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Making the most of the moments

Dear Huhana and Kāhu ō te Rangi,

I’m writing this sitting on the mattress at our marae, Whakarongotai, back against the wall, laptop on my knees. Huhana, you’re top-and-tailing on the other side of the whare with your cousin Amalia. Our cousin Vicky Spratt passed away on Monday, and tonight as we shared our memories and stories while she lay in her casket, a woman who was new to the whanau stood. She didn’t have a memory to pass around the room, but after hearing ours, she wanted us to know how lucky we were to have had someone as beautiful as Vicky in our lives.

You’re lucky to have loved ones in your life. Remember that, and tell them when you do.

Pera Barrett - Cousin Vicky

Every Christmas morning we visit my sisters, and our other whānau at the urupa in Waikanae. Erena and Taina were 8 and 6 when they passed away. Two beautiful little girls who never had the chance to grow into your beautiful older Aunties. 

I grew up with their pictures on the old, off-key piano in Mum and Dad’s lounge. The photo of those two cheeky little smiles isn’t just a snapshot of their faces, it’s a reminder they left us much earlier than we thought they would, that mum and dad, your koko and mater, said goodbye to their precious little girls too soon. They didn’t have a say in that.

Life ends, and it’s not up to us when.

By the time you’re reading this, you will understand that nobody lives forever. Huhana, you’re four years old and already know in theory that we all die. But I hope as you come along to visit your Aunties, and dress their headstones in flowers like the ones we put in your hair, the same putiputi Mum and Dad never had the chance to give them on their 21st birthdays, or their wedding days, you come to truly know it.


Every July, more than every other month and morning, I acknowledge the day I crashed my car and took the life of Lorna. I was 21 and nearly lost my own life too, if my head had hit the steering wheel on a different angle, I wouldn’t have been breathing as they cut me out of the car.

Pera Barrett Car Crash

In the years following the crash I’ve made an intentional effort to live life on my terms. I’ve made decisions and changes to do justice to the life I’m lucky to still have, since Lorna doesn’t have hers. Since my sisters don’t have theirs. I have the only say in if I make the most of my life or not.

Life ends, and it’s not up to us when – but the way we spend it, is.

This year and last, we’ve been to a lot of tangi for my friends’ parents. We go as another feather in the korowai of compassion. But I hope every one of those tangi, and moments of death, teach you something about living your life. Your Uncle James and his sister said at their dad’s funeral: “I told Dad I loved him more times in the last three months than I had in the thirty years before he got sick.” They had three months notice to make the most of those moments, so they did. 

You came along to aroha Uncle Sam as he said goodbye to his mum who passed away without any notice – I saw Sam make the most of every chance to tell and show her he loved her.

So, Huhana and Kāhu, to start with, I love you – that’s true however much time we have left – I say it to you every day, and I’ll keep doing that even when you’re older and it’s awkward.


Now let’s talk about life. 81 is the average life expectancy of a New Zealander. It’s actually lower for you two; life expectancy for Maori females is 77, it’s 73 for Maori males. You’ve got mine and your mums genes both, though, and I’m optimistic, so I’m sticking with 81. 

I’m 35 now, this is what my life looks like:

It has a start, and then a finish. I don’t have control over either of those ends – but I do decide what happens in the middle.

Life ends, and it’s not up to us when – but the way we spend it, is.

I want that middle section of the line to be happy. Stripped down to the basics, that’s about it. One of the things that makes me happy is time with my whānau, you, your mum, my Otaki whānau and our extended whanaunga. While I’m sure we’ll have our moments, I’m going to assume you enjoy time with us too.

I was lucky enough to grow up in Otaki with both Mum and Dad until I was 17. I saw them basically every day. Then I moved to Wellington to study at Uni, and saw them once every few weeks. When I started working and rapping, and living my busy life in the city, the times I saw them dropped to once every few months. The moments got less and less. I didn’t realise it then, but by the time I was 17, I had already spent around 90% of the days with Mum and Dad as I ever would have. If I’d moved overseas like I’d thought about, and visited them every Christmas, my moments with them after 17 would have dropped to a single number percentage.

