Bruce Leslie Smith 1932-2001
He was my dad, but he belonged
to many people beyond myself,
and to God most of all.
What was he – my dad?
A teacher, a preacher, a poet –
perhaps a poet most of all.
What made him tick – my dad?
He was a capable academic,
an elegant speaker,
a wordsmith of some renown,
but this river had a source,
and its source was hidden, though never secret –
the hidden presence of Christ within.
‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!’
Was that St Paul or my dad?
My dad was an evangelical
who embodied the best of the mystical tradition –
practising the presence of Christ.
Everything was integrated for dad –
praying, breathing, thinking, eating.
He lived that way and he taught that way.
He taught us the philosophy of Socrates
(or Kant or Kung or Kierkegaard.) but then,
instead of appropriately restricting himself
to dealing with a body of thought, we found that
he had us wrestling with the man behind it!
When he preached, he fooled us into thinking
that he was just dealing with a text, but then suddenly
we found that it was not the text that we were dealing with, but with Christ Himself!
Here was a man who could not speak about Jesus
without also speaking to Jesus. Here was a man who
practised the presence of God.
Who was he – my dad?
He was a workaholic academic who, ironically, failed
most of the university degrees he set out to complete.
He was a human being who fell in love, was married
and was divorced, and who never got over his feelings
of guilt and pain.
He was a father who loved his children,
sometimes inadequately, but many times wonderfully,
and inspired them to try to become decent fathers themselves.
He was a man who had a passion for life –
for music, for art, for the beauty of creation,
for gentle conversation over coffee with friends.
He was a friend of Christ,
who practised the presence of God.
Who was he – my dad?
He was many things to many people.
To me – he was my dad.
I left dad at around midnight. Actually, it could have been an hour either side of midnight. I wasn’t really very aware.
We’d spent the whole evening there with dad – Andy and Rob and me – in his little hospital room. We’d been laughing and joking – remembering old times.
He didn’t seem very ill. The oxygen mask on his face was a bit of a give-away I suppose, but apart from that he seemed pretty much his normal self. The hair was gone, of course – brushed away by the first bout of chemotherapy – but we’d become used to that.
I’d been through much of this before of course, with my mother, over twenty years earlier, but you forget the signs.
Mum died a death by inches as I remember it, and I do remember that. She was only young – still in her thirties I think. I was younger again of course, still a teenager – a terrible age to watch your mother die.
There was so much pain then. The pain of the illness was terrible. The pain of her divorce from dad, all the lost friendships, the unsuccessful love affairs, having her name dragged through the mud, watching her children (and me especially) go off the rails – these things must have been the greater hurt. And there was so much left unsaid!
I guess that there was much to be thankful for in dad’s case. I think we had time to say just about everything there was to say. I can’t think of anything I really regret doing or not doing with dad. And it wasn’t an agonizing death by any means. So why does it hurt so much?
I told dad a risque joke that night – the one about the guy who pisses all over the bar after a bet with the publican. It was an odd thing to be doing on my last night with dad. That sort of thing had never been a part of our relationship, though dad had loosened up considerably over his later years.
He wasn’t old! Sixty-eight years old. That doesn’t seem very old to me. He didn’t look very old – well, not to me. And it’s not as if he’d slowed down much. He was flat out lecturing, preaching and teaching only a few months ago – at the height of his career it seemed. I had optimistically rostered him on to do the preaching at Dulwich Hill this week. We’d kept pushing the appointment back week by week as the release from hospital kept being delayed, but that’s all we had ever been thinking in terms of – delays. Well, perhaps that’s all I would let myself think in terms of.
I couldn’t accept that he was dying. He was still moving about under his own steam. He could still get to the toilet without aid and do all those things that help a man to maintain his dignity under the stress of hospitalisation. His mind was still as sharp as a tack. His wit was undiminished. He was not living and speaking like a man who had only a few hours left to live.
I held his hand. I clung to it. In my mind were all the images of the man who had towered over me like a mighty colossus in my youth.
