Inspired by fatherhood: A grieving father reflects on the beauty of being a dad

Leigh Chivers, with son Hugh, 4, lost wife Sara and son Alfie earlier this year. Photo: Tess Follett

Leigh Chivers, with son Hugh, 4, lost wife Sara and son Alfie earlier this year. Photo: Tess Follett Photo: Tess Follett

In January, Melbourne man Leigh Chivers, 35, lost his wife Sara, 34, to brain cancer. Five months later, he lost son Alfie, 2, to the same disease, leaving him to raise his elder son, Hugh, 4, alone. Here Leigh, just voted Australia’s Community Father of the Year, reflects on the meaning of fatherhood.
Fatherhood, or the requirements of it at least. keep changing.

Every time I think I know what it is to be a father, I learn something new from Hugh or Alfie. Or life simply changes and it in turn changes me as a father. I suppose also, like life, fatherhood is a journey, not a destination … nope, that sounds way too pleasant.

The first 18 months at least were like an amusement park ride – I was nervous beforehand but figured it was safe, only to realise it’s way more terrifying and difficult than I expected.  But I was on the ride now, and only just as things start to settle down Sara and I agree: “Let’s do that again!”

Thinking back, I probably delayed fatherhood, typically fearful of the impact it would have on finances, health, stress, career, relationships, time, or everything? Sara and I were certainly more into our long morning breakfasts of smashed avo and multiple lattes than babysitting.

sara chivers brain cancer

Sara Chivers, her husband Leigh and their children Alfie and Hugh. Photo: Tess Follett

Of course, we had our reasons why kids might not be right for us, besides the impact on our ability to afford smashed avo and multiple lattes.

We thought about Sara’s cancer that had changed our world five years earlier, that it might one day come back. But I guess that is the answer isn’t it: ‘Might one day come back.’

We never knew, and living a life in fear of this didn’t seem like a good option. Like everyone, I’m sure there were other anxieties too; the anti-seizure medication Sara was on that was a concern, increasing the risk of neural tube defects; the six-monthly MRIs that required a contrast agent to monitor for any tumour regrowth; did the previous radiation treatment affect fertility? We didn’t even have kids, but they were already stressing us out! And, oh boy, if you know our story that was just the start.

I recall looking at Hugh crying in his cot the first night in hospital and that’s when it really hit me: if I don’t pick him up and look after him, nobody will. He really needs me and I’ll do whatever I can for him.

When Alfie unbelievably fell ill at 18 months old, and I was faced with situations and decisions that should be impossible, it was the same thought – I’ll become who I need to become and I’ll do whatever I can, because that’s my job as his dad.

But then, I also learnt, that maybe they don’t need me as much as I thought, maybe they are smarter and more resilient than I thought possible, they might be here to teach me.

Alfie, for example, was a lot better at people management than I am. He had a large workforce to manage over the nine months of his illness in the hospital. Despite his age and limitations, his instructions were clear, feedback was direct and immediate and he left the hospital staff in no doubt as to how they were performing.

alfie and leigh chivers

Hugh (left) and Alfie in the hospital for Alfie’s second birthday. Photo: Leigh Chivers

Alfie was in command of his little room in hospital like I never could have been. When things were most stressful, and bad news came daily, the most notable aspect of Alfie’s character shone through. His serenity and inner peace would resonate throughout the room, keeping us all calm. He seemingly fully accepted his illness and worked within the limitations this imposed. What a life lesson for us all.

Hugh is intuitively better at explaining complex problems and more logical than I am. When I could not simply explain where Sara is and how we might be able to get her back, Hugh simply explains that mummy is amongst the stars now and we need to find the aliens so they can bring her back. When Alfie was sick and seemingly not coming home from the doctors, Hugh explained, I can learn to become a doctor and then fix Alfie.

I’m so inspired by fatherhood, about the lengths that dads will go for their children and family. It is important to remember that often, like me, fathers have no choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. They must push themselves to do things and be things they never thought they could for their family.

My father, David, for example was with me almost every day in the hospital. I’m 35, and he might be forgiven for thinking he would have been able to stop taking care of me by now, but that doesn’t appear to be fatherhood.

Chivers famiily

I often think how life or the time that we get is such a privilege, and now, how much fatherhood is such a privilege. Photo: Tess Follett

I’m especially touched by the fathers out there, like me, who I know are supporting their partners or children through cancer or other illnesses. There are a few from my year in school that I know of, many from my current employer, that are doing this right now.

These fathers are doing their best to balance raising their children while keeping their career, family and relationships on an even keel and often leading the charge raising money and awareness for the cause that is affecting their family.

After the last two years especially, or even the last 10 years since Sara was first diagnosed, I often think how life or the time that we get is such a privilege, and now, how much fatherhood is such a privilege.

The time that we get with our family is so precious, but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. In the four years since Hugh was born, I have done more living than in the previous 30.

That’s what fatherhood does. (And Sara would say the same thing about herself).

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