Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rocky 1

My dad was pretty strict. Even when I was an adult, I had to ask permission to go out with my friends at university (I am male). In retrospect, this was his love in action, he was so scared that something bad might happen to me or my brothers and sisters, that he wanted the final say in every detail, and if at all in doubt, he would say no, the safest, easiest answer. Besides, why would you want to eat at a restaurant when mum’s cooking was better than restaurant food… (I now realize he was right). I was the eldest, so he “learnt on me”. (I can only say this now as a parent of adult children).
Dad was an Italian immigrant, and when he arrived in Australia, he could not speak the language. He relied on other distant family already here. He had no money, so he wanted to work to secure some form of home for himself.
He worked all of his life. Work was morally good, and achieved the goals he set. Rest or leisure was morally bad. Work gave dad a place in a society he did not belong to, he didn’t mind the effort involved, because he had a clear goal. And this goal was providing a place for his family to live, food on the table, and an education for his children. He always craved the education he never received in Italy. It was war years, poverty, and the need for children to contribute to family income that robbed him of schooling. He always felt inferior because of this, and he always expected the highest results from his children, who were blessed to have the opportunity of a good education in Australia.
I remember the day the teacher/world-book-encyclopaedia salesman visited our home, unexpected by me, but not my parents. They decided that these books would help our education, so despite the price tag, they were willing to spend the money. These were the laptops of the 1970’s.
Dad always expected me to top my class in grades. Fortunately, or unfortunately this mostly happened in primary school.
When the high school years came, my mum and dad thought seriously about working a little harder to pay for private school education, and in the end thinking it would help make their children doctors and lawyers, they sent us to the local catholic high school.
All that dad wanted of me was obedience, respect, and a medical degree. He was happy for me to involve myself in sport and music at school, but wasn’t so keen on the weekend commitments as he would need me to help him with various jobs he was doing as a builder or backhoe operator. I still remember dreading being called out of bed early on a Saturday morning to join my father on a work site, where I would have to watch what he was doing, work manually when necessary, clean bricks, load rocks, help change a tractor tyre, sit in the truck on the way to the tip, and generally not be at home, watching TV or working on whatever personal projects I had my mind on. It felt like torture then, but now I realize how precious those times were. Dad was often short tempered with my lack of interest or initiative, but I still remember that when he was concentrating on his backhoe, digging a serious trench for footings or for pipe lines, there would be a smile on his face. It wasn’t a deliberate “I feel happy smile” it was his go-to concentration expression. None-the-less, it was a smile I will not forget.
I was only occasionally paid for my labor, but if he did allow me to go out with friends he approved of, he would always give me enough cash to more than cover unexpected expenses.
So after high-school finished, I did get into medicine, and he was proud of me. And while doing medicine, I met Christian people who encouraged me to look at who I was and what I believed, and in my second year, with the help of Ian and Rob, I became a Christian.
Dad wasn’t impressed.
He couldn’t understand why I would be interested in attending religious weekends with other young people. Also he trusted no religious institution, believing that money was at the bottom of most people’s motivation, religious or not.
So when I wanted to go to church elsewhere the answer was no, as well as most other things I wanted to go to. Still at Uni, I was able to go to bible study, and God still ensured I got the fellowship I needed. (Dad would occasionally and unexpectedly sometimes say yes to some things I wanted to do. Mum might have had her hand in this, as well as the Holy Spirit).
I still went to mass with mum, and I still benefitted spiritually from some of the catholic fellowship in my home parish. But clearly I was now different. A born again Christian, a bible believer, I wanted to hear more strongly the truth of salvation in Jesus which I now believed. Not just the hope of salvation without assurance. In those days, the liturgy at mass seemed to place more hope on the  ongoing practice of the Eucharistic sacrament by the believer, rather than on the completed work of Christ on the cross.
But dad only went at Easter, Christmas and funerals. Catholicism was his birth religion; he had no need or desire to change. My religious convictions were a thorn in his side, somewhat.
Still, my dad loved me, and I knew it. 
