Don Abey 1 May 1929 – 19 September 2017
My last conversation with my father was when he rang on a Sunday afternoon recently, complaining of the symptoms of a stomach upset and the fact that his hiatus hernia was giving him trouble. The discomfort persisted and his GP insisted that he attend Canberra hospital as a precaution. Reluctantly, my father went to the hospital, was told his vital signs were fine, but was kept overnight for observation.
At around 7.00 the next morning I received a call from the hospital saying that after a violent episode of vomiting, my father had aspirated some of it into his lungs. The stress of struggling to breathe had triggered a cardiac arrest. They were in the process of applying CPR to see if they could bring him back from the dead. Thirty minutes later the hospital advised that they had managed to recover a weak heart beat but that he was on extensive life support systems, to try and provide his vital organs with a chance to recover from the 5-10 minutes of no blood flow.
The prognosis was not optimistic. I flew to Canberra immediately with my sons and we were confronted with the distressing sight of my father in a coma, being linked to a large array of medications and equipment keeping him alive. He never recovered consciousness and a few days later the doctors advised that the medications were now causing more harm than good. My father died within a few minutes of being disconnected from life support.
His passing was the exact opposite to my mother’s, who declined slowly and somewhat painfully over the course of 6 months as a result of ovarian cancer. It’s hard to know which way of exiting life is worse. The death of a parent is particularly confronting, even more so when it is sudden. It causes one to think deeply about many aspects of life and meaning. Here are some of my thoughts, drawn from my reflections at my father’s funeral and followed by my sons’ reflections as well.
When my father was born, on 1 May 1929, the astrologers predicted that he would be a celebrity by the time he could crawl, but would lose this status by his first birthday. He was a bonny baby and his parents entered him into the Lactogen baby of the year competition, which he won. When he was taken out in his pram, members of the public would often recognise him from the newspaper photos and he would soon be surrounded by admirers. But by the time he was one, he had lost his bonniness and with it his celebrity status.
Celebrity or otherwise, I want to share with you why I am grateful that he was my father and the lasting difference he made in my life. There are some important lessons for me as a parent.
But to start with a brief outline of his life. My father was the first child in a family of ten, which ended up settling in the Sri Lankan hill town of Nawalapitiya. His parents were Sinhalese Buddhists, with his enterprising father studying pharmacy and establishing himself as a prominent businessman in the town. A key turning point in his life occurred when he visited his grandfather and discovered a selection of English literature, including Shakesperean plays. He was entranced and brought the selection home where he devoured it.
So began a life of reading, learning, writing and a desire to share knowledge. At the age of 22, rather than pursuing further studies or joining the family business, he joined the Times of Ceylon, the oldest English language newspaper in Asia, as a cadet reporter. His parents were appalled that he had joined such a financially unrewarding profession, lacking in prestige.
But he had discovered the vocation he loved – it was far more than a job. While developing into an investigative reporter, keen on uncovering corruption, he had the good fortune to meet my mother, who was also working on The Times. She came from an educated Tamil, Hindu family and with the parents on both sides disapproving of their courtship, it led my mother and father to elope.
A few years later I turned up, which helped to reunite my parents and grandparents. In the 1960s my father became increasingly concerned about the prospects for a free press surviving in Sri Lanka and successfully applied for a job promoting Ceylon Tea as Assistant Tea Commissioner for Australia and New Zealand, based in Sydney. So in 1962 we began the first of three assignments in Australia. Each contract lasted for about 3-4 years, followed by a year or so of home leave in Sri Lanka, after which we returned to Australia.
In 1974 my father eventually quit promoting Ceylon tea, after that industry was nationalised and returned to journalism via the Department of Education in Canberra, for whom he worked as an editor of various publications. He continued reading, learning, sharing knowledge and writing until the last days before his untimely death. His final home effectively was the National Library where, with the support of the wonderful staff there, he spent a lot of time reading and researching various matters, including material for his memoirs.
We will by the way take on the task of doing a final edit of his memoirs and getting them published in the coming year. Also waiting to be published is a photo-history book of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, which my father began with the famous Australian photographer Mark Strizic.
So much for the facts of my father’s life. But what about the meaning behind them? Everyone close to my father knew him as a multi-faceted character, who could be wonderful as well as difficult. He was not a saint. But there were a number of powerful positive influences that he had on me, which I regard as gifts.
