As we approach Christmas I find myself thinking about my father an awful lot. The feelings are often confused and bittersweet and it doesn’t help when each year only seems to pile on more confusions and contradictions. After just a few years of this, the plumbing upstairs is well and truly blocked. I never grant myself the opportunity to untangle the mess, resigning myself to confoundment, but this year I’m going to try and pull it all apart.
I don’t think my father was ready for responsibility. An emotionally distant man, he always behaved like his choice of a family was a forlorn regret. A consolation prize that he must now live with, for life, and that he has to capitulate as a prisoner of circumstance. Love didn’t feel free with him: it was always at a cost. Always conditional. He often lashed out when he felt unhappy and that unhappiness was something he took to his grave. Considering how often he was miserable, we received hell for it. I’m no stranger to it, either. I’ve alienated friends and partners because of my own selfishness, too. I only ever hurt the ones I love. That’s a scar that Dad left on my psyche. That’s how they ruin you. They leave you with things you don’t want, and you spend your life working around it like a glitch in a video game. If I’ve ever loved you, I’m sorry.
He was from another generation, sure, but the ’60s and the ’70s weren’t kind on him. He was bullied at school and was a frequent truant. I remember one of the few photographs of him as a child is a somewhat lonely portrait of a little boy sitting on a wall, alone. He looked sad even then. He was in the military, too. He was disciplined, quiet and austere and the restrained nature of military training probably appealed to him because of it. He expected you to be on the same level. He believed in hitting his children and shaming their spirit. It wasn’t uncommon to be smacked and punched, followed by a thorough dressing down of the military variety; Watching Full Metal Jacket for the first time raised my eyebrows more than once as R Lee Ermey’s excellent leatherneck bellowing often reminded me of the belittling dehumanization my Father put us through when we were children, right down to flecks of spittle spewing from the corners of his mouth and landing upon our faces. Nothing could contain his anger neither would he ever want to. He would never hold back.
He was often too smart to leave a mark on us in visible areas: he knew the limits and skirted around them quite artfully. But the survivor’s guilt of watching my sister being kicked in the head has always kept me awake at night: I have vivid memories of walking past her bedroom at a brisk pace and catching a split second of my dad and my sister, his leg outstretched and slamming into her face, her recoil and muffled grunt. She didn’t shout or cry or yell for help. We always just took it and kept quiet.
I was bullied at school, too. They would often tease me when I got in trouble, which, for some reason happened often. I indulged in delinquency that, when I look back on it just wasn’t me. I used to resent school and resented authority even more and it made me a pretty horrible pupil of a dead comprehensive. Bullies would corner me on the bus and intimidate me, belittle me, steal my food. But once when I’d gotten in trouble again they asked me, sarcastically, what my parents are going to do when they find out how naughty I’d been. I answered honestly: my dad will punch me. To my surprise, they seemed taken aback. They had expected some sickly sweet reply that conformed to their emasculated perception of me, something that showed me to be a real softy but the reality made them visibly double-take. It didn’t stop them bullying me, but I noted their moments of hesitancy that day on the back of the bus. It was the start of a realization that my childhood was not at all normal.
Dad committed suicide in late October 2012. He went through a terrible divorce that left him with nothing. He died from self-loathing in a shitty apartment in Dartford.
It breaks my heart that we could never really patch things up because I think I could have, despite everything. I would always describe my dad as a good person who was a terrible father but many of his positive traits are masked by all the invisible scars he left us with. For starters he was quietly intelligent – not one to brag about it, but not one to suffer fools gladly either. He was also a lover of music and cinema. He appreciated artistry and quality and standards in both mediums that still surprise me to this day, that someone so compromised personally, so conservative and right-leaning could have such a keen ear for musical detail and cinematic flair. My father’s work as a Triad liaison officer, too, is well noted. At the funeral, to my surprise, many of his former Metropolitan Police work colleagues swore blind to his dedication and passion. He was a well-respected member of the police among London’s China Town community and he, in turn, helped pull vulnerable young people away from criminal lives. Like myself, he had an eye for victims and underdogs, something that clashed awfully against his staunch conservative xenophobia. That’s a statement that will always ring true for me – he defied expectations, he could be so good but then so terrible all in one breath.
His suicide left me feeling angry and confused and lost. The years following are bleak, something which is its own post entirely but I suddenly felt like I didn’t understand anything anymore. He did all of this to us and then just checked out without taking responsibility? Without an apology? Without even putting us in his suicide note? It was like a hit and run car crash where you get left with a stiff walk and all the medical bills. After he killed himself I felt lost and it’s taken until the last year to really feel like I’ve found my way, but it still changed me. I’m not the same man I used to be.
So this Christmas, when I think of my dad, I don’t feel anger. I’m not dizzy with confusion or angst or anything. I’m not hungry for revenge or mournful over my lost childhood. I feel none of those things: I just feel regret. I feel like I miss him. I feel like the hindsight and experience of being an adult could have repaired our relationship, that I could have gotten the father I never really had growing up. I feel like his positive traits could have been accentuated with age and perhaps we’d have common ground. I feel remorse. I feel responsible for his death. Mostly, though, I just miss the guy. That’s it. That’s all there is. Now that everything is all said and done, I can say that in my thirties I’d have loved to repair my relationship with my father. That I’d want that camaraderie and father-son bond that never really existed. I’d have wanted to reach out to him He was a good person, but a terrible father. I miss the person he was, but not the father I got.