Never wait until it's too late to tell someone you love them

Earlier this year, my 78-year-old father, Alan, got a phone call one evening. "Big Al" isn't your normal old guy. He'd finished a day at his job, driving tour coaches up New Zealand's icy ski-fields, and picking up tourists from cruise liners. He is incredibly fit and sharp and not just for his age. But, like most of us, after a big day at work, on the couch drowsy after dinner, he wasn't at all in a mental state to deal with what he was hearing.

On the line was Kelly, also in his late 70s. We grew up on a farm in New Zealand and Kelly was our neighbour. He and dad shared farming equipment and work for more than 30 years. Kelly owned the hay bailer, Dad owned the hay loader and trailer. They'd help each other make their hay, each unpaid labour for the other, as were their kids.

We worked together on fencing, building sheds, shearing, mowing … everything. Kelly fascinated me as a child. He swore magnificently and drank beer from longnecks. He trained horses and went to the pub. My dad was much less the party guy, but they shared a mutual respect and collaboration that saw not one argument, never a lawyer nor a signature on a contract.

I was convinced his daughter, Gaylene, was the love of my life, despite the fact I was seven and she was one of eight girls I knew.

Parting words

Kelly was calling dad to say goodbye. He was in a hospice, dying, his body shot with decades of work and racehorse-training injuries. He was wanting to thank dad for their friendship, their time together on the green paddocks, literally creating their farms out of sheer hard work. Dad didn't know what to say, so he didn't say much. Kelly died the next day.

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Dad was quietly devastated by what was left unsaid.

A couple of months ago, Dad had dinner in Wellington with another dear old mate, David.

Dad and David have been friends for more than 20 years, golfing buddies who shared their problems on the fairway. They became very close over time.

An important message

As I've been writing and researching a book on "men's issues", I've had a lot of long chats to Big Al, fact-checking family anecdotes and discussing themes of the book.

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One discussion centred around the idea that men are constrained from sharing their emotions with other men, simply because it's not "manly". That's a terrible loss.

In one conversation about it, dad said that if he told another gnarly old buddy, Ted, that he loved him, "Ted would fall down dead."

At mum's prompting, after they left the Chinese restaurant that night, dad blurted "I love you David."

David paused. "I love you too, brother." They hugged and hugged again.

Dad told me about it later, how wonderful it was to have told his friend that, to know he knew it and to know he was loved back.

Dad spoke to David once more, two weeks ago, on the phone.

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David died suddenly last week.

This time, despite the loss of his friend, dad knows David died with them both having acknowledged the joy the friendship brought.

Honest talks

A few years ago, David and his wife, Ruth, left the little town, Alexandra, in New Zealand's South Island, where my mum and dad still live. They moved to be close to family in Wellington, to be close to grandkids and family "so if anything happened they would have support." That's exactly how it played out, as David was helicoptered to Wellington Hospital, Ruth and family by his side.

Older people are nothing if not pragmatic about death. My mother has somewhat grimly observed we surely only have "a few" Christmases left together. She has also suggested a "magnificent" funeral song, information I could have done without until necessary.

As mum and dad age, and they watch the people around them "dropping like flies" as dad put it. It's a harsh lesson on looking after yourself.

So mum and dad have put their house on the market. They're moving to Christchurch to be close to my brother and sister, and a clutch of beloved grand-kids. David's death was "galvanising" for them and helped force the tough decision.

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"It's the last place we'll ever buy," said mum, happily.

The end

It's a strange place to be, the end of your life, as you look back, bewildered and blinking.

My father's life recently is a living testament to the fact there is only good and joy to be had in telling another human person, man or woman, you love them. You'll get it back. You'll have made someone happy. You'll be happy.

Deep, rich, relationships are the only thing that matter in the end, the only thing that can help us die happy.

So it makes a great deal of sense to shove aside your fears, grab your friend, grab the moment and say, "I love you, Mate."

Then you'll hear the words that make the human heart soar the highest.

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"I love you, too."

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.