When I was a kid, my Dad had his own commercial cleaning business.
I can still see the advertising in the side of his old Ford Transit van:
“Action Cleaners, Laurie Godfrey”.
During the school holidays I would often give him a hand. He had the contract to clean all the windows at Burnside High School in Christchurch, which at the time was the biggest high school in the South Island.
That meant a lot of windows to clean. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot!
But the only problem was that it was the winter school holidays.
Winters in Christchurch can be quite harsh, especially the clear, frosty days. The worst part was getting your hands wet in a -5c morning frost. If you weren’t careful, and didn’t dry them properly, you could end up with chilblains – a nasty itchy. burning infection that spreads from your fingertips.
At that time Dad had been in commercial cleaning for over 10 years. I used to ask him “How do you do this year after year?” – to which he would reply “You get used to it”.
His hands used to look like he was wearing boxing gloves. His skin was thick, red, and puffy, but smooth and leathery-looking at the same time. It was as though both his hands were one big chilblain infection.
But although they looked nasty, if you shook hands with him, you would say they were the softest you ever touched. Years of washing and rinsing his cleaning rags in warm, soapy water had made them that way!
That seemed to be Dad’s general philosophy about the whole of his life: “You get used to it”.
He had a rough start to life. He was born in the mid-1920’s, just before the great depression. He lost his mother at a young age. Not wanted by his new step-mother, he was passed from family member to family member, then eventually left to fend for himself.
He got used to it.
He grew up not knowing the whereabouts of his half-brothers and sisters. He told me he remembers meeting some of them when he was young, but because of his moving around, never saw them again for decades. In fact, he never saw them again until he was aged 71 – coincidentally, on my wedding day!
He got used to it.
All through his life, experiences like these hardened him. Not in a bad way, but a good way. He found a way to survive using his mantra: “You get used to it.”.
It toughened him. You could say that it gave him thick skin.
He married my mother, Zelda, in Christchurch in 1947. A year later they became a family when the first of six children were born – 3 of each, of which I was the youngest.
He held down numerous jobs over the years. He was a wharfie during the infamous waterfront strikes of the 1950s. I can remember the stories he told of skirmishes when police raided the homes of his workmates whom they suspected were harbouring stolen goods. These were hard times, not knowing if his front door would be the next one kicked in by the Police.
But he got used to it.
My mother became a Christian in the late ’60’s. Dad held out. He didn’t want to give up his comfortable heathen lifestyle.
Mum had a bad heart. So bad in fact, that she required bypass surgery.
I remember in 1973 I was shipped across the road to my neighbours’ house, as Dad went to Auckland to be with Mum while she had her quadruple bypass surgery. This was pioneering medicine for New Zealand back then. It was risky.
So while the surgeons worked on Mum at Greenlane Hospital, Dad drove to the top of One Tree Hill. He prayed a prayer. He told God that if his wife pulled through the surgery, he would give his heart to Him. Not a prayer I would recommend – putting conditions on God – but Dad was a man of his word.
Thankfully, the surgery was a success. And thankfully, Dad honoured his vow to God, and surrendered his life to Him.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but life at home seemed to become less stressful. Dad had stopped his smoking. His gambling. His swearing. His heavy drinking. He vowed never to go near these vices again.
It was hard at first, but he got used to it.
Mum was always in and out of hospital with her heart problems. The surgery was successful, but it didn’t make her bulletproof. I remember at home there were days on end when she couldn’t even get out of bed. It did create opportunities for lots of cuddles, though!
My older siblings practically ran the home while Dad was at work – cooking and cleaning, etc.
It was a heavy burden for him to place on them, but after a while, he got used to it.
Dad was a strict disciplinarian. What he said, goes. That’s not to say he was cruel or anything. But if I stepped out of line and I was within hitting distance, then I would get a clout around the ear, and a finger pointed in my face. I would be told on no uncertain terms to cut it out or face worse consequences. I cut it out. Mum, on the other hand, was a walkover for me, because I was the baby.
Family holidays were never too elaborate, as money was tight. They normally would involve some version of camping. I can remember annual stays at a bach at Woodend Beach with extended family, as well as Spencer Park – a camping ground on the outskirts of Christchurch. We would quite often go on day trips to places like the Ashley River. Dad did try to make the most of family time where he could.
On one day in May 1976, Dad had the worst job a parent could wish to have.
