Yesterday I called you for Father’s Day. Confused, frazzled and tired, your frail voice trailed off at the end of a 30 second chat. There is no energy. You curl up on your bed sleeping all day and night. This is who you are now. It’s hard to reconcile that the father in my head is not this tired old man wanting to die. I clung to the vague belief that you would always know – you would always have the answer. You, with your words of caustic logic, would always be there to direct the drama. I measured myself by you, looked up to you, feared, admired you and loved you fiercely. And now, I feel torn between anger and sadness in your final days.
Making sense of those conflicting emotions, my quest is to understand why you appeared in my life as the character that you did. If I had to write an obituary for you, where would I begin? I honestly have no idea about the true nature of your early 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 the tropics in the late 1930’s were ill equipped and so you were sent down to the big city at the very young age of four weeks for corrective surgery. The separation of tiny baby and mother 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’d like to think that as a young boy, you would have had fun adventures and played and laughed like any other young boy. It would be nice to imagine that you relentlessly teased your brother, tickled your baby sister, stole cookies, played in creeks and billabongs and doing plenty of little boy naughty things.
A burst appendix at nine years of age, 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 in the country 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. 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?
My aunt met you as an unsure teenager while playing a Saturday afternoon tennis match. 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 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…….
A large black and white photo of you hangs in my hall of fame. 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. Stunning beauty – your faces, your home, jobs, social circles – picture perfect illusion. Yet as a little girl, my chief memories were filled with dread. A pervading fog of doom hung over our lives tip toeing around you for fear of being struck verbally or physically amid a collection of tragic tales – suicide, scandal, affairs, illegitimate children. A violent unhinged angry man who alternated between working, drinking, whoring and yelling wore your face. Raspberry lemonade and BBQ chips were our constant companions in the beer gardens that collected the wives and children of the men at the pub we were dragged to 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 the 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.
To counter balance the past terror at home, ten year old me exploded into the high achieving creative entrepreneurial artist – music, art, sport, academia, community events and projects – you name it, I did it and I aced it. For the first time in our lives, we were part of a lively community and I actually began to relax enough to be a normal kid doing normal kid stuff. However, as much I wanted it to, it did not last. The affairs and the drinking soon resumed and after another decade of abuse, my mother finally left you for good.
I wanted to hold onto the fantasy of that brief moment in time when our childhood was deemed bearable. 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. If you listen close enough you will hear similiar whispers in each generation.
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 can clearly see your clever clear blue eyes peering out from your sister’s face. 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 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 neutralizing the cautionary tale, I’d like to offer an alternative portrait of you.
An energetic leader dedicated to creating meaningful activities for your community with a brain and a lazor sharp wit that could out code or run any of the latest technology today. Your dangerous attachment to white shirts and bryl cream (Dad that look was never in ok?) only slightly outshines your legendary runny orange cheesecakes that you painstakingly cooked every weekend. You were the parent who instinctively understood that shopping for me was mind numbingly boring and so crafted a strategy that kept me distracted and interested enough to achieve the end result. Neighbors, colleague, friends and family – you were always there to provide assistance for the latest computer tragedy. You gave up countless weekends to set up my systems when I began my business 27 years ago. In fact your advice forged the foundation for my business and is one that I share with all my clients.And in the darkest days of our family, it was you who organised the funerals dealing with things you couldn’t bear anyone else to face.
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 I never felt good about but could never put my finger on why. And today, after witnessing her emptying your bank accounts, dumping you into an old person’s home, selling your home, pulling apart your life while selling it to you as if it is all in your best interests – well Dad, some may say it is karma however I am quite simply stunned in disbelief that you would allow such a thing to eventuate.
So let’s focus on what you have given the world. 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.
Know that on Father’s Day, I’m see you, Dad. I see you. And 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. x