BRISBANE - My father was a big man, a tall man, a loud man, a funny man. A man with many moods, many strengths, and the usual amount of weaknesses.
He asked me to officiate at his funeral party, and so that means here I am, struggling to express my thoughts about a life lived, a rich, adventurous life.
As I collated my thoughts in the days following his death, I was struck by how many people loved and respected my father, but also how many different people he was to others.
I could make this a timeline of Dads life, but we could all google that; I want instead to share how Dad saw his life as he looked back upon it in recent times.
I said to him in his last hours that his life had been a rich and adventurous life and he agreed and nodded with obvious pleasure.
Dad began his life as the son of English tea planters in Ceylon, he led a happy childhood and had two younger sisters whom he loved dearly. Dad’s father, Phil Fowke, died in the 1980s and his mother died only a few years ago, at the ripe old age of 99.
Grandma and Dad had a close and loving relationship. His sister Felicity lives in Canada and recently visited Dad, she was a light in his life and someone he enjoyed long phone conversations with, in recent years.
His sister Susan who died several years ago was sadly missed by Dad and in my memory, she was a female version of Dad who could swig whiskey, smoke cigarettes, and say ‘fuck’ as many times as Dad.
The Fowke’s of Plimmerton, NZ, were all, and are all, a smart, loving, sometimes argumentative bunch of sharp shooters.
Dad loved his family very much and reminisced about his early life a lot in recent times. He was also enormously proud of Philip and the newest generation of Fowke’s, my sons Tom and Jack Fowke.
As many of you know Dad’s health had declined in recent years, following his retirement and in fact I think it is fair to say he never really recovered from Mum’s death in 2001.
Dad moved into a nursing home in mid-2019 and spent a relaxed but confined time there. He began to reflect deeply on his life: his achievements; the things he wished he had finished; the things he regretted; but also the bits he felt he got right.
On that very last night of his life as he lay in his hospital bed Philip and I prompted him to talk about the good stuff. He said that there had been two major pieces of luck in his life. The first was being offered that position as a Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea all those years ago.
And the second was of course meeting Mum. Dad asked that I definitely talked about Mum today. They were such an incredible pair, together from the moment they met in Sydney whilst he was on leave.
Mum followed Dad, as they say, to the ends of the earth and she threw herself into his life with a gusto which Dad appreciated every day until his last. All of Dad’s achievements were supported and underpinned by Mum’s support and love.
By his own admission he put her through some trying times, but she loved him with a fierce loyalty that lasted him his whole life.
From the stories she told about learning to smoke bacon on their first posting to Mamai plantation, to having her waters break on the plane to Port Moresby when she was pregnant with Philip to the years she supported Dad through his writing and his pretty regular moves around the world, you couldn’t find a more loving and supportive partner than Mum was to Dad.
He recognised this and thanked her for it every day in his latter years.
Dad’s first piece of luck was going to PNG. Mum, Philip, and I always knew Dad loved PNG as much as he loved us. The country and her people were a part of Dad, he loved the place with a passion.
He believed so deeply and passionately in PNGs potential that, really, this was his life’s work. He moved from government work to private enterprise because he wanted to be there, to live there, to breathe there, to be part of the place.
He could be a fiery cantankerous old bugger, but everything he did he did with his heart and soul. I cannot state strongly enough how much he loved the country. Dad had a strong sense of justice and honesty and he wanted the very best for PNG in the future.
To list his achievements over the span of his working life in PNG would take too long and I probably do not know them all. I do know that the outpouring of grief from his former colleagues and friends in PNG who refer to Dad as Papa John, has been really touching and something Dad would be very touched and honoured by.
When we spoke on his last night, he told us of his two proudest moments in his entire life. Now some might think that would be the awarding of a medal or winning of a prize but not for Dad. These two moments were humble simple expressions of love and esteem from local people in PNG.
