It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Invictus By William Ernest Henley
A Gifted Man
In 2012 my father died of cancer at age 67.
A gifted sportsman, in his prime he was a scratch golfer, sailed a Finn boat for his native country South Africa and used to walk on his hands on the beaches of Camps Bay to show off to all the ladies.
An educated man, there was no conversation to which he could not add value (no matter how outrageous his opinion may have been) and, though he did little studying himself, he tutored fellow students during the 2 degrees he acquired.
With an unparalleled intellect, he counted cards in every hand of bridge and even used to play with the South African bridge champions.
He truly was an exceptional man, but these are not the things that I think make my father’s story so colourful.
How His Unbending Will Was Forged
To say that my father was a fighter would be an understatement. No matter what storm came at him, no matter if he was brought to his knees, he never let anything defeat him. He was as bloody-minded as a Colonel in a time of war and as determined as an Ox. In truth, he had an unconquerable soul.
When he was 6, my father was sent to an all boy’s boarding school in Natal, South Africa. It wasn’t like boarding schools are now, with comfy duvets and hot chocolate before bed. These were much harsher times.
There was an overspill of boys in the dormitory area in the early years, so from aged 6 until 12, the young boys used to sleep out on the veranda with very basic shelter. But at night, in that region of Africa, temperatures drop dramatically. My father learned to put his duvet underneath his thin mattress in order to stay warm, as my grandfather taught him from his days during WW2.
The bathrooms were so far away from where they slept, that often the little boys couldn’t make it to the toilet in time and had accidents. At 6, my father used to try and clean up his pyjamas to avoid any humiliation in front of his peers.
His Nerves Of Steel Were Tested
My father had learned that life was hard and that you had to be strong to survive. There was no such thing as surrender.
So when he and my mother made the decision to leave the horrors of Apártate in South Africa at age 45, and move to New Zealand and then on to UK, he started again from scratch with 5 children to look after, no money and no support structures.
Naturally, he rose to the challenge. Every day he knocked on people’s doors to attempt to sell them Life Assurance – a product that he believed firmly in until the day he died. If he didn’t make the sale, we didn’t eat more than potatoes.
I was very little, but I remember that when it snowed we wrapped plastic bags around our sandals in order to walk in the snow because we couldn’t afford shoes. All 7 of us even lived in a small caravan for a while, which I thought was so much fun at the time!
But no matter how many people turned my father away at their door, or how many people thought he was crazy for moving country with such a big family at such an advanced age, he didn’t let them get him down. He had a goal in mind and he never took his eyes off it.
By the time he was 55, my father had created his own successful business and made a very impressive 6-figure sum annually.
Right until the last day of his life, he still kept telling us that he was not going to let the cancer beat him, and he meant it. For a minute after he drew his last breath, I genuinely thought he would beat death and come back to life.
What I Most Loved About Him
He loved to tell stories, and he was a master story-teller. He was happiest when all his children, grandchildren and beloved wife were gathered around his table, sharing a big feast, and he was telling a good story.
He knew the art of theatre and told spellbinding stories:- of near death experiences with wild African animals, of old scraggily horses they transformed into national prize winning race horses, and of Zulu cooks who still came to work with huge knives in their back.
My father was a big softy and he would cry at a touching movie. He adored cuddles and I used to wait at the gate as a child to greet him with a big hug when he got home.
I know that my father would be over the moon that I have told his story. His life was filled with love, and tremendous hardship. He fought from a very young age right until the end. And he did it all for us, his family.
The truth is that my father learned, and so believed, that life was hard and that he would have to fight his way through it.
I can’t help wondering whether his life would have been easier if he had believed that the world was an easy, joyful, abundant place to be?
Would he still have left South Africa? Would he have built that successful business? I think he would have. It would just have been a much easier journey.
Whatever life you are living now, you are creating your story.
When you are gone, all that will be left behind is your story. You have the power to choose how it will be told.
What will your story be?