SS: Father Figure

I was fifteen when my father died, young enough still to be certain about my life, and the one thing I was most certain of was that I hated him.

It was midnight when my mother and I got the call. A rough line from the hospital inviting us to identify him – the man who, only two hours before, had rent our house with strife. We stared at each other in silence, then drove the seven miles the same way. Neither of us wanting to admit that, beneath the fear and the adrenaline, there might have been relief. Perverse. Intrinsic. Vital.

It took less than three seconds to identify him: a cursory glance confirmed the dread, sarcastic smile we knew so well. Anything else was negligible.

‘It’s him,’ my mother affirmed for record, speaking with the same intonation as a wedding vow.

Jason Deaton, husband, father, accountant, family man. At least in appearance. Killed tragically in a black-ice collision, which was ironic considering we’d been living in a car-crash for years.

DOA so many times we were Christlike.

In the sick, florescent light of the morgue I dared to confront him, a different sense of monstrous now. Even in death he still managed to retain that same superior, self-satisfied expression, as if the world were a hand he played at will. Icarus who touched the sun and tainted it.

We lingered long enough to be respectful, then drove home again in silence.

The house was exactly as we’d left it, with the standing lamp on and the TV playing lowly in the corner. Tonight I knew my mother would sleep on the couch, as she always did after a fight she never sought. In times of stress routine became an anchor, even if the routine was hateful.

She wanted to keep his memory alive.

I wanted anything but.

As we watched the hours together, the air seemed to grow thick with the scent of his cologne. His freshly ironed shirt, still hung over the door, stretched shadows around our throats. And the silence, as benign as it usually was, brought back his aggressive words in waves. The last he ever said to us.

For different reasons, this was more than we could take.

~ ~ * ____ * ~ ~

The first impression I ever had of my father was one of fear, limited and blunted as only a child can feel it, but still strong enough to create an aversion. I would not be left alone with him, and any timid interaction I did attempt to make was always dependant on my mother’s presence as a buffer. What he did to usurp my child-blind trust I don’t know; I still don’t to this day, but that’s where it all began. As I grew, my reasons for distrusting him at least became more defined, and harder to reconcile with the image of a father.

I was writing in the living-room one day when he walked in. He’d already alienated my mother that morning and was now seeking a second target. By thirteen I’d correlated his moods accurately to a number of contributing factors and, had I been paying more attention, I would have gotten out of his way. As it was, he took a seat on the couch and fixed me with his stare until the pen seized in my hand.

‘Haven’t you got any of that published yet?’

His tone held an accusation I didn’t understand. I glanced down at the drama I’d been tentatively drafting, wondering whether I wasn’t suddenly ashamed of it.

‘No, it isn’t finished.’

‘Well, why the hell isn’t it? You spend enough time doing it.’

He waited to see if I would dare an answer, thrilled at the prospect of a direct challenge. When I said nothing he changed tactics and extended the silence further, so I could feel my inferiority to his standards. He was, after all, a dynamic agitator, and he had barely gotten started.

‘What are you writing anyway?

‘… A play.’

‘What are you writing plays for?’ he laughed, a hard, mocking sound. ‘No-body wants to read a play. You should have written a novel instead. Can’t you do anything right?’

But I hadn’t written a novel, I’d written a play, or begun to, at least. I’d mapped out all the characters and scenarios with fastidious detail until I was enamoured with the world I had created. Now I wanted to burn it out of all memory of existence. With my father it was always less about what he said than how he said it. I learned early on that words were unnecessary to deride you. A laugh could do it.

‘Novels take a long time to write,’ I stuttered lamely, feeling compelled to make some sort of defence.

‘I could write one in a week.’

And what return could I possibly make to that?

It was the closing death blow and I was out in the first round, down and bleeding on the canvas. I didn’t have my mother’s experience, nor her resistance to his power. He tasted his victory with a sardonic grin as I tore up the page in front of me and wintered the carpet with my disgrace. For a wild moment I wanted to shout at him, demand when he and I had been pitted in direct competition and why he had to corrupt everything I cared about. But even at thirteen I knew the nature of our positions, that it was fundamentally useless to argue with someone who believed their own lies.

