Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance… Hoping to find one circumstance… of dignity
My Father taught me a few things, without of course, knowing that he was, in the process, teaching me at all. Still, it makes me wonder. One of them involved my first post university job, or the attempt at landing one. I had slaved over my application, with what was, in a rather ironic juxtaposition of what would pass for one these days, a rather lengthy submission.
I was rather proud of it, coming in at around ten pages, ready as I was for the workforce, in the days when such an application had to be accompanied by a surfeit of references, qualifications, and of course, at that age, a significant amount of superfluous padding leading off with the obligatory covering letter. Boy could I write a covering letter, akin to a character treatise, an expose of innocent naive ambition. I went through the proof reading process feeling proud of what I had produced. I packaged up my application, carefully placing it into the specially purchased A4 envelope and took it to the Post Office.
As I saw what I considered to be a work of art slide down the chute a feeling of terror overcame me. I had forgotten to sign my magnificently crafted covering letter. A missing bloody signature. In a single agonising twist I reeled and stamped my foot in anger, tearing at my hair, which back then grew abundantly atop my head and grimaced at the sheer stupidity of failing to fulfil the most fundamental of tasks in trying to impress a prospective employer, that of signing one’s name.
I ran home, apoplectic with rage, I stormed through the front door of the family home, I kicked things undeserving of the attention and yelled “idiot”, ensuring that my Father was in earshot of the volley, gun turrets one through four unleashed from the starboard side, injuring all on board. “What have you done?” he enquired of me as he sauntered into view. “I’m an idiot,” I repeated. “I refer to my previous question,” came the riposte. “That job application I just spent days putting together, I forgot to sign my name at the bottom of the covering letter.”
It was at this point I expected some sympathy, a hand on the shoulder, a solution, a scheme to cover for the error, a show of solidarity. What I got was a half century’s worth of wisdom forged through more wars than I could even imagine. The man started laughing. I stood there glaring at him in astonishment, barely believing that a man who supposedly had my best interests at heart would have the nerve to stand in the middle of the room laughing at me. He then spoke.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he started. “If they don’t give you the job because you didn’t sign your bloody name, they’re not worth working for.” In that moment he had summarised wisdom for me. He had kicked down the door of my mind. He had shown an élan I didn’t think was possible in this ordinary medium sized country town. He also, with this one sentence, set me on a path to understand what it means to be, in the one instance, both self confident and dignified, something that I would only really begin to appreciate after he had died.
He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, nor what I expected, or necessarily, what would, at that moment, provide a fix. This wisdom was disguised in a moment of humour, which could have, in the hands of a lesser man, descended into a gauche pastiche of attempted wit. It left me, naturally, speechless. I did however summon enough composure to realise at that moment, as I walked away, that I’d need some time to process his statement, with a realisation that even though I had little idea then as to what he meant, I also had a jolting realisation still that what my Father had just said was somehow profound. He was stating a position that had been forged within his own furnace of painful learning, of being taken advantage of, of being the victim of his own good nature. He had learned, not only about how to be dignified but what it means to display it to others, in this case, to his wet-behind-the-ears son.
Displaying dignity yourself is difficult enough but allowing the space so that others can have theirs is another skill altogether. The further along the brain tumour journey I travel the more I realise the importance of this second skill, that it becomes less and less about me and more and more about others.
Part of this entails the complete jettisoning of the need to be right, to step back and just be dignified as so many I’ve come across already were long before I turned up and that, in fact, it’s perfectly okay to be wrong, about a circumstance, about a person, about an outcome, in fact it can be liberating. I can more easily identify dignity in others and very quickly retreat from the need for judgement in any form.
I have too many stories of my Father to tell here but one I will relay involved a certain Miss Reeves, a beautiful, old local eccentric lady, and her cat, one of her numerous canine companions. My Father had received a late night phone call to say that Malcolm, the cat in question, had been bitten by a snake and was in urgent need of a medical miracle. So the local veterinary surgeon jumped in his car and drove to Miss Reeves’s house, to find Malcolm lifeless on the verandah floor, cold but still alive. Dad immediately fulfilled the first law of medicine, a law some medical practitioners still, regrettably, neglect to observe, that is, you must always first examine the patient, and discovered that lo, Malcolm had not been bitten by a snake, there was no bite, there was no snake, there was no stiffness. The problem with Malcolm was that he was severely dehydrated.
The Vet injected electrolytes straight under Malcolm’s skin and informed Miss Reeves that she should give him plenty of water, and do the same for all her other cats, assuring her that Malcolm would be all right. Miss Reeves sighed deeply and said “Mr Newman, you have saved Malcolm’s life. How much do I owe you.” He wrote out a bill for $5. Miss Reeves looked at the bill in astonishment and then said, as if she was back acting out her former vocation as a Primary School Principal, “Mr Newman, I know for a fact that snake Antivenin is very expensive, at least $200, and I have called you out in the middle of the night and your call out fee must be at least $100 and yet you have charged me only $5.”
My Father knew, instantly, that firstly, Miss Reeves, being convinced that Malcolm had indeed been bitten by a snake and that she would accept no other explanation, recognised that arguing his case that Malcolm was no more than a dehydrated cat in need of fluids would not wash. He decided to hand Miss Reeves her dignity, or perhaps save her the indignity of dragging the local vet out in the middle of the night.
“Well Miss Reeves, it’s like this, I get all the out of date Antivenin for free from the local hospital. It’s still just as good, it still works but they have to throw it out otherwise, government regulations you see, so they give it to me.”
“Oh, that’s alright then,” she said. “Are you sure?” He was a brilliant physician and not always clever businessman, as some would count clever. He allowed Miss Reeves to maintain her dignity by allowing her to believe, in that moment, whatever she wanted to believe in order to protect the ones she loved, Malcolm and the twenty six other cats in her colony. Malcolm, later that year, sent Mr Newman a Christmas card.
I have worked this much out, that what people going through any type of life changing event want, be it a brain tumour, any other type of tumour, a mental illness, a seemingly insurmountable challenge, a threat to their family or anything else that those who are not, at that point, suffering as they are, despite their (our) own extant troubles, is dignity. It needn’t involve words, it can be space, time, touch, silence, smile, laughter but most of all confirmation that you are there, with them. We display dignity when we give the other person the space to tell their story without feeling the need to raise ours, or our version of theirs, in some form of phoney competition, or as some sort of comparison. As Mozart said, the beauty of music is not in the notes being played but in the space between them.
I suggested to Dad, a few years after he had retired, that perhaps he should go and buy himself a nice Mercedes Benz to drive around town in, being the retired country gentleman that he was. He replied by saying “There is one thing Steve about living in a country town that you have to realise, if you have money you don’t show it off, a lot of people are struggling and don’t need you to remind them.”
I was with my father when he died, too early, too young, some six years ago. We had turned off his life support after he had had a massive stroke, honouring his instructions to allow him to maintain the dignity he had displayed all his life. He kept going for a further three days. As he took his last few breaths I held his head gently in my hands, I leaned down, I kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear all I could summon in that moment. All I said was “Thank you Dad.” I’d like to think that this magnificent man understood what I was trying to say and that he had a wry chuckle with it.