Ok – first assignment back from my new unit, Writing the Past. For this one, we had to pick a photo, object, newspaper article, etc. and write something that focused on or was inspired by it. The catch: whatever we wrote about had to be at least 30 years old. I chose this photo of my mum and dad’s wedding reception…
thinking I would write about their experience as an inter-racial couple in the ’80s but, when I interviewed my mum, it turns out there wasn’t much to tell on that topic. So we spoke about their relationship in general and I went back home having no fucking clue what to write about. Until the story below eventually rose out of the ashes.
I had it pretty close to done the day before it was due with the intention of putting the finishing touches on it the following day. However, I ended up staying out til 6am and spending the day hungover as fuck with barely the brain power to do an extremely cursory read through before submitting it right before the midnight cut-off. Luckily, the gods smiled upon this little trashbag and the assignment dropbox spontaneously deleted all the assignments so we all had to re-upload on Monday and I took the liberty of giving my work one final look through. To be honest, I didn’t change much, turns out I’d done an ok job and/or was too tired to care (although after reading it now, I find quite few things I’d change but oh well. You can edit forever, right?).
So behold – the final product! High Distinction certified, despite all odds.
My father died on the 8th of December, 1985, just nine days after his 37th birthday. In my memory, the funeral is a silent movie where the camera remains focused on a metal box at the bottom of a hole in the ground. I’ve been given a rose that I know I’m meant to throw in the hole but I’m afraid I’ll fall in if I get too close. I toss the rose from what feels like a safe distance but it falls short of the hole. I edge closer to push for a re-throw and relief washes over me when it falls finally in. As I run back to my mum, I notice she’s crying. Over the years, this memory has taken on a dreamlike quality, leaving me unsure if it’s real.
Most of what I know about my father is second-hand, gleaned from pictures or told to me by my mother or other family members. He died just before I turned three. His forever young face crowds the photo albums my mum keeps of our lives – first her on her travels around the world, then her and my dad and I make an appearance just before he disappears. As a child, I pored over the photos trying to find a clue to what he was like, besides what I’d been told. They had seven years together from the time they met in a gay club in New York through to her Foreign Affairs postings in Nigeria and Pakistan and their more ‘settled’ life in suburban Canberra. In the photos, he’s a handsome man and my mother is nearly always smiling. The camera captures his charisma no matter what he’s doing. He’s the picture of health – brown and muscular – yet doomed to die young.
Aside from the funeral, I have three memories of him:
- Me laughing while he bounced me on his knee at a fair.
- Both of us on a rollercoaster – me banging my chin on the handrail, biting my lip, crying. Him frustrated, trying to calm me down before taking me back to mum.
- Both of us in the backyard eating witchety grubs (part of me doesn’t really want to believe this one is true).
Because of this, my father has never been a real person to me. I can’t remember ever saying ‘dad’ out loud. When I do, the word feels false coming out of my mouth, as if it snuck out without permission. I search for the right word but nothing seems to fit. I settle on Fran (his name was Francisco), that seems the most honest word for who he was – to me at least. Yet when my mother speaks about him, as she rolls her cigarettes while we sit in the dining room, I can see how real he is to her, even after all these years. This is the only man she truly loved and he hurt her many times yet she still loves him.
My parents had already been separated for a few months when he died. Mum left him after a string of infidelities, the latest a girl of only eighteen. On the night of his death, my mother had been out at a party with some friends. She thought about stopping in to see him but decided against it; she knew she’d be upset if she saw the girl’s car in his driveway. The next morning she got the call telling her he’d died in his sleep. Ischaemic heart disease. Runs in the family. The girl later told mum he’d woken up in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, but she’d fallen back asleep and, in the morning, he was dead. Cold and half hanging out of bed, as if he’d been trying to get up. My mother still wonders if things would have been different if she’d stopped in to see him. But it was late at night when he died and it’s too long ago for ‘what-ifs’.
In many ways, I wonder if my father did me a favour by dying. An absent father does more damage than a dead one; you can’t argue with death, after all. As a child, I never had weekends when my dad didn’t show up to see me. He never had the chance to break any promises or let me down. His death just meant he wasn’t there, wasn’t knowable. I spent years imagining what it would be like to have a father but I never had to know the crushing disappointment of a parent who chose not to be there.
Instead, I have no relationship with this man. I didn’t know him. I can’t bring myself to feel much for this person whose love and care I don’t remember. He exists only in pictures, family stories and my own hazy recollections. My mother’s memories are filled with happiness and pain because he hurt her, not just once, but many times. I wish I could love him but I just feel sad. Maybe because I didn’t get a chance to know him, I’m not sure. People tell me he would be proud of me but I don’t feel anything because he didn’t have any hand in making me who I am. I feel more when they say I have his eyes; this is something I cross-reference in photos plus he was good-looking. It might be superficial but it’s the only way I know him.
I started this memoir not expecting to feel anything. Yet when I start transcribing my mother’s interview, I’m filled with sorrow but not for me. They’re for the woman who raised me without the man she loved. For the woman whose heart was broken by his unfaithfulness and then his death. For the woman who very clearly still loves this man who was unworthy of her love, who blames herself for his failures as a husband and father. I’m undone by her words and the emotion underneath. Theirs is a love story that was ripped apart at the seams by a man who couldn’t be tamed, who found love with many women besides his wife yet still exists as shadow in both our minds, the man she knew, the man I never knew, the man we both wish he was.