My father’s swinging lows, of course, were offset with manic highs which fractured our household just as effectively. And during these times, I began to actively hate the sound of his voice, the nonsensical humming, like psychotic clanging, whose only function was to remind us of his ubiquity. That he could creep beneath closed doors, into the recesses of our minds, encroach upon everything that was sacred, and we were powerless to stop him. My father made happiness a threat, more pervasive and destructive than violence.

Yet for all my rancour and fear towards him, I also felt cheated by him. Cheated by the whole institution of a family, which promised so much, and which I was acrimoniously denied. Imperfect as he was, a vital part of me still just wanted him to be my father – the man who taught me to kick-box on the front lawn, then strapped up my ankle when I threw a stray shot; the man who took an interest in what I wrote, encouraged me instead of defeating me; and the man I could take as standard for those I could expect to meet, secure in my own self-image. For whatever reason, my father couldn’t fulfil those roles and I hated him for not being what I wanted.

In turn, I even hated myself for hating him.

It’s said that men ultimately destroy what they love most. My father, I think, just loved to destroy. He was so efficacious at it that he could simply set the wheels in motion then leave us to self-destruct on our own time. And how many ways can you be ripped apart and still remain standing? I don’t know exactly, but I’m on seventy-five and still counting.

~ ~ * ____ * ~ ~

 

Two days after we identified my father I found my mother at the kitchen table, glancing through a coffin catalogue like picking shoes for sale. We’d barely spoken a word since, so I was surprised when she pushed the glossy pages towards me and asked:

‘What about that one?’

I glanced at something called: ‘The Rosewood,’ lingering over the distorted space where her finger had smeared the ink. I didn’t even read the description, though that was what she was pointing at.

‘They all out of Iron Maidens? Maybe you should try another firm.’

It was the worst thing to say, I knew it and I said it anyway, but even then I didn’t expect her reaction. She ignited faster than she’d ever done to my father’s provocation, a look of preternatural panic in her eyes.

‘Don’t speak evil about the dead!’ she upbraided.

Which only incited one question in my mind:

‘And what if they were evil when they were alive?’

It was an honest question. One I’d tortured myself with since all of this had happened and desperately needed answered, but she read something perverse within it. Something to be locked away and hidden.

Her hands trembled as she took the catalogue back, revoking my right to see it. Because I was cruel, because I was immature, because neither of us knew how we were meant to survive this.

‘T-That doesn’t matter.’ She stammered finally, ‘Death changes everything.’

And maybe to her it did, but for me death changed nothing. You died exactly how you had lived, and in my father’s case that was disgracefully. No fair-named coffin or pretentious tears could change that and we both knew it. But just like when we might have felt relief, we didn’t want to admit it.

I left her crying quietly at the kitchen table, feeling heartless and cold, but unable to give her what she wanted from me. She was supposed to be the one telling me that everything would be okay, because she was supposed to know. So why wasn’t she saying that?

It was the only thing I needed her to say.

Though I hated my father, I knew my mother had more cause and ammunition than I could ever hold. A few months earlier I’d woken to them arguing, which was unusual because my mother generally tried to keep the peace. Before long their acid words were punctuated by the sounds of smashing furniture, and I was on my feet rushing towards the source. I found him towering over her, using every inch of his 6’3 frame as a physical threat that she stood far below. For once there was no sarcastic smile twisting his lips because this was not a victory. This was atavism, pure and simple, and we all recognised that he has lost control.

I forced myself between them and pushed him away, half wishing he would swing and hit me so I could be validated in hitting him back.

But he didn’t.

He straightened his shirt and left for work like nothing had happened, left us standing in the ruins of the kitchen, which was the perfect metaphor for the ruins of our life.

