25TH ANNIVERSARY NATIONAL ESSAY COMPETITION
Below is the winning entry in the children's division of the essay competition.I loved my dad, even though he was hard to live with. Even to this day I never knew if that was who he had always been or if the Vietnam war had had such a profound effect on him that he'd changed forever. My mum told me that his sister had referred to him as a gentle giant before he'd gone to war. A giant he was, gentle I'm not so sure about.
A soft side would show through every now and then, but I mostly saw his hard exterior. He was a big, strong Maori man from the East Coast, with huge hands and an authority about him that no one messed with. He was a man of few words and as a kid, I was scared of him.
Mum and dad met not long after dad returned from Vietnam. Mum was also in the army and was introduced to dad through his sister Rebecca. I came along not long after and was born in Christchurch in 1970. We lived there until I was 4 then we moved to Singapore for 2 years. I remember a few things from that time, but mostly what involved me rather than dad. We moved back to NZ in 1977 to Waiouru and stayed there for 3 years until dad was posted to Tokoroa. He eventually retired from the army after 20 years while at that posting but continued in the territorial force for a few more years.
I arrived in Waiouru when I was 7 and we left when I was 10. I have lots of memories of my life in Waiouru. Many of them are great and I still talk about them to this day. School, the snow, climbing trees and riding horses at the local pony club. Other memories are not so good and up until recently the events that took place were part of defining who I became as an adult. These are memories of dad, a man who I remember as always being drunk. Like I said at the beginning, he was a big man and a big drunk man is a very scary person to a little child. There were moments that I feared for my family's safety and on one occasion my brother and I were taken to the neighbour's house so we weren't exposed to what was going on. I heard arguments and yelling at other houses, so I knew we weren't the only family where this happened.
Like I said, my dad was big, Maori and scary, so in my child's mind I categorised all Maori men to be this way. I distinctly remember not wanting to have anything to do with Maori if this was what they were like. Even to write this down makes me feel deeply ashamed because, as an adult, I am immensely proud of my culture and who I am. However this is what it is. Writing this is important for me.
After we moved to Tokoroa, this way of life continued. Dad drunk many nights, arguments, yelling and knots in my stomach continuously. I slept with a bible under my pillow because in some small way, I felt like this would keep me safe. When I turned 15, I decided I no longer wanted to live under his roof, so I left school, left home and started working. This was tough on my mum and when I was 16, my parents separated. The life with my dad had been hard enough for me, I can't imagine how tough it had been for my mother.
When I was 19, I moved to Australia and this is when my relationship with my dad started to improve. He visited me a couple of times and I got to know a little about who he actually was. He was more than the big, scary man I had grown up with. He was intelligent, he cared and I realised he worried about me. When my first child was born, my dad surprised me totally when he started singing nursery rhymes to her. I had no idea he even knew what a nursery rhyme was. Like I said previously, he was a man of few words so he never really talked to us much. I had two more children and dad spent time with them, teaching them games and playing with them in the back yard. This is the soft side of dad that we never experienced growing up as his children.
Between my first and second child, I had 3 miscarriages. Dad made comments about it being his fault, he thought that maybe the effect of Agent Orange had transferred through to me and this is what caused me to have the miscarriages. Through investigation, it was found I have antiphospholipid syndrome which can be caused by an autoimmune disorder. We will never know if this was in any way linked to Vietnam however, no one else in my family has this syndrome.
This was the first time we had heard dad talk about Vietnam. Throughout the following years, dad would make random comments during conversations that had nothing to do with Vietnam. It would catch us by surprise and often we asked him to repeat what he said, but he never really did. In the end, we learnt to tune in to when he would go off on another track of thought and voice it out loud. The comment that stands out to me the most was - 'it was either Charlie or me, and I chose me'.
When Dad was in his 60's he asked me to write down what life was like for us kids. He wondered if he had PTSD from Vietnam after he had seen a video on the subject. At the bottom of this essay is the letter I wrote for him back then. I'm not sure if he had any counselling for this but he decided for his 65th birthday that he would invite all the men that had served with him in his section, so they could share their stories with us, and that we would have a better understanding of what had happened.
This ended up being a time of healing, laughter, tears by all and a connection to the men that dad had served with all those years ago. They told us their memories and stories of dad and who and what he had been to them back in those days. It was then that we realised that our dad held a lot of mana with these men. We were seeing our dad in a different light and an understanding started to develop for the reason he spent so many nights drunk when we were kids. I think he just wanted to block out all the thoughts that were going through his mind.
