Fathers, stand up for your children, always
My dad died a year ago, a week before Father's Day. I had just finished work when my sister rang with the news that he was no longer conscious and had been given 24 hours to live. I knew it was coming - my sister had kept me up to date with his cancer - but I hadn't actually seen him since 2004. We were estranged.
The last conversation we had was a strained telephone call. His last words to me were defensive: "I love all my children equally, you know."I want to believe he meant it. But I don't really.
In my early life my dad was a ghost. He left us - my mother, my older sister, and me - when I was two. Then, when I was nine, I went without my sister on a holiday to see dad and meet the woman who was to become my stepmother. I was for the first time in my life the centre of everyone's attention. I liked it. So I stayed.
My father and stepmother had recently met and were very much in love and - in retrospect - in love with the idea of having children. She had none, so in a flurry of maternal practice she showered love and attention on me. For a while, they both did. I walked on the beach with Dad every morning and cooked with her most nights. Dad would let me stay up to watch Zulu or Wimbledon and introduced me to the genius that is English comedy. He was garrulous and generous and I fiercely loved him.
Then my teenage years came and, like a legion of girls before me, I became "difficult". My stepmother would accuse me of being a drama queen - I was an angry child, but I had my reasons.
I can't remember exactly when my stepmother and I stopped getting along, but it was some time around the birth of my half-sister. On the way back from the hospital, my stepmother's grandmother said nonchalantly: "You're not your father's little girl any more, are you?" And so it was. My stepmother developed a divide-and-rule attitude. Things were whispered to me and later denied - I am sure she would have her own version of these events.
The fights escalated. In many ways my dad and I were very alike - quick to laugh and quick to shout. After a particularly screaming fight I ran back to live with my mum and my stepfather.
A few hours later I phoned Dad to tell him where I was. "If you're not home in an hour, then as far as I concerned, you're dead," he said.
He was true to his word. I went to live with my mother and my stepfather, who were extraordinarily patient, supportive and loving. My stepfather told both my sister and me that as far as he was concerned we were his daughters. He is still today a loving parent who has been there at the best and worst of times - no matter how much I flounced and slammed doors. My father and stepmother behaved in exactly the opposite way. Apart from sporadic lunches - when both he and I found ourselves overseas at the same time - we saw little of each other. Still I longed for the halcyon days of my early teens when love was unconditional and judgment unspoken.
After my sister called me a year ago to tell me dad was dying, I drove to the hospital bleary and exhausted. Fitful sobs had marred my sleep, but I wanted five minutes alone with him. Overnight, my half-sister had rung my sister to say my stepmother didn't want me there. My sister put her foot down, and fought for me to have access to his hospital bed.
As I approached the hospital I got a text from my father's son saying he would meet me there. My half-brother and I hugged, it was automatic and odd - we do not know each other at all. He took me up to the hospital room.
My father was lying on his side. His body was wizened - sucked dry by the cancer - but his fierce brow was still there. I held his hand. Then I noticed the nurse, hovering nervously by the door.
"I've been asked not to leave you alone with him." I assumed that this was a request from my stepmother - it seemed an odd thing for a nurse to do.
I can't remember what I said. My half-brother intervened and pulled her out the door. Then I turned back to my father, and wept. I told him that I was sorry we hadn't had the time together we should have, that I would tell my son the stories that he had told me. I told him I loved him, over and over.
He began to moan. I was suddenly terrified he would die, not surrounded by the children he loved, but with the one he didn't. I left hurriedly and drove through a puddle of tears to a beach where I sat for the longest time. He died later that day, surrounded by the children he loved.
At the funeral there was an open casket and my stepmother finally asked if I wanted to see him. She was OK with me seeing him now there was no chance for reconciliation. I swallowed hard and said no. I couldn't speak at his funeral, I felt like a hand was around my throat.
A year has passed and I have had no contact with my stepmother or my half-siblings. I do not know if I will ever really know them - it may all be too late. I don't have the rage any more, just the sadness. My father had my sister and me, and then he went on to another family. It was year zero and this time he would be a present father, a good father. He abandoned us in a profound and life-changing way. My stepmother facilitated him in this and it is difficult to forgive that.
My mother and stepfather had two boys, and these beautiful men are my brothers. My father's children I do not know; my father barely knew my son, his only grandson.
There was a man I loved once whose father did a similar thing. He had two children, then parted ways with their mother. But when encouraged by his second wife to turn away from his children he refused. "They're my kids," he said. "Get used to it." I wish my father had found that strength.
So, this is my clarion call to fathers on this Father's Day: if they're your children, then stand up for them. They may be angry, and hurt and behaving badly - but they are kids and one day they will be adults and one day you will be dead, and they will be sad forever.
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