My father is a great guy, but truth is he was not a very great dad.
He wasn’t mean, or abusive. He didn’t belittle me or run me down, he just wasn’t there.
He was physically present for the first eight or so years. He worked a lot, but that’s what fathers do. He was a bit of a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ kind of dad, but that’s how he was raised too. After a few false finishes my parents’ marriage ended and he moved onto his little yacht.
He had always had an affinity with the ocean, and his boat became his bachelor pad. For a time he lived in the local marina where my brother and I spent weekends exploring the break wall and hunting crabs.
But what’s the point of a yacht that is shackled to land? My father decided to head to Queensland for a more tropical existence. I would like to say the day he left is etched into my memory but it’s not. I don’t remember it at all.
For the first few years we would spend a week or two a year on the boat during our school holidays, but when a yacht race took him to other lands he decided he would just keep sailing.
I imagined life at sea as a glamorous life of crisp white shirts, leather-laced boat shoes and Caribbean palms, much like a cigarette ad from the ‘80s, but in reality it’s an isolated existence punctuated by sunrises. Although I don’t doubt his Caribbean years were fun and the entire circumnavigation was one hell of an adventure, I think my father was running away.
Very few phone calls over the years, even fewer letters and cards. I thought he was running away from us, but now I think he was running away from him.
His life as a hotelier created habits hard to break. He was the perfect host, always ready to share a drink with his guests, up early and home late, too many social drinks in between.
My parents were so young when they met, but in the end they were like strangers. They didn’t fight, they just couldn’t be together any longer. I recall only one conversation where I saw a tear sliding down my mother’s cheek and that was the end. Then he was gone.
The most notable absence was between 13 and 18; when a teenage girl could do with a strong male influence in her life. Typically your Dad is the guy who teaches you about healthy relationships with men, and about your self worth.
I’m not sure why mums aren’t the ones to do this, and my mum tried but years of eating disorders and terrible relationships always led psychologists to conclude that my flawed behavior came down to my lack of relationship with my father. I never bought it then, but now? Maybe a little.
When I was 18 I went to stay with my father after years in absentia. I flew to Maine and we sailed up to Nova Scotia. The pines and wilds were the perfect place for our reunion. I planned to have it out with him but I didn’t, I wanted his approval. I wanted him to like me.
I wanted him to love me.
I don’t remember him ever saying the words. It wasn’t his way. Sent to boarding school at seven by a stiff-upper-lip British family words like ‘love’ and ‘cherish’ did not easily slip from his tongue.
Over the next few years we spoke more. He got lung cancer when I was 22 and he, and his then wife, moved off the boat and stayed in the last place they landed; New Zealand. During that time I ground him down with a mortar and pestle made of love. At the end of a phone conversation with a pounding heart I would clearly say –
“I love you, Dad.”
The first few times he said “Ok.”
Eventually, he said “You too.”
These days he will say all three words and he has become a rock in my life, especially through the recent demise of my own marriage. These days my once crappy father is a wonderful, loving and present grandfather.
A few months ago I heard him tell my son that he loved him and it pulled something deep inside my chest. I could have been sad for the girl who longed to hear it, but I was happy that such a change had occurred and the words flowed effortlessly from his lips.
I walked behind them, watching my son slip his smooth hand into my Dad’s weathered mitt and together they walked just chatting, and I understood then that this relationship with his grandchildren is an opportunity for our family to tell a new story, and write a new history.
This is an opportunity for a new generation of love.
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