Memorials & Eulogy – Svanaug & Alan Nilsen

By | December 14, 2023

As I discussed in a previous post, 2023 has been a long, hard year.

Svanaug Sørheim Nilsen

My mother’s memorial came immediately as I recovered from a bout of Covid, and so I did not prepare a written eulogy. Rather, I let me sister take the lead and made some notes from which I spoke off the cuff on the day. You can view her memorial below; the eulogies start from about 7:45.

Alan Ronald Nilsen

For my father’s memorial service, I was in a better place to be prepared. I was stressed and sad, of course, but the day before the service, when I sat down to make some notes, the words just flowed. The eulogy as delivered was a little different, of course, but the substance was the same. I have a recording of this service, but unfortunately, the audio has some problems, so it will be a while before I’m able to post it.

Here’s the text I wrote:

I never thought my father would die from cancer. He was always such an active person that I assumed he’d take one risk too many and either fall out of a 20m macrocarpa tree, or jump from the front of his dinghy to the nine-pin rocks in Kaikoura to gather mussels on a day too stormy to be out on the water and miss. So, to see him succumb to cancer was in one way particularly hard, because it meant he’d lost the ability to be so active, but it was also a blessing, because it meant that he lived a full long life and never did take that fall.

As a child, he was Pappa, and later Pop, or even just “old man”. When I was small, we played back yard cricket together and went on walks in the hills or around the Kaikoura peninsula. He would pick up pieces of wood, or lost fishing buoys, or bits of rope. Mum would always complain, but he’d take them home and find a use for them. Eventually. We went on many adventures together, gathering pupu sea snails, exploring the Kaikoura reef, building dams on the Puhi Puhi river, and marveling at his relationship with piwakawaka. Good times.

To others, he was known for his woodworking, his fruit trees, and, before he retired from that job, the towel racks and shelf brackets he made and shared from his workshop at Shirley Intermediate. There was nothing he liked more than to make a thing and see that thing appreciated in someone’s hands. Before his illness made clear that he wouldn’t make it that far, he pushed me to delay our visit as late as possible so that Siggy could be here late in the season so they could eat plums and strawberries from his garden together. I think that realizing that he wouldn’t be there for that was one of the saddest things for him at the end.

Through his life and actions, he offered several important values and lessons that I would like to share:

First, that learning is a lifelong thing. As long as I remember, he was taking one course or another at Ara, then the Christchurch Polytech. On Saturday mornings he’d take us to visit their library. And when, at around age 60, he left his teaching position at Shirley Intermediate, he didn’t consider retirement; he went straight back to school and got certified to do do carpentry, which work he continued for another decade or so.

Second, that hard work is its own reward. I don’t know if he ever articulated this, but he demonstrated that work, when chosen voluntarily and being towards a goal set by oneself, is a joyous thing that gives one purpose and furthermore, yields fruit both literal and metaphorical that can be shared with those around you.

Third, the value of tenacity. Never let it be said that my father would take no for answer once he got it into his head that a thing should be done. He was determined and completely shameless in asking for things to reach his goals. As children, he would take us to Lyttelton harbour and talk sailors into letting him bring his small children on board to look around. Once, we formed a friendship with the crew of a Soviet fishing vessel that resulted in gifts on their return some time later and in us dining on borscht with them in the ship’s mess.

Last, he inspired me with his adventurousness. As a young man in the late sixties, he left home in search of opportunity and adventure, joining the crew of a merchant sea vessel. I lose track of the specifics of his journeys, but he spent time in South Africa, Trinidad, and Egypt, as well as in northern Europe where eventually he met Mum. I was always curious about this time of his life, and one of my greatest regrets is having never been able to get him to write these stories down and having not been more persistent in my attempts to collect oral history from him as he neared the end. In the pain and frustration of his decline this past year, it was very difficult to find him in a storytelling mood, and in my own sadness it was very hard to push him into it. I wish I had done more of this, but we at least had many short conversations, many of which I recorded. I will probably never be as adventurous as he was, but he showed me that there is virtue in deciding to do something and then just doing it for no other reason than because you want to and it seems like it might be interesting.

A memorial is an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate a life. But it is also an opportunity for reflection. While it is important to remember the times we spent together and the things he did, perhaps the best memorial I can offer is to try more to live and learn from some of his life and values, particularly those of service, tenacity and adventurousness. I hope that his life can serve as an example to us all in this way. We were never as intellectually or emotionally close as I hope to be with Siggy, but I was always so proud of having him as my father. I wish I’d been able to do a better job of letting him know this. Thank you.