I learned from her later that it wasn’t the first time he’d done it. The two of us, we were slave to his moods in our own miserable apartheid, where the field of play changed daily so we could never gain the upper hand. I used to wonder what kind of man it was who needed to control and dominate everything around him, before I realized that this model had one fatal flaw. My father’s bestiality did not extend to the outside world. Like something small, cherished and intimate, he kept it firmly tucked at home.

And the few times I ever did venture out with my father left lasting, uncomfortable impressions that took me months to shake. Like a serpent shedding its skin, he disposed his bellicose nature and became suddenly affable and pleasant. He would speak to strangers like old friends, and with an ease of triviality he never afforded towards my mother and me; if he laughed the sound would come out warm, the complete antithesis to the taunt we knew, dreaded and loathed; and when he spoke of us at all, it was always with a dismissive affection which never quite leaked into his conduct.

As a child this incongruity disturbed me deeply, because it gave the impression that there were two men living inside my father, each vying to get out. I spent months looking for the seams I considered had to be there, hoping desperately to free the better half of him I’d seen out on the streets.

Bring that version of him home.

As I got older, however, I realized that multiple personalities didn’t function on anything as neat and consistent as seams; nor were they divisible to one either.

Many times I’d wondered whether my mother had known any of this when she married him. Had she maybe saw a glimpse and thought that she could save him? Helen Graham in another time and place. It sounded like her. And as I lay in bed, counting the hours until midnight for no other reason than that it signified I’d gotten through another day, I could still hear her crying.

She’d never really stopped since I left her in the kitchen, and I didn’t understand what it meant. Was she grieving for some beautiful part of him I had failed to know, and which to her felt like a loss? Or was she crying for the simple cathartic spite of everything he’d put her through, because she could now he was gone?

I was too frightened to ask. Too frightened to see her looking as broken as I felt.

Either way, it made me realize just how little I actually knew about life.

And less still about the depravities of love.

~ ~ * ____ * ~ ~

            With three days to go before my father’s funeral my grandmother arrived, defeated by the loss of her son. Without saying it my mother and I became a team again, united in burying the truth, along with the man, of what he had become. We did it for selfless and selfish reasons, as we had done everything else.

As usual, I was writing in the living-room when she came. After exchanging perfunctory pleasantries with my mother that neither of them really had the heart to make, she came and took a seat by my side, twisting the ends of my hair lightly through her fingers as she’d done ever since I was a child. It was an act of idle affection that my father had never emulated. After a moment, she glanced at my page with a weary smile.

‘Are you still writing your play?’ she asked. ‘The one with the knights and dragons, and the warrior princess who can beat everybody else in battle?’

I had outlined this concept to her years ago, giddy with my first real taste of creative fervour, but I hadn’t expected her to remember. Much less to bring it up now, in the epicentre of disaster.

I thought of the scenes I’d savagely ripped apart and buried, out in the garden where wild nature could ease and erase my shame. At the time it had felt like a relief, the cathartic destruction of an abortive project that was never fit to be seen. Now the whole pantomime reeked of a dirty secret. Of the desperate measures he’d driven me to with the most minimal effort. I so like my mother.

‘No grandma,’ I answered finally, forcing my tone to remain neutral, ‘I haven’t written plays since I was thirteen. But I think maybe I might start again.’

I think I might start taking back a lot of things I once loved.

Together, we held ourselves firm for the span of the afternoon, but our forced composure failed with the retreating daylight hours, and the realization that he would not be forgotten. Like a malevolent presence, my father sat between us at the dinner table, tainting everything tried to eat and reducing us to wretched strangers, until we could neither think nor function except to honour him.

In the saturnine glow of the lamplight, my grandmother wept for the boy she had borne and lost; my mother for the live-in lie her entire existence had become; and I for the bare fact that, even six days dead, my father would not release us from his hold. Outwardly, however, our grief all looked the same.

With the food wasted, we migrated back into the living-room where we stood like pieces in check. My grandmother examined the photographs on the mantelpiece with an inscrutable expression. My mother alone was still crying, the specificity of her grief bleeding into something must vaster and deeper. And I was lost.

