Over Easter I got to attend my sister Sarah’s wedding. It was a lovely long weekend catching up with my extended family, with Sarah’s best friends, and with her new relatives. The ceremony was gorgeous, and the party lasted two days.
There was a particularly poignant moment at the reception, when my Dad spoke in his role as Father of the Bride. Sometimes Father of the Bride speeches can be a bit boilerplate, but my Dad had come armed with something real to say.
Dad wanted to talk to the men-with-the-fancy-jobs. There were a few in the room, which often happens when a lawyer marries a surgeon. Dad’s retired now, but he used to have fancy jobs, too. His most senior role was Director-General of Health in the 1980s.
When my sister was about three months old, Dad felt a strange lump in her belly. The next day, they found out it was cancer. Kidney cancer to be precise, a Wilms’ tumour. The cancer weighed 500 grams, which is absolutely massive in a three-month-old kid. The prognosis was grim.
Dad’s a doctor, and his own medical training had said kidney cancer was a death sentence. He and Mum started quietly preparing for what they thought was inevitable.
But a skilled surgeon, armed with newfangled techniques that weren’t invented when Dad went to medical school, did successfully cut out Sarah’s engorged kidney. The tumor was intact. It seemed not to have leached or spread elsewhere, but Sarah’s poor body was subjected to 18 months of harsh chemotherapy to be sure.
And here’s the thing. Dad went back to work after Sarah’s surgery and, because he had a fancy job, soon trooped off to a World Health Organisation conference in Puerto Rico. It was, after all, an important international meeting.
Dad felt he was simply too busy at work to look after his sick daughter.
That left my Mum dealing with the, ahem, messy side effects of pediatric chemotherapy all alone, not to mention another kid and a part-time job of her own.
At Sarah’s wedding, in front of lots of friends and lots of strangers, Dad admitted that he hadn’t been remotely fair. He described it as one his biggest lifelong regrets. He said he was ashamed of himself. He cried.
He shared his innermost emotions with the room in a way Kiwi males in their 70s have often spent a lifetime avoiding. On the happiest day in the life of the daughter he thought he'd lose, Dad said he was sorry.
Then he looked up, and he sent a message to all the men with fancy jobs in the room:
No matter what happens at work, you’ve just got to be there for your kids.
You don’t have a choice.
Your job might be cool, but it’s not that cool.
You don’t ever get to be too busy when they really need you.
I get why he targeted the men in particular. Most women with fancy jobs already understand that when push comes to shove, the job comes second. All too often, though, us men are too blinkered to see it.
I think the weight Dad put on his work was partly due to the expectations of his generation. Those expectations are, I think, changing for the better, even if the pace of that change is still pretty slow.
When it came my own turn to look after a very sick daughter from 2009, my fancy employer at the time was completely understanding, and let me spend 6-8 hours, every day, at the hospital. And, for my part, I went to the hospital every day, for 6-8 hours, to be there for my kid.
And now, as a single parent, my major client understands and accepts that half the time I’m unavailable from five on the dot, regardless. They’re cool with it, and so am I.
But my Dad’s message is certainly worth sending and spreading. I still know too many people, too many men in particular, who let their jobs dictate the rest of their lives. It shouldn’t be like that, regardless how good the job is. A job is something you do, not something you are.
Good on my Dad for raising it, as uncomfortable is it might have been for him.
He can’t undo the things he regrets, but he can let us all learn from them.