As Jonah Lomu stood next to his father’s hospital bed to say goodbye for the final time last week, his overwhelming sadness was tempered by a feeling that, for many years, the All Black legend thought he’d never experience.
After years of anger and hurt, following a bitter rift between him and his father Semisi that lasted 17 years, Jonah felt at peace, as he farewelled the man he once vowed he would never see, or speak to, again.
“I am sad in one way because losing a parent, that’s tough,” says Jonah (38), who was at his father’s bedside with wife Nadene (35), and their boys Brayley (4) and two-year-old Dhyreille, just hours before Semisi passed away, aged 69.“But to know that he’s not in pain any more, that he is in a better place – that eases the pain. What he was going through, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.”
After years fighting multiple health problems – including kidney and liver failure, and heart issues – Jonah’s dad passed away peacefully last Wednesday, June 24, at 9pm in Middlemore Hospital, Auckland, with his wife of “forever” years, Hepi (56), as well as their two daughters, Sela (32) and 15-year-old Irene, by his side.
In keeping with Tongan tradition, the rest of the family, including Jonah’s two brothers, John (37) and Noah (30), were called to pay their respects.
“Everyone in the family was saying their farewells to Dad and saying what they were thinking – and all I could think was that I was so grateful and glad that my children got to know their Pa, and that he and I made our peace,” says Jonah.
“Everyone who knows me is aware I’m a very stubborn man, and it’s hard for me to go back on something I’ve done. With Dad and me, expressing our feelings had been tough. But I feel at peace knowing I was able to say ‘I love you Dad, and I’ve forgiven you’, while he was alive.
“Now, I have to fulfil the promise I made to him the day we put things right in 2010, when I vowed that I would always look after my family and Mum. My job is to stand by what I said.”
Jonah first told the world about the fallout with Semisi in his book, Jonah: My Story, in 2004. In it, he shared his Once Were Warriors-style upbringing with his loving mother and hard-working – but equally hard-drinking – father, who regularly beat his world-famous son.
The fighting began when Jonah was very young – Semisi didn’t want his son playing rugby on Sundays instead of going to church – and it continued until finally, at the age of 14, an already hulking Jonah snapped. After Semisi went to hit him again, Jonah threw his father across the room. A furious Semisi reacted by kicking him out of the family home.
Father and son remained strangers for 17 years, until Nadene – Jonah’s wife of two years, who was then five months pregnant with their first child – stepped in.
“At the end of the day, Jonah’s mum still loved his father, so whatever had happened between Jonah and his dad, he had to accept that,” explains Nadene.
Without her intervention, Jonah says he would never have gone back to mend the rift, despite many attempts on Semisi’s part to reconcile with his angry son.
“In my eyes, Jonah needed to get past his own problems and learn how to forgive,” she adds.
“I didn’t want our child to be brought into those issues, or for his family to find out that Jonah was having a child via the media. That’s just the type of person I am – I couldn’t be a part of that.”
Nadene’s ultimatum worked – Jonah went to visit the family home in South Auckland.
“Dad said to me, ‘Come into the garage and let’s talk,’” remembers Jonah.
“We walked in and he said, ‘I never thought I’d see this day that you’d come back home. I’ve always prayed to God that you’d come back, that I’d see you, but I never thought I would until I die.’”
The pair talked for hours, during which Semisi apologised to his son for all the hurt he had caused.
“He told me he was sorry for the things he’d put me through. He asked me to forgive him for his shortcomings as a father,” explains Jonah, visibly emotional as he remembers the reconciliation.
“He told me he wanted to do the best by me, and that he regretted all the years we hadn’t seen each other.”
But it takes two for a rift to last 17 years.
“There is still a lot of emotion within me, but I am so glad we have reconciled and got past everything. I’m at peace.”
While some would say that Semisi was fortunate to have been given a second chance with his son, Jonah doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“I don’t think he was lucky – I think I was,” says Jonah, who named his second son Dhyreille Semisi in honour of his father.
“There was a lot to forgive with my dad, but for so long he tried to reconcile with me, and I wasn’t willing. It took Nadene and Brayley to push me into it, to get me to the point where I sorted myself out, came right.”
Jonah’s life was was saved by ZM radio DJ Grant Kereama, when he donated his kidney in 2004, after the rugby legend was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome in 1995. But the former All Black is still very sick.
Despite looking in fine form, he has dialysis four times a week, and will continue to do so until he can find a second suitable organ donor.
“That’s my problem – I don’t look like your ordinary dialysis patient,” admits Jonah.
His father’s passing has clearly taken a lot out of him, but he is determined to respect Semisi’s memory and worked hard to ensure the funeral, which was held last Saturday, was worthy
of the man he loves – despite their history.
Jonah and his siblings have come together since his death – something Jonah believes would make his dad proud.
“Losing Dad has drawn us even closer. Our priority now as a family is to look after Mum, to do right by her.”