All I ever wanted as a kid was to impress my dad. The odd Monty Python sketch might produce a snort or a chuckle but generally my dad wasn’t easily pleased. At least not by his children. We could always do better. Look smarter. Be thinner. He never clucked over my school reports, he never said he was proud of me. He was stern, as much the picture of the biblical father as he could be.
One of my earliest memories is standing on a church pew singing hymns at the top of my voice, because I thought it might impress my dad who lived and breathed church. It did, he still tells people that story now. “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene” I was singing. I was about six, I doubt if I knew what a Nazarene was, but it didn’t matter. I’d have sung anything for that approval, and for years to come I jumped through any hoop he held out.
Not long after this incident I was on the swing in the back yard singing church songs at the top of my voice at about nine o’clock in the morning. Singing and swinging were two of my favourite things. We had a lot of rules when we were kids, but this was freedom in the back yard. I had been wrestling with the idea of ‘being saved’ since I was able to conceive of it. Yes, I said the magic prayer and I thought I meant it, but nothing had changed. Nothing felt different.
I told my dad, again he was pleased and told everybody his little girl had been saved. I cried at night because I wasn’t sure I’d done it right, and I might yet go to hell. What a quandary for a seven year old to be faced with, eternal damnation. The next day I prayed on the trampoline out the back for hours. I cried and I tried, but it didn’t change. I guessed he must’ve said no. I gave up for a while.
He showed me this dvd once, it was footage of people celebrating the day of the dead in Spain. I was only a little girl, I fell for the setup hook, line and sinker. This wasn’t an informative or educational video. This was revealing to us the depraved ravings of the lost and unsaved. Look how they walked for miles in their bare feet! Wearing shrouds and carrying skulls, the evil practices of the unsaved! I became obsessed with Spain and decided my calling was to travel there as a missionary to help save those poor lost souls. Needless to say I never did fulfill my destiny, but again, my dad still talks about it as if it’s inevitable that I will end up there recruiting for a religion I no longer take any part of.
What it did spark was an obsession with Spain, and speaking Spanish which lasted well into my early twenties. This happened a lot when I was a kid. I would pursue something to please my dad, and then realise that in fact I enjoyed it for myself. A lot of the things I love were born of a desire to bond with my dad – motorbikes, judo, army cadets. He gave me a lot of things I love, but I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for my dad. He never seemed to be all there.
Every now and then we would catch a glimpse of him. Maybe he’d be talking to my uncle, or laughing at some squaddie humour he’d come across. Or drinking a Guinness on the sly (almost unheard of when I was a child.) Once in a while the mask would slip and I could see him, the man he had been before us. The man he had been before life happened.
He never told us anything about his childhood. Ever. Now and then he would tell us to pull up a sandbag and he would tell us something that had happened in the army or since. But never about being little, or in school. We heard snippets from other people, hushed and rushed, never within earshot. I would seek it out from anyone who had anything to tell, I was desperate to know. Anything that might help me understand how to make him love me like a proper dad.
My dad had ADHD as a kid, but nobody had heard of it then, so they just thought he was weird and naughty. His siblings used to think it funny to wind him up until he lost his temper and then laugh at the spectacle of him losing his shit. I’d say “how awful!” But I remember us doing similar things to my little brother when we were little, not realising how cruel it was. He was always a lot like my dad in certain ways.
His mum would play a particular tune on the piano because she knew it upset him. He was left behind at school locked in a toilet and my auntie Linda had to fetch him home, covered in shit. He was left at the altar at 19 by the love of his life, his first wife was unfaithful and cruel. He was sent to a ‘school for unruly boys’ when they couldn’t handle his needs and told he would never make anything of himself.
These were the stories we heard, and my heart broke for my dad. All I wanted was to love him, and fix him, and let him know he was worthy of it. I understood that temper now. I understood why he couldn’t love any of us properly. I understood why he was so sad inside, or at least I thought I did.
Every time he beat me for something I had done wrong, it hurt and I was scared – but what really killed me was knowing that whatever happened in those brief periods of happiness – ultimately he did not like me. He did not love me. And he would never be proud of me. Not because there was anything wrong with me – which I had believed for years was the case – but because he was incapable.
I spent years rebelling against the strict conditions of living with my parents and then later my dad. I would turn up at church still off my nut from the night before, boots and wilting Mohican sprawled across the back bench. I would embarrass him, needlessly, and refuse to take part in anything I thought I shouldn’t have to. I’d had years of this shit, I was bored of it. And after my mum left after 20 years, the strength to rein me in sort of just went out of him. So I was more or less left to my own devices, and three months later summarily ejected from living at my dads. Understandable really.
I moved to Spain after all, with a pack of skinheads who introduced me to speed. It went badly wrong and I had to come home. My dad had no time or energy for me any more. Despite my similar interests, the things we used to have in common, ultimately I had disappointed him. I would never be a blushing obedient wife, I would never be a bride of Jesus, I would never be a missionary. I had eleven GCSEs and a string of jobs I couldn’t stick to. By the age of 20 I had completely undone all the work he had put in trying to mould me into that pastors daughter.
And I was sorry. I was so sorry. Because although I expected this from my dad when my life decisions became clear, there always was and probably always will be an element of me that desperately wants his approval, still. I missed him, and I wrote to him, but he wouldn’t see me or speak to me and I refused to bend to his idea of what I should be or do anymore.
It’s been years since then, about eight years, and a lot of things have changed. I used to proudly announce that my dad was like the Job of the bible. Faithful and long suffering. I even got my brother to write it into his best man speech when he remarried. But over the years, as I grew up and began to see things with my own eyes I realised that wasn’t the case.
He wasn’t brave, he was a coward. He had caused as much suffering as he had been given. He destroyed people’s lives in ways I can’t go into, and he produced some pretty anxious fucked up kids who he dropped when a chance at a new life came along. There was no love for us from my dad, only an expectation of what we should be that benefited him.
I understand, in some ways, why my dad became the man he is, but after all the understanding and the reaching out to him I realised that it was no excuse. He could never be any different. He never would be. There are things he did and said that I could never fathom, and after years of trying I gave up. I gave up on him, as he had given up on me when he realised that he could not stifle who I was or mould me into what he thought I should be.
His life had not been as much of a tragedy as I had been led to believe. A lot of who he is was born of selfishness.
I don’t think I can ever stop loving my dad. Much as I would like to, and I resent him for having that trump card that allowed him to treat us like shit for so long. I can’t change him. All I can do is make peace with it, for myself, for my family, and make sure that he can’t hurt us anymore. So I told him what I had to. And I said goodbye. He won’t know my son. He never really knew me anyway.