My father died 25 years ago when I was 7 and a half years old. He was a god to me then and now, he is a man once more. Not the one I needed him to be, not the one I wanted him to be but who he was: mere mortal, fallible as them all and my father, a human I felt a profound connection with and whose eyes I saw the world through.
The thing is though, we are not meant to see the world through others eyes; we are meant to see it through our own. And so children become adults and this incredible process of extracting who we are from who they are begins.
This is my latest post:
As children we see gods in our parents, as adults mortals as susceptible to folly as the rest of us with a humanity that errs and trips and falls and sometimes goes totally off key. An off-keyness that provokes some questions: who were or are parents? What were or are their fears and where do they exist in us now?
Over the years I have watched as struggles of my father have become ones of my own. So that things like breathing, which had previously been something that I hadn’t had to think of, became something that I did. So that in the initial period after he died I would wake in the middle of the night, between 1am and 3am wheezing and struggling to breathe and I would sit up leaning against my mothers arms as she just sat there with me, reminding my lungs to relax and breathe. (As an interesting aside, the Chinese say that the lungs are connected to grief. I rejected this theory for many years, but recently I experience it to be wholly true, so much so that on the rare occasions I let those tears fall that say I miss you dad, my lungs relax and expand and I don’t need my inhaler at times when I normally do - e.g during a bike ride).
But as well as physical impediments that arose after his death, there are also emotional ones that are slightly harder to disentangle myself from. And though they do not all stem from my father, they were a part of his make up too. These are also the things that have propelled my interest in therapy and meditation and enquiry, in the hope that maybe I can find some answers to the questions that rattle around in my head as I struggle to make sense of normal every day things like relationships and breathing. Namely where do I begin and where do my family patterns end?
The other side of the coin
The Jungian writer Robert Johnson says us humans and this life is full of paradoxes. When we deny them things go sour, (my parents are so good!) when we embrace them (my parents are both strong and weak) integration of what is to be the human that we are, starts to take place.
I don’t remember the last time I saw my father but I do remember every single moment of that moment when my mother walked towards me as I played on the stretch of green outside my grand-mother’s house in West Wittering with my brother and friends. I remember seeing her walk towards me. I remember her solemness. And I remember the way her boyfriend stood by her side. I stood up and went towards them and doom boomed in my stomach. As we walked down towards the beach over the stones and pebbles before she said anything I knew.
“Something has happened.”
“Yes, darling, yes darling it is.”
Afternoon tea, almost...
I think bewilderment was the main emotion in the immediate period after my father’s death. It was only years later in Tufnell Park in north London after an afternoon spent drinking ayahuascha that I revisited those emotions in a way most lucid that whilst it may not have been happening in real time, was most healing for me somewhere internally. That afternoon I was able to appreciate for the first time, not just the shock at loosing my father but the anger and the hurt that this human I had felt such a profound connection with, hadn’t told me that he wasn’t going to be around anymore.
Why on earth not?
As the bewilderment moved into shock in the immediate period after my father’s death, my imagination tried to soothe the pain with suggestions I was willing to accept: Daddy isn’t really dead, he has simply gone away. What I couldn’t work out was why no one could tell me about it. And so I would watch the film The Railway Children with a resonance roaring inside that reassured me that somewhere out there was my father too, waiting for the right time to come home. I would just have to find a way to make that time come quick.
A rather hopeless hope that has had a surprisingly long shelf life. And so I swear that even though it is illogical and of course I don’t think this, somewhere I do. So that even into my thirties I occasionally dream about my father, and experience that extraordinary moment of seeing him alive again. And although often I discover the reason that he left was that he has a new family; I don’t care. At least I get to see him again. Dad! He looks at me blankly: who are you? She’s your daughter Malcolm, a friend will remind him. Oh, he says. He has forgotten who I am.
And yet I have not forgotten him. Although perhaps it is time to let go and I finding that the most complete way to do that is to thank him from the bottom of my heart.
But before I could get to that place there was a whole lot of things to happen, emotions to be felt and dug through. Last year, in an attempt to better understand my family and also myself – at a time when I was profoundly struggling in my own relationship - I contacted a woman I have felt most antagonized by: for she is really the only one of the many women who my father had affairs with (one would leave the house, another would arrive) who I can remember. She was his secretary. Lets call her Velca! (“Vel-cha”)
We met at The Electric on Portobello Road in London, near Ladbroke Grove where I used to live. Velca spoke frankly and keenly with me. Part of the reason that I wanted to speak with her was that over the years I’ve heard about 3 versions of how my father died and as Velca had been there when he had died, or at least the moments preceding it, I wanted to hear her account.
