In the early hours of this morning, California time, my beloved father died in Australia. Finally succumbing to the effects of a stroke he suffered in 2018.
Back then, I saw an MRI scan and the extent of the damage to Dad’s brain made the bristles stiffen on my neck. I couldn’t fathom how Dad could still have any functioning mind after such a devastating blow.. but he did, and his sense of humour was in tact too. It is a testament to the quality of his fine mind, his capacity for humour, and the strength of his body, that they all survived to varying degrees. That stroke would have killed most people on the spot but my father was as strong as a bull. When we all rushed to his side in 2018, nobody expected a man who’d sustained such damage to survive long, let alone almost 5 years. During this prolonged & intense discomfort, Dad was surrounded by many loving friends & family members. All of us in the Baker Clan will miss him immensely.
Many years ago, I remember Dad telling me of the strange feeling of being an orphan, when his father, my Pop, had died. Compounded by the fact that Dad had just become the very tip of the Baker family spear – the oldest person in the entire Clan. In my case, I still have many surviving older Baker loved ones ahead of me. Nevertheless, I feel now that same forlorn empty feeling of being an orphan..
Any father is difficult to sum up for a child of that man. There is father, the role, and Dad, the person, and it can take a lifetime to separate the two and fully understand them both.. As his first born child I was the workshop where Dad first learned to be a father and define his parenting style. Dad loved tiny babies and I regret not having memories of this period where he cooed & coddled me. But some events from before my own memories begin feel like I remember them myself, because Mum told me about them so often. Like when she found Dad holding new-born me, softly repeating in wonder “My baby boy.. my son.”
These baby backstories sometimes starred a stroppier Dad. Such as the story of his showdown with a bloke on the ship, when Mum & Dad returned to Australia from the UK and I was but a one year old. Weary of my nightly crying, a sleep deprived neighbour pounded on our cabin door. Dad opened it, while holding my still-squawking self, and heated unpleasantries were exchanged. Culminating in the other bloke saying something to the effect that, so help him, he’d thump Dad if he wasn’t using a bloody baby as a body shield. Whereupon Dad passed me to Mum and then, unprotected by my magic baby powers, challenged the belligerent to have a go, by gum. Thankfully, the other bloke didn’t follow through on his huffing & puffing (Dad was no brawler but looked scary when angry).
Another story is from when we’d just arrived in Hobart, after Dad had just secured his first job as a junior lecturer at the University of Tasmania. I was still a constantly crying baby (cry-babyism is a recurring theme of my early childhood, if not my my entire life). In church one Sunday, the priest actually stopped his sermon to beseech the congregation, “Would someone please silence that crying baby!’ to which Dad replied in his booming voice, “Aw, fair go Father!” Apparently, in the silence that followed you could’ve heard an angel fart in that church.. In 1965 it wasn’t common for 26 year olds to backchat priests, especially on their own turf, and the congregation was mortified. A few days later, as the new lady in the parish, Mum was invited to a tea party. As an ice-breaker, one of the other ladies asked Mum if she’d happened to hear about that horrid man who was so rude to the poor Father? To which Mum replied that, yes, she had indeed, as the man in question was her husband. I could tell that Mum was both somewhat embarrassed by, and yet extremely proud of Dad when she told this particular story..
The epilogue to the tale is that the priest realised that it was actually he who’d acted poorly, and came by our house to apologize. I can just remember that priest myself from a few years later (when he was a bishop). He and Dad had developed a mutual respect by then and became quite chummy.
Mum trotted out these legends whenever I bashed heads with Dad in my adolescence, by way of reminding me that he cared for me, and would stick up for me, even if I didn’t always think that was so. Around the time that a child learns how to say ‘NO’ and stamp their foot, Dad’s attitude toward kids shifted. This is where my own memories of Dad begin. Each of my childhood transgressions was the very first time that my parents ever had to deal with such things. Each bowl of food hurled against the wall. Each foot-stamping temper tantrum, and on into each transgression of childhood, and the teens.. Suffice it to say that my parents figured out a system, whereby Dad was the bad cop whenever they had to lay down the law. Thus, most of my earliest memories of Dad are of father, the role, when Dirty Harry asked the young punk to ‘make his day..’
Growing up, I was always told that I took after my mother’s brothers, but the older I get the more I see of Dad in myself and vice versa. My sense of humour, which keeps me employed as a cartoonist (despite having lost my dexterity) is one of my many inheritances from Dad. He was an academic who studied the classics (Latin & so on) but was never ashamed of his pop culture tastes. He loved Classical Greek & Roman poetry but also loved cartoons. My earliest happy memories of Dad are of both he & I dissolving into paroxysms of laughter over Warner Brother’s cartoons on TV, while Mum watched us, dumbfounded (she had a fine sense of humour, but slapstick wasn’t her thing).
I grew into a close & loving relationship with Dad, in my late teens. He took an interest in my unusual career choice, and never tried to talk me out of pursuing it. Many of my cartoonist colleagues had to battle their parents over their chosen career, but Dad (and Mum) encouraged mine. In fact, while I was still in high school Dad escorted me on the long train ride to Sydney when I interviewed for a job at an animation studio. Which is where my career began. It is hard to overstate now how much I appreciated this trust in my own life choices.
