Letter to My Father
Reading the words of countless others that have gone before me, it has been said that facing the loss of a parent becomes that pivotal moment when you finally grow up. You leave home. You become an adult. You are responsible for yourself now. You are no longer someone’s child.
Well I grew up believing that you, as my father, would always have the answers. I clung to the vague belief that you would always know. You, with your words of caustic logic, would always be there. I measured myself by you, looked up to you, feared and admired you and loved you fiercely.
If I had to write an obituary for you, where would I begin? I honestly have no idea about the true nature of your life other than a few random stories pieced together from what I gleaned from your mother when she was alive. What is a life story other than the perceptions and filters of others in words and tone that have meaning to them? Where are your words, Dad? Whenever I have asked for your story, you become aggressive and evasive and the conversation stops.
So may the pieces of your puzzle somehow find their way into your story……..
A rare genetic anomaly, handed down via your father’s DNA, saw you born with a hare lip, one nostril and a third set of teeth. Hospitals in North Queensland in the late 1930’s were ill equipped and so you were sent down to Brisbane at the very young age of four weeks for corrective surgery. The separation of tiny baby and mother at such a young age was always guaranteed to scar your ability to feel safe and protected. A childhood moving from town to town would have further underpinned that scar. I’m sure that as a young boy, you would have had fun adventures and played and laughed like any other young boy. I’m sure you relentlessly teased your brother, tickled your baby sister, stole cookies, played in creeks and billabongs and did plenty of little boy naughty things. You often boasted that you began smoking at the age of eight. So clearly your mother was distracted and busy as we mothers often are.
A burst appendix at nine years of age, while living in Warwick, put you in hospital for two weeks. You have often declared that this was the one time in your childhood that you remember living as a complete family with your father in the one place. So I wonder what actually went down in that household that ended up with a nine year old boy deathly ill in hospital after an emergency appendectomy? Boarding school at Downlands College in Toowoomba was short lived but a treasured memory. I cannot imagine the shame that followed you in your school years being that your father was in and out of prison across Queensland from your birth to his death. The schoolyard taunts with each subsequent newspaper article naming and shaming his latest escapade would have been unbearable. An angry young fellow, burdened with the financial and emotional support of his mother and three younger siblings from the tender age of ten while your father ran through a revolving prison door for the next seven years, you developed a wealth of super strengths as a result. My disjointed recollection of your tales as a child ends with you trying to choke your father and telling him that you never want to see him again as a seventeen old young man heading down the Gold Coast for the 1950’s version of Schoolies. You never did see him again as his heart exploded at the relatively young age of 49 while you were holidaying with friends.
How does a teenager recover from an experience like that?
You began to work, first in a Movie House, then at the local Court House, then the Commonwealth Bank while working with the CMF for many years.
My aunt met you as an unsure teenager while playing a Saturday afternoon tennis match in Gympie. A few years later, she would meet you again as the boyfriend of her sister and was horrified. “What on earth are you doing with him?” she questioned. My mother had a long series of suitors and couldn’t quite make up her mind about any of them. Within six weeks of dating you however, you boldly declared that she would in fact marry you. A short engagement followed, and three short years after your father tragically died, she did just that.
Years later I asked my mother if she was not concerned about your drinking and she admitted that she believed that she could save you from your tortured childhood.
Well, let the crusade begin…….
My memories in childhood start in Salisbury when my brother was born, my uncle tragically died at the young age of 31 and my mother struck down in grief then had to face the reality of your affair and consequent illegitimate daughter. (Neither my brother or I know the real story about this) I remember feeling so ill and so scared during those years. A pervading fog of doom hung over our lives tip toeing around you for fear of being struck verbally or physically. From there my next memories in Mount Isa and Townsville were of a violent unhinged angry man who alternated between working, drinking, whoring and yelling. Raspberry lemonade and BBQ chips were my constant companions in the beer gardens that collected the wives and children of the men at the pub each night.
It took great courage and a lot of external assistance for our mother to pack up the debris of our lives and escape from you in the middle of one night. The violence that we witnessed in our childhood was unthinkable and has haunted and twisted our sense of reality leading us to lurch from the nightmare into the fantasy world of happy families all the while with your lethal energy bubbling away underneath. As a seven year old, I remember watching the local news and seeing headlines of murder, assuming that you were responsible. What on earth did I witness in my childhood that would connect those kinds of dots?