I also wanted to talk to her about moments that just felt plain wrong. At my father’s funeral when my mother and I walked in, my mother had gasped and pulled me to the side as we approached our seats at the front. Because sitting on the front row, next to my paternal grand-mother was Vulca. When I brought this up she conceded, “Perhaps I should not have done that.”
When we parted I couldn’t kiss her goodbye, nor shake her hand. Because it is a strange thing to meet with someone who betrayed your mother, in a way the betrayal croaks again. As I walked away it all seemed rather pathetic, but it was also illuminating and revealing and tender and painful and in a way necessary. For meeting this woman I was able to better understand my father and the relationship of my parents and so also my own relationship to my partner at the time, a relationship that was profoundly struggling and so see patterns playing out once more in an ancestral legacy just ever so slightly stubborn.
Often when people tell me stories about my father they involve two things: the way he looked and the women. But sometimes the absence of the kind of stories I would like to hear more of about my father - who he was, what was the essence of the man - reveal something to me: did anyone really know? Which is in some part the responsibility of those who were friends with my father but also of dad’s. How relaxed was he with being seen? I do not think this rare only to the man that was my father. It seems rather endemic of our human family and something I have written about before: the masks we wear, and how loathe we are to let them be removed, lest what is underneath doesn’t quite satisfy those we aim to please.
As a child I remember seeing not only the inappropriateness of the women around my father but also of my father. One example has crystallised of one weekend in the country where I was cooking pancakes with Vulca. My father walked in and looked at the mulch on the pan: what is that? Oh Malcy! Your daughter has sabotaged my pancakes…
I was about 5 or 6 years old when this happened. Vulca had asked me for the ingredients for pancakes. Eggs I said, milk, sugar. But I had forgotten the flour. I remember watching this scene play out, rather appalled that I had messed it up – I liked pancakes! - but also the fall in the stomach at realising that my father did not say oh for Christ sake Vulca she’s a child, why didn’t you remember? But instead watching that moment as I stood across the counter from them as my father rubbed her back and placated her.
Grief fills a river
So I have felt considerable amounts of anger towards my father. But beneath it all grief rolls not yet fully released because somehow in all these years of asking and looking and judging tears would come here and there, and often in ways that I would ask: when will they stop! But perhaps they weren’t just mine.
I read recently of the importance of expressing our grief physically. Too often we leap to the terrain of the intellect and intellectualise death: oh it happens to us all! Or we spiritualise it: oh we are all one - death is an illusion! When we do this we are actually castrating our grieving process. In other words, if we really want to move on in our lives, we have to grieve, to wail, to cry, to fall to the ground and let those tears spill out of our eyes. Because our tears are here for a reason. Not just to keep our eyes moist, but to fill that river that the dead need to cross in order to get to the other side.
Unfortunately we have a culture where we praise the stiff upper lip. At funerals emotions are pushed to one side and instead of saying this is hell, people smile like ghosts and speak brave empty words. What would it be for our culture if instead of being stoic we got fluid? If we allowed ourselves to wail and sob and weep and beat the earth and be hugged?
So that those rivers, suffering from extreme drought would fill and surge and tumble with fresh tear water and the dead would cross and as they did we would stand and wave goodbye and then walk on, tears never too far from our eyes. Because once we start accessing and acknowledging our pain at the loss of the ones we loved who died too early, or the pain that comes because we have absolutely no culture in teaching us how to accept and support and honor death in our society, preferring instead to focus on the importance of saying our please and thank you and the importance of refraining from biffing in public.
Occasionally we may come back to the river and call to the other side: I miss you! And a figure appears walking near and we hear back: I miss you too.
I used to think of grief as a static process. In that ultimately you get to this place where you accept it and really there are no more tears to flow. But now I think it is a part of each day. For whereas before I was a mother I could not truly feel the grief that my daughter will never know her maternal grand-father. Now that I am a mother I look at my daughter and how I wish she could have met my father. How I wish she could have sat on his lap and laughed with him and how I wish he could have enjoyed her intelligence and heart crumbling sweet joyful innocence. To grieve, or at least how I understand it, is not to get lost or wallow in it, it is to feel it, allow it so that each moment of our lives are infused with a freshness that only sadness can bring.
And so this Father’s Day I will go with my mother and my brother to the restaurant underneath where he used to live and work. Actually also the spot where he died, as morbid as that may sound, but really life be full of life and death and it’s a spot in London I often walk by, so it’s a part of my every day life. And we’ll sit - for the first time - coming together to remember him and honour him. This paradox of a man. A man who broke hearts but also tried his best to say I love you, I’m here for you, and I am as bewildered as the rest of us, trying to make our way through with our quiet humanity gone haywire.
Sharing is the water that helps this blog sprout! Please share this with all those you never get to spend enough time with. No missing needed.