When dad was 70 years old, he was diagnosed with larynx cancer. My mother, brother and I cared for him during this time and after nine months of this disease, he died at the age of 71. Throughout these nine months, our family had a chance to be together and heal. Mum cared for dad in her own home after his treatment. A sacrifice she made for my brother and I. Once dad left the hospital, he needed full-time care, my brother ran a business and I was working supporting my family. One of us would have to give up work to look after him. As I mentioned, they separated when I was 16 but she took him back and cared for him so we could continue to work. We were all devastated by the loss of dad. In the end, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Not during the war but 42 years later by a cancer which is on the list of presumptive illnesses of Vietnam.
Nine years after dad passed away, my family attended a ceremony at Government house in Wellington, where we received on behalf of dad, an acknowledgement from the government for service. He was formally recognised for his Mention in Despatches award and we were given his citation. This was a proud yet humbling moment for our family.
The effect of the Vietnam war on our family took its toll, yet the price my dad paid was much bigger. In my grief after dad died, I wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister - John Key, asking him to remember my dad on ANZAC day and the sacrifice he had paid for his country.
Nga mihi Awhi Bristowe
Below is the letter I wrote:
Dear Mr John Key
Hukarere Mamaeroa Bristowe, known by the name of 'Sugar', died on 19 February 2010. He was 71 years old. Dad was diagnosed with cancer in April 2009 and after a nine-hour operation to remove the tumours, he was told that the operation was unsuccessful. Due to the cancer being in dad's throat, a tracheotomy was inserted so that he would be able to breathe when the tumour grew to the point of closing his airway. Dad was given options about treatment, one being he could choose to do nothing and he would die in 3 months, have radiation and prolong his life and live another 9 months, or chemo and radiation and have a 20% chance of survival. After considering these options Dad opted for the chance to live however, this option was taken away when dad developed an infection in his prosthetic knee. The doctors decided that having chemo could put dad's life into additional risk and he may need to have his leg amputated. Dad's prosthetic knee was due to an injury in Vietnam. Dad decided to take the radiation only. This treatment lasted 7 weeks and due to the cancer being in his throat, he suffered burns to the inside of his throat and burns and blisters to the outside of his neck. He could not eat through his mouth and was fed through a tube which was inserted into his stomach. Dad never once complained and his only comments were "it's a bit of a bugger". By September 2009 dad was told the cancer had spread to his lungs and there was nothing that could be done for him. Dad went back to his home and lived out the rest of his days on his own. Dad struggled to breathe everyday. He was regularly admitted to hospital to have his trachy tube cleared so that he could breathe again. He could no longer eat properly and he lost 20 - 30 kilos in weight. Although he struggled with this on a daily basis he was, some would say, a pig headed man. He continued to mow his own lawns, weed his own gardens, plant his own veges and drive himself to hospital appointments. He would never ask for help and he refused to get a mobile phone or fax when he eventually lost his voice and could no longer communicate orally. My brother and I loved our dad and it broke our hearts to watch him suffer like he did. He was a true warrior and from the stories we have heard from his old army buddies he was a legend in their eyes. On this ANZAC day 2010, I ask that you remember my dad and to never forget the price he and many others have paid for their country.
The letter I sent dad about PTSD.
Hi Dad Well I have finished reading the book and have watched the video. What I see you like in regards to depression is you seem to go into a shell and are not interested in anything around you. I notice this when I talk to you on the phone and you just seem grumpy and not interested in what I am saying to you. You answer me with one word answers and do not volunteer any information on what you have been doing. This always seems to last for weeks. As I only talk to you every few weeks I never know what perks you up again, you just seem to be happier. I was worried about how you would be after the incident at Tama's wedding as I thought you might go on a big downer after you had been so 'good' for a while. I was more bummed out that it would take months to get you back up again, but thankfully you didn't seem to go down. When we kids and living at home you never used to speak to us. It was like you just shut us out of your life. I still can't work out why but you always seemed angry about something. Remember how I said I had seen the same look on my dad as that guy in the Thai prison. Well I have seen that look a lot of times on you and its like your whole face goes black and you are very angry. Alcohol was a big part of my memories of you. You were always drunk and that scared me. I remember the fights you and mum used to have and I remember the violence there was. I've noticed you don't like to be in crowds of people, that being something like a family gathering. You just up and leave with no real reason. Well none that I can see. Its like you go down all of a sudden and have to get away in a hurry. I notice you change your mind a lot. You will tell us one thing you will do then go and do something totally different. I hope that what I have written can help you in recognising any symptoms that you have of PTSD. I personally think you are suffering from this condition.
One thing I have noticed is you seem to be more relaxed with things and I haven't seen you go down for at least 3 months. I found the video very interesting and it actually helped me to understand where you may be coming from. This might be a way to deal with your ghosts and fears. Take care and I will talk with you soon.