A thought for absent fathers

Dad.

Dad?

Dad!

The last three words I wrote to my father.  I can see he saw them three months ago.  On July 6 2014.  Three baby blue words lapsing into the wasteland of Other Things on the Internet.  No reply rendering them pathetic.  To the right, the chats column offers no excuse: he was active 3m ago.

I haven’t lived in the same city as my father for almost 3 years.  And before that, even as a child, I never lived with him.  I don’t hate him - he is just human.  Just another man who made mistakes and couldn’t live up to the expectations held by those who loved him.  Maybe he didn’t even realise he was needed.  Or worse, didn’t care.  I don’t think he is a malicious or cruel man.  He never beat me or yelled at me.  He never showed enough interest in me for that.  He always pursued boring conversations with me to fill the void between us and conceal the truth:  it doesn’t feel like you’re my daughter.  And can I blame him?  It doesn’t feel like he’s my father.

It wasn’t so hard when I didn’t know kids had fathers.  And what exactly having a father involved.

The idea of what families are: as seen on TV and in the schoolyard, prompted a childish malaise in me.  At the father’s day market stall at primary school I announced proudly, “I don’t have a dad”.  The other kids laughed and stared at me hard, full of 8 year old pity.  “But, you have to have a Dad?  Everybody has a dad!”.  “Well not me,” I cooed, unaffected.  Usually a bossy child and vigorous leader, I was shocked to see the rest of the class against me on this one.  They huddled away from me and my sins, talking animatedly about their own dads, and all the things that dads could do.  “But, everybody has a dad Kiri, they just do,” said my best friend and most reliable benefactor.  I was perplexed.  I mean, I already had a mum?

He was only 27 when I was born.

He was 27 and a half when he left my mother for her best friend.  I remember looking at the wedding pictures of them all, only months before the scandal.  My parents wed in the bush near the border of Victoria and New South Wales.  The landscape is reliable there.  Hay bales litter paddocks, a gentle reminder of winter’s cyclical reprieve.  Creeks run dry and are reincarnated as mirages on the horizon.  Staunch gums bluff their way through the stifling summer days, mottled grey-green.  Smells of sheep and earth reign.  Dust starches the fields until they stiffen, and finally crack.  Oven-heat rises and steams into the haze.  It’s empty.  A wedding in those parts is an anomaly: it was never going to work.  

Being a fatherless kid never meant I missed out.  You can’t miss something that was never there.  It was just me and my mum, my hero.  Kids whose parents divorce perhaps feel a rupture or a loss in their home, as what was once a coherent whole separates.  But nothing broke for me.

Mum’s complexion is resplendent in the photos and she smiles for the camera.  She is as white as her dress, and both are incandescent in the rising heat.  A subtle nimbus encircles her tight curls, cropped close to her head.  She radiates youth and naivety, and it makes her a perfect bride.  Her best friend looks stern and menacing even in pink (or maybe I only remember it this way because of what I know now).  She obliges the responsibility of her title and poses beside mum, a little miffed but mostly resolute with connivance, spied in one fortuitous photo stuffed at the back of the album.  Where she steals a glance in my father’s eyes.

Even then I knew, “mummy - you don’t look happy! Even though you look like a princess”.  “No, I don’t do I?” she said, with great dignity and no regret.  Her voice mellifluous, even as it considers her terrible mistake.

The validity of ‘dads’ was proven when they all showed up at school with their piggy backs and gruff discipline.  With forests of stubble on heavy set chins and smells of big shiny boardrooms and cars and dirt and labour.  With great long limbs like trees.  And then I was simply in awe: who are all these men?

Partly enamoured, partly frightened.

Did I need a ‘father figure’? My mother wandered.  She saw me at times wide-eyed, at times cowering, in front of the older men I encountered.  She felt bad.  Despite all her efforts, perhaps she’d failed me a little.  Perhaps I needed a man in my life to look up to?  Oh how I wish I could find that lovely insecure woman and imbue her with some of my learned ferocity.  She decided to contact him.  My abandoned mother was the one strong enough to contact my cheating, absent father: for my sake.  Single mothers are are the strongest people in the world.

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly he agreed to meet me.  Remembering the bundle of nerves I was on that first day I can only imagine how my mother felt.

As a kid, I came to that first meeting with a pre-packaged idea of how it should look: an instant connection between me and one of those long-armed, energetic father-guys I’d seen around.  These ‘dads’.  I imagined the feeling of being protected and  an innate feeling of love, safety and being looked after.

