The last farewell

by Listener Archive / 08 September, 2012
How to say goodbye to a brother?
Bill Ralston and his brother Jack in rugby team photo

Pardon me for being self-indulgent (again). Several weeks ago, my older brother Jack and his wife, Marg, popped into my place to explain the bad news. The blood disease he had been fighting so courageously for the past few years, through the horrors of chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant, had, after a couple of years of blessed remission, suddenly torn back into his system as acute myeloid leukaemia. His specialist told him he had only a matter of weeks or, at best, months to live and used that dreadful phrase “palliative care”. “I’d like you to emcee my funeral,” Jack said. “Emcee? The funeral? Of course, of course. Whatever you want,” I replied, bewildered and shocked by the task. It wasn’t like hosting a corporate function or a family wedding, but Jack, having spent a large part of his life in sports marketing, promotion and coaching, had a very definite idea of the style of occasion to mark his farewell. It did not involve vicars or churches.

At the risk of raising the ire (again) of our more clean-living readers who have taken to chastising me for often mentioning the demon drink in this column, I automatically stood and reached for a bottle of Aussie shiraz on the sideboard. “Well, we’d better have a wine.” I breathed deeply, more than a little in shock. “Oh, no thanks,” came the reply. “We’re doing Dry July.” Nothing better underlines the difference between us as brothers. Having started something, he was determined to finish it, even though I was sure the charity would forgive him for having a quiet one in view of the circumstances – and I told him so.

A few days later, he rang and said, “Yeah, bugger it. I’ve just opened a red.” “Have one for me.” So, it’s been a difficult week. He died peacefully in the gentle care of the haematology ward at Auckland Hospital, with his gorgeous family around him, late Sunday evening. I’d seen him earlier that night when his girls came into the room. He briefly roused to consciousness and said contentedly, “So, you’re gathering”, before lapsing back into ragged sleep. He knew what was coming and faced it bravely.

With me, it is less so. At the time of writing, I’ve yet to do my long funeral oration. Because Jack knew so many people, worked in so many sports, coached so many young athletes, we began to worry about how many might attend his farewell, so we hired the North Harbour Stadium’s ASB room, which can hold as many people as you care to throw at it. The location is fitting. He spent his life in sport. He used his remission to write a book about his career, called The Sports Insider, a precious legacy to his children, grandchildren and others he encountered in various roles – in athletics, triathlons, gymnastics, netball and the New Zealand Rugby Union. He coached countless young men and women, particularly in triathlons, and came into contact with thousands of people in the world of sports.

Preparing what to say at the funeral, I trawled the net and found people describing him with words like inspirational; true gentleman; legend; and mentor. Others used phrases like “always smiling” and “everyone who has met you is better for it”. In a few days from now I’ll emcee the celebration of his extraordinary life and hear more of those words and sentiments. The risk is I’ll end up a blubbering wreck, forever disgracing the family name and the stiff-upper-lip traditions of North Harbour rugby. The only way I’ll get through is by rerunning through my mind Jack’s exhortations from when I was a teenager and he used to coach me, entirely unsuccessfully, in athletics. “Dig deep. Push hard. Go through the wall. Ever forward.” Jack was 64.
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