It was a day I hated and would often intentionally avoid, as it was a strong reminder of the fact I didn’t have a father (well, an alive one) any more. I tried to transfer my focus to my Grandfather and other father-figures, but it still rung out to me that my Dad was dead. School projects to make a card, reminders, adverts – all of them stung. Until the day I became a Father.
Father’s day. There are lots of theories and ideas on its origins and its worth. Its origins as a Christian feast day have been around long before socks and ties were the preferred gift – but it was the actions of the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, the Father’s Day Council and Sonora Smart Dodd that got it really off the ground. With that sort of pedigree, it is no wonder that you can’t ignore the solid commercialism of the day today and the focus on the giving of gifts. I particularly enjoyed reading this article on “upscale” gifts to consider. Why not gift dad a $500 steak? Or a massive bbq?
I don’t really remember the first Father’s day after my Dad died. I was 14 when he died, and the following years do become a little blurry when I try and remember them. I do know, however, that each milestone following his death was painful. His birthday; Mum’s birthday; my birthday; Father’s day; Christmas; his death anniversary. Each milestone a fresh reminder of what was gone. I would often look to downplay things, avoiding things like birthdays or Christmas.
I also made a conscious decision to forget the date my Dad died. He died suddenly and it was and is one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I didn’t want to remember that date, or the days that preceded it – sitting in hospital with my Dad – laying in a hospital bed, unable to talk to me; the afternoon helping the ambulance officers carry him from our yard. Dad had a stroke in my grandparent’s chook pen and was found by my mum. I was next on the scene. I didn’t set foot near that chook pen for nearly a decade afterwards.
What hurt, and still does in some ways, is that my Dad was pretty great. I’m biased, but he taught me a huge amount of things, gave me a massive amount of time and listened to me prattle on as a young teenager. He was older when he had me, and his health wasn’t as great as it could’ve been – so he went about parenting me (and life in general) a lot differently than when he was a young man, parenting my three brothers. I laugh when people tell me “what my dad was like”, as if I hadn’t met the “real” version of him. I feel sorry for them, as they can only remember the original cut – what I had the privilege of living with was the more refined, remastered version. Sure, the fashion was still terrible, but the man he became was fantastic.
Dad was devoted to his family and his community and would help anyone, and everyone – often to his own detriment. He was dedicated, generous and incredibly loving. Dad could talk to anyone, anywhere, any time about anything (and often did). He was a man that took time out of his life to help. He helped settle Vietnamese refugees at a time the world didn’t want them (not dissimilar to now); took Aboriginal borders to the beach during the school holidays during the 70’s (which was not popular); helped kids struggling with literacy and numeracy by tutoring them in his woodwork classes, and later in life returned to do it again as a school-based volunteer. He stood up for what was right, not what was popular and had conviction to not back down. This earnt him the reputation of a temper. It is this that I respect the most. When he left my life, he left a massive void.
Some wonderful humans tried their hardest to help me through my teenage and young adult years by being wonderful friends and mentors to me. People who seeped in to the void that my father left – never covering the outline but helping to fill the space. My grandfather, so gentle and quiet; my football coach, so straightforward and structured; my year twelve maths teacher – a man plucked from retirement for one year of teaching, who seemed to come at the perfect time, to chat, take me sailing and introduce me to Nick Cave and Paul Coelho; my brothers, all grieving themselves but desperate to help in their own ways – be it advice, concerts, time, arguments; friend’s fathers – one in particular, who like granddad – didn’t announce he was doing anything, but was just present.
There were many others – uncles, other teachers, other coaches, older friends. All of them pulled their weight – but unfortunately, none of them were my father. They helped mould me and shape me, but I was not facing the thing I really needed to – my grief.
One of the most influential people in my life, particularly after my Dad died; put it so clearly and succinctly for me one drunken evening. I was three sheets to the wind on her husband’s home made claret and she told me;
“Grief is not compartmentalised, you don’t have separate buckets of grief for each person.
What grief you don’t deal with stays in the bucket until you return back to it for another person – you get another chance to empty what is left.”
Still, to this day, those words mean so much to me. Now this lady is pretty special – a little crazy, but very special; and has helped me along my journey in more ways than she knows. Of everything she has said and done, those words helped me the most.
I had run from my grief. I avoided it. There were years of anger – and a generalised failure to cope. I didn’t cry about my Dad’s death (properly anyway) until over a year later. I remember exactly where I was and when it was. It was great in many ways, but then; I didn’t go back to that bucket of grief for years. When Dad died I was in shock. I was numb. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I was a kid. When it happened, I actually found myself comforting other family members as they cried in to my hugs.
I was a pall bearer for my Dad, in what I still to this day think was one of the worst moments of my life. It was important, and necessary and galling and horrific. Since that day; I’ve hated funerals and the sight of coffins – and if there’s a funeral; it takes a bloody big effort for me to be there. Don’t be surprised or offended if I don’t rock up, or disappear half-way through. Its not just that I don’t want to be there, I just can’t. If I’m there, it is most certainly for a damn good reason. And under duress.
What I have been able to do though, is face my Dad’s death and funeral and the associated grief when I’ve been forced to go back in to a world of grief.
My Nanna’s funeral was my first real attempt; the shaking tears and blisters as I dug a grave for my beloved dog Elu was as much embracing the tears I failed to shed in the past as it was my beautiful furry friend.
When my Grandad died – a man who was so, so special to me – I was determined not to hold anything back. This man was a rock to me, the one who filled the biggest space inside the void my father left – and I was not going to hold back anything that might add to the bucket of grief left over from Dad.
There was tears, and snot, and poems, and tributes and talking and tears and a trip to Kokoda (full of tears for Grandad and Dad) and tears and whisky and tears and tears. I’ve not emptied that bucket of grief fully – but I’ve made a big dent.
Going back and facing that was important. What has also helped has been new focus and new life, that has forced me to reassess and realign my thoughts on a few things that come along.
While I was able to scrub the day of Dad’s death from my memory, I couldn’t hide from Father’s Day. It would loom over me, announcing itself through junk mail and television adverts for weeks before hand; reminding me I had no-one to buy a chuck-less drill for. I think back to that time as a time that I was so angry and confused. There was a lot of bad punk music and violent outbursts. I was not ok. I was not happy. Things were not going to be all right. Then, new life came in to my life. I became a Father. Suddenly, this day that meant loss and pain and anger meant love and love and hugs. And socks. I had to change my focus. I had to become something else.
This wasn’t simple, it wasn’t like a switch – it has taken time to get in to it and in many ways, I feel like this Father’s day has been my best one yet. This one didn’t have an undercurrent of anger. I didn’t want to avoid it. I embraced it. I sat in bed, looking at my home-made cards, munching on my breakfast and felt happy. I joined in a group Father’s day activity, because I was happy to celebrate the day. I made the most of my day and my time with my boys and even though I was sad my Dad was not around; I wasn’t angry. Like everyone – I’m growing as I go. My Dad lost his Father as a young man. I’m sure that impacted on how he went about things and how he grew as a man. He became a better man as life went on, as he reflected, as he grew. It is all I’m trying to achieve.
Now, I know this doesn’t mean I’m cured. That my bucket of grief is empty and I’m right to go – but what it does mean is that I’m getting to a better place.
I hate the word journey, the bastards on reality talent shows have ruined it – but it is what life is. There are moments where it is great and wonderful and perfect and moments where it really sucks.
I’ve had a few of those moments, and they are challenging and they take a time to get through. It has taken a bloody long time. It does. My Dad died 17 years ago. I still miss him. It doesn’t get easier to have him gone, it just gets different.