One was when he left Mt Hagen after working for Carpenters, and some of the people he had helped asked him to join them across the road at the village tavern, where they had assembled a crowd. A ute was there with cartons of SP beer and a pig was being cooked. This was their way of thanking Dad and it meant the world to him.
The other moment was when he was working on a short-term fly in fly out basis and staying in Goroka. A large group from the Asaro valley came to visit him and invited him to bring Mum out to the Asaro valley to live as they had decided to give them a block of land and build them a house. In effect this was to say, ‘You are one of us… retire here’.
Dad was immensely touched by this. It was the people of PNG he loved and believed in; he saw the problems, but he was always the optimist underneath it all. He saw the strength and beauty of PNG and her people.
Another anecdote that comes to mind was relayed to me by Dad’s old friend Tony Pryke in Cairns. Alighting from a patrol boat whilst he was working for the co-ops in the early 60s, Dad was greeted with ‘Hello Masta Kiap’. He replied, ‘Me no Kiap, Me no Masta nuting.’
He was referred to from then on as ‘Masta Nothing’. That to me symbolises Dad’s attitude to PNG, he did not see himself as above anyone, he just wanted to walk beside and guide in any way he could.
My brother Philip reflected in his last moments with Dad what a courageous man Dad always was. Dad was the one to catch a giant spider with a bare hand or to grab you by the dress and yank you out of the way of a venomous snake he spotted amongst the mango seedlings.
He never shied away from anything in fear and, as Philip brought this to light as he said goodbye to Dad, he also opened up a little realisation for me that that’s where I get some of my mad determination and at times foolhardy courage from.
Speaking of mangos, Mum and Dad spent time in Far North Queensland in the mid to late 1970s and those years were full of friendship and love that was often remembered by Dad. He treasured the friends he had throughout his life, many of whom I see before me today.
Being a courageous man, he used to throw himself into anything he decided to do and that included planting a mango orchard from scratch and building us a house himself. He could turn his hand to most things including making a pretty good curry and writing a couple of books.
Dad also had an amazing gift for languages. He spoke Sinhalese from his childhood in Ceylon, and Motu and Pidgin fluently as well as a smattering of other dialects.
In recent years he wanted to learn Spanish or continue with his French, he would often try to engage me in French conversation to hilarious ends.
In his last hours, Dad mentioned that he regretted not finishing his last few writing projects but as I said at the time, two published books are more than most people manage.
When he asked me to speak at his final party, Dad did give me permission to say he was a grumpy old bastard. But on reflection there was so much more to this man and so much more that could be said. I am going to stop in a moment and ask you to raise your glasses but first I would like to share with you a little about Dad’s last moments.
Dad’s heart carried a giant of a man through 81 years of life and it was tired. He knew it was coming and when he was told that there was a fix but it would just put him back to square one again quite quickly, he was given the option to choose to let nature take its course.
He lovingly checked with Philip and I that we understood, and he clearly communicated his wishes. He spent some time talking with his children, he bid Philip goodbye and then he and I sat and waited. We knew what we were waiting for.
Dad and I had different views on the afterlife, and I have secretly been wondering if he is up there now sitting with Mum saying, ‘Bugger, I was wrong’. But sincerely I hope that they are together again. Dad wanted to be scattered with Mum’s ashes and they are both here with us today and will be scattered in the ocean in the coming days.
So, we sat Dad and I, in a dimly lit hospital room chatting about his childhood and all the good things I could think of. This is the death of a man of courage, to choose to go on your own terms, in your own way, in your own time.
One of the best things in Dad’s life, along with Mum and PNG, was Chocolate. So, I asked him, “Would you like some chocolate. Dad?” He turned to me and said, “Well as a matter of fact I would”.
So, once a Mars bar had been procured from the vending machine, he proceeded to demolish it as only Dad could. As he ate the last mouthful, he looked at me, squeezed my hand and said, “It’s happening, I can feel it” … and off he went.
I would like you all to have a Mars bar for Dad and to raise your glasses to John Fowke - a life well lived.