Sunday, the 6th of September 2015 was Father’s Day in Australia.
Saturday, the 25th of October 2014 was the day my 61 year old Dad passed away from liver cancer.
You do the math.
I had anticipated that a lot of days following Dad’s death would be painful. Christmas was one of these. Not that my Dad enjoyed Christmas, he despised it openly and vocally to anyone who visited our house at that time of year. He would sit in his usual corner of the living room (every Dad has their own I suppose) ranting ineffectually about the money wasted, and the crowds, and the spoiled children. Meanwhile my Mum was hoarding presents in the linen cupboard and the top shelves of wardrobes, in preparation for the big reveal. The pain of Christmas day that year was less about his contribution than his absence. He wasn’t there to complain.
To be honest I can’t remember how we spent his birthday in early January. My guess there would have been a lot of forced jocularity between my brother and I, in an effort to keep Mum’s head above water. She is barely buoyant at the best of times, but on this occasion I was worried she would disappear altogether.
At least I anticipated that though. A milestone people ‘warned’ me about. “It will be hard” they said, and in response I gritted my teeth and thought “it can’t be any harder than what has preceded it”. Marking the first of his birthday’s after his passing would in no way be more difficult than witnessing the way cancer ravaged his body and stole from him his ‘grey nomad‘ dreams. Following his diagnosis and his rapidly failing health our small family, my Mum, my brother, my Dad and I, closed ranks, drew closer, while in the shadows, in the alone time, we fell apart.
While his birthday was fucking hard, in no way was it harder than experiencing that.
After my Dad died, I took a week off work. The “work” I reference is of course paid employment. I was lucky that I both had access to paid leave, and a job I could return to. However this was not time “off”. I would rather attend a thousand lunch time meetings than organise my father’s funeral. Discuss payment plans with a funeral director. Sit in a house full of stuff which has become unmoored. Existing in a weird in between place of not being ours but not exactly being his either. Sorting through belongings and wills. This of course does not fall under the banner of work. However it was expected and it was needed and it couldn’t be outsourced and so it was done. I had known this moment was coming ever since I learned of Dad’s diagnosis, and when it came it was every bit as horrendous as I imagined it would be.
No one thinks planning their father’s funeral is going to be easy.
My daughter started school this year. There have been hat parades and book parades and endless events at which grandparents are always fucking invited. Please come to grandparents day! said the push notification from the school’s app (which as an aside seems to be programmed to remind me that I am a shitty Mum at the most inopportune moments). Some of these moments pass by with a whisper, some with a wail, but each of them I see coming. I prepare myself. I give my very best ‘stiff upper lip’ and by god they won’t see me cry.
Which is why I was surprised at the intensity of my grief at Father’s day.
I got a sneak preview. I had come home from work and I was flicking mindlessly through a pile of catalogues. They were thematically linked but my tired brain didn’t automatically put together the pieces. There were boxer shorts and cheap, embossed tool sets. T-shirts emblazoned with ‘World’s coolest Dad!’ and car washing kits. I flicked and I paused and I flicked and I paused and two thoughts passed through my mind in quick succession: 1. Shit, not again. What are you going to get Dad for Fath.. 2. Oh.
Perversely I even felt a sense of relief. Dad was difficult to buy for, and made a big deal out of not wanting anything to the point that giving him gifts was an awkward exercise all around. On the father’s day before he died my Dad was on a week long trip that my brother and I paid for in order to give just a small (far too small) taste of the retirement travel he had spent his entire adult life planning for. So he got no tacky “gift” last year either. In the years directly preceding his diagnosis we would take him out for Indian food, and strangely he would insist on having my brother and I order. My daughter, then a toddler would spill rice all over the ground and inevitably get butter chicken all over her “good” clothes. My brother and I would compete to see who could make Dad laugh the most. While he was a morose man he loved to laugh. His favourite saying was “Life’s shit and then you die” which sounds horrendous, but made sense in the context of a man who went through some extraordinarily shitty things in his short life.
With a lapful of catalogues full of laughing male models and their placid wives and their giggling children I sobbed. I sobbed in a way I had managed to avoid for some time.
When Dad died my grief was all enveloping. It wasn’t just an emotion, it was a physiological experience. I was wracked with full body sobs. I would talk to my daughter about whatever it was that was happening at that time (which I can honestly say I don’t remember) but it was a very clear feeling of surviving, white knuckling through every single moment of every single day. I didn’t register her presence, I just did enough to get through the interaction so I could get back to the full time occupation of existing. Even though I spent most of the early days preceding and following the death of my Dad in a state of tight lipped obstinance, inside I felt as raw and bloody as an open wound. Vulnerable, exposed, and ultimately ashamed of my very human-ness. A yawning chasm of pain.
I appear to have now passed my socially sanctioned “grieving time”. My Dad doesn’t come up in conversation, and unless asked I won’t bring him up. A few days after returning to work a few cards appeared on my desk, signed by colleagues I barely knew, with all of the appropriate platitudes. I was told by a well meaning manager to “take all the time [you] need”, however this offer wasn’t followed up with any kind of concrete support (who would do my work in my absence?) and the matter was never raised again. Now friends don’t ask and I don’t offer. When my Mum brings him up in conversation I will contribute, reminisce, but at the same time my jaw is set. This isn’t the day my resolve will fade. This isn’t the day I will bleed my pain over everyone, not when they need me. At least this is what I tell myself. Perhaps the pain is too much to feel so I avoid it all costs. The grief is too messy. It bleeds into my professional demeanour, into my closely guarded private life. Perhaps it is a wound I salve with work, and business, and the emotional labour of motherhood. Perhaps I don’t sit still long enough to come to that conclusion.
Over time the pain has mostly dulled. The taste of blood has left my mouth, the scab has fallen off. I am aware of my grief now as more of a background emotion. It is a brittle bone, flesh dissolved by hungry ants and bleached white by the unforgiving sun. It exists, but fades into the background, disappearing into the sand. However as bones age they splinter, and the sharp edges cause me to bleed when I don’t want to, or least expect it. I am beginning to learn that I can’t avoid my grief because the shards are embedded in me.
Father’s day came and went, as do all days. To mark the occasion my family and I visited a horrendous “all-you can-eat” buffet which my Nan insisted we go to, despite it being entirely unsuitable and completely lacking on food suitable for vegetarians. We raised a toast to the Dad’s not with us (my Dad and my Pa) and we talked about other things. My daughter ate far too much toosghetti and I drank far too much wine. The day was entirely unremarkable, yet entirely out of the ordinary because my Dad wasn’t there, and wasn’t ever going to be there again.
My daughter won’t know him. She won’t buy him a gift from the school’s father’s day stall. She won’t make him a card which sheds glitter all over the house, giving him something to complain about. We won’t share another Indian meal. He won’t laugh at something my brother says. He won’t call me girl. He won’t call my brother boy. No one else calls us that.
The bone stands in stark contrast to the blue horizon. It could easily go unnoticed, half buried as it is in the white sand. However, take the time to look and you just might see it.
I’m trying my best not to.