The most challenging times can deliver gifts

By December 19, 2019 No Comments
My huge family relaxing together

In three weeks, over this November-December, I sadly experienced the loss of two immensely important people to me and my family. Unsurprisingly, this has led me to a massive amount of contemplation and some big ‘stuff’ has come up. So, to finish the decade off, I’d like to share some of these ideas.

Whirring around my brain has been what constitutes real leadership and how does this pertain to community? And, secondly, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance of compassion and forgiveness, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

On the 10th of November, after a long decline with severe dementia and Parkinson’s disease, I lost my father. His death was swift and peaceful, and he was surrounded by family. We are all so very grateful that it was a ‘good death’.

And, oh, what a man he was! My dad was the first paediatric neurologist in Australia. He opened the department of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the 1960’s, having spent more than three years in the UK and the US, where he and my mother had their first two of five kids. I am number five and my eldest sister is only seven years older than me! I know, the mind boggles and, no, there are no twins…

Dad taught countless doctors who came after him pioneering paediatric neurology in Australia, had two syndromes named after him, was awarded an Order of Australia, and that’s just the headlines. His accomplishments were both many and seriously impressive.

Yet in the outpouring of condolences and in the obituary written by two of his colleagues, he was most remember for his kind and gentlemanly manner. Professionally, he taught his students the importance of compassion and kindness when dealing with families, not just the importance of clinical excellence.

The department he set up was known amoung staff at the Royal Children’s Hospital for its comradery between colleagues, and his incredible humility and decency as a leader were referred to more than his incredible achievements.

Yet funnily enough, I found my father to be a stern man when I was growing up. We were chalk and cheese. He was quiet and serious. I was loud and all I wanted to do was have fun. I was emotional, affectionate and passionate. He was reserved and, sadly, there seemed to be little we connected over.

With hindsight I can of course understand why we were at odds. He was dealing with incredibly stressful situations and I’m quite sure I was often a pain in the arse, worrying about fickle nonsense… But I was just a kid.

In reality, his extremely demanding role and my mother’s role in being responsible for us, so he could have such an important impact on other children and their families, meant that he was largely absent, and not just when he was at work.

Silver linings

The crazy silver lining to his dementia was that in the last ten or so years of his life he became warm and affectionate, and he often told me he was very proud of me. I am thankful his dementia stripped him of his serious intellectual side.

Listening to peoples outpouring about how incredibly kind and warm my father was has been interesting for me, as this was largely not my experience growing up with my dad. If I had not seen that warmth in his last decade, I’d have wondered who they were talking about!

But instead of feeling anger that we didn’t have a closer relationship for most of my life, I have found myself feeling a huge amount of compassion for him. For the fact that he had a hard time showing his emotions, that he was raised in a time where duty and a stiff upper lip trumped connecting emotionally with your sensitive children.

What I have learned is that loss magnifies love, and love breeds forgiveness. We can all be more forgiving, more understanding. So that is what I plan to bring more of into 2020.

I have learned that my dad was a community builder, something I am also very passionate about. This leads me to the second part of this terrible double whammy of grief for me and my boy (who, btw, was best-mates with my dad and is conspiring to bring him back to life…)

As life was finally returning to something resembling normal, I was dropping my son Harry off at kindy, we were told the centre would be closed for the day because of an emergency…

An unimaginably tragic ending

There were parents in the car park in tears, and that’s when I heard that the centre director, Rose, the lynch pin of the whole kinder community, had been killed in a head-on collision at 6.30am on her way to work. Tragically, the accident was caused by a 20-year-old P-plater, at speed and swerving onto the wrong side of the road. She was 43 and had a 10-year-old son.

She was an incredible leader and phenomenal community builder. Her leadership is largely why my son is now thriving… The Windsor Community Children’s Centre community is devastated.

In the last few weeks before she died, we had several conversations. Out of the blue, she said to me when I was clearly looking exasperated, “You’re doing an amazing job”. She consoled me when I lost my shit after my dad died, and she referred Harry and me to a cool program we’re eligible for, which we’d have known nothing about if it wasn’t for Rose.

The first day I twigged to how ace Rose was, was when the parking inspector asked if any of the cars he was planning to book belonged to staff. I said something along the lines of, “blimey, that’d be a first”, to which she replied, “it’s called building community”.

Windsor Community Children’s Centre ‘exceeded’ in 5 out of 7 National Quality Standards recently. The kids and every staff member do an Acknowledgement of Country every day and often have Indigenous mob visit. The children even learn language :). Rose’s commitment to diversity and inclusion was phenomenal, and is the reason why kids with neurodevelopmental challenges like Autism, including my son, thrive there.

Her remarkable, unsung leadership influenced countless young children and their families in so many profound ways over so many years, including my nephew who is now 16. Having worked together for almost 20 years, many staff considered her family.

Leadership: Developing capacity in others for a better world.

In my business circles there’s a lot of talk of leadership, though nowhere near as much talk of community. This right here, what Rose created, is REAL leadership. Developing capacity in others for a better world for all. No fanfare, no prestige. Just total devotion to and love of educating young children and supporting families to give them the best start in life possible. That’s how to create an impact, in the present and on the future.

It’s interesting to reflect on the doctor and the kindy teacher, both were in the business of having a remarkable effect on the lives of children and their families. Male and the female, one with extraordinary prestige and one with none. Yet their leadership and legacy are remarkably similar.

And, one good death and one horrendous…

There is nowhere to go with the tragedy of this horrendous loss of life. Blame is futile. And while I completely understand anger directed at the young man whose probable recklessness caused her death. I find myself feeling so much sadness for him and his family, and no anger as such.

We are so lucky to have had my father and Rose in our lives and the impact of the work they both did will continue well into the future. Two of my closest friends have family members who’ve been directly impacted by my dad’s work. And Harry will go on benefitting from the ethos of our incredible kinder for another year before he goes off to school.

This Holiday Season, let’s all make an extra-concerted effort to hold our loved ones close, to remember to cherish them, and to be grateful for having each other, sometimes despite our differences, at this time of the year. After all, it’s precisely at this time of the year that it is often especially hard for those who don’t have their loved ones by their sides.

To finish, in case you would like to support it, there is a fundraising effort for Rose’s family taking place (as she was her family’s primary provider).

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