“Have you spoken to John lately?” Will asked, breaking the silence.
I exhaled smoke and took a second to think. Sitting outside the local fish and chip shop on a warm summer evening, the sun just starting to drop behind the horizon, casting shadows over the city scene that lay before us.
“Yeah man, I saw him last week when I was at the studio,” I answered. Will’s face went from confused to understanding within seconds.
“Oh man… I meant your dad.” His voice got quiet.
“Order 42 – guys your food’s ready.” Some high school kid walked out, handing us a paper-wrapped packet. Getting up, I threw my cigarette in the bin with my right hand, ripping a hole in the paper and offering chips to Will with my left.
“No, I haven’t spoken to him since high school. I emailed him back when I lived in NZ but never heard back.”
Will took a handful of chips and chewed, obviously thinking about what to say.
“Do you miss him?” he asked.
For him this was a quality question, I could never imagine him losing contact or not having his father in his life
“You know man, I do and I don’t,” I said, absently grabbing a few chips. “Of course I miss having my dad in my life. But life with him in it was always a bit rocky. I think I just miss the idea of having my father more than I miss the physical person.”
I honestly thought what I was saying was true. We stopped that conversation as we walked around to the back verandah of the house. Will grabbed mayo and sauce, and I grabbed two Coopers before sitting on the weather-worn couches on the deck.
We sat and ate in silence. Finished eating. I cracked my beer and rolled a cigarette. Leaning back in the couch, feet up on the little wooden coffee table, listening to cicadas and the frogs in the trees.
Will knew I missed my Dad, and I hated how the situation had unfolded. He also knew that it was more because it was a relationship that was not in my power to fix. I had tried several times, and that – not being able to fix the damage and mend the broken relationship – is what really hurt me.
* * *
I sat in a chair awkwardly, shifting my weight and battling with the lump in my throat, trying to stop my hands from trembling.
“So your father… You said you haven’t seen him in years?” the therapist asked, looking at me. “What would you change about that if you could?” She sat back in her chair.
I glanced around the room, at its wooden walls.
“Well, to be honest nothing. I have a lot of good memories with him, being a little kid riding on his shoulders or going fishing and walking along the beach. He taught me a lot about life.” I paused, and then continued.
“At the same time I was terrified of him. He was always a very angry, and a profoundly unhappy man who could blow up at anytime,” I answered her, staring off out the window now. “I mean I still love him… but I know he’s the reason I have anxiety in the first place,” I added, slowly. “Living in constant fear. Forever walking on egg shells. It fucks you up.”
I finished there, looking back from the window to her face. Letting my fear and exhaustion take over with a weary frown and slumping down in the chair.
* * *
A week later my phone buzzed while I was working out in the garden. Putting my tools down I cleaned my hands and unlocked it. It was an old work friend of my Dad’s; one of his few long term friends. I already knew what it was going to say.
“Hey mate, I’m sorry to tell you this but your Dad’s had a heart attack. He’s in a real bad way. Call me.”
I was expecting it. I had often wondered if this did happen would I even find out? Still, it stunned me. I rolled a cigarette and sat down, staring into nothing.
An hour later at the hospital I was taken through ICU by a friendly nurse, turning a corner to see my father lying unconscious. Tubes everywhere and machines beeping. They didn’t have much hope that he would wake up, and if he did the chances of brain damage were very high.
It was surreal, like a bad dream to see him after so many years, like this.
I sat with him talking. I don’t know if he heard. I don’t know if it registered at all. I left realising how deeply I missed my father and how deeply I still loved him. Memories of a young kid riding on his shoulders along the beach, or fishing, and sitting in his living room watching MASH – they all flooded back in that moment.
The cheerful smile he had that raised his moustache when he laughed. I remembered drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with him. The photos I had seen of him as a twenty-something – thinking that was the only time I’d seen him look truly happy.
I went several times to see him, and each time he was getting better and better.
One day I ran into his new wife in the hall, and a fresh flood of memories engulfed my brain. Memories of lies, of manipulation. The yelling, the anger, the sadness, and the fear: it all rushed back to me too. I had had great times with my father, but was also deeply scared of the man, and the man I may become if I was like him.
He was deeply sad, searching for something in life that he never seemed to find. He didn’t find it in his kids, nor in his past two marriages. I guess it was happiness he was searching for. I hope he found it, or finds it eventually.
The last time I saw him lying in the hospital bed he was conscious enough to look at me, enough to move his hands, enough to grunt.
Holding his hand I chatted away, finally saying “Hey Dad, it’s your eldest son here,” thinking nothing of it, talking as I had been doing for days now.
His eyes moved, looking at me, staring deeply into my eyes. I looked back into his. He looked scared. He looked angry, and disappointed. Slowly he let go of my hand and raising his hands stared at me, pushing me away in a swift motion.
Calmly I looked back at him. Quietly, I asked: “Are you sure?”
Still staring, he moved his hand again, as though pushing me away. The anger and fear on his face was all-consuming. He retreated to the far corner of his hospital bed.
Silently I got up, turned and began to walk away from his bed. I paused and, turning around, said “I love you Dad.” And I kept walking.
That was the last time I saw my father. I hear he’s home now, and doing well.
Humans, we always seem to hope for some dramatic event that fixes everything. Like what you see in movies, or read in books. I fucking hate those; it’s not life. Life doesn’t magically get fixed. When it does, it’s only momentary. The books, the movies, they stop right there. Imprinted in memory as a happy ending.
But life: life goes on, and the happy endings get lost; they don’t last.
But we – or at least I – can never accept the way things are. Sometimes they just are the way they are, and there’s nothing we can do but accept that as life and keep moving forward.