My dad died twenty-five years ago, and although from the age of ten I never got on with him, he was probably a normal sort of guy. He grew up in Brisbane through the depression, and with a no-good alcoholic father, he was hungry a lot. Not surprisingly, he put his age up to serve in the war in New Guinea, at Milne Bay in fact. He was a bit of a tearaway according to his war record, and was disciplined a number of times before he was sent north to fight. Unfortunately five weeks into his active service a grenade went off near him and shrapnel lodged in his back. He was operated on (none too successfully) in Townsville and repatriated to the Military Convalescent Camp at Tallebudgera on the Gold Coast.
When his wounds were healed he became a driver at the camp and spent the rest of the war there. Some time later while roaring around on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket (and no doubt thinking he looked cool) he met an innocent young farm girl from west of Rockhampton whose family had just moved to Brisbane. They got married and had four children (I was the third). Dad’s trade was carpentry, but unfortunately his back was never right and there were stretches while I was growing up when he was in Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital. He lived long enough to see me get married, but died of renal cancer before my children were born.
As I said, we never got on. Nothing melodramatic. We were just two people who seemed destined to argue over everything. Then he got sick a couple of years after I got married, and when he died I didn’t cry. I was too busy organising the funeral and thereafter being busy. It was several years before it caught up with me (perhaps some denial there, I’ll allow). I was attending the Brisbane Writers Festival. I remember it was Father’s Day, which meant nothing to me as there were no fathers left in our families and my husband and I hadn’t had children yet. But the panel I remember attending that day was called “Fathers, Absent and Present”. John Birmingham and Gary Crew were speakers, and I remember Stephen Cummings was another. I’m sorry now that I can’t remember the fourth, but what I do remember is their honesty. Instead of talking about their books, they each spoke quite emotionally about their relationships with their fathers. Some had fabulous memories, and their dads were in the audience. One had a tragic childhood of neglect and emotional torment, but as a whole the panel was painful and poignant and perfectly fitting for Fathers Day.
I thought all this on an intellectual level while I walked to the festival coffee shop, paid for coffee and cake and settled myself into a table overlooking the beautiful Brisbane River. The next thing I remember is sobbing, quite loudly and uncontrollably. Big wrenching, painful sobs that pulled my lungs up into my throat and burned them there. On one level I was aware of embarrassing myself, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. So I turned away from everyone else and let it run it’s course. By the time it was over and I had my breathing back under control the tables around me were empty, either out of sympathy or perhaps more likely because another session had started.
I don’t know what that was. Still. But from that moment on, my annual tradition of attending the ANZAC Day Dawn Service changed (pic on left is of me at the Canberra War Memorial, having snuck out of Conjure with Jason Nahrung and a few mates to attend). Instead of it being only about respecting those who gave their lives to ensure I grew up in a free country, somehow ANZAC Day became the one day I could freely ‘chat’ with my dad. At first it was just “So I hope there are lots of people in heaven to criticise. Wouldn’t want you to get rusty,” but I have to admit that over time the bitterness started to shift.
During that period my inner life was obviously being projected onto my writing. Fathers were either absent, ineffectual or downright obstructive in my stories. I couldn’t seem to write about a father who was helpful! In any way. But as time went by and I attended ANZAC services in so many different places, surrounded by so many different people – seeing men who had been shaped by an experience I could never understand – my conversations with dad started to shift. Instead of bitching I’d remember times when I was little and he’d carried me into the surf and kept me safe in his arms above the waves, or sitting on his lap reciting nursery rhymes and feeling very clever, dancing to ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ while my mum played the piano. All memories from when I was small, when I was too young to realise I didn’t agree with him, and to say so. But somehow those memories cracked a kernel of tenderness that I hadn’t imagined could ever exist between my father and I.
It was just once a year, just on that one day, but it must have done something because this year, amazingly (and I didn’t realise I was doing it until I was finished) I wrote a father who was terrible to his daughter, but on his deathbed he explained that everything he’d done was out of love, to create a ruse that had protected her from danger and strengthened her to step into his shoes and rule the kingdom in her own right.
To say I was taken completely by surprise would be an understatement. I’d hated that king from the moment he’d stepped onto the page, and I thought his daughter deserved so much better, but when I looked at the story I’d written I realised that he’d been right. Everything he’d done had made her stronger, smarter, safer, and he had the perfect motivation to keep his love from her, for her own good.
Amazingly, she forgave him. I tried to make her bitter, but characters have a life of their own and she wouldn’t do it. She was so much braver than me, and though these people I’ve created in my stories aren’t real, their honesty and their acceptance inspires me to be better than I am.
So now it’s ANZAC Day 2012 and my dad has been gone more years than he was with me growing up. I’ve attended the Dawn Service at a submarine lookout on the Coral Sea, with the waves crashing onto volcanic rocks below, and for the very first time I’ve found it within myself to say “Thank you,“ to my father, and to mean it, and I know it’s changed me profoundly.
Even more amazing, this year, for the first time, my dad answered back. One word. Clear as a bell inside my mind.
I don’t know exactly what he means by that, but I know what I plan to do with it. My kingdom is in front of me. It’s my show now. I plan to be brave.
I wonder, what did your father teach you…?