It was a freezing cold Sunday morning. I jumped out of bed to have breakfast, looking forward to going to Sunday School, and later, to church.
I was in the kitchen putting my socks on when Dad said with a quivering voice “There’s something I need to tell you. Your mother died last night”.
If there was a last thing you wanted to tell your 12 year son, this was it.
Dad went on to tell me what happened. There was a house fire down the road in the wee hours of the morning. Fire engines and an ambulance were dispatched. Everyone ran out to see what was going on. Mum had a heart attack, and collapsed on the footpath at the front of our house. My brother ran down to alert the ambulance, and it came back to attend to her. She was placed in the ambulance, but sadly, she never made it to the hospital alive.
And I had slept through the whole thing.
It was devastating for me, as I was very close to Mum.
At first I was resentful. Resentful that nobody woke me up. Resentful that I wasn’t given the opportunity to say goodbye to her.
But then looking back I realised it was a blessing I slept so deeply. The last thing I could have coped with would have been seeing my mother in that state. I never discussed it with Dad. He was one of those people that you felt like there were some subjects you didn’t bring up. Not that it was anything bad, it was just like in our family, we never talked about the really deep stuff.
Dad’s life had changed. After 29 years of marriage, he had to learn to raise his children on his own.
But he got used to it.
As some of the older siblings had moved out, he needed extra help with running the household. He employed a housekeeper, a woman who apparently went to our church. She came during the day to do house cleaning and prepare evening meals.
Dad developed a friendship with this woman, which quickly blossomed into a romance.
Then one Saturday, he sat us down in the lounge to say he had some news. He was getting married again. We said “Wow, OK. Who to?”. He said her name was Mary. As she had come to do the housekeeping while we were all at school, we had never even heard about her, let alone seen her.
One day after church my brother and I were sitting in the van waiting for Dad to come out. Someone knocked on the passenger window. When my brother wound down the window, a lady said “Hi, my name is Mary. I’m the one your father is marrying. I’m going to be your stepmother. I will never replace your mother, but I will always be there for you”.
Mary had 7 children of her own, all older than me, and for years she had been raising them by herself.
So in 1977, less than a year after Mum had died, Dad and Mary were married. It was, and has been, the only occasion where all 13 of us children from the combined families were together at one time. And when they said “I do”, I went from being the youngest of 6, to the youngest of 13.
It was a challenge for Dad to unite us, and become the head of this new blended family.
But he got used to it.
Dad was also heavily involved with the church. At various times he was an elder, and held various deacon roles (including church secretary), and for a short time was even the youth group leader. This was something he never had to get used to, as serving his God and being an active member of His family was never a chore.
There were lots of challenges for the whole family – learning to get on without killing each other. My step brothers and sisters had to learn that Dad was the head of the house now. Myself and my biological brothers and sisters had to learn that Mary was now taking on the day-to-day running of the household.
To add to the cacophony, Dad and Mary also decided they would be emergency foster parents for the Open Home Foundation. Children were coming and going all the time, and the house was more resembling Piccadilly Station, than a home. It was common occurrence to come home from school, and find I had another person to share a bedroom with, for maybe up to a couple of weeks. Children, that for any number of reasons, needed to be removed from their home for respite, or for their own safety.
These children would be aged from newborn, to mid-teens. And Dad and Mary kept photos of them all. Every night before bed they would spend time in prayer together for each and every one that had passed through – including all 13 of their own children as well. Dad would also go to the Open Home Foundation offices once a week, and pray with the staff for all the foster children. It was another onerous task for Dad to take on, but he got used to it. Well, actually, they both did.
Some of these children stayed long-term – even years. One particular baby girl stayed for 4 years.
Her birth parents decided that she would have a better life with us than back at home. So they asked my parents if they wanted to adopt her. Of course they said “Yes!”.
So our family grew by one to 14, and at last – Yay – I was not the youngest anymore!
I decided to get baptised in 1978. It was my Pastor and Dad in the pool with me. It was a privilege to have Dad pray for me and over me.
On my 16th birthday, Dad gave me a new Living Bible. In it he wrote the bible reference of Ps 119:9,11:
“How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to your Word…Your Word have I hidden in my heart, that I may not sin against You”.
I can’t count the number of times these words have pointed me straight.
It was Dad that taught me to drive. He would take me out in his work car – a chocolate brown Vauxhall Viva Estate. He was very patient with me (he needed to be!). As he was self-employed, any misdemeanour with the car would have resulted in him being out of work. I managed to pass my licence, so he must have been a good teacher!
