Hi. First off let me say that I don’t want this to be some kind of gawky, sappy thing that would have got onto Oprah’s book club. There’s a section of books in any good bookstore that have titles like: “A father’s wisdom”, or “Life’s an egg let’s make an omelete.” These books are always well-meant and sincere, but they are also – like I said – a bit sappy and always end up with a big bit at the end all about love, and not being there, “but I want you to always know…” blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, let’s start with Eleanor’s birthday. Eleanor is my older daughter, and she turned five on 20 November. It was a great day. The bad weather held off just long enough so we could have it mostly outside, and we played pass the parcel, and tossing balls at cans, and stuff yourself with food (that last game was a close one, but I think I won). Here are all the kids who came.
Eleanor’s the one on the right at the front. She’s dressed as Snow White because it was a princess party.
Of course, the day after you turn five you start school. I had expected this to be a very hard day, but actually Eleanor was so keen to go to school, and so happy to be there, that it wasn’t a teary-eyed day at all. The emotional bump for me was in the car before Eleanor’s party the day before.
As you know, my fifth birthday was quite a different one than normal, probably more special than most, but also less like a celebration than most. You can tell from this picture that all is not well.
It’s not a great photo, but you get the idea. I am wearing the most awesome t-shirt I have ever owned, the cake is slightly bigger than me, and everyone is wearing their let’s-celebrate-the-70s-colour-palette finest. We had this party at a family friend’s place. I would be lying if I said I remembered this party. Over time I find that memories turn into feelings, that they become something like the emotion that you experience when you hear a certain piece of music. I remember the feeling of that day. It was a confused feeling. Something other than my birthday was going on, but I wasn’t sure what.
I’d like to apologise. Most of my life I have downplayed your death to myself and to people who have inadvertently stumbled across the fact of your death in conversation. I have always felt a bit sorry for those people because I can see it coming for them. They are innocently having a conversation about their father and I know they will ask me about mine, and I know when I tell them you died around the time I was five they will feel embarrassed. People always say that they’re sorry when they hear, and my first instinct has been to make a joke out of that. To me when someone says that they’re sorry it sort of suggests that they were partly to blame.
I first began to really notice you, or the absence of you, when I started to become a Dad. When Eleanor was born one of the things I prayed to Fortune for was that I would be around to see my little baby grow up to be a woman. I asked for that even though at that point I had no idea how vast and emotional and powerful even a single year of a child’s life could be, let alone asking to see thirty, or forty or fifty of those years unfold.
Seeing Eleanor turn five made me feel two things about you that are connected to each other.
Firstly, I had always thought, in my dim way, that because you died when I was young you hadn’t missed much. In my naive, egotistical way I believed that kids were generally pretty uninteresting until they were at school. Now I know how untrue that is. Watching Eleanor grow up over the last five years has been the most amazing and profound experience of my life, and I am now lucky enough to be going through it again with my second daughter Rosamund. This has made me realise that the five years you were my Dad must have meant an awful lot to you, and that you must have loved me very much, and that makes me feel happy. Partly for me, but mainly for you.
The second thing I feel now though is not so positive. It has made me realise how hard it must have been for you to die. Having some inkling now of the enormity and pain of that experience for you is the simple fact that erases any possibility of a Christian God for me. No benevolent force would allow a parent to lose their child, or a child to lose their parent.
A little while ago I became interested in knowing you. I asked Mum about you, and I went down to Dunedin to talk to your sister. I think I was spurred into action because I suddenly realised that I didn’t even know the simplest, everyday thing about you. What did your voice sound like? Was I taller or shorter than you? What was your walk like? When someone half glimpsed the back of you across the street how could they instantly tell it was you? Suddenly, out of all the photos I had of you, this photo became the most symbolic.
Aside from the symbols of bridges and rivers, it is the fact that your back is to me that resonates. Who are you? What are you thinking? I spent a lot of time asking people that question, and I found out a lot, but in the end I realised that I will never really know, and that this photo is about right. I have the sense of you, but not the whole and I never will.
The bump came in the car before Eleanor’s party came when I asked Mum what my first day at school was like. Until then I hadn’t known that I actually started school in January and not March of that year, because my father was expected to die around March or April and they didn’t want the two events to coincide. 33 years later thinking back on that time was clearly still upsetting for my mother.
I found school bewildering. It just seemed like a swirling mass of children in which I was lost. We went from one room to another and did drawing, or dancing, but I never understood why. I remember that running up and down a steep bank in the playground was a fun game that I didn’t much like, and getting pushed into a urinal once, and performing a u-turn in the swimming pool and ending up back at the starting line while the rest of the class regarded me from the finishing line.
But that’s how much of my early life feels. A bit like I was slightly dim and somehow at a physics conference. I could put on the name tag, mingle in the room, eat the food, go to the toilet, listen to the speech, but I really had no idea what was going on. Looking back on it now I suppose I can understand why.
But you can’t dwell too much on what you have lost. This is a picture of my father with his Dad. That wasn’t a happy relationship for all kinds of reasons, and I have some stories to tell you about that, but not for now.
For now I want to say a few last things.
I’m grateful to have understood you a little bit more even if it has meant feeling much, much sadder about the loss. The feeling sadder is better than the not feeling much, and pushing it to the side. I’m grateful that my mum is here to see me get balder, and older, and to hug her granddaughters (your granddaughters too). I’m grateful that Cathy convinced me to be a Dad, and that I had the nerve to ask Cathy out on a date fifteen odd years ago (and that she agreed to tolerate me).
It is a long, long way from that day when you stood a little behind your own father and someone took the photo above. There was a lot of unhappiness in your early life, but you won happiness back with my Mum. You died when I was five, but at least we had each other for five years. Loving years.
It’s Saturday morning, 3 December, 2011 now. Your oldest granddaughter is in the living room drawing a picture. Your daughter-in-law, and youngest granddaughter are asleep, and I want you to know that I am a very lucky man.