It’s easy to not notice as life rolls by.

Today, my dad, your koko, is 70. According to his life expectancy, he’s got between 3 and 11 years left stomping around and feeding you more chocolate than he should.

If I carried on seeing him once every 3-4 months, that’s 21 moments I have left with him before he’s gone.
21 more chances to say “Hey Dad.” To shake his hand, or, to risk my masculinity and tell him I love him. That’s something I need to do more of.

21 isn’t a lot.

And that’s assuming he lives up to his life expectancy. Erena and Taina were 8 and 6, Vicky was 56, I was nearly 21.

That might sound depressing. But it’s not, it’s life. It has a start and a finish. We’re here for a limited amount of time, short or long, we don’t know until the end. The thought of not stopping to think about that before the tangi is depressing. It’s scary. That’s what this letter is for.

Your mum and I talked about moving to Auckland once. We decided not to. A while back we decided to visit Koko and Mater every Friday for dinner because moments with whānau are important to us both.

Because of those decisions, I don’t have 21 more moments with Dad, I have 416. Because that time is important to me, I try to make the most of those moments, I don’t spend it scrolling my social media feed, arguing, or fighting over things that won’t matter at Mum or Dad’s tangi.

Life ends, and it’s not up to us when – but the way we spend it, is. Make the most of the moments.

You have even less time with Koko and Mater than I do.

The good news is, every one of those 52 weeks, every year between the start and finish of those lines, is full of time to spend with the people you love. After 7-8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work or school, you have 67 hours every week to spend the way you want. 

67 is a lot.

For at least the first 17 years, some of that will be taken up with chores, but we’ll leave you enough free time, promise. Even then, there will be other things you need to do, but you choose HOW you do them. If you can’t see your loved ones this week, pick up the phone. Talk while you walk. Video conference for dinner.

Lastly, again, I love you – that’s why I chose to spend this time writing this letter. Its morning on Whakarongotai now, most of the snoring has stopped, and the blankets around the floor are starting to move.

I hope you choose decisions that make the most of your moments, especially with the people you love. I hope you’re brave enough to challenge yourself and prioritise that limited time with people who make you happy, for moments you can look back on and smile. And I hope you do it today, because you might not have the chance tomorrow. 


Love you, 

Dad

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What a Car Crash & Death Taught Me about Life & Happiness Pt.1

Dear H,

This one is pretty personal and there’s a lot packed into the paragraphs, so take your time reading them. These first three letters were the hardest for me to write. But I did so instead of sitting down with you when you’re older, because it’s still easier for me to catch in writing everything I want to say. And because while the lessons are for you firstly, they might be helpful to others too, so sharing them is the right thing to do.

When I was twenty-two, I was driving the car in the picture on State Highway One. I was heading to Palmerston North to buy a friend’s birthday present. Something cool from the city.

I didn’t make it to the mall.

I crossed the centre line and crashed head-on into a van coming from the opposite direction. You can still see the driver’s seat I was sitting in, and if you can imagine what happens to soft skin, bone, and tissue in a collision where a car’s steel gets that twisted and bent, you can probably picture how I ended up.

I was in a coma for three days, then lived in a wheelchair and hospital bed for about four months. I suffered serious head trauma, a snapped thigh bone, shattered jaw, punctured lung, one foot reduced to bone dust, and more pain on most days than I’d experienced in my life so far.

Reading that in isolation you might feel sorry for your dad because while “suffered” isn’t a word I like to use often, that’s what I did. You might feel bad about all the times you pieced together the words for your “Daddy carry”demands, knowing now that I’ve got arthritis in both feet and that those days carrying you or jumping up and down for your amusement physically hurt.

Then when I tell you the woman driving the van I hit, passed away at the scene, and because I crossed the centre line, a husband lost his wife, and her friends lost a mate, you might feel a bit less sympathetic. You might wonder if I was drinking or high. If ‘Boy Racing’ is still a thing you might ask if I was racing or speeding. You might even feel a bit angry with your dad.

How you decide to interpret any situation or facts, will influence your response and how you feel.

