This Father’s Day marks five years since my dad died.
Five years and I still haven’t worked out how I feel about my dad and his early demise.
During the strange period when we knew he was going to die but during which I was ignoring the issue to finish up my undergraduate degree and take my final exams, I was forced to talk to a counsellor by my university. I hated every minute of that consultation but the counsellor said one thing that stuck with me. He pointed out that I refuse to talk about my feelings unless I’ve had time to properly evaluate them and can give them a comprehensible label. But, he said, emotion doesn’t always work like that.
But still I don’t talk about my dad much because I can’t explain the way I feel. Instead I read article after article about good dads and bad dads and all the really truly awful dads who put their families through hell and I try to work out where mine falls on the spectrum of paternal success.
Because here’s the thing – my dad wasn’t a bad man. He certainly wasn’t anywhere near the truly awful dads and my childhood was far from any kind of hell. But he wasn’t a great dad either. The truth is that he was distant, removed, uninterested in me or my brother. He lived in our house but he was more like a stranger who shared our space but not our lives.
It wasn’t always that way. I have great memories of my early childhood, family days out to the railway or the science museum and a proud father beaming over a glowing report card. But something changed around about the time I went to high school. I developed opinions of my own, wanted to hang out with my friends at weekends and lost interest in the things my dad cared about. As a result he lost interest in me.
From that point on I have few memories of my dad. He came to school events and I know he was always very proud of me but I felt more like a walking report card than a living, breathing person. He drove me to school every day and dread is the wrong word but I certainly never looked forward to our stilted conversations or the awkward silence as I racked my brains for a topic of conversation to which we could both contribute. Sometimes I tried to draw him on the bigger issues in life – his family and childhood (which I now know was always going to be a sticky point), his life outside of work and the biggie – my future. None of these topics got me much beyond a couple of lines.
I came to resent his distance and the wall that existed between us. Who put it there I can’t say since there came a point where I was as guilty of coldness and remove as him. And towards the end I know he did his best to break through but by then I was too well defended and was having none of it.
The truth though is that I’d always imagined that one day in the future me and him would mend our bridges. Maybe once I was working, once I had a mortgage, once I had kids, one day we’d have something in common, something to talk about, something to break down the walls. When we were told his cancer was terminal the doctors said to expect we had six months left and with my summer holidays coming up I thought I’d have more time. Something I wasn’t looking forward to but hoped would heal a few wounds. Sadly he didn’t make it to six months, he barely lasted six weeks and spent most of that in a twilight world where he didn’t know any of us and deep and meaningfuls weren’t really possible. So I never got to tell him how I felt.
I have a lot of anger and resentment towards my dad. I feel like he didn’t really care about me as a person and that his interest in me was purely academic. But that doesn’t make him a bad man, or a bad dad.
When I hear stories about some of the horrendous things some men put their families through I’m truly glad that my father wasn’t like them. He always came home at night, put money on our table and never once raised a hand to any of us. There are so many worse parents in the world that I should be grateful for the one I had and I am. But at the same time he wasn’t the great father that so many seem to be. Today Facebook is full of people extolling the virtues of the wonderful men who are always there to support and advise, brimming with their unconditional love. I didn’t have that and I’m angry about it.
But today I’m letting go of that anger. There’s no way that I can put things right now and this anger isn’t helping anyone so today I say: my dad wasn’t great at being a father (any more than I was great at being his daughter) but I forgive him. Instead of the things he failed at I’m grateful for the things he succeeded at. There’s one memory in particular that I’ve only recently recovered, I think I was hiding it because it doesn’t chime with the picture I’ve painted of him in order to hold on to my anger. My memory is of the one day that he came to meet me at university. We went for lunch and then for a coffee and then for another coffee, circling the train station with neither of us wanting that one good day to end with him getting on a train and riding out of my life again. Against all my expectations I enjoyed that day, I enjoyed having my dad back for that one afternoon and remembering that time I can remember that I did have a dad that loved me and who tried, in his own way, to be the best father he could be.