The best man I've ever known has let go of this world

The best man I've ever known has let go of this world

A few minutes after three o'clock Monday morning my father drew in his last breath. He lay in bed in the palliative care ward of the Wesley Hospital. My brother was with him holding his hand. Our mother, his north star, his forever love was there too. I was crashed out on a couch in a visitor lounge, having turned Andrew out of the same couch an hour earlier, after many hours, of sitting our father's final vigil. He drew in his last breath. He let it go. And he let go of this world.

He had been a long time dying. A cancer diagnosis more than five years ago. Small skirmishes and border wars with lesser cancers in the years since. He'd fought the good fight but in the end he was overwhelmed by his nemesis, an aggressive, relentless angiosarcoma.

John Birmingham lost his father to cancer this week.

John Birmingham lost his father to cancer this week.

Photo: Ben Rushton

The cancer did not care that he was a good man, the best I've ever known. It did not care that he was loving and loved. It just took him.

But we cared.

So let me tell you a little about him. He was born on the 10th of June in the year 1939. He was a machinist. He built great engines that reworked the face of the planet you stand on, and he fashioned those machines at tolerances of a thousandth of an inch.


He was poorly educated by the standards of our day and yet he did things with metal and pressure and heat that were so far beyond common understanding as to be magical.

He was poorly educated, in the literal sense of the phrase, because he was born to the working class in a time when that meant knowing your place and never rising above it.

He rose above it.

He was wise and curious, perceptive, intelligent, funny and possessed of a natural understanding of people.

I have a favourite memory. From the 1970s. In the earliest days of punk rock some vacuous TV haircut in an off-the-rack safari suit was mangulating his panic boner on our giant black and white cathode ray tube, frothing about the clear and present danger to civilisation itself from terrible young punk people and their unconventional musical choices, not to mention their haircuts and fashion sense.

Dad, sitting in his TV chair, poured himself another Carlton Draught and said, "You know, son, one of the worst mistakes you can ever make is to judge someone by how they look."

I remember him wearing dark blue factory overalls when he said this, but in truth he would have been wearing slacks and a cardigan. He got home from the factory early in the afternoon and he would never have sat in his TV chair without first showering and changing and probably shaving.

He shaved every day. There were days at the end when he seemed more upset at his five o'clock shadow than the cancer that was ravaging him.

But my dad, to me he was the factory worker, pouring his Carlton Draught, watching punk rockers eat the world, and warning us to be more wary of TV current affairs than the Sex Pistols.

He was always on point.

And now he's gone.

And I am lost.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is a columnist and blogger for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.

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