I wasn’t drinking, high or speeding when I crashed. I don’t actually know what happened. I don’t remember anything between stopping at the petrol station for a coffee and waking up as they were cutting me out of the car. A man in a bright fluro vest told me I was going to be OK.

I do know I crossed the centre line, and as a result, the woman in the other car lost her life. Her husband did lose a wife, and her friends did lose a mate. I’m not going to write her name here – for some reason, it feels less wrong to call her the woman than it does to use her name.

About a week out of my coma, a uniformed policeman visited your confused, scared twenty-two-year-old dad. He stood up straight at the foot of my bed. “Mr Barrett, we are charging you with careless driving causing death.” His voice was flat. At least he took his hat off.

That sad Saturday was nearly eleven years ago today. It’s something I’ve never stopped dealing with, and never will. I learned some good lessons as a result of a bad turn of events, and they were really expensive lessons to learn.

So I’m writing this in the hope that you can learn them too, without paying the price I did. A lot of it centres around resilience and happiness, I talked about how these affect children over here but you can apply these lessons to your adult and teenage life like I do. I’m not a psychologist, I haven’t studied any of this in laboratories with test cases across decades, I’m just your Dad, and this is just how I dealt with some tough setbacks, and what I learnt in the process.

 

LESSON ONE: HAPPINESS AFFECTS EVERYTHING, SO WORK ON IT

I was in my third year at university studying Marine Biology and working part time when I crashed. While I was recovering, I put my studies on hold and, thanks to ACC and my boss at the time, I managed to keep paying the rent for my room in the city, while living in a rented hospital bed at your nana and granddad’s in Otaki. But once I could walk again, it was back out to the life I lived before I had nearly lost it.

The times over the next few years I spent down and out about the accident, are the times I got sick easily; they’re the times I drifted away from friends, didn’t do well at work or uni, and overall, wasn’t doing justice to the life I was lucky enough to still have. That’s because anxiety, prolonged stress, and self-doubt all make your body and mind behave differently from ‘normal’. While stress is designed to get us out of threatening situations quickly (fight or flight), just like self-doubt and anxiety, it’s really unhealthy in big doses. Those three assailants had two battlefields to attack me on. The first was a focused assault in the months leading up to my court date, the second scuffle was, and still is, a longer term battle over the years following.

The months leading up to my sentencing in court were the most stressful of my life so far. I was scheduled to stand in front of the people who loved the woman I’d killed. I had exchanged letters with her best friend, and mum and dad went to her funeral while I was in hospital, but I’d never met them face to face.

This was also the day I would find out if I was going to spend my 23rd and maybe 24th birthday behind bars, in jail. I dealt with those two things very differently.

To help process being responsible for her death and prepare myself to see her family, I wrote. A lot. That helped me understand and self-explain emotions that I’d never felt before and helped me be comfortable in the discomfort of them as best I could. Most of that writing was music. I made a bunch of songs like this that were pretty much pages of me processing what happened and coming to grips with it in a setting that was comfortingly familiar (hip hop). But if I didn’t write music I guess I would have worked through that pain & confusion with regular writing to get to the same clarity. I talked about the benefits of journaling in any form here – if you don’t already do this, I hope you start. The next twenty years will drop a lot of first-time experiences on your doorstep. I hope you talk with me and your mum about some of those, but if you don’t want to, writing them down will help turn those emotions into clear thoughts that will be easier for you to understand.

 

Get comfortable explaining your thoughts to yourself, before you need to explain them to the world.

Preparing to spend nearly ten percent of my time on earth in jail, was different. I had to understand and believe that the judge’s decision was outside of my control. There were things I could change, like what I would achieve and get done when I got out. And what I could do there and then before the big day – but everything else? I didn’t have a say in it. There’s not a lot of preparation for jail you can do from a wheelchair other than the mind-set you take in, so that’s what I worked on.

By court date, I believed I was ready.

I was still scared, and when I let myself think I didn’t deserve it, I was still angry that after making the life choices I had thought meant I wouldn’t be following some of my friends and family that were headed for, or in, jail, I might end up going for something I didn’t remember doing. I was anxious about missing out on life for any stretch of time, but two years isn’t twenty, and I would still be a young guy with things I wanted to achieve when I got out.