First was his unconditional love for me. There was never a day in my life when I felt that my father would not support my decisions, regardless of whether he agreed with them or not. And that gave me the gift of confidence.
Second was his love of learning, which was infectious. It’s not just that my father loved reading widely – he also loved sharing his discoveries and as friends know, he would send each person e-mails whenever he discovered topics of interest to them. He was committed to my education and while for the most part a private school was out of the question, he discovered the cheapest apartment in Sydney’s North Shore to ensure that I could attend the best public schools in the state. All of this gave me the gift of knowledge.
Third was the fact that my father, and mother, were driven by a deep sense of commitment and passion for things which went beyond themselves. They loved the arts, especially dance and my mother trained in Sri Lanka with the premier dance company, the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Co. Just before they left for Australia, they were blown away by the latest production of the Company and said: “We must bring them to Australia so that Australians can enjoy this”.
Such an idea was of course ridiculous. It highlighted the naïve idealism of my parents. The Australia we came to in 1962 was about meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. The Australian Ballet Company had not yet been formed. Under the rules at the time we would not have been allowed into the country as migrants. There were hardly any Asians in Sydney, let alone Sri Lankans.
My mother would wear a sari and I remember wherever we went, we were the centre of attention. I understood what it was like to be ET well before the movie was ever made. So how could a young Sri Lankan couple, with no money and no connections bring out a Sri Lankan dance company to this very different, distant land? And even if the prohibitive costs of travel were overcome, who would come to see this foreign company perform?
My parents’ passion for the cause was such that they did not seem to see these obstacles and in the coming year I witnessed a miracle. First they invited members of the press to our tiny flat, which had enough space to entertain one couple at a time. My mother used her great cooking to seduce these couples and then would demonstrate Sri Lankan dancing to a commentary by my father and some drum accompaniment from me. They also invited the trustees of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, while my father used his contacts in Western Australia to get in touch with the Perth Festival. By 1963, the same year in which the Australian Ballet was launched, they persuaded the Perth Festival and the Elizabethan Theatre Trust to sponsor the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Co to tour Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. The sponsors were terrified that audiences would be low, but my father worked night and day to ensure the Company got tremendous publicity and performed to full houses.
All of this inspired in me the gift of the power of possibility: the ability of passion and determination, especially when pursuing a greater cause, to overcome apparently impossible odds.
I saw my parents from the outset enthusiastically embrace Australians and the country to which they were temporarily posted, while retaining their heritage and sense of identity. And I saw Australians, moved by their authenticity and warmth, embrace our family in return.
The last major gift was the gift of freedom. My father never tried to impose his views or wishes on me. I was given the freedom to paint my own canvas. And with the gifts of confidence, knowledge and a sense of the power of possibility, I had the tools at my disposal to make the most of my freedom.
I cannot think of a more precious set of gifts that a parent can bequeath to a child.
The death of a parent is incredibly confronting for all sorts of reasons, not the least the reminder of one’s own mortality, as well as leaving an irreplaceable role in one’s life. As we gather here to see my father lying in a box, on a slab of marble, with his body about to be cremated, we are harshly reminded that while the journey that each of us has in life is different, the destination is the same. It reminds us to make the most of the journey, be it long and short.
When I reflect on how it was that my father for virtually all of his 88 years had extraordinary energy and drive, it strikes me that a key reason was that he was always driven by a greater purpose. He was not a commercial person. He outsourced making money to me. The first part of his career was trying to keep public officials honest. Then he was involved in promoting the best of Sri Lankan culture and tea, the benefits of which he passionately believed in. The final stage of his life, which continued into his retirement, was sharing knowledge, the desire to inform and educate.
It is a profound reminder of the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who says that enduring wellbeing comes from living a life of meaning and purpose, where one is motivated by greater causes, aimed at benefiting others. So perhaps the best way of commemorating my father’s life is not through flowers or even charitable donations. But as we walk out of here, it is to perform acts of kindness, aiming as my father did, to somehow make the world a better place.
My father in fact lives on through all of you: his good friends and family, with whom he shared his ideas and knowledge and so influenced each of you in various positive ways. And in turn your friendship and love for him enriched his life and I would like to thank all of you profoundly for your support of him. Just a few years ago, with the help of a team here, he helped to bring out his beloved Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Co for their third visit to Australia, for the Sydney Festival and a special performance in Canberra, with the help of a dedicated team here. An achievement that would have given him great satisfaction
During the past 22 years, since the birth of my elder son, I should mention one more gift. And that is my father’s love for his grandchildren. He was the only grandparent that they had a chance to spend much time with, he was constantly in touch with them and they were always in his thoughts. He adored them as only a grandparent can and was demonstrative in his affection for them. It is something for which I am very grateful.
