And the guy I wish I had known longer
The Summer of 1993 saw me driving down the freeway with my Dad, listening to MeatLoaf’s Bat Out Of Hell. Loud. “Listen to the motorbikes, mate, they have those live on stage when he performs.” The idea that someone would allow motorbikes to be ridden around on a concert stage seemed ridiculous to me even then, but if anyone would do it, I was sure it would be MeatLoaf.
We were on the highway on our way to Mini Golf. It was my first time playing, and I took to it with a particular vigour that continues to this day. That vigour is a mixture of excitement, frustration and a particular lack of hand-eye coordination. Dad would coach me, always patiently. It wasn’t until his funeral that I discovered my sporting skills were directly inherited from him.
I refer to those days as the MeatLoaf days, as that was the soundtrack to my relationship with him. I now know that he loved Dire Straits, but back then it was MeatLoaf. We listened to that album each time we got in the car. We would go to the beach, where he taught me how to bodyboard; we would go to the movies, where he showed me my first M15+ rated movie when I was five (Waterworld, the Kevin Costner classic); we would go the aforementioned Mini Golf; every Saturday, I knew that I would see him from 11am-4pm, without fail.
The day he showed me Terminator II and RoboCop, I fell in love with Action films. The days we spent playing Indy500 (always needing to enter the corresponding answer from the booklet to the question on the load screen –piracy has come quite a way). Our adventures side-by-side waging war through the levels of Doom, Wolfenstein and Commander Keen, two mates loving each other’s company.
Mum and Dad had split up when I was six months old, making it difficult for me to remember a lot of time growing up with him. I saw him from the bus once, on my way to primary school. I banged and banged and banged on the window calling out to him, but he couldn’t hear me. I was devastated.
He spoke about his family often, being one of five, the middle child and the only boy. He would update me on what they and their families were up to, who was pregnant and how my cousins were.
I was lucky at primary school. I was looked after each school day by friends mother (some would call it babysat). She was a kind and gentle person, teaching me how to tie my shoelaces and the wondrous power of the aloe vera plant on burns. She was also a single mother looking after her only son. I think because of this, it never really dawned on me that what Mum and I had experienced was that strange. By this time, Mum had married my stepdad, my sister had been born, and we were a family unit. I still saw Dad every Saturday from 11am-4pm though, and I looked forward to it all week.
It’s difficult to define the relationship that I had with Dad, now that it has been so many years. He taught me how to play cricket — oddly, I am left handed for batting, but right handed for bowling, writing, playing tennis… he didn’t even blink, he just said that I should go with whatever felt was the most comfortable and whatever gave me the most control. We watched the cricket together in his lounge room, the sea breeze always coming in through the open double doors, while we looked north along the coast. Life could not be better.
Each year he wrote to Santa and specifically had him visit us two nights before Christmas. He really was a great Dad.
Unfortunately, he fell from his second floor balcony in 1994. Seeing him in hospital sucked. His trademark moustache was now accompanied by three-day stubble. He was always very precise with his appearance; lying there he didn’t resemble himself at all.
He was the light of any room, telling his stories with a smile and and a chuckle. The neck brace didn’t let him do that. What the doctors diagnosed was filtered down to me through Mum and my stepdad. He’s had a bad fall, his brain has moved, and as a result his personality may have changed. He will always love you though.
I’m not sure that’s entirely what happened (and I have heard varying recollections/interpretations of that day), however I do know that he left the hospital with a little less light in his eyes.
All of a sudden we were moving. Dad came to visit a few times, which was great, but our Saturdays were no more. It was too far and too hard to see him often.
He’s moods grew darker, our interactions tinged with the kind of pressure an 8 year old can’t understand, let alone respond to.
Father’s Day 1988 was the last time I spoke with him. We had gone out for breakfast with my stepdad. Unfortunately, Dad had to be at a coal mine for work by lunchtime and it was a four-hour drive from his house. By the time I called, he had left.
When the phone rang that evening, I knew it would be him. I raced to the phone and answered it, expecting to hear his familiar voice and smile down the line. But it wasn’t. It was angry. And loud. He shouted so much. I had to pass the phone to Mum, speechless. What just happened? In turn Mum, equally wordless, passed the phone to my stepdad. She hugged me and told me she loved me.
Once the phone had been placed back on the hook, there was a lot of confusion, anger, numbness.
As I didn’t see another phone call working, I wrote a letter by hand (read: 8 year old scrawl). I told him that I loved him, that I was sorry I hadn’t called him in time on Father’s Day, but that neither my Mum nor I would not be spoken to that way. I sent it. It was the stupidest letter I have, or will ever, send.
My Dad committed suicide three years later, on the 25th October, 2001. He was incredibly proud, he was the life of the party and he meant the world to so many people. But he didn’t know how to ask for help, and he didn’t know how to accept help.
I have been lucky enough to inherit a lot of Dad’s gifts. But the most important lesson I have learnt from him is:
Never be too proud to reach out and ask for a hand. It will change your life.