If something is outside of your control and affects you negatively, all you can do is adapt. Do what’s needed to get something positive from the situation.

You need to understand what is and isn’t within your control, sometimes the right thing to do is fight and change the outcome. But you’re smart like your mum, you’ll understand when to adapt and when to put up your fists.

Adapt to the things you can’t control, and own the things you can.

The judge decided it was truly an accident with no mitigating factors. I wasn’t speeding, drinking, driving dangerously etc. The thing about accidents is they can still cause pain, even if you can’t figure out what you should have done differently.

It was hard to take responsibility for causing the accident when I didn’t actually know what I did. But I did cross the centre line, so it was my fault. So while I don’t understand how it happened, I understand what the impact was, and I strap that accountability on my shoulders every morning I get out of bed.

I can’t go back in time and swap seats with her or stay sipping my coffee for 10 minutes longer, so it’s not something I can control now, and I adapted to that.

The Judge didn’t see a need to make an example of me and recognised that I was truly sorry. So I was allowed to go home and right the imbalance I caused on life’s scales in whatever ways I saw fit.

Over the longer term at times I forgot that lesson about adapting to what you can’t control and owning what you can. That’s when I found myself on the second battlefield where anxiety, prolonged stress, and self-doubt would attack me again. Those were the days and weeks I let the accident, and disappointment in myself for causing it, creep into the rest of my life’s lanes. I didn’t keep it wrapped around the car crash and centre line. I would listen to the voice telling me that I cut her life short and questioning what right I had to be enjoying myself after doing something so cruel. I would bring that voice with me and it would drown out all others. The longer I listened, the further it narrowed my vision and my experience of life.

I dealt with those days differently, sometimes I wrote the voice down, again music or journaling played their part – putting it on paper meant that voice and emotion was something I could interpret and control rather than listen to passively and absorb. Sometimes I would exercise and let the thump of blood moving around my body drown it out. Both of those coping techniques gave me the breathing room to remember to adapt to the things I can’t control and own the things I can. I can’t control the impact my actions had in 2005, but I can control the impact I have every year after.

I know now that the part I play in the world isn’t limited to or defined by that car accident and the pain that came after. These days my world is often only as big as you and your mum, sometimes it’s the forty odd people at work I’m responsible for, or the thousands (OK hundreds, OK, sometimes dozens,) of people I reach with my music. It doesn’t make sense to apply that guilt, sadness and grief to those worlds – it wouldn’t be fair to you or the other people I’m responsible for leading. And limiting how much I enjoy my own life wouldn’t be fair to me.

Make happiness your goal in life. Understand what will bring it to you, then go out and make that happen

Knowing that now, I intentionally chase happiness and only make smaller more specific life goals if they fit under that umbrella intent – I try and do as many of the things that make me happy as I can (that includes making you and your mum happy – because that makes me happy too).

Across the 8760 hours in a year I try and balance my energy and time across what makes me happy, what I’m good at, what will pay our bills, and what adds value to the world – this helps make those goals as sustainable as possible. (That’s not an equation I came up with – but the maths seems to work).

 

When you have your ‘car crashes’ in life – big or small – do your best to deal with it there and then rather than letting the impact spread over the rest of life’s lanes, and remember your ability to do one thing isn’t based on your ability to do another. It took me a long time to start driving again, but I drive every day now, an accident eleven years ago doesn’t mean I’m a bad driver today. If you’re not good at drawing, that doesn’t mean you’re going to suck at netball. Come back to those drawings later if you want to practice – for now, put the bib on and see how you go.

Love you,

Dad.

PART 2 – HERE

I don’t write these letters very often, but when I do I’ll let you know.

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Travel to grow, not to escape

Dear Huhana and Kāhu,

We got back from our first whānau holiday overseas (Bali) a few weeks ago. Huhana you’re nearly five, hopefully, some of those memories stick. Kāhu, you’re eighteen months old so you’ll just have to trust me that you had fun. 

Firstly, travel. 

