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Love: the hardest word to say

The News - March 2020 – by Becky Manawatu

Melanie Mayell had accepted that her father didn’t express love, until a book revealed she was wrong. She is sitting on the couch at her Okari Lake cottage, with a wooden box in her lap, and starts to tell the story of a book which changed her – and her father’s – lives. Melanie is a big reader, that’s evident by the number of books in the cottage. About 15 years ago she came across a particularly special book: The five love languages, by Gary Chapman. The book explains people’s unique ways of expressing love. It simplifies the complex emotion to say there are just five examples: receiving and giving gifts, quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation and acts of service. When she read acts of service, she had “a light bulb moment”, immediately thinking of her father. Ted, an engineer, was born in 1930 in Oamaru and was the youngest of six. Melanie describes him as “practical and not very emotionally demonstrative”. He was most often busy, cleaning, mending, fixing. “If my car broke down, he would be there immediately.” Having spent most of her life not doubting, but wondering, about her father’s love, the realisation that his love language was acts of service stunned her. After reading the book, she wanted to get hold of him immediately. She thought: “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to let him know, I get it. That I see all these kind gestures as love. But I can’t tell him, because he won’t be able to receive it.” Instead she typed out memories, dozens of them, of things he had done for her and the rest of her family. They included trips to Westport to explore, the time he rushed to her aid to fix her car, bonfires and cooking damper on sticks. One read: “It was rare to stop the car en route [Ted normally wouldn’t stop until the destination was reached] to our holiday destination. But you would always make an exception for what promised to be a great pottery stop. I think stopping like this at people’s workshops was a unique and wonderful start to my appreciation of art, and especially sculpture.” Another was: “There was nothing that you couldn’t build, fix or modify… [such as] my corner bookshelves, you said, ‘you draw what you want and I’ll make it for you’.” Other memories included Ted responding to a midnight call from Melanie after someone had tried to steal her car and broke a key in the ignition, and numerous accounts of his inspiring love of adventure and the outdoors. She put each memory, typed onto a small square of paper into a box. She put each box into a large wooden box – and she waited for his birthday. When the day came around, she visited her parents at their Mount Pleasant home. “I said: ‘I’ve made you something for your birthday’.” He said: “Oh yeah.” She explained the memory box to him and said: “You could keep it in your garage. You could pick one out when you feel like it.” And that was that. Several days went by and Melanie hadn’t heard anything, so she called her mother, Heatherbelle, and asked: “What’s going on with the box?” Heatherbelle said, “Oh…” “I said: ‘Where is it? Sitting in the garage?’” No, it wasn’t sitting in the garage, her mother told her. “It’s beside his bed. He reads one to me every night. He loves it.” Melanie was thrilled. A short time later, Ted was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Slowly Melanie’s parents’ life “reduced”. As his symptoms became worse, his workshop in the garage and all his tools went, then they moved to a small apartment in Christchurch’s residential care Nazareth Community. Eventually Ted had to be moved to the facility’s Nazareth House for palliative care. As the many material things dropped away from Ted’s life, he held onto one thing: the memory box. It was kept at his hospice bedside, so he could read from it, until he died aged 88 last year. Melanie says she’d added to the box over the years after she first gave it to him, as she remembered other things, new memories were made, or some of the originals became tatty. At Ted’s funeral Melanie stood up and read from the memory box. Since he died her mother has kept it, because it was special to her too – in fact it changed Melanie’s relationship with Heatherbelle as much as it did with Ted. “Instead of Mum constantly being Dad’s cheerleader: ‘Oh your father he does all these things’, she saw he was acknowledged, and she could just relax.” She said the simple idea was life changing, even if only subtly. “If you are so busy looking in one direction for something, you miss what’s already there… I hadn’t seen those acts of service as gifts of love.” The gift “shifted” something in their relationship. It became easier, more relaxed, they had a bond they didn’t need to speak about. He never mentioned the memory box to her directly. “But that was another big thing, I wasn’t doing it for the big, ‘Oh my god, thank you’.” She made the gift to reciprocate Ted’s love.

(Reprinted with permission)


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