The Six Best Gifts My Dad Left Me
Here’s the six best gifts my dad left me
In this post, I pay tribute to Allan Mullins, my second dad and the proud grandad of my five children. I hope to gift you with some of the remarkable and priceless gems he gave me through his wisdom and character.
As hundreds of people who participated in his online memorial can attest, Allan had reached “living legend” status decades ago already. Having broken his back as a student in a diving accident near Llandudno, Cape Town, he lost most of the movement of his torso and limbs. Back then, the physician gravely explained to his mother that, with all of the secondary complications, he likely had just another 5 years to live. The doctor was right about the number, except he left out a zero.
Allan lived another 50 years!
For the last 20 of them, he was also my stepdad. Having lost my biological dad when I was 16, Allan promised to love both my mom and me when he married her all those years ago. He kept that promise, and extended it to my future wife and kids too. What a privilege that has been!
As I’ve reflected on what I will cherish most about this incredible man, it comes down to six things… they are six lessons that I’ve learnt from seeing his character, example and life philosophy up close. Like precious gifts bequeathed to me – I want to pass them on like a legacy to my own kids, and to you too…
1. Turn crushed grapes into wine.
The simplest tasks were enormously challenging for Allan. It would take him over 3 hours to get ready for each day. This, after a night of broken sleep brought on by uncontrollable muscle spasms. Most days, he was exhausted before it had even begun. You’d never tell by being with him though. None of us have a single memory of him complaining.
He would often tell my mom that being angry at life for its multiple setbacks or at those who make life harder is a pointless, wasted emotion. Much better to focus your thoughts on getting stronger, he’d tell her.
Unlike so much popular wisdom, Allan would often compare himself to others… but he’d never compare himself with those who had it easier, only with those who had it harder. If there’s anything at all you have that another does not—be grateful for that. Forget turning lemons into lemonade—take the crushed grapes of your life and turn them into wine, like Allan did.
2. Receive help while holding your dignity.
Allan mustered all the independence he could. As a maths teacher at SACS, he learnt to write with his semi-responsive left hand. He learnt to walk on his crutches by pushing his minisculey-responsive left foot forward, and drag-flicking his immobile right foot, making it look like a step. When my mom first met him at a wedding, she found him casually leaning against a wall without crutches. She jokes, “He conned me.”
Yet for so much of his life, more and more so in recent years, he needed huge amounts of help to do most things we all take for granted. Cutting his own food, putting his wine glass down, reaching for a pen… Allan had to rely on others to do all of these.
Yet he did so with a grace and dignity that never made this help seem tragic or awkward. I think because Allan understood better than most that true love not only gives, it also receives. After all, if you can’t graciously receive help, the help you extend to others will be shot through with fetid pride masquerading as care.
Allan perfected the balance of receiving help whilst always holding onto his dignity.
3. Work hard.
At the top of his game as a maths teacher and sports coach, Allan fell in love with the world of wine and become one of the first Cape Wine Masters. With a palate talent second to none, he worked on his craft daily over forty years.
World-renowned as a wine specialist, he put Woolworths wine on the map (you can still buy his signature series) and worked for the retailer right until the end. The last conversation we know about, he begged the doctor to let him leave the hospital so he could finish up some work for Woolworths.
Though most people picture Allan at leisure, glass of wine in hand, I saw how hard he worked. Other than leaving something you like (education) to do something you love, Allan teaches us that if you plug away at something everyday for most of your life you can become one of the best in the world.
The life-time achievement accolades lavished upon Allan in recent years remind us to not overestimate the difference we can make in our field in a decade, but also not to underestimate the difference we can make in four!
Speaking of work (and money) if I can call for an increase of awareness about how expensive being disabled is. Allan would spend over half of his paycheck on compensating for it, having to work way past his retirement age merely to survive.
4. Be interested in people.
We called it Allan-magic. When he rolled into any room, the atmosphere changed. At each table, or in any group of people, someone would whisper, “That’s Allan Mullins.” Then he’d spend the occasion deflecting all the spotlight on him onto everyone else in the room. He could make every person he talked to feel like a million bucks.
I once read that the secret to being liked by people is to like them first. Allan did that. Part of what made him so interesting was that he was so interested.
5. Succumb to love divine.
When I first met Allan he was a good man, but he wasn’t particularly interested in spiritual things. Over the course of many years and meals however, we got around to some deep chats.
Once, about all the bad things that had happened to him. We both agreed that it would be hard to believe in a God who was immune to suffering. I pointed out that in Jesus, God had taken on human skin, and had been bloodied, broken, bruised and burdened himself. Why God had allowed Allan’s accident, I didn’t know, but it can’t be that he doesn’t care about our suffering.
Another time we chatted about all the good things in his life. I asked him, “Do you ever wonder where all the joy, love and opportunities in your life come from?” He told me that really got him thinking.
Over a decade ago, as a result of an operation that had gone horribly awry, Allan slipped into a deep coma. To even the doctor’s surprise, he came to many days later. When he regained his speech he told me, “Terran, I believe now. God spoke to me in my coma and said he’d always been there for me, and that he even saved my life all those years ago. I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t enough water to spare me from breaking my neck, but God showed me that there was enough water to spare me from losing my life.” Then a few years later, he called me to say that today was his day, that he’d prayed with a good friend to give his life to God. He said he felt such peace.
The last time I saw him, I read Psalm 23 to him. He relished every word about how God would be there for him in the darkest valley, and how God had caused his cup to overflow (literally in his case), and how he would live in God’s presence forever. “Forever,” commented Allan, “is a long time.”
“Forever” is also a wonderful place. When my mom and I climbed back into the car after saying farewell to his lifeless body, she looked at the folded up wheelchair and said, “He won’t need that ever again.”
6. “Don’t keep wine too long, drink it.”
He’d often say this.
Thankfully for us, I don’t have a single memory of going to his house without drinking a bottle of top-shelf wine. Since bubbly was his favourite drink, he took every chance to pop the cork, celebrating his relationship with our family, and with many, many others too. “Any excuse to open bubbly,” he’d often say with a big smile and a twinkle in his eye.
The lesson: don’t postpone important things.
A few months ago, Julie and I were walking and praying in the vineyards when she turned to me and said, “We won’t have Allan much longer.” So we left a long voice message telling him how much we loved him. Then we took as many gaps as we could to spend time with him. We’re so so glad we did. He left an even better message for us. You can listen to it here.
Tell the people that matter most how much they matter, and tell them often. If you can’t do the important things today, then put them in your diary today – book a date. Allan’s friend Duncan Savage would block dates in the calendar and invite people who loved Allan, surfing and wine, to join us in taking Allan out to Muizenberg on his own huge surfboard.
Take the crushed grapes of your life (the crushing disappointments, setbacks and blows) and turn them into wine. Accept help with dignity – recognizing that there’s no shame in needing others, in fact, it is the glue that binds us all together. Work hard. Be genuinely interested in people. Embrace a higher love. And drink your best wines today (or soon), with your best people. These are the six most prized gifts my dad left me.
Also published on Medium.