It would take a great deal of blind faith for our mother to move us all back in together on my tenth birthday believing that it was more important for children to be with their father than anything else. The father, we were reintroduced to at that time, crafted a dignified public appearance in a respectable job. As President of the School and Church P and C for many years, our lives were filled with fetes, bus trips and endless events. Slowly, we grew to replace our horror filled memories with a so called normal suburban life dedicated to your boundless energy as you juggled work, community contributions and your very healthy social life.
I played the organ and sang in the choir at our local church every weekend, set records in track and field at school as we enjoyed being part of a lively community and began to relax enough to be normal kids doing normal kid stuff. Sports, Music, Dances, Skating, Concerts –it was so much fun! But it did not last. The affairs and the drinking soon resumed and after another decade of abuse, my mother finally left you for good.
Subscribing to the playbook of “Parents who have their shit together” and let’s face it, none of us do, I wanted to hold onto the fantasy of that brief moment in time when our childhood was deemed normal. I craved normal. I had no idea who the hell I was and it took decades to unravel the story and the behavioral responses that my observation of you two imprinted on me. I’m not alone of course. We children of the 80s — so many of us share these kind of tales.
In the orange wallpaper that hangs in my memory I open my mouth and I hear your words. I close my eyes and hear your Stoic headstrong no-nonsense voice in my head. You are there when one of my children haggles for injustice in a fast food restaurant. You are there in another’s stubborn refusal to accept less than perfection in herself. You are there when yet another child unravels a conflict in code determinedly resolute in his intention to fix it. You are there in one child’s determination to solve the problems of the world.
I have a large black and white photo of you hanging in my hall of fame downstairs. You and my mother standing side by side freshly engaged. Early twenties, not a hair out of place, impeccably dressed, movie star smiles — you both had the world at your feet. You married, found a great job and bought your very first home. I was born and then my brother. Picture perfect life including the Mad Men — esque 60s stain of an affair with your secretary and creating more babies elsewhere!
Looking back as an adult I understand that your discontentment and dissatisfaction were symptoms of a truly crappy childhood from which you had not yet been able to process all the bits into wisdom.
For the past 25 years you lived a lie with a gold digger who recently demonstrated her end game as she predictably emptied your bank account and jetted back to New Zealand leaving you to rot in an old age home. She doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged more than this short paragraph. I’m sad that this happened, Dad. I’m angry that this happened, Dad. But I hope that you and you alone will get yourself to the bottom of why it did.
There is not a lot of photographic evidence of you, but I can clearly see your clever clear blue eyes peering out from your sister’s face. One brother has your expressive hands and the other your chicken legs. I may not look like you but oh boy you are the voice in my head. Nieces and nephews, due to the tyranny of distance and circumstance, simply see you as either a cautionary tale or just another name on their family tree. And somewhere out there, is a daughter you never met. No doubt, she will be experiencing inexplicable Bede moments throughout her life. Perhaps in another place and in another time, meeting you would have clarified so very much for her? We are the family that she will never know.
So in the interest of watering down the cautionary tale, I’d like to offer an alternative portrait of you.
I applaud your involvement with our school P + C associations. I appreciate your dangerous attachment to white shirts and bryl cream. I respect your affinity with animals. I commemorate your legendary runny orange cheesecakes. I love that you took ME clothes shopping from when I was 10 because you was the only parent who understood how I loathed wasting time looking in a mirror. I revere your commitment to whatever job you were doing. I treasure your generosity and willingness to ALWAYS help me out with computer problems. Of course, I gave you plenty of opportunity to yell at me, (always a bonus) but you gave up countless Saturdays and Sundays working in my office to locate the source of my latest PC frustration. I covet your brain. I admire your argumentative spirit. I have been a willing spectator for your tenacity and energy.
In my childhood, you were a shadowy scary figure lurking in the dark threatening the worst of nightmares. In my twenties, you were my benchmark, my anchor, my guiding light and the Jiminy Cricket voice in my head keeping me on track. In my thirties I puzzled over the life choices you made by marrying someone who clearly did not have your best interests at heart. And today, after witnessing you being dumped in an old person’s home, bank account emptied, home sold, life pulled apart and being swindled by that gold digger who simply jetted back to New Zealand with the spoils, I am quite simply stunned in disbelief.
The little boy who never really had a father has had a massive impact on many lives around him. As a reluctant leader, you have a great ability to organise people and projects. You are a problem solver. Your brain’s ability to organise information into a system is exceptional. Each of my kids have inherited these traits of yours and I take the time to remind them that these exceptional wonderful traits come from you.
As you face the last stage of your life, I wish you peace. I wish you joy. I wish you clarity and wisdom. But most importantly I hope that the little four week old baby finally feels the love that his mother and father have for him.
Thank you for being my greatest teacher, Dad. x