Prompted by a comment from his disabled four-year-old daughter, Wolf Küper gave up his pressured career to do what mattered most – spend precious time with his family as they embarked on a mystery tour together.
Snuggled on my daughter Nina’s bed, we had finished one story when she reminded me that good dads always read more than one. I sighed inwardly. It was already 8.23pm, and I had a deadline the following day. Answering her truthfully, I explained that I had a lot to do and could only spare another ten minutes.
‘Ten minutes?’ four-year-old Nina chirped, deep within a pile of pillows. Two arms emerged and pulled at my neck. ‘Oh, Daddy – I wish we had a million minutes. Just for all the really nice things, you know?’ She squeezed my face between her hands. ‘A million minutes. Tomorrow you can tell me a million-minute story, all right?’
At that precise moment it hit me. A crack suddenly appeared, splintering my already skewed concept of work/life balance. Everything crumbled: my career goals, the image I had of what a healthy family, fatherhood, partnership should look like – even what it meant to be happy. But more than anything, the crack shattered the idea that it was perfectly natural to have time for everything, except the very things that mattered most.
I lived with my wife Vera and two children, Nina and baby Simon, in Bonn, Germany, but I rarely saw them. I was working as an environmental scientist and travelled the world as a consultant for the United Nations. That success came at a cost. I worked at fever pitch: ridiculous numbers of meetings, late hours, weekend work. It felt like a kind of tunnel.
I had to admit, though, that even when I was in Bonn I spent more time at the university than at home. Perhaps, as Vera kept suggesting, it was because I found home life overwhelming. I denied it, but it could be tough.
Nina is physically disabled and ever since she had started lurching determinedly through my carefully planned life, like a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Pinocchio, the future seemed guaranteed to take a completely different course. From the start, it was as if Nina had carefully avoided doing what children are supposed to do. For the first eight months, she didn’t smile; she barely reacted to us at all. We smiled less, too. We were always taking Nina to be assessed, trying to stay calm as we waited for the results.
Despite this, she had learnt to walk and talk. Experts said she had delayed development, especially in her motor skills. This left a lot of space for hope and imagination. Nothing was broken or missing. Now, at nearly five, smiling was no longer a problem – indeed, she’d overtaken me on that front. We clung to the notion that life would eventually resume its course, despite the fact that she regularly behaved as if she were a stubborn extraterrestrial pensioner on holiday. Then, during an assessment by a leading cognitive psychologist, Nina gave a weird and wonderful performance. She adamantly insisted dogs, not rain, fell from the sky. The doctor concluded her behaviour was ‘probably only the tip of the iceberg’ and that this was, ultimately, how it was going to stay.
I had to reluctantly acknowledge that an international career was no longer viable. For the egocentric workaholic in me, it briefly felt like the end of all dreams. I had so carefully put together the jigsaw of my life, and now it seemed as if I had chosen the wrong pieces. I would have to start again from the beginning – and do it differently. But how?
Since Nina’s birth, it had gradually become clear that whenever we went on holiday, she blossomed. During a trip to Namibia, at nine months old, she smiled for the first time. On a campsite in southern France, Nina started to talk. In Mallorca, when she was two, she stood up. Friends would ask when she’d reached her milestones – and more and more our replies were in the form of place names rather than dates. She’d been able to catch a ball since Whitby, told her first joke in Ameland, learnt to swing in Aix-en Provence. Whenever we went anywhere, something wonderful would happen.
As Vera and I talked, pieces of the jigsaw started coming together. If we theoretically had one million minutes, which I’d worked out to be almost precisely two years, how far could we go – and what might we all achieve?
That evening, after sourcing 1,367 dried peas which Nina had joyfully and carefully distributed throughout our flat while singing a song about Cinderella, something shifted in my heart: this was not the end of my dreams. It was actually the beginning.
It feels strange to saw off the branch you’re sitting on – especially when people keep trying to wrestle the saw out of your hands. Some people, I could tell, thought I was nuts; others told me I was screwing up my future. But we were all really excited. Vera and I had rarely laughed as much. I could finally look myself in the eye in the mirror without scaring myself.
We booked a flight to Thailand, but there were no concrete plans, no to-do lists for the million minutes ahead. On the tiny island of Ko Phra Thong, under the dazzling tropical sun, we had time – but hadn’t worked out yet what to do with it.
Nina didn’t have the slightest difficulty. To my surprise, the nicest things were small moments – making bonfires or sandcastles on the beach, finding sea urchins in the rocky bays. Why did it mean so much to me when I finally found a red double-twisted shell after crawling around on the beach for an hour? It felt as if something inside me was stirring into life after years of lying dormant.
Vera had never looked so beautiful: her eyes shining in her tanned face. The kids looked as wild as they were. But it took seven weeks before I finally managed to follow Nina’s example and relax enough to lie down with my head on the sand.
After three months of island hopping, we flew to Cairns on Australia’s Queensland coast and rented a small house in Port Douglas. Ten minutes’ walk into Daintree National Park and we were in a world of towering rainforest trees, twisting lianas, strangler figs, glow-in-the-dark fungi and tree frogs.