One weekend in November 1983, Dad, Mary, and my younger sister went to Greymouth on the West Coast, to stay with some friends. My step-sister and I were the only ones home at the time.
On the Sunday morning I was woken by a banging on my bedroom window. It was my eldest sister. She said “It’s an emergency, let me in!”.
One of our other sisters, Lesley, had been taken to ChCh Hospital with massive bleeding, and it didn’t look good. We rushed there, to find members of her church around her bed, crying. She had lost so much blood that they couldn’t keep up with replacing it.
She was given a bad diagnosis – maybe only hours to live. We made the call to Dad to get him back ASAP, and I think he must have broken the land speed record to make it on time.
He did, and we were all gathered around her bedside. Our Pastor gave her the final blessing, and left. Suddenly, she sat up and yelled “What are you lot all doing here? It looks like you are ready to give me my last rights or something!”. We all laughed and cried at the same time.
Later that afternoon Dad was over her bed. He whispered something in her ear, and shortly afterward, my sister breathed her final breath. Dad nodded to the nurse.
They say that the one thing worse than burying your marriage partner, is burying one of your children. And seeing it in person, I have no reason to doubt that.
By the time most of us had moved out, Dad was of retirement age. For some reason he wanted to retire in Blenheim, a township near the top of the South Island. So Dad, Mary, and my younger sister went to live there. Why he chose Blenheim we will never know. The summers were warmer, I guess. The winter frosts were worst, though, but He got used to it.
And for some reason, it seemed that quite a few of the children had moved to the Wellington region at the bottom of the North Island. For me personally, it was to find better work opportunities.
Dad had a good retirement, but some health issues were starting to pop up. On one occasion, he was driving from Christchurch back to Blenheim and had a blackout. Nothing dangerous happened, but he couldn’t remember driving a certain patch of the road. To our horror, he completed the trip. The doctor diagnosed it as a possible stroke.
He was starting to slow down, physically and mentally. He HAD to get used to it.
They made the decision to sell up and move to Wellington, to take advantage of the better health services in the capital, and to be closer to the family.
They rented a unit not far from us. While in Blenheim, Dad had discovered a love for orchids, so spent most of his time in his greenhouse, tending to them. He was an avid reader, so when I visited I got the history of each orchid, and how to tend to it properly. It was a good excuse to spend more time with him.
They later downsized to another little flat not far from where they used to live. As I was the stay-home parent at the time, we visited them with our son as often as we could. Grandma & Grandad had special one-on-one time with our son.
Then we started getting some interesting stories from Mary. Dad was doing some strange things, and not remembering why he did them. At first myself, and a couple of the other siblings were skeptically passing these off as old age creeping in. But the stories kept coming in, and were getting more and more bizarre. Stories like getting up in the middle of the night, having breakfast, and then going back to bed – then repeating the process all over again. Mary decided to get Dad assessed. It turned out he was in the early stages of dementia. This got our attention!
All this was taking a toll on Mary, having to constantly monitor him. She was having a few health issues herself, and sleep-deprivation was not helping. So the decision was made for Dad to have respite at retirement home that had a dementia ward. He didn’t want to go, but did it for Mary’s sake.
When it became apparent that things were getting worse, it was decided that Dad would permanently move to the dementia ward for his own safety. Later, Mary managed to secure a small unit that was attached to the retirement home, to be closer to him.
I visited at least once a week. I can remember my first visit – he was crying, saying he didn’t belong here with these crazy people. He pleaded for me to take him home. I told him that this was his home now, and he has all these nice people to look after him, and that Mary would pop in and see him every day. Another time I visited, he was dropping his clothes outside his window into the garden below. He told me someone was coming to pick him up and take him away soon. I said they couldn’t come today, so I went out and gathered the clothes with him.
His dementia had taken over his brain. He COULDN’T get used to it.
I can remember visiting one Sunday, and took him to the church service at the home. I’m not sure how much he was able to take in, but he loved listening to the sermon. When we sung the old hymns, I could tell he recognised them, but struggled with the words. He had lost his glasses, and couldn’t read the lyrics. He sat with his eyes closed, and the tears running down his face. After that, I would read lots of the Bible to Dad when I visited.