He was coming to collect me, 8 years old and wholly speechless.  I waited on the edge of my bed and peered out my bay windows onto the street.  I wore my very best pansy-print jeans, patent mary janes and well loved denim jacket.  My ribboned hair sang of neapolitan ice cream in cones and open-mouthed clowns.  

A part of me was arriving.  Reuniting with me.  I had a sister and this whole other person to call ‘dad’.  Who knows how an 8 year old rationalises the feelings insurmountable expectation within them.  How abandonment can be redefined with involuntary elation.  The unknown shape of 8 year old forgiveness rimmed in an open readiness to be loved.  Understood.  By the person the other kids call ‘dad’.  It will be like that once I see him, I thought.  I will be up on his shoulders in no time, laughing and kicking a ball.  Playing tiggy.  Chase, and be chased in return.  That simple.

I didn’t realise how awkward it would be.  That there is no instant connection.  You are just strangers, who expect a kind of parental bond that only comes with growing up with someone.  And that expectation makes the awkwardness all the more harrowing.  Love for another is not instantaneous or innate.  It is earned.  Father and daughter labour over one another.  The intricate foundations of that bond and your love come from tiny things that happen every day as you grow.  But there was no every day for my father and I.  Just the now when I was 8 and eager, he 34, re-married and a little stressed.

He wore jeans and velcro sandals with a neutral faux tribal pattern.  A moss green polo shirt and bug-eyed sporty oakleys on his head.  He was tall.  He grinned stupidly, teeth missing at the edges of his smile.  The was a sureness in him that amplified my small-girl fear.  He shook my tiny hand, and said “I’m George”.  “George”, I repeated in wonder.  As he stared down at my shy form I fought the urge to run behind my mother’s legs.  “It’s ok,” he said to my white-sheet face, “you can call me George if you want to, you don’t need to call me Dad”.  He put up the first little fence.  He was George, not Dad.

To save us both the embarrassment he took me, my new sister, and my step mum to McDonalds.  It was bright and loud there.  We got toys with our happy meal.  I played with the other kids.  And we were less conspicuous amongst the tables of families.  All of the talking and eating and playing allowed us to hide behind other people’s normal.

I ate delicately, the extraneous member of the table.  I pleased and thank-youed my way through a momentous loss.  Where was the man that would pick me up and tell me off?  He dropped me home and my mum welcomed me in, full of hugs.  “Well?” she asked.  And I cried and cried.  I couldn’t articulate it then.  But I would have rathered this ‘dad’ remain a mythical being rather than the awkward man that I felt expected to love.  It felt like I was interviewing for foster families.  “It’s ok darling, that was a big day,” said mum, and I folded into her limbs and felt home.

We went through my childhood and teenage years playing different games, at different levels of awkwardness.  I stayed with his family on ad hoc weekends.   Mostly for expensive holidays that my mother couldn’t afford.  I was always excited, for the skiing and beach trips, the horse riding and fishing.  The holidays to Queensland.  The dinners out.  But when I came back home I was deflated and depressed.  I felt like an extended visitor in his house.  I was scared and shy, zipping parts of myself up and concealing them in secret folds.  

My father really did make an effort to get to know me.  To invite me to do things I might enjoy.  To be the man the kids call ‘dad’.  But even when we drove in his big red Pajero together, me in the front seat, he behind the wheel, the gulf between us across the gearstick felt so interminable, I couldn’t imagine we’d ever bridge it.

Now, as a young working woman living on the other side of the world, that gulf has become a canyon.  I can’t even see the man they call dad on the other side.  But I know he is tinged grey with age now, and I am the age he was when baby Kiri came in to the world.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a kid, when you’re obviously a bit of a player and have two ladies, who were best friends, on the go.  Lumped with all that responsibility must have been hard.  But I’m guessing it was harder for my mum - who ballooned to the size of a whale and couldn’t drink for 9 months.

Still.  He was straddling the border between boy and man, eager to enjoy the fruits of his youthful good looks, and unfettered pay cheque.  I imagine him, cheeky, intelligent and rich for his age - and I smile.  I can’t blame him.

What is the message of my strange relationship with my father?  What do I know now that I didn’t know then, as a trembling 8 year old giddy with hope.  Or a lonely 14 year old on the cusp of someone else’s family?

Maybe your parents don’t live up to the ones on the cereal box.  But that’s ok.  At the very least they’re the reason you’re here - and they’re always going to have that one up on you.  So be grateful for that.  It’s so much easier to be kindly indifferent to unmet expectations, rather than stubbornly hard done by.