Winding through this lushness were rivers which tumbled into glittering rocky basins of bubbling bluey-green. You couldn’t swim in them without getting ravenously hungry. As we enjoyed our picnic, everything was just right: nothing to do but relax and enjoy. Then Nina piped up. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ she said. I asked her the same question, to buy time. ‘Fireman, of course,’ she replied. ‘And I want to fly.’
But what did I want? For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to travel the world – to sail the oceans, climb the Himalayas, trek over wastes of ice in Alaska and across the desert. My UN grant meant I was flown all over the place, but rarely had time to explore a destination. I had worked 19 hours a day and my plans had become for ‘someday’. I hadn’t even noticed I was waiting. I had other goals: a professorship, a beautiful house, a shiny red car. It was a dot-to-dot picture where one thing led to another, but didn’t leave scope for big dreams. When Nina and Simon came along, the routes I’d sketched in had to be abandoned. Now, here we finally were.
‘This is what I want to be!’ I almost shouted the words. ‘We’re discovering things every day,’ I explained. ‘Simon’s learning to walk on the beach. I just want this.’ The lovely thing was that Nina knew what I meant.
Nina was very determined, but anything physical regularly ended in tears. One day, playing a game in our local park and toppling over for the third time, she sobbed: ‘I’ll never be able to join the fire brigade, will I? Ever!
‘Let’s wait and see,’ I said, not wanting to rob her of her dream. A few days later we were on the beach when we saw Michael, a former fisherman who’d lost the use of his limbs to encephalitis some years before. He rode on an electric beach buggy with a strange-looking trailer. ‘He can’t be a fireman either,’ Nina whispered.
We watched as Michael tugged at a kind of tarpaulin which turned out to be a huge stunt kite, tied to the buggy with string. It filled with air, a jolt pulling the buggy forwards, rolling faster and faster. Eventually Michael was hurtling along the beach at an insane speed. Nina was speechless.
Later, having resolved to tell Michael how impressed I was, he said: ‘Fighting won’t bring my old life back. The wind doesn’t blow any stronger just because you fight for it, or hope for it, or wait for it…’ In other words, embrace the opportunities that come your way.
We didn’t have to wait long. That evening, we held a beach barbecue for Nina’s birthday. We lit a bonfire at dusk, despite it being strictly forbidden. Suddenly we were surrounded by bright lights and looming monsters. Five men in firefighters’ uniforms were marching towards us. Pumping foam on to the fire, one flipped up his visor. ‘You can’t make a fire here,’ he said sharply. I apologised, explaining it had been Nina’s birthday request.
The man stopped. ‘Oh, I see.’ He grabbed a red megaphone. ‘Fireman Nina, we need your help.’ Nina’s face was red with excitement. The man thrust a pair of enormous gloves into her hands, and a huge red shovel. He told her she was the only one who could shovel sand on to the embers – quite a dangerous job. Nina was shovelling for her life. If it had been up to her, she’d have carried on until the entire beach had been shovelled on to that square metre of bonfire.
Our journey took us to the rugged southern coast of Western Australia and then on to the wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island. It was on the banks of Lake Tekapo that we realised it was nearly time to go – we had almost reached our millionth minute.
We gazed at the huge expanse of bright blue lake, and the purplish mountains beyond it. Such a beautiful wilderness. It was hard to imagine being back in a big European city.
We had become more of a family than I could ever have imagined. Is it absurd to talk about getting to know your own children? Both Simon and Nina were deeper and more complex than I’d thought. I had mixed feelings about it all coming to an end. We had no plan for what would happen next.
For Nina, it was a shock. Not once in two years had she asked us how long we’d been travelling or how much time we had left. That is part of the paradise of childhood: each day is just another piece of infinity. To console her, I asked her to go to the lakeside and fill her bucket with a million drops of water and pretend that each drop was a minute. The lake, I said, contained all the minutes of her life. Then I asked her to tip the water back into the lake.
‘They haven’t gone anywhere at all,’ I said. ‘Those million minutes haven’t been lost. Now they’re part of your life.’ She seemed pensive now, rather than upset.
Time to set off. We looked back at the magical view – the mountains, the water, the endless expanse of blue. Eventually Vera broke the silence.
‘That lake really is an incredible colour,’ she said. ‘That’s because of all the happy minutes,’ said Nina, staring out of the car window. ‘The happiest minutes are blue.’
It may not surprise you that there was no happy-ever-after. But at least there was a different-ever-after. Obviously, my career went down the drain. We are now chronically broke and will probably never own our own property. But I say this without any bitterness and only to highlight that dreams don’t come for free. As long as you are willing to accept there will be a price, you have the freedom to make any decision you want.
We overlook the importance of time in our lives. Most of us have to choose between making money and having more time. Do I want a new car or would I like Thursday afternoons off to go to the mountains or the sea with my wife? Do I want the new smartphone or to spend Monday afternoons with my son in the playground? I know what my answer is.
Nina, meanwhile, is doing very well. It doesn’t look like she will ever experience real stress, be able to tell the time properly, eat on the go, or strive to be boringly realistic. We need small people like her who wear their hearts on their sleeves, catch us out with all the right questions and think everything is possible. All we have to do is listen properly.
This is an edited extract from One Million Minutes by Wolf Küper, to be published on 23 January by Bonnier Books, price £12.99. To order a copy for £7.99 with free p&p until 26 January, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk