Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In memory of my best mate Phil Heading

It would have been Phil's 42nd birthday today.

No words can sum up how shit it still is without him. And I still love him just as much now as I ever did.

But in honour of his birthday, here is the speech I read out at his funeral.

RIP Phil, you silly bastard. 2 Samuel 1:26.

"I first met Phil in 1996. I was a drug-addled teenager running back into the arms of the church, and Phil was basically the same but a few years further down the road to recovery than me. I still remember the first conversation I ever had with Phil:

Phil: “Gday mate, I’m Phil.” Me: “Hey mate, I’m Sam.” Phil: “So which church did you go to before you came here?” Me: “the pub.” Phil laughed. And so a mateship was born.

There was many a funny moment in our history. When passionate young Christian men go and hang out together, drink slightly too much beer and start satirising the world, you just know there will be guffaws aplenty.

Phil was always impulsive, sometimes with hilarious results. I remember telling him I’d never done a burnout in a car. So he immediately went off and snuck a little oil tin out of the shed and applied it liberally to the back wheels of the little red Datto, and we then filled the streets of Seacombe Gardens with rubber smoke. Probably should have driven a few streets away from his house first, but at least I got to do a burnout.

Then there was the time he wanted to attend a leadership training conference, but couldn’t because he had work commitments. So – he quit his job and went to the conference. Quite an elegant solution really.

Then there was the time that I mentioned in passing that it would be cool to just have a party for no reason. Before I knew it, Phil had ordered two full lambs from a local butcher, hired a spit and was asking if I could buy the booze and should we throw it at my in-laws house. It was always fun surfing one of Phil’s waves. We rocked up at Peter and Susannes, with music blaring and this great big spit tied straight onto the roof of my old HQ stationwagon, and proceeded to throw one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.

I was also privileged to witness the very beginnings of his relationship with Catherine. I think I know when it all started really. They had been sort of coolly interested in each other for a while. But then one day we were going off paintballing at Deep Creek. I was driving my custard-coloured Volvo, Phil was in the front passenger seat and Catherine was sitting behind him. Phil decided he had an excess of mucous that needed to be disposed of. So, of course, as any red-blooded Aussie male would do, he sent it flying out of his open window. Not realising that Catherine had her window open as well, which led to her being rather unceremoniously covered in his expectorant. I’m pretty sure that was the moment she said “yep, he’s the one!”

Phil was the best man at my wedding, resulting in some of the funniest wedding photos I’ve ever seen. I don’t think Phil ever really grew out of that seven-year-old phase of pulling silly faces in every photo you’re in. The best part though was when my wife and I were trying to be all very pensive and romantic for some photos out the front of Adelaide Uni, on North Terrace where there is a statue of some guy sitting in a chair. We put on our best pre-selfie-age duckfaces, only to look and see that Phil had somehow, in his full three-piece groomesman garb, climbed the thing and was sitting in the guy’s lap. It had to be at least two and a half metres off the ground. Why oh why couldn’t the photographer have taken a photo of that? It would have been the best pic of the day. Of course afterwards came the trademark Phil apology: “I’m really REALLY sorry about that! I feel so bad!” We loved it so much we got the funniest one of them blown up to put on our wall.

Phil and I always just seemed to be on the same wavelength. We always just got each other. We would have these ridiculous conversations, going off on wild tangents, but we never seemed to lose each other’s thread. Same sense of humour, same passion for music, same laid-back attitude to life.

And that just seemed to continue throughout the rest of the time we were mates. We were both either in similar places in our lives, or one in a place the other would come to soon. Whatever was going on with us, one always seemed to understand where the other one was at.

Phil never judged anyone. Never ever judged anyone. He could strike up a friendship with just about anybody, and forgive pretty much any offense. His range of friends was so wildly diverse because he just accepted everyone for exactly who they were. He was who he was, and he made no apology for it, but even if others didn’t extend him the same courtesy, he wasn’t bothered. He just shrugged it off and waited until they got over themselves, then invited them around for a beer.

Phil was an absolute crackup. I simply can’t remember any time I spent with him when he didn’t make me laugh. And he didn’t even have to try, because it was simply his outlook on life that lent that dry wit to every word he said.

And he was smart. Damn smart. I think he was the smartest person I ever met. He was getting distinctions in his law degree, and only quit because he couldn’t stand the subculture – he came to our house wearing his “law” jumper one day and said he had to wear it at uni otherwise he wouldn’t fit in with the in-crowd. His understanding of politics was breathtaking, and he had a mastery over the written word I could only ever hope to attain. He could run intellectual rings around anybody, but of course, he never did, because that kind of thing just wasn’t in his nature. His mind was always ticking over on a level I couldn’t even comprehend, but his heart was still big enough to stoop down to my level to keep the conversation ticking over.

And that was such a typical Phil thing. Unless you spent the time to get to know him, you would never know what a cognitive colossus he was, because he was never one to show off, or belittle, or condescend. To the outsider, he was just the lovable larrikin, the affable bogan, the long-haired lout who always just worked a trade. But those who really knew him knew that hidden under that mullet and goatee and pair of $10 servo sunnies was a brain of epic proportions.

