We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realise we only have one.
In memory of John Francis Nolan
I would like to share a story, so that it is never lost. Some parts of this story hurts to this day but it is an important one to me. It is the memory of my father. During this week, 26 years ago, we lost him.
This isn’t the complete story of John Francis Nolan, there is so much more about him that I want to share and to learn, but as time moves forward I’m unsure if I will ever know everything about my father. We called him Papa. I know him through the memories of a 7 year old’s eyes. I remember him through my mother’s words, the way Mama looks when she speaks about him. I remember him through the videos and pictures he took. I think I got the love of capturing moments in life from him as he was never without his SLR or video camera (back in those days they were massive). I hear about him through the stories of his sister, our Aunty, about their childhood in Wigan, trips to Ireland, how he was like when he left for university in Swansea and his visits back to the UK from his travels abroad. I learn more through what family and family friends say in remembrance. I really wish I could find out more.
My father worked on drill ships as a geologist. He can live out of one suitcase. He was one of the most well travelled men of his time. He worked in a few different countries and if the job required him to move for a long period of time, we moved with him. I remember his office, piles of papers and books. Technical scientific books I always tried to understand. He loved books, and he passed that love of literature to us too. He loved rock music and I remember tapes of AC/DC on his shelf.
He never stayed in once place too long. We never did as a family. He called us the “Nolan Nomads” and to this day we move and travel all over the world as he predicted. I have memories of him heading off to work, but I never thought he was away for very long. When you’re little time seemed irrelevant (unless you were in trouble and told to sit in the corner) and we had so much love around us as we grew up we were never left wanting. It seemed normal to us for Papa to be away for weeks and return home with a big smile in his face as we ran into his massive bear hug. I would always get him his beer as he sat after dinner near the balcony or patio, whether it was in the Philippines or Thailand, while he lit his cigar and read the paper. Papa loved cigars. He loved whiskey and Guinness. I remember scrunching my nose when he let me smell them both. I remember my sister Sheena doing the same and saying yuck. I remember, my other sister Kristine taking sips and saying yum. I remember him laughing at us when we did that, as he watched do our little plays with pillows and imaginary sets, dance to “Thriller” or “We built this city on rock and roll”.
I have the strongest memories of his smile when he saw us every day. The kind that lit his bright eyes and animated his face. You could tell he loved us all, more than anything else on earth. Looking back I know as an adult, I know he sacrificed a lot for his family, all those weeks away working out at sea in order to give us the life he wanted. At the end of every trip, he always had that massive smile on his face when he came back home to his girls — Mama, me and my sisters.
I remember his certificates and all those plaques on his office wall, awards for drilling so many feet through the ocean into the floor in search for oil in so many days. I thought they were like trophies. I was so proud of his awards. I remember him telling me that someday he would take me out there to the rig and show me what he did. I remember wanting to be a geologist just like him. I still pick up rocks you know? In my pocket or in my handbag, after a trip somewhere different I could care less about souvenirs. I prefer a rock from the place. I have a volcanic one from Iceland. He loved science and I do too. He never made fun of my dream to become an astronaut or a archeologist like Indiana Jones. I think, despite how short a time he was here, he managed to achieve so much from such humble beginnings that he never thought anything was impossible.
I have another strong memory of sitting on the bathroom table watching him as he shaved and asking if I could shave like him someday. He had the the classic old shaving kit, you know the kind with the bristle brush and razor? He was old school and cool. I remember being disappointed when he said no. I’m incredibly relieved about that now although I have inherited his peppering head of hair and walk. Yes. I walk like my dad. I remember his booming laugh, the way his eyes would squint when he was happy. I remember his fondness for shorts and walking around barefoot. I remember his love for the sea. We all loved the sea and still do.
I remember the pride in his face when he picked up Shaun, his son, his one and only little boy.
The day that he took my little brother, only a few weeks old, into his arms and we posed for this family photo in Bangkok in September 1989. Soon after, I remember him packing his bags and picking me up onto the bed and telling me to “Take care of everyone, my little soldier”. I remember saluting.
On November 3 1989, 91 men lost their lives on the DS Seacrest, also known as The Scan Queen. It was a TD-E Drilling Ship, 4,4000tons, 110m in length, call sign HO5303. The drill ship Seacrest capsized in UNOCAL’s Platong Gas field during the passage of Typhoon Gay. At the time there was a crew of 97 men. Only 6 survived. The typhoon produced winds of 100 knots or more with 40 feet waves. It left hundreds of sunken fishing vessels at its wake, killing 529 people and leaving 160,000 homeless. So many lost and so many lives changed that day.
I remember that night as the wind howled outside, everyone crowded around the TV as we watch the typhoon approach. I saw ships being thrown around the sea, newscasters trying to speak as the wind and rain tore past. I remember my mother crying, the anguish and pain in her voice. It is strange, when I look back at that time, I seem to recall every moment. Every smell, sight and sound. I even remember the intense pressure in my throat and realizing exactly what was happening. I stopped being a child that day, and with every loss of every family and friend since (there have been many lost since, but they are never forgotten), that wretched ache in the back of my throat returns. The fear of death and unfairness of it all, how precious little time we have, the pain, anger and the deep sense of loss. Not every light in the apartment was on, the room where everyone crowded around the tv was dark, but across the hall past the dining room on the right and living room on the left the light to Papa’s office was on. I ran there and slammed the door. I ran to his desk. I sat on his chair. And I cried like no child should ever cry. I cried for my father. My mother. My sisters and brother. And I cried because I lost the greatest man I ever knew. I remember waking up in the bedroom with my sisters around me. I remember the sun shining outside. I remember being angry at that sun. How dare the day rises when I lost my father? I knew quite young that the world carries on after every loss, we either pick ourselves up or get swept by it.