I remember the day my long distance girlfriend dumped me. She was my first  serious girlfriend. I had met her at the end of my studies. I did an elective term in Darwin. She was a nursing student there. We met at the Baptist church ( I always used time away as an opportunity to attend more bible orientated churches) On the day I left we decided to seriously keep in touch, so for 6 months, while I suffered all the stress of being an intern, I would save all my change, and every weekend put it into the payphone up the street from where we lived, ringing Rachael and spending as much time speaking to her as I could. When I finally got some holidays, I was straight on a plane to Darwin, despite dad’s foreboding.
In Darwin, it was quickly apparent that the fire had gone out in Rachael's heart, as far as I was concerned. There was another Christian guy who had won her heart, and I was was uncomfortably second best. I rang home to tell my parents what had happened. Besides being heart broken, I felt stupid for wasting money on a flight to Darwin. (I guess these things are best to happen face to face. There was no email or web in those days).
There were tears during this phone call. But they weren’t mine, they were my dad’s!!! He was so upset for me. I thought he would be telling me off with plenty of I-told-you-so’s, but instead, he was crying out of love for me and my painful situation. He was worried I might decide to take my own life. He just wanted me home. He loved me, and I knew it clearly.
Then there was my first car. The diesel Gemini. I was a Christian who didn’t want to own anything much in case I became engrossed in them. I prayed that God would find me a cheap bomb. But of course, in my idealistic faith, I expected a bomb that would keep working. Dad knew better. We went to the car yard and we test drove what, to me, felt like a Mercedes benz. A small, not too old, diesel Gemini, which was worth $5000. Definitely more expensive than what a true Christian should own, is what I thought. Dad knew better, and he bought it for me.
It saw me through the next 6-7 years with minimal repairs. 
 But did Dad have faith? If he died would he go to heaven?
Occasionally something he would say made me wonder, but I never had assurance for him.
Certainly I would never expect him to join me on a weekend of Christian teaching, especially “Spring School” at Chatswood each September.
Over the next 10 years I would meet my wife, marry, settle in a country town a long way from Sydney, and have children. We saw dad whenever we were in Sydney. He visited us occasionally. He saw my twin boys start their swimming careers with some state swims in Sydney. In 2000, we had a holiday in northern NSW. We were en route at Lismore when mum rang to tell me that dad had been diagnosed with leukaemia.
I knew that he would die of this eventually. I was devastated. I had to visit a public toilet at the time, and as I looked at the tiled floor in my shock and grief, I saw, in the tiles, an outline of a cross. This was no miracle, as I had often looked at tiles on floors and toilets and concentrated on the shapes until I could define a cross, as the cross symbolized everything I believed and trusted in. The cross means forgiveness, love and heaven with God for eternity. The cross means the price has been paid. The cross means that God is in control.
But this day I didn’t try to look for a cross it just happened, it sort of stood out almost in 3D. I want to emphasize that if anyone else had been there they would have just seen me looking at the floor covered with tiles, they would not have seen anything unusual, because nothing unusual happened. BUT, for me, I knew God was telling me, don’t panic, I am in control, this is within my will and plan.
I felt comforted and still a tear wells up when I think of God’s love for me on that day.
Fast forward another six months. 
Dad suffered a stroke during his chemotherapy and was confined to hospital for a period of time. Mum stayed unswervingly by his side, even spending the nights by his bed. I decided it would be good to give mum a break, so I drove to Sydney and spent the night with him in hospital. That night I woke to hear dad asking God to forgive him. I was able to get up, pray with him, and reassure him that God does forgive us. I thought nothing further about it at the time.
But over the next 5 months of his life (his last), dad changed. He was less critical, he reconciled with people. And come September, he willingly came with me to spring school.
Early in December, his brother came to visit from Canada. It was traditional that dad should be there at the airport to meet him. But for the first and only time in my life, I over-ruled dad telling him he couldn’t go. It still feels wrong when I think about it. He was wheel chair bound, and not very well. I went instead. Uncle was visibly upset not to see dad there. We got over it.
Christmas day arrived. Somehow, and unbelievably, dad insisted and succeeded in attending church (the catholic mass).
On new years day, dad died.
I know that because our Father sent his Son, I will see my father again.

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