The nurses discovered that Dad used to be a window cleaner, so they got him a spray bottle and a cleaning cloth. He would sit for hours cleaning the glass in the French doors in the dining room, meticulously scrubbing every pane.
Mary’s health was also deteriorating, and they managed to get her a room inside the home itself, where they could keep an eye on her. I remember when she visited Dad, they had this cute little ritual. When they spotted each other from a distance, they would smile, and point to each other.
Thankfully, he never got to the stage where he forgot who I was. There was always recognition in his eyes. He never called me by name, and I never prompted him to remember it. I think there was a part of me that wouldn’t be able to cope if he couldn’t recall it. I called him Dad all the time. I think that inside he knew I was someone important in his life, and that was just fine by me. I got over it!
Things got worse for Dad. His eating slowed down, and he lost a lot of weight. It was like his brain could only cope with his essential motor functions, and not much else. We all thought the inevitable was going to happen shortly.
On the first weekend of November, we decided to go to church camp. My younger sister and her boys came as well. When in one of the men’s sessions, my sister and my wife came looking for me. They had received a phone call to say that not Dad, but Mary had passed away in the home! They had come to collect her cup of tea from her, to discover that she had passed, still with the cup in her hand (all finished, of course!).
We were all shocked, but we had Dad to think of. We never did tell him, as he was far too gone to understand what was going on. It was strange at Mary’s funeral not to have her husband of 34 years alongside us. He did feature prominently in the service, though! It was a great service at the Baptist Church where they used to attend. Mary was obviously well loved, as it was well attended.
We joked that the doctor once told her that her heart was so enlarged that one day it would just literally go bang, and explode. That’s exactly what happened to her, but chose Guy Fawkes Day, 5 November 2011 to do it!
From that day onwards, it was like a light had gone out in Dad’s soul. He stopped eating, and started to get quite thin. It was as if he knew something was wrong – maybe the cute daily reunion ritual with Mary?
He got so bad that he was finally bedridden, in palliative care, not responsive. So the bedtime vigils started. For most daylight and evening hours, there would be at least one of us holding his hand reminiscing, reading scripture, praying, or laughing with him.
Whilst with him alone once, I spoke to him about the night Mum died. I told him things we could never have spoken about together all those years ago. I told him how I felt not being able to say goodbye to her. But I told him that it wasn’t his fault, and that I forgave him. In fact, there really was nothing to forgive in the first place, just some unspoken words that neither could utter. Maybe his weathered demeanour had rubbed off on me as well.
One late afternoon my wife and I came to the home, to be met by my sister and her son crying. Dad had just passed. Soon all the local family was surrounding his bed, saying their last goodbyes to the patriarch who had silently weathered all the storms in life, without complaint. That day was 20 November 2011, fifteen days after Mary’s passing.
We were all terribly sad in his passing, but personally I was thankful that he had been released of the emotional hell he must have been in for the last 12-18 months of his life.
If he was lucid, I’m sure he would have said “You get used to it!”
For logistical purposes, we had Dad’s funeral at a different church. It was really hard going, having just said our goodbyes to Mary, and now having to do it all again a couple of weeks later. God really did get all the glory for Dad’s life, as He was intrinsically ingrained in him. Everything in Dad’s life revolved around God, and family – in that order.
Dad used to write a little bit of poetry, and myself and my sister Kerry read some of these out at the funeral. Some were funny, but some were poignant, like a Christmas poem he wrote one year:
Dad was married to Mum 29 years, and to Mary for 34 years, with only 12 months in-between. That means 63 of his 85 years on earth was spent alongside his married spouse. It would be fair to say he definitely got used to married life! He was a true example of tenacity, devotion, and stickability.
I’m struggling to think of times where Dad complained. Sure, he could argue, and stand his ground. And he sure knew how to put us cheeky brats in our place. But I’m meaning in terms of complaining of his lot in life. Everything that came his way, he took in his stride. Being a Christian in the latter half of his life, he would have said that everything that happened was according to God’s plan, whether it be good or bad. In the end he would be in heaven, so it didn’t matter what happened to him on earth.
Now he’s in glory, worshipping his God for the rest of eternity – meaning he will never have to utter those words “You get used to it” again.
I’ll see you soon, Dad. Meanwhile, whatever life throws at me down here…
I’ll just have to get used to it.
In remembrance of:
Laurence John Godfrey,
9 October 1926 to 20 November 2011
Mary Louise Godfrey,
27 July 1930 to 5 November 2011