My grandmother broke the silence first, laying our six-year old family photograph facedown.

‘I know he wasn’t perfect,’ she said slowly, ‘but he was proud of you two girls. In the end, you can’t blame a man for not showing his emotions.’

But my father had shown his emotions, he’d shown them to be baleful, violent and perverse, a fact I sensed she knew but, like us, didn’t want to admit. Without meaning to, we’d all become complicit in the perfect-family lie which, even as we acknowledged it, was designed less to protect his social image than to stop us from completely falling apart. But even lies lost their grip on ash and rubble.

True, my father had been a proud man – it was evident in his reaction to the lightest criticism – but he was never proud of us. And, somehow, we were never proud of ourselves either. I hated him for many things, yet I hated him most for making me inconsolable with myself.

Literature is patented with failed parental figures and, of these, roughly three-quarters are fathers. In my own experimental works too, the man-of-the-house is always either absent or abusive, because those are the models my father gave me. Imagination, at its core, is an extension of empathy and key to empathy is understanding, but I never could understand my father’s actions, much less the man who openly resented everything good in his life.

They describe growing up as a series of milestones, but for me it happened within the parameters of three-hundred-and-nine pages, when I realized that there was no Atticus Finch who could exist outside the world of fiction. And when I finally did get around to reading To Kill A Mocking Bird I somehow wound up hating him just the same. I hated him for opening my eyes to a possibility my life had never fulfilled.

My father, though, hadn’t always been the rhadamathine rule of our house. Between my infant aversion to him and the alarming outbursts which built year on year to a figure we didn’t recognise, there were brief happy moments. Memories built on simple things. Me on his shoulders swinging my ankles in the breeze; him buying me an ice-cream at the pier while we sat looking out over the sea; the safety and comfort of his arms after the words of a bully I was too scared to tell my mother about.

In the grand scheme, these moments were meaningless, outweighed by too much pain.

Except that they weren’t.

Because I had valued and protected them, took pains to remember them, even if they conspired their own type of hurt. And they hurt precisely because they unsettled everything I thought I was certain about, until I was torn between two antithetical versions of truth. Two antithetical versions of him.

I hated my father, but I didn’t.

I wanted him out of my life, and I wanted him to stay.

I didn’t need him, but I did.

A few happy memories weren’t enough to redeem him, but, maybe, they were just enough to prevent me damning him completely. Just enough to keep a small part of my mother bound to him.

And how could we ever blame each other for holding onto hope?

Like objects in perpetual motion, these thoughts chased tirelessly around in my head.

~ ~ * ____ * ~ ~

They were still running when they finally opened the yawning earth and lowered him in. The Rosewood casket glinting miraculously in the sunlight, just as my mother had picked it.

Then dust to earth and ash and rubble, everything we’d become we now returned back to him, The dark epicentre, the irascible eye of the storm which had blighted our lives for fifteen years and left us in ruins in his wake.

But left us stronger, too.

Strong enough to bare this and keep pushing forward.

Standing between my mother and grandmother, with my hands locked tightly in their grip, I looked out over the sea of faces who attended my father’s funeral. Colleagues, friends and distant relations had all responded to the summons and came to pay their respects, some even weeping openly for the loss of him, while we stood with dry eyes and shame at the front of the congregation.

As we wished, his secrets had been buried along with him, a tinder to keep him warm in the grave, because if we knew one thing it was that he would never regret them. And as the last shovel of earth was thrown to entomb him we allowed ourselves, finally, to feel a sense of relief.

To feel freedom.

To take the first breath after over a decade of drowning.

My mother squeezed my hand and I calmly returned the pressure, telling her I finally understood.

That, just like her, I did not hate my father; at least, not with the unambiguous certainty I thought I did.

But I didn’t love him either.

What lay between those two conditions I don’t even think she knew, but when I find out I’ll name it.

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