Once upon a time, I thought I didn’t need any horizon-broadening travel. I grew up in Otaki seeing and doing a bunch of interesting things. What do I need to know about the rest of the world? I was wrong, there’s an entire planet worth of things we can all learn from travelling. Experiencing worlds different to home reminds you that yours is not the way. It’s one way. Travel also forces you out of your head and away from problems that can seem un-solvable when they’re a part of your surroundings.

Travel to grow. Don’t travel to escape. 

Some people holiday to escape their regular life. They count down the days until their 4 weeks of annual leave. Counting down is what you do when you want something to end quickly. I hope you never feel those 48 weeks of non-holiday time are ticks on the clock to speed through. If you think you need to fly to a different continent or drive to a different town for a couple of weeks to enjoy your year, please read this letter carefully. It will make more sense when you’re working but kei te mōhio kōrua, you’re both smart, you’ll get the drift. 

93% of your year is not a holiday to be planned – plan those weeks first.

By far, the majority of your life is not a ‘holiday’. So to enjoy your life, that majority is what you should focus on. 

Before you spend hours planning to escape for a few weeks, spend it examining why you need to get away, and tweaking what can be controlled in the other 93% of your life – there’s a lot more potential happiness in there.

“How was your holiday?” 

Friends ask this question like those are the moments we should enjoy the most. If we let that be true, we’re limited to 7% of the year being awesome. I hope you make more of your short time on earth incredible, fulfilling, and packed with happy moments worth talking about with friends.

Planning your day will make you feel better than any holiday planning.

If work is stressful, dig into what you can do during Monday-Friday to enjoy that time more. Maybe you can’t change the external situations or context, but you can always choose how you respond. As long as you’re being paid to do something for someone else, there will always be pressure. How much of that pressure you turn into stress, is up to you.

If you need a break, to recharge, try planning your days to make them self-charging. For me, that’s time with you two and your mum, our Otaki Friday dinners, exercise, my morning routine of meditating, writing and learning before I go to my BNZ mahi. Every day is a planned recharge cycle. That day-planning has more impact on my life than any holiday-planning ever will.

What’s in your kete? 

When you do travel, think about what you bring back. What will you put in your kete that wasn’t there before? Memories are nice. Trinkets for the shelf are pretty. But what taonga are you carrying back from that two weeks to make the rest of your year better? Take note of the things you enjoy about holidays and weave them into your day at home. Again, they’re your days. Plan them. Own them. They’re 93% of your life. Some people pay holiday planners to design the best vacation ever, but don’t put as much intention and thought into the rest of their life.

Bali was filled with meditation and yoga retreats. People go there to spend time meditating. If that makes you feel good, kei te pai tēnā, that’s cool – meditate. You don’t need a retreat to create that calm (and that’s kind of the point of meditation). If my day at work has been crazy, sometimes I’ll go to a quiet room and do it there too. That’s part of my day-plan.

We went out to breakfast and lunch and enjoyed the time together as whānau in Canggu. We could sit down to our kai together more often in Tawa, and make it quality time like our Otaki Friday dinners. We do. We have a slow breakfast mid-week, we could do more of that, I hope we do.

You both loved the time we spent at the waterpark. Aotearoa is filled with beaches. Some of my mates go swimming in the sea in their lunch breaks. If I thought I needed to, I’d add that to my plan.

It’s easier to notice the moments on holiday, because of the headspace that break gives you. But you can create headspace intentionally. Be present and appreciate the exchanges between whānau, friends, and workmates – being on holiday doesn’t make those interactions different. Enjoy the view of the harbour as you walk at lunch, listen to how the waves scratch the shore, I don’t think that sound gets better with the price of a plane ticket. Appreciate the smell of the bakery on the main road as you walk past. It’s the same delicious scent as the one you’ll find on holiday. You being present and taking the time to enjoy it is the difference.

Imagine if you looked forward to each morning the way you anticipate a holiday. You can, they’re your mornings and days, you just have to plan what they’re made of. Do that before you spend time holiday-planning and counting down the ticks of ‘ordinary life.’

Do travel. But travel to grow, not to escape. Plan your days so the 93% isn’t something you need a break from. Enjoy them. That’s what they’re for.

Love you,

Dad.

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