So to conclude, I am going to ask Ajantha and Ashan to share their reflections.
Ajantha, Arun, Don and Ashan
Friends, family, well-wishers, lend me your ears….
It seemed appropriate to begin today with a reference to the old bard whom Granddad so loved, and I am sure that Granddad would have labelled us all as crooks, had we neglected to send him off without some Shakespeare. Rest assured, Granddad, there shall be more.
As I reflected on Granddad while thinking about what to say, it made perfect sense that a journalist, that someone passionate about words, and writing, and language…about reading, and knowledge, and literature, would be passionate about Shakespeare.
Granddad’s love for writing, for history, and for literature, indeed, is something we are surely all familiar with, and in my reflections, this was something that formed the basis of a great deal of my own relationship with him. With me taking after his own love of academia, Granddad was always incredibly enthusiastic about everything I was doing at school and at university, and he was there for me at every stage.
When I wrote my first ever essay, he was there to help me edit it. Whenever I said we were studying a Shakespeare play, he would immediately burst into an impassioned recitation of its major passages. If I said that I was studying something in history, he would immediately go to his beloved National Library, to supply me with more materials. When I was doing my HSC, he would send me all kinds of books that he found to try and help.
We had many long conversations about history, about literature, about science, and as I imagine many of you have experienced, should he come across anything related to my interest areas, the inbox of my email, would at once be flooded.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.
So Granddad played this part in my life.
And yet. Upon further reflection, academia, knowledge, writing…these weren’t Granddad’s true passions.
Grandad’s passion wasn’t just for language. Language was his tool to express his passion for people. I came to realise, that his enthusiasm for writing, for journalism, for reading, was really an expression of his enthusiasm for the world around him, and the people in it, whom he found fascinating, and loved dearly. His unconditional love, and devotion for us underpinned the whole of my relationship with him, and he would take an interest in anything I did, academic, or otherwise.
Yes, his knowledgeability about history and Shakespeare seems in keeping with his character, but I’ll also bet that not many 88 year olds in the world could tell you much about Harry Potter or the amateur sport of quidditch, two of my own great passions. This 88-year-old, however, never failed to ask how my games went, and in 4 years of me playing the sport now, Granddad remains one of the few of my friends and family to have come and watched me play … and to cheer embarrassingly from the sidelines and call the other team crooks.
In his writing, and in his love for us all, what was truly remarkable was his passion for life, and in his death, that is how I think we should remember him.
Out out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow. Thank you Grandad, for nevertheless shining so brightly for us all.
Granddad was very special to me, as he was my last remaining grandparent, and the only one I really knew properly. I had almost 20 full years with you, and for that I am grateful. There are many memories of us together from all over the world which I will remember and cherish forever.
My earliest memories are of us visiting you at your home in Chisholm, playing badminton in the backyard and playing music for you on whichever instrument we were learning at the time, for me, violin, flute, and piano.
I still remember some of our earliest trips to the farm, and quite vividly, I remember that cheeky grin you had as you came back from the chicken pen, clearly having forgotten to close the gate, and leading to hours of chasing chickens around the yards.
I remember one time returning from the farm, sitting in the back seat with you having finished our ice creams, you tapped me on the shoulder and then proceeded to prod your ice cream stick into Ajantha’s ear, and when he turned around, pretended to be asleep.
And then there were our trips to Bali, where visiting the markets there, you would tell everyone you could, including the store owners, that their products were cheap rubbish, and would often go into random stores and start selling their products for them, often for free, much to the displeasure of the owners. You were never afraid to say the most crazy things to random people on the streets, calling everyone crooks and Jintan, whatever that may have meant.
Finally, there is my last memory of you: moving you to your new home. We knew how hard it would be for you to move from a place you had lived in for so long. But every day I have spent here over the past week, I have met another one of your neighbours who talk of how great it was to have you in the building, how funny you were and how kind. It has been a relief for me, knowing at least in your final months, you had as much life in you as ever.
Grandad, I will miss you, and hope you still have all that life in you, wherever you are.