The last word
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to have my lyric essay The High Road published in Issue 10 of Stylus Lit – written a year ago when we were in Cairns. My father had taken a turn for the worst, and became momentarily unresponsive, and we had begun to prepare for an end that seemingly would never come. For the first time, I began to reconcile our estrangement with my own self-acceptance and come to come to terms with my Scottish heritage – something I had routinely blocked out my whole life.
Last Tuesday he finally passed away. It’s not lost on me that my very first published essay was about waiting this for day (and yes I did drink the last of the scotch that I took from his apartment. I then bought another bottle). For the most part, I wrote everything that I needed to write in that piece. It was purposefully crafted, lyric and sparse. I didn’t (and won’t) going into the trauma and violence that we all experienced – I will only write about it when I am able. But I wrote this the day he died – it fills in (I hope) some of that sparseness.
My father existed in complex prism, each side different from the rest.He was a man devoted to his country, his culture and its history. Moved by music and Scottish poetry, and never missing the opportunity to educate others about his obsessions, he’d be full of trivia and intrigue and new projects—as excited as any professor in a lab, sitting at his desk and writing for hours, plastering notes, thoughts, lists over his walls. It is ironic – that he would never have approved of my profession as a writer, and yet it was his passion for it that I can identify with the most (and post-it notes, as anyone who has visited my office can attest to).
For someone with such a public voice, he bore his pain in private. He was an ideas man, who held himself to impossible standards, rarely able to see his genius through to fruition. It was a trait he passed onto me, amongst many others. For as long as he was lucid, a day didn’t pass without without yet another scheme that would make money and change the world. I think – on this level – he cared deeply about change and innovation – a striking contrast to a man who on so many levels was stuck in his ways.
We argued about many things – politics…education…who performed the role of Carmen the best. He always – always – had to have the last word. (Sorry dad, the answer is Maria Callas.)
My father was a tormented man. Traumatised by his time serving in Korea, and part of a generation that stigmatised therapy and looked down on perceived weakness; his repressed grief and anger was passed down to and exacted on those who loved and depended on him. He gave me my older half brothers (the best heroes a 9yo could ever ask for) and getting to know them again (and my niece/nephew) over the last few years has helped me regain some perspective about families, genetic patterns and self-worth. On some level we are all better people because of him – in spite of him. But better people, nonetheless.
I spent a lifetime searching for his approval (and then the approval of anyone else around that would give it to me). I learned (41 years too late) that I didn’t need it. If he was proud of his kids, he never told any of us to our faces, at least not for the reasons we (or I) might have needed him to be. Even though we were frequently at odds, and often estranged for years at a time – I inherited his passion for philosophy, photo documentary, poetry, literature and choral music, as well as his temper, mercuriality and high standards which (for better or for worse) have set me on the path I am on now. We had our moments and our truces and I treasure those because they’re all I have.
There was so much I could have shared with him, and wanted to (and tried to) – if we had spoken each other’s language. When the cancer and dementia really set in, he gave up finding the words, and I gave up asking for them. All we had left to share was cake and photo albums. It was our very last truce, and it was, I hope, enough.
After he died, and I finally sunk into my chair with the scotch, listening to the last few songs in this playlist, he knocked a whiteboard off the wall (in a way that only he could), and that night came to me in another (and what I hope is my last) dream. I hope he can now manage to find some peace. Perhaps he had the last word after all. For now.