Like so many landmarks in my childhood, Mum was a catalyst in my relationship with Dad becoming even closer. Though not under ideal circumstances. When Mum became seriously ill, I began to see another side of Dad. Late one night as I got a drink in our kitchen, I’d seen the light on in Dad’s study and went to wish him goodnight. Only to find him sitting at his desk quietly sobbing as he held photos of Mum. To see Dad so obviously heart sick, for the first time in my life, thoroughly rocked me to my core. It was a singular moment where so much changed in my life.
That little photo-set had been on Dad’s desk as long as I could remember. It held two photos of Mum. One as a little girl, facing a photo of her on her wedding day. As Dad looked down at them he was wracked with silent full body sobs, until he saw me and attempted to compose himself. At this moment, I realised two things. One was that Mum might be much sicker than I’d previously thought. Secondly, now that he couldn’t share his fears with her, Dad needed someone else to confide in.. He told me that Mum might not simply have a blood clot as we’d hoped, and he would accompany her to Sydney for further tests to figure out what was wrong.
Dad didn’t confide in just anyone. He wasn’t a typical Aussie pub-going bloke, who’d unload his cares on mates after a few ales. Dad’s first choice was always to confide only in the woman in his life. However, he couldn’t do that when she was the focus of his anxieties. My elevation to his confidante was a battlefield promotion, but the fact that it was made of necessity made it no less of an honour for me. A little later, I was asked to go to Sydney. I didn’t understand how I could help, but my presence was probably as much for Dad, as for Mum.
Looking back on it now, after the death of Mum I transferred many of my feelings toward her onto Dad, to mitigate my grief at her passing. He & I had already become close in my my teens, and much closer in the year of her decline, but I feel that we were truly good friends ever since she died.
Dad could laugh at himself and got a kick out of it when others did too, especially if the jest was a good one. Yet at other times, he could be stiff. He’d swing from giggly goofy to arched-nostril huffiness in the blink of an eye. I never quite understood the reason for this mercurial shift, but remember it most keenly in my late adolescence. Dad & I might be in mid-giggle, joking around, when one of my school mates would appear and my beloved Dad would be replaced with a starchy harrumphing colonel whose monocle had just popped out. Something to do with preservation of his dignity, I guess? But I never quite understood the rules..
Despite a life in academia, Dad never lost his rural accent. He didn’t feel shame for either side of himself – the earthy county boy, and the lofty intellectual. Though this placed him in the middle; a poser to some and an uncouth fellow to others. He was neither. Or both. Or perhaps something else entirely. Dad was so many different (& sometimes contradictory) things in the one package. He was a bush poet. A renaissance bloke.
Well into my my adulthood, Dad & I collaborated on a book project. He’d always loved elephants and had also always enjoyed the wordplay of limericks. Both of these were combined into a book, with articles collected from newspapers by his work colleagues, which inspired limericks written by Dad, which were then illustrated by me. In the early days of this collaboration, I don’t think Dad grasped what a huge undertaking of artwork this would be.. Frankly, it daunted me and I kept putting it off. Eventually though, I cleared my schedule to dedicate myself to finishing all the art, and I’m so glad that I did. It was one of the most gratifying spare time projects of my career, and the pleasure it gave Dad was a repayment of my efforts beyond measure.
In my early 30s, during a visit to the UK, I went on a pilgrimage to retrace my personal history. Starting in Glasgow (where I remember living when I was 10) that trip culminated in Edinburgh, the town of my birth. I went to Edinburgh University and looked through their archives of student magazines from the mid 1960s, until I found mention of Dad. Then walked to the flat Mum & Dad lived in back then. The current tenants even let me look around, and what I saw matched photos in the Baker family photo album.
Suddenly, I had a visceral reaction – imagining what it must have been like for my young parents, so far from home. Isolated from friends & family, they had their first child, in a place where they were total strangers. At a time when a telephone call to loved ones at the far side of the planet cost a fortune.. Dad, a penniless student, already with a wife & child depending on him.. The obvious stress of it all made my heart ache. At a similar age as they were back then, I’d had some adventures and had taken a few risks, yes, but I’d never shouldered such responsibility. I still haven’t even now. So father, the role has my utmost respect.
Before he was 30, Dad had 3 kids, which must have been stressful, and of course there were 4 more on the way. I admire the steely resolve of that young man from a small town, who took on responsibility quicker than he might have liked, but never walked away from it. Once I was old enough to understand all that he’d been through, the many tragedies he had borne up against, and all that he managed to achieve, especially given where he started in life, I came to greatly admire Dad, the person.
Dad often claimed that he was an antisocial misanthrope. He certainly went off on full throated grumbles often enough. (I can’t remember a Christmas from my childhood where Dad didn’t unload on the excesses of merchandising, or some other Ebenezer Scrooge-type humbug harangue). However, the other side to Dad is that he heartily enjoyed get-togethers. I remember looking around at the assemblies of our entire family that we managed in later life (when so many of us live abroad). Without a doubt the person having the best time out of all of us was Dad. It’s true he never lifted a finger to arrange any of these gatherings, but if Dad was a misanthrope, he was a strange hybrid that glowed in the company of people.
Now, all of us, his kids, have finally become orphans too, as he did many years ago.
Goodbye father, my dear Dad.
Robert John Baker