A Voyage To My Father

It’s been over twenty years since Dad died yet the appearance of Father’s Day has never lost its sting. In fact, for some reason, I’m feeling his loss even more this year. Soon after he died I wrote this piece. It was published physically just once in Express newspaper back in February 2002 so is now appearing digitally for the very first time. Happy Father’s Day, Monty.

 

I have become my father.

I realised it about a year ago when I went to buy a pair of shoes. Dad had taken me shoe shopping back when I was a teenager. I was looking for a pair of Nomads, these chunky shoes that were all the fashion in 1982.

Dad determined that what I needed was ‘a good pair of walking shoes’ and kept steering me towards a pair of brown leather lace ups. I thought they were the ugliest, most geriatric footwear I had seen in my whole life.

Flash forward two decades and I’m out buying shoes for myself. The teenage-looking sales assistant showed me one set of chunky in-fashion shoes after another, but my eyes were drawn to the pair of plain burgundy leather lace-ups that were buried at the back of the display. ‘What do you think?’ I asked the sales person as I modelled them. She stared at me with a look that said she thought they were the ugliest, most geriatric footwear she had seen in her whole life.

I have my father’s nose. And his hands. I have a similar chin and identical ears. I look at old photos of my Dad and it’s like I’m looking at my long-lost twin. I’ve inherited his knobbly knees, his fondness of sweets and, fortunately, his quick metabolism.

When I was younger, I could think of nothing worse than growing up to be my father. He was always so old and out of touch. He wore slippers around the house and shouted ‘Shoot the bastards!’ at the television whenever he saw something that enraged him. Lots of things enraged him.

I always felt as though there was a wall between us. I know a lot of gay men who feel that way about their dads. That I was only half a son to him.

Dad didn’t help. He was an intensely private man who had a tendency to come across as gruff and blunt. Growing up, we rarely had meaningful conversations. We rarely had any conversations at all. I used to phone home and pray that Mum answered the phone so that I didn’t have to ensure an awkward moment with Dad.

He did not take my coming out well. After coming out first to Mum, I was forbidden to tell him. I complied, but only for a year, finally forcing the issue by demanding that I bring my then boyfriend home to meet the whole family. When Dad found out the truth, I became one of the bastards he was regularly threatening to harm. ‘If they set foot in this house I’ll shoot them both!’ he promised.

For all his bluster, I knew my father was more talk than action. I also knew that the only firearm he possessed was a slug gun that couldn’t have taken down a small bird.

So, despite his threat, I turned up. Dad was armed with nothing but a handshake and a welcome. A cool welcome, but a welcome nonetheless. After that day, I never felt judged by my father. I felt nothing but acceptance.

‘Felt’. Even now it feels so odd to use the past tense. My Dad died last month after a sixteen-month battle with lung cancer. The type of lung cancer with the lowest survival rate. At his diagnosis Dad promised to do everything he could to fight the cancer. It became the proverbial bastard that needed shooting. He endured chemotherapy (‘weed killer’ he called it) and radiotherapy (his ‘tanning sessions’) which made him lose the little hair he had. For a while, however, the cancer abated. For a while.

Five months before he passed, Dad started feeling ill. The specialist didn’t say there was nothing else they could do for him, but we all knew what the dark spots on the smoky film meant. Yet Dad was stoic. At the meeting to discuss his diagnosis he had promised to fight as hard as he could for as long as he could. He had done that. There was nothing to do now but wait.

Two months before he passed he became so sick he couldn’t even be bothered getting out of bed. Finally, on 25 January 2002 at 6:25pm the war he’d been battling finally defeated him.

Terminal disease is a leveller. It forces you to confront things you might have otherwise left alone. If Dad had not gotten sick we probably would have spent the next twenty years continuing to slowly dance around some semblance of a father-son relationship.

But the cancer made me realise I only had a limited time left with my father and I chose to make the most of it. I took Dad to as many of his specialist appointments as I could. I spoke comforting words as he threw up after another round of chemotherapy. I drove he and Mum home from Auckland to Taranaki when Dad was so ill he could only lie like a rag doll in the back of the car. I was there when that last set of X-rays came through. Near the end I spent a month at home with he and Mum, tag teaming with my other siblings so Dad could die at home, something very important to him.

Dad and I spoke a lot after his diagnosis. Sometimes I’d phone up on the nights I knew Mum was out at choir practice so that we could chat. I tried to get him to talk more about himself. And I tried to talk more about me. I’d spent years blaming Dad for our lack of communication, telling myself that he didn’t ‘know’ me.

But it wasn’t his fault. Dad didn’t know me because I’d never given him the chance. And I didn’t know him because I’d never bothered to try. So I changed that. I heard stories about Dad’s childhood, about his ultra-strict father, about his struggles as the breadwinner for nine children, about his unshakable belief that there was a heaven. In turn, I showed Dad who I was. Someone who tried to do the right thing, even if I failed often. Someone who would be there for others when they needed them.

I performed the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral. I prepared thoroughly, smugly sure I had written a speech that hit all the perfect notes. Funny. Tender. I would have them all crying. But I was unprepared for the wave of emotions that hit me as I walked up to the lecture; sorrow and grief, feelings of loss, of the terror of a life without my father, of emptiness.

It seemed immensely ironic to me as I stood there trying to compose myself in front of the crowd who had turned out to farewell my father. I had spent most of my life feeling unconnected with Dad and now I was so connected to him that I could barely speak the words I’d so eloquently drafted.

I wish it hadn’t taken a killer disease to bring me to that point. I wish that Dad and I could have had another ten or twenty years of the friendship we managed to forge in those final months. If indeed I have become him I hope I have inherited even a portion of his bravery in the face of hopelessness.

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