He was definitely the class clown, but he also had a serious side. For the time we were involved in the church he was very serious about his Christianity. He would spend hours studying and meditating, just to understand a little bit more of the God he believed in – yet he was more “Christlike” than anyone else I knew. He was serious about politics, and the exploitation of the worker under the current capitalist regime – and he would be the first to maintain that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. He was serious about music. There was never music not playing around Phil, and he had a near magical ability to just happen across random new bands to listen to. He was serious about his family and worked his butt off to provide for them. And he was serious about his friendships. For all his appearance of the mate who was good for a laugh and not much else, he would show no hesitation to wade into the mire of someone else’s dark times and share the load with them. I’m sure many people here today have personally experienced that.

And that was one of the aspects of Phil that astounded me the most. Now I haven’t had the perfect life and I’ve suffered my share of trials and traumas, but it paled in comparison to the wounds of the past Phil carried around with him. But do you think that would ever wipe that toothy grin off his face? No way. And it amazed me that in spite of all his own battles he could still show such amazing empathy to others. He genuinely felt for others, and he translated that empathy into action.

I remember the last time I saw Phil. I was at home recovering from an operation, and he drove all the way from down south to my house up north to visit me. He knocked on the door, I opened it and was greeted with that trademark cheeky grin. He had a backpack with him. I thought maybe he’d packed a lunch. But he sat down on the couch with me and watched the daggy old war movie I’d just started watching. He didn’t say a lot, neither did I, because he wasn’t there to flap his gums. He just came to spend time with me whilst I convalesced. He opened the backpack and pulled out a beer. Then another one. And another one. Aaaand another one. He didn’t ask to put them in my fridge, he just kept them there with him. He didn’t offer me one because he knew after my operation I couldn’t have one anyway, and he didn’t make me feel uncomfortable for it. And in a way, to me this perfectly sums Phil up. Going to great lengths just to be there for a mate but making out like it was no big deal, carrying around whatever he felt he needed to get by, all by himself, not asking anyone for help, and not crying out for attention. And maybe in the end this was his downfall – he cared for and looked after others more than he cared for and looked after himself.

I still can’t believe he’s gone. I keep expecting someone to ring me and say that it was all just a terrible mistake, he’s fine, he just went on holidays without telling anyone. Which is the kind of thing that wouldn’t surprise me if he did.

I still can’t believe I am not going to see that ear-to-ear grin, or hear that hearty guffaw again.

I still can’t believe I am not going to go hang out at his house again, sit around drinking beer and dribbling the kind of nonsense that only he and I could.

Phil – seriously dude, what gives? I knew I valued your friendship, but I never realised how much I NEEDED your friendship. You were the constant reassuring presence at the back of my mind, and it was comforting to know that at any moment I could get a text message in a New Zealand accent, asking if I want to go see this that or the other band, or catch up for a beer at lunchtime, or come over and hang out. Why did you take that away from me?

Who am I going to go and see King of the North with now? And who am I supposed to carry down an extremely steep and narrow staircase after they’ve polished off a whole hipflask of Jim Beam and have been temporarily robbed of the ability to walk?

Who am I going to watch The Song Remains The Same with, or Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii with? And who is going to put some rubbish movie on for me to watch then fall asleep on the couch without telling me how to turn off the TV and the sound system?

Maybe life can carry on as normal. Maybe I can get over this grief and just get back to it like nothing happened. But of course I can’t. I’ve never had a friend like you, and I never will again. You are a singular icon in my mind, standing tall and proud, with none who could ever compare.

I remember the day I heard that you had gone. I had to leave work as soon as I got off the phone, I just couldn’t keep concentrating. I walked to the bus stop and stood there next to the Adelaide GPO. Then the clock tower chimed, but one of the bells must have broken, because some of the chimes didn’t ring. And I thought – that’s the world now. The world is missing one of it’s most vital components, and it will never sound the same again.

But one thing that can never be taken away from me, or from Catherine, or from Josh, or Ella, or Riley or Reece, or from anyone who ever knew and loved Phil, is that for a while – he was here. We have more than just memories of Phil. He left an indelible imprint on our lives that will never fade like memories do. In a very real and non-wishy-washy sense, his spirit still lingers in our lives, and his presence will always be a factor in them, because for a short time we got to share them with Phil. He was one of those unique buried treasures whose love for life and people was contagious.

Josh, Ella, Riley, Reece – you should be proud of your dad. He was strong. He was brave. And he was the most selfless person I’ve ever known. If I could ever be just half the person he was, I will be a much better man than I am today. And I’m just his mate. You are his kids, the people he loved more than anything and anyone else in this entire world. He may not be around anymore, but you can know – not just think, not just believe, but KNOW – that your dad’s love is still with you, and always will be. And he would want you to have the best lives you could possibly have, even if he couldn’t be in them.

For the rest of us, let me offer some advice. I’ve adopted a new motto – WWPD – What Would Phil Do. When we are figuring out how to cope with his absence, how would Phil handle it? After he’s sat out on the back porch by himself drinking beer staring off into space and listening to Cold Chisel that is? How would Phil want to be remembered and his memory honoured? I’m pretty sure, after we’ve given ourselves the time and space to grieve, he would want us to crank up some Sabbath or some Zeppelin or some Floyd, get together, have a barbie, enjoy each other’s company and laugh. Laugh loud and from the gut, teeth bared, eyes clenched shut and clutching the stomach. Because that’s what Phil would do."

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