Since my dad passed away three weeks ago, I’ve been trying to find ways to begin a tribute. A straightforward obituary would feel impersonal, one step removed from a Wikipedia entry. At the other end of the spectrum, writing about my own grief would be impossible at this stage. So much has been shattered and I’m not sure how the pieces will settle.
This being the case, I’m going to attempt something midway between the two, exploring something about who he was and the nature of our relationship. I can’t pretend that what follows will do him justice. But maybe I can capture some of my immediate thoughts about him, at a time when little else is on my mind.
My dad, Nick Millar, was born on 20th September 1958 and died on 17th November 2018. His death (a cardiac arrest) was sudden and unexpected, and occurred while he was out cycling. While it’s a cliché to say ‘he died doing what he loved’ – that’s the sort of statement normally reserved for risible sitcom deaths – in his case, it was true.
It was one of those crisp autumnal days when the light was just right – “the sort of day you cycle for”, to quote his cycling buddy. They were out in the remote Northumbrian countryside, near a village called Carrshield. Later that week, as we laid flowers by the roadside, the landscape would assume a Wuthering Heights bleakness. But the day itself, to all accounts, was perfect.
In the days following the news, we would cling to the fact that he didn’t suffer. There are photos taken just minutes before he passed, in which he looks happy and healthy. Not an easy thing to grapple with, that life should be so precarious and randomly severed, but we’re comforted that any pain was minimal.
The cycling had been a major part of his life for the past decade or so, and before that he ran marathons. He was a phenomenal athlete. I don’t have a frame of reference for what constitutes a good cycling time, but in his late 50s he was easily keeping up with fit guys in their 20s and 30s. As a keen runner myself, I find his running times easier to parse: he knocked out a 2:52 marathon in his mid 40s. For a non-professional, that’s right at the far end of the bell curve.
Between 2009 and 2017, he completed the formidable Cent Cols Challenge six times – 100 ‘cols’ or mountain passes in 10 days. This event, which takes place across various European mountain ranges, is baffling in its intensity. It has been dubbed ‘the hardest amateur cycling ride in the world’, and with some justification. Riders spend around 12 hours on their bikes a day, and cycle around 2,000km in total, scaling 50,000 metres.
When I spoke to Phil Deeker, the organiser of the event, he painted a very believable picture. He emphasised my dad’s raging competitiveness, playful grumpiness and unquestioning kindness – all qualities I firmly recognise.
“Nick was never shy of taking on a big challenge, but no matter how hard the going got he always had a place in his heart for his co-riders,” he told me. “He was an experienced rider at these events, so he could help the others and give them advice. He will be remembered as much for the kindness of his heart as for his cheeky sense of humour.”
Deeker is organising a memorial ride in the Pyrenees to coincide with my dad’s birthday on September 20th next year. Details are tbc, but it will be free of charge, and open to all who knew him.
The cycling, though, was just one facet of a very rich existence. Over the last few weeks, we have been inundated with cards and letters, most of which take a similar tone. Many start “You don’t know me, but…”, before explaining the various ways he’d helped them. If you can measure success in life by how many people you positively impacted, then my dad’s life was pretty damn successful.
To give a potted biography, he was born in Glasgow as the second of five children, and was educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh (a few school years below Tony Blair).
His big personality and broad range of interests were evident at a very early age. His mother Helen remembers how “from a wee boy, he put his heart and soul into everything he did: Lego and model-making, school, maths, squash, acting, learning the guitar, the church, marathon running and then cycling. He had a full and fulfilled life with the family he so loved.”
After studying maths at Durham University, he became a teacher, and met my mum Kate. They married in 1984, and I was born two years later, followed by my sisters Becky, Steph and Suzie.
They moved to Darlington in 1988, where he changed his career focus and became a financial adviser. Beginning at Kendall White (later Kendall White Millar), he oversaw a series of evolutions in the company and established Ashburn Wealth Management in 2008.
My dad and I clashed about finance on many occasions. Instinctually, I find the subject of money a bit grody and tend towards the naively socialist. Dad was more pragmatic. A couple of weeks before he died, he sent me a document about his company’s sustainable investment philosophy, which he was presenting at a conference that week:
“The rationale is that the world is complicated and the world of investment more so… We accept we cannot live in a pure bubble, our own utopian micro-economy, unsullied by the commercial world. Rather, when it comes to investment, as with the rest of our life, we accept the flawed system and work within it.”
He was heartened when I read it through in full and told him how much I admired it.
As a Christian, his business practices were deeply informed by his faith. His clients and coworkers, many of whom considered him a personal friend, remember a man of profound integrity and intelligence.
His long-term colleague, Stephen Waite, told me: “Nick was a wonderful chap to work with, and his innate sense of fairness shone through in all his dealings with clients, colleagues and business associates alike.”
As he moved towards retirement age, he had been planning on winding down his involvement in the business, but this was with a heavy heart as he genuinely enjoyed his work.
This is not to say that he would have been bored as a retiree – there were so many things he liked to do. Aside from the cycling, he loved nothing more than to walk in the mountains with my mum. He was heavily involved in his church, supported the local food bank and a bunch of charities, and until recently was on a school governing board. Then there was the new house, purchased just last year, which bears his stamp across the whole design.
He was also an accomplished guitarist, both classical and contemporary. For his 60thbirthday, just a few months ago, my parents hired out a tipi for their back garden and invited a mix of family and friends. Music came courtesy of my dad, along with some of the guys he’d been jamming with for years.
My dad and I didn’t always have the most straightforward relationship. We’re very similar in some ways – a bit explosive and argumentative, pretty stubborn. We’re both quite principled (sometimes too rigidly so) and never shy away from saying what we think or believe. This, as you can imagine, made for some clashes. This said, the rows were always short-lived, and we forgave and forgot very quickly.
Many of my favourite memories of my dad involve him being silly or playful. I can picture him now on a fairground ride in France. Not a man prone to swearing much in English, he yelled at the top of his voice “Merde! Merde!” On another holiday, he held calamari to his eyes and pretended to wear them as glasses. He was given to wicked impersonations, and had a knack for homing in on the most amusingly inappropriate thing to say at any given time.
He always encouraged my sisters and me in our pursuits. For me, the big passion was writing, which I took from him to some extent. While he was never much of a reader, he was a naturally engaging writer and penned a wonderful Christmas letter every year. (It’ll be a while before I can read through those again).
Above all, my dad was great company, and I especially valued our one-on-one time (all the more so because it was rare). In the three weeks before he died, we’d talked on the phone every Monday evening, which I had been hoping was the start of a routine.
Grief of this magnitude is impossible to process quickly, and if the Kubler-Ross template holds, I’m probably still largely at the ‘denial’ stage (with periodic flashes of all the rest). I feel proud to have had him as my dad and am going to do all I can to keep the memories sharp. For now, this tribute is a start.
The funeral service will take place at Darlington Crematorium at 2:15pm on Friday 14thDecember, followed by a celebration of his life at the Kings Centre, Darlington, from around 3:30pm. His obituary is at https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/17288819.tributes-paid-after-death-of-popular-darlington-cyclist/.