Sunday, 19 June 2016

An Open Letter to My Dad

This article has also been published at The Good Men Project.


Dear Dad

I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon in my rocking chair, watching the tennis on television. How many afternoons did you spend like this, watching sport from your armchair? Tennis from Wimbledon, snooker, football on a Saturday. The classified football results became a familiar and comforting litany, though I never understood them. This is how I remember you. In your chair watching television. Benevolent but, like the football results, a mystery to me.

What do I know of you; of my father, the man? What were your dreams? Your fears? Your doubts? What did you long for? What did you hate? I don’t think you were deliberately closed to me, but I never asked, and I can’t recall you venturing to share. I know you didn’t share Mum’s religiosity. Her churchgoing. Her faith. I recall one conversation between you. You telling her you wished you could believe. It’s the one time you let the mask slip. The one time I remember seeing you cry.

Did my own churchgoing upset or challenge you? I dallied with belief, in my late teen years, which turned out to be the last of your life. There was some hint of meaning there for me. I remember thinking what if God, Jesus, what if all the stories were true? But it never truly resonated for me and I left it behind when I went off to university, scant months after you died. Do I wish I had faith? Not now, no. I’ve seen too much of the hurt faith can do. What it has done, even in this family. Your family. But in those days, yes, I wished for faith. For something bigger than me.

I think you and me are not so different. Genetics, or learned behaviour? A mix of both, perhaps. Looking back at things from here, from fifty-five years of age, I see your illness—chronic debilitating arthritis—and the toll decades on oral steroids took on you, with more understanding and compassion. I never learned those at the time. You kept the impact of the pain and disability too well hidden for that. And I never asked.

How did it feel to watch from the side-lines as your kids grew up? How did you and Mum handle the struggles of married life when you relied on her so much, especially in the later years? How did disability affect your work and your career? I don’t remember you ever getting mad at Mum, or at us kids. You bore everything with stubborn determination, and I can respect you for that. I believe you wanted to limit the impact of disability on us as a family. It worked up to a point. I thought nothing of pushing you in your wheelchair or sitting with you outside shops while Mum was inside. I grew up accepting disability and illness as things you put up with without making a fuss about them.

But Dad, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t learn how much it fucking hurts to live in chronic pain. I didn’t learn how someone can rail against the injustice of it all, scream at the universe—and then move past that and take the next step. You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.

It took fifty years and some major fuckups on my part before I started to get it. Before I stopped running away from those unable to bear their illnesses and problems as stoically as you bore yours. I’m not proud of how lousy a son, brother, friend, husband, I have sometimes been. It took a new friend 3,000 miles away to stop me in my tracks; to challenge me to face my fears, look inside myself, and begin to open to compassion and understanding. It hurts to see how limited and limiting my un-awareness has been through most of my life. It’s hard and I still mess up royally. And not all mistakes are redeemable. And not all lost or fractured relationships can be retrieved. But I think—I hope—you would be proud of me for accepting I needed to change. As my friend Fran put it recently:

“Nothing changes until someone changes..”

You never got to see my life beyond the age of eighteen. Everything personally significant to me happened after then, and I never got to share any of it with you. Four years at university. Three years in London. The years since then, here in Newcastle upon Tyne. My friends. My career. My wife. My stepdaughter. My son. My best friend. The book we wrote. Our lives, successes, problems, plans, relationships.

I want you to know I am proud of the man I have become. I want you to know I am no longer scared to love fully, to open my heart wide. To share my fears, and hopes, and hurts, and dreams with those I trust. To listen to those who are in their own places of hurt and darkness without running away.

I want you to know I love you.

Martin

 

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