I remember that time, I must have been only five or six years old, when the garage shutter at St Barnabus’ Broadway dropped on my dad’s head and almost knocked him unconscious. He let out some expletive – ‘Gorn’ I think it was (expletive enough for dad) – and he stumbled about. I remember the horror I felt at seeing this invincible and unflappable figure, my hero and my defender, staggering about and loosing control. I never forgot that terrible image.
I remember the time when dad lost his cool with us. I only remember it happening the once. He was taking us back to mum’s place, only shortly after she had taken us from him. I must have been twelve or thirteen. The three boys – we were all sick as usual. We would contract colds, upset tummies, and allergies by the bucket-load. It was our normal state. Dad made some comment about us being a ‘bunch of cripples’. I remember the pain of feeling that I had let dad down, and a deeper pain, that perhaps dad had let us down. He never said anything like that again.
I remember the climactic day when I beat dad in an arm wrestle. Week by week we would go over to dad’s place, and week by week each of us would take him on in an arm wrestle. I must have been fifteen or sixteen on that mighty day, when finally the tables were finally turned.
I was the oldest of course, so the other boys, while they did their best, didn’t really stand a chance against the big guy. Even so, they took their turns. There must have been a sense of apprehension though when I finally took my position. Week by week it had been getting harder to dad to floor me. Week by week I’d felt him straining ever more greatly to hold me back. Yet I could not have known that this would be the week, the day, the moment! We gripped. We struggled. We sweated. My dad started to turn red. Suddenly he stood up and pulled away in pain. He could take it no longer. It was over – the ritual never to be repeated again.
Rob was always the realist. Before he left the hospital he said to dad ‘I’ll see you in the morning, but if you have to go before then, then that’s OK. It’s been a privilege being your son.” It was a great thing to say. Andy and I were less realistic: “We’ll see you in the morning.”
I decided to stay on at the hospital for a time, while dad went to sleep. Despite the fact that he had explicitly told us to go home and get some sleep, it just seemed like the right thing to do. That was where I wanted to be.
I watched dad go to sleep, and got increasingly comfortable myself. The hospital seemed comfortable. The silence seemed comfortable. Most comfortable of all was the sense I had of being in the right place, doing the right thing – a dutiful son, sitting by his father’s bedside, ready to spring into action if he needed me.
Then he woke up. “What are you doing here? Go home and get some sleep!” “I’ll sleep better if I know that you are sleeping well, dad,” I said rather feebly. Within fifteen minutes I was back in my car, trying to remember my way home.
He should have let us stay. He should have at least let the nurse get us in the morning, when she could see that he was fading fast. “No, no, let them sleep,” he’d said. “They’ll get here later in the morning.” We did get there later in the morning, but the struggle was over before we arrived.
It’s not as if any of us would have been at home sleeping soundly. I stayed up until nearly 4am, sitting at my desk, painting my set of American Civil War action figures. I was up and about again at 6.30am, wondering what I should do. I decided to go back to work on the toy soldiers, though I really wanted to be somewhere else.
I was pouring my time into one figure – a rather dignified looking general with a receding hairline. As I worked on him, I had his hairline recede further and further. I realised I was modelling this figure on my dad.
Perhaps I could take this colourful figurine into the hospital. Dad would probably be amused to see it. I’m sure he’d see the resemblance! I’m sure he would be pleased. Then I remembered my three-year-old coming up to me only the day before: ‘look dad, I painted a picture of you’. I shuddered a little. Then the phone rang, to tell me where I should have been all along.
It was a mighty funeral. It was held in one of the biggest churches in Sydney, and the church was full. There were more bishops floating around than you’d find in half a dozen chess sets, and men and women of note were abounding. The speeches were beautiful. The choir sang. Tributes were given. The rituals were performed. And then we all went home, except for dad.
It was very public. He was a public person of course. Even so, I had to keep reminding myself – this is my dad that I am burying.
And now the public have gone, and we, who knew and loved him best, must go on and do the work of grieving alone. This is always the way of course. I’ve taken over a hundred funerals myself. I know the score. Yet it doesn’t make it any easier.
Why did you have to go dad? Why couldn’t we have spent just a bit more time together? How am I supposed to go on living, dad, now that you are gone?