Typhoon Gay was the most powerful storm to affect the Gulf of Thailand in more than 35 years. It took a lot of people off guard and 16 vessels were reported missing by November 5. Among those was the oil drill ship Seacreast that my father was on. According to survivors, they received no warning of the developing typhoon and during the court case that followed they were also instructed to not pull up the pipe line despite the storm they were experiencing. I know some were being helicoptered out of there, I know this because I met the man whom my father told to take his place. My father stayed behind to help and gave his seat on the helicopter to his friend. This man came to visit my mother after we knew we lost my father and told his story. I shook this man’s hand. I didn’t hate him, to be honest I didn’t know how to feel. Proud that my father saved someone’s life and risked his own to try and save more? Yes of course. But it still hurt. He was never coming back. Just as all the crew members were about to abandon ship, the eye of the typhoon passed over. Winds fluctuated violently and changed direction, preventing the ship from stabilizing. It abruptly capsized with all 97 men on board during the overnight hours of November 3, before any life boat could be deployed. I remember someone telling me that my father’s office or operating area was in the top floor but the ship turned upside down. Initial rescue attempts on November 4 were hampered by rough seas. Two days after, four rescue ships and two helicopters in the region started their search for survivors. They found four from the wreckage on November 6. Divers from the Thai Navy were sent to search the capsized ship for anyone trapped inside. Of the crew, only six survived. 25 bodies were recovered. The remaining 66 presumed dead and lost at sea. Another 20 cargo and fishing ships in the area sunk during the storm, resulting in 140 causalities.
Mama identified Papa’s body from those recovered by the divers on November 8. We clung to the hope that he was still alive for five long days. I remember the funeral on November 18, the beautiful white church we had his service, the huge number of people who attended. I remember watering his flowers and wearing a white dress and a headband. There were so many flowers. Strange how at 7 you can remember so much. I remember everything. His coffin and the way he slept. we were all there but the children we were taken to our family friend’s home just before the actual cremation.
I saw how much pain my mother was in and the highs and lows years after as the court case against the company went on. All of those who lost someone that day won against the oil company but it would never bring our loved ones back. I cannot express my pride and love for her pulling through and being the woman that she is today. Did you know that he went on his knee in a phone booth in London and proposed to my Mom over the phone? That was the story I heard, it wouldn’t surprise me if he got on the next plane back to the Philippines. Mom once asked Papa why her, why did he choose her among all the other women he has known. She didn’t bother with things like handbags, make up, or jewellery and it confused her. He said it was exactly why he wanted her, because she was already beautiful and didn’t need or want all those material things. She was different, smart, with a quick mind and deep heart, amazing inner strength and drew meaning into her life from achieving the impossible and surprising those around with her wit and knowledge. He was right. She raised 4 young children, aged 7, 5, 3 and a new born, without a husband. She and my Aunty Angela, Papa’s sister who was actually only passing by on her way to Australia but decided to stay with us in the Philippines, raised us and gave us more than we ever needed to succeed in life. We had nothing at first, but look at where we are now. And they haven’t stopped. They keep moving forward. I owe these two amazing women so much, together we are family and I am unbelievably protective of my family. They are always first in my life. We’re one person more now. My little cousin, Aunty’s son Kian who is the latest Nolan, makes that much more. The Nolan Clan will always be there for one another and for those they care for. We cannot help it. We have this instinct to fight for what we love, even if it is being hot headed about little things which we laugh about later.
I love my family more than anything. And I know, every year from November 3 through to 18, Papa’s memory will be the strongest. Not because of his passing but because of his life. You never forget someone like him. I will always be his first born, his little soldier. This fierce love is why I can never drop the Nolan name. I’m first and foremost a Nolan. A Nolan Nomad. Part of the Nolan Clan. I suppose that is why I love adventure holidays, this need to see the world and explore was from him. Did you know he had the largest collection of National Geographic? I loved going through them. I loved that he saw more in the world through experience, travel and his relationships with people. Everyone who knew Papa always had a lovely or funny story, alive with character and wit. The drive to see things beyond comfortable boundaries, experience different cultures and learning new things is from him. I’m the nutter that wants to go into the crater of a volcano, chase tornadoes, be the first woman in Mars and happiest in a library full of books and maps. The girl that tries to pick up and drop off her family at the airport when they visit. Who drives to see her sisters when one was in Liverpool and another in Manchester while I lived smack bang in the middle in Wigan. He is why I love my family so much, spread out across Wigan, Ireland, the USA, the Philippines; even more countries come to think about it. He is why I care deeply for my friends, how I refuse to lose touch and keep these relationships close. Why I fight when anyone hurts someone that I love. He is the reason I make crazy plans after crazy plans, doing as much as I can with people I care about. He makes me remember to live life to the fullest. It is because of Papa, celebrating his life and remembering him during this time that an old Confucius quote truly rings clear. That “we all have two lives. The second one starts when we realise we only have one.”
I love you Papa, I miss you.
Your little soldier
This video was created last year on the 25 year anniversary of the passing of our father when we went back to the Philippines and got together as a family in his memory. He took my mother to El Nido, Palawan on a beautiful escape here once, she took us all with her in 2014.