to finish on. The last photo taken of me with my Dad. I only ever saw Dad two times after he left us in 1984. The time in the hospital in Hobart in 2005 and the day this photo was taken. He and his wife came to Sydney to visit before Alex and I married in 2000.

It had been sixteen years since we last saw each other in person on the landing of that damn unit in Earlwood. I’m very grateful to have this photo, as I can almost convince myself that he was happy to be my Dad.

Figure 29: Courtesy of The Macvean Family Archives