November 7th, 2013
I was moved to post this piece that I wrote in 2011 by what I heard on Radio National today. On Life Matters they were talking about tomorrow’s topic of how our expectations and perceptions of fatherhood have changed. I’m definitely going to tune in. This was originally published in Sydney’s Child, and won the 2011 Parenting Media Association Award in the category of “Personal Essay”
Highs and Lows
I can’t help but watch the white-haired man holding my friend’s newborn son in his arms. He is giving the baby a bottle, cradling his tiny head. “Who’s that?” my daughter whispers, following my eyes. “His grandfather,” I say, the noise of the birthday party receding around me. To my daughter it is an unfamiliar word. Something she has never known.
It has been nine years since my father was hiking in Albania and collapsed from a heart attack. Nine years since my mother performed CPR on a remote mountain, waiting for a rescue helicopter. Nine years since I got the call in the middle of the night with the news that my father was dead. I had moved to Australia just three months before. I didn’t scream at the news. There were no ambulance sirens – there was no noise at all. Just silence and cold, going back to bed and hating the normalcy of dawn.
I used to wish my father dead. They are hard words, but true. We had a difficult time getting along for at least half of my life. He was a brilliant man who had a PhD from Berkeley and a masters from Harvard. He was a US Foreign Service diplomat, and he learned languages as if it were nothing. He knew everything. He was always right.
He changed the occasional nappy and gave bristly-bearded kisses goodnight, but my mother was the one who raised me. Dad was the disciplinarian, the one you tiptoed around while he was reading a history of Stalinist Russia, the one who found the punishment to match the crime. When I was seven he had an affair. My parents separated, and although they reunited after a few months, it wasn’t the end of his infidelity. To say I took my mother’s side is an understatement. During my teenage years I couldn’t look him in the eye.
In the years before he died, my father and I grew closer, though we lived further apart. He became the US Ambassador to Albania and I was studying and working in America and Australia. On brief visits, and through moments on the telephone and the occasional email, we began treating one another as fellow humans, rather than just prisoners of our shared history. During a trip to visit him in Albania, he poured me a taste of expensive whisky. When I savoured it, he smiled. When he met my Australian boyfriend, he cracked a Crocodile Dundee joke, but there was camaraderie there too. My boyfriend had lost his father five years earlier to cancer. He watched gridiron with my dad and they talked about beer. It was the first and last time they met.
A few years after my father died, I was hiking with my mother in the Canadian Rockies. I wanted to know what it was like when he’d had the heart attack. She told me then about how they were apart when my father collapsed, and how he was with two bodyguards who did not think to start resuscitation until my mother arrived and took charge. How my father was by all accounts dead when the helicopter arrived, but the doctor still insisted on performing an emergency tracheotomy. How that was what she couldn’t bear, seeing him cut open, seeing his blood spill. She accompanied his body home. A week after his death when we had gathered for his funeral, my mother gave me my father’s watch. The band was stained with his blood.
My boyfriend is now my husband, my mother has remarried, and my father would be a grandfather four times over were he still alive. Would I be who I am today without him? Unlikely. My father’s death changed me. It compelled me to do things that would make him proud. It made me want more out of life – tangible things that I can hold within the circle of my arms. I watch my husband with our two children and I know I’ve made the right decisions. He is so different to my own father, but I recognise the look in my daughter’s eyes as he swings her onto his shoulders. She is smitten.
The grandfather my father would have been is who I miss the most. Not because he would be changing nappies, but because he would see my children and love them in his own way. He would smile his crooked smile and given the scratchy kisses. He would see the new beginnings – the chances – that babies give us. My father was a weak man and a strong man. He swung me by my ankles. He watched my field hockey games. He was often gone but always returned.
Now, on rare occasions in the middle of the night when a phone rings – a wrong number or a friend overseas who has forgotten the time difference – my breath catches. It has been nine years since that phone call, but it feels like yesterday. I hang up and check that my children are asleep in their beds. Eventually I fall back to sleep.
One day my children will ask about their grandfather. One day I will show them his watch. “There is his blood,” I will say. “You have it inside of you. It is part of what makes you strong.”