My father Douglas passed away at the age of 98 on 18 May 2021.
He had been living with me for 14 months, through the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Always thoughtful he orchestrated his quick demise once illness arrived. Up until then, his mind had been as sharp as usual.
I wrote something for his funeral:
Doug’s Life Story
Doug was born in 1922. His father was a builder and his mother had been a shop assistant.
He experienced an austere upbringing in Wellington through The Depression.
He had to leave school early, beginning work as a bottle washer in a factory, and then moved to the public service in the office of the Commissioner of Police. He studied at night school to gain his university entrance exams.
Doug had an unlikely ambition to be a doctor, despite his mother’s warning that studying would “addle his brain”.
He left the public service to work with his father as a labourer to have the flexibility to attend lectures.
During his first university year, 1941, he was chosen in the first ballot for 18-year-olds and spent the next five years in the Army, including two years serving overseas in Italy and in the occupation J Force in Japan, stationed near Hiroshima. Doug spent his leave exploring the Pyramids, Mount Vesuvius, the ancient sites and museums of Rome, Florence, and Venice, and in Japan talking with the professor of pathology at the local university and catching snakes.
Numerous incidents from his life were told on National Radio over six nights on the Jim Sullivan Sunday Night Show, and these were the basis for his book of short stories That’s Life.
On his return to New Zealand, he completed his final first-year university subject and was chosen as one of ten returned servicemen scholarships to Dunedin Medical School from hundreds of interviews. He had spent five years at one subject a year to gain entry.
But his studies were further postponed when he contracted tuberculosis and spent 10 months on an open balcony at a sanatorium in the Christchurch Port Hills. Later he had one lung collapsed for two years to help treat his recovery.
In 1952 he married another doctor, Margaret Rudd, and had a family of six children. Despite some tragedy, they gave Doug and Margaret great pleasure in their individual way.
In the mid-1950s they travelled to London for eye specialist training.
After five years and following the tragic death of Jocelyn they returned to practice in Nelson during the 1960s. He was the only eye specialist in Nelson for this time.
In the early 1960s Manuka Street Hospital was threatened with closure and a group of local doctors bought it out and enabled it to continue. This was the home to the Nelson Tasman hospice in its early years.
His own health concerns meant moving to the drier climate of Canberra for 21 years, where he had a busy private practice and was appointed as a senior consultant eye specialist to several hospitals. He was appointed as an adviser to the armed services, and subsequently Vice-regal ophthalmologist for 20 years. His patients included a number of governors-general and many diplomats, top military officers and personnel from the Secret Service. He enjoyed many formal dinners at Government House and his Commonwealth Club, a long way from his humble beginnings.
He was amused to recount that he both started and finished his army years as a private. But he clearly took great pride in finishing his service career as a squadron leader in the Australian Air Force.
On retirement in 1990 he received an Australian Federal award for services to the people of Australia.
Doug and Margaret retired to New Zealand and spent a dozen years in Nelson.
He volunteered for eight years at the School of Music, cataloguing the 50,000 items in the music collection and editing the school journal issued four times a year. He wrote almost 40 articles about music in that time. He received a Pacific Award for services to the people of Nelson for this work.
He sang in the 2ZB Bohemian Choir in Wellington, performing every Sunday evening during the winter of 1940. Later he had roles for Canberra Opera, with his major role that of Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos with the Australian Opera in front of audiences of 1200. He also created and sang in his sextet giving many Australian Arts Council concerts and Leider concerts. Through the years he often performed as a soloist at Leider Society concerts. He had a life time interest in classical music.
After retirement he began writing and in 1994 won first prize in a national short story competition. He then wrote and published six books on a variety of topics. A series of short stories about his wartime adventures was broadcast on radio National on Sunday nights.
Doug and Margaret moved to Tauranga’s Althorp Retirement Village in 2006 due to Margaret’s failing health. She passed away after 60 year’s marriage.
He returned to Nelson for his final years to be closer to the family.
Graeme spent the last 15 months with Doug, from before the original lockdown.
His wheels might have been falling off, but Doug’s mind remained alert until his final week.
He wanted to be kept up-to-date with the world and local vaccination situation.
He was baffled by the attitude of the anti-vaxxers who he thought were behaving like teenagers refusing to wash their hands after going to the toilet, because they couldn’t see any microbes.
“Why are they concerned about not understanding the science behind soap.”
But he preferred the snippets I found for him on the Internet. A recent favourite was the question of what would make a better pet: an anaconda or a chimpanzee. Just in case you were wondering anacondas are comparatively docile, only feed once a week, and have a good threshold for boredom. Chimpanzees have the temperament of a hormonal 13-year-old boy with anger-management issues, but with the strength of a professional athlete. We decided we would prefer to go pet-less.
Some of Doug’s stories were very well-rehearsed but he often came up with something not previously heard.
For instance, in his last week, one carer was surprised to hear Doug’s story of his involvement in inoculating the New Zealand troops en route from Italy to Japan against Yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis.
“We lined the boys up, 3900 of them, and two of us jabbed them with the five needles at our disposal.”
Apparently, the main needle supply was buried at the bottom of the troopship hold.
“We boiled the syringes every 20 minutes or so, and sharpened the needles when the troops started to complain.”
Doug had a lifetime of service to his communities.
First, as a soldier for those five war years, aged 18 to 24, then as a doctor, after retirement volunteering, then many years looking after his adored wife.
Douglas was dedicated to his profession. A skilled eye surgeon who operated on thousands of eyes, he spent countless nights in the operating theatre in the days before seat belts in cars, as well as dealing with injuries and routine operations.
He took great pride in operating with Margaret assisting.
He had the luck to be in the right place at the right time. The artillery crew that he teamed with in New Zealand were all killed in the Battle of Cassino. He transferred to the Medical Corps when it was found that he hadn’t yet turned 21, the age to serve overseas.
He was stationed in Bari in Italy and ate lunch at the nearby harbour most days. Something detained him the day a large ammunition ship blew up, the largest explosion of the Second World War.
It was hard work that saw him gain a training position at the leading hospital in London.
But he would acknowledge his biggest lucky break was meeting young Dr Margaret Rudd who saw the qualities of a shy, sensitive, and determined man. She was several years ahead of him, although he was older due to his war service.
Both were deeply affected by the tragic loss of their two-year-old daughter Jocelyn, and the later mystery of the very public disappearance of son Peter.
He was a devoted carer for many years for his beloved wife of 60 years Margaret.
Their ashes will be interred together.