Fathers and sons

I had lunch with my father yesterday. I hadn’t seen him for about six years and not spoken to him for about four, until recently. I didn’t know what to expect but was glad to be catching up with him again.

At my first sight of him, he was leaning on a walking cane. I’ve always been much bigger than him, but he seemed smaller again. He was still handsome, and there was plenty of black still among the grey hairs, but for the first time in memory, I thought him old. Fair enough, he is – by my reckoning 78. In my imagination, at least he seemed much different from when last I saw him. A lot can happen in five years.

We shook hands and talked as I led him to a cafe off to the side of the State Library. It was a cold, grey day – every day lately has been. I had to slow my pace to match his hobbling gait, looking back over my shoulder to check I wasn’t getting too far in front of him. I felt the awkwardness of being able-bodied with someone who isn’t. I slowed, paused, idled as if fearing my relative agility was an affront.

Over lunch, we caught up on all the things that have happened in the years between. He’s happily ensconced in Eltham, in a home he cherishes. He has his dogs and once or twice a week he’ll catch up socially with people he’d met through Probus. He’s up early every morning (5.30am), as always he has been, but he returns to bed with a cup of tea and stays there until about 9am catching up with the news on his tablet.

We didn’t always get on before, but he was always a force to be reckoned with. He had a keen mind and inquiring spirit. He still has that, though we look upon things from different perspectives. He was always someone on the go, as well. He was one of those people you can never imagine not working, and he achieved a lot professionally right up to Managing Director. Even at home, he always had something on the go. I can remember him working in the garden, or fixing something or other, or just cleaning the barbecue. He did everything with intent.

He told me he still worked in the garden, but in the same breath admitted it was the loss of mobility that hurt him most. He could only work for a little bit at a time, and a neighbour helped out with more strenuous activities. He lived at the end of a long, steep drive which he couldn’t navigate on foot. I listened, observing for myself, saddened that he could not be the man I remembered.

Later I realised this is probably a moment most men will experience. One day they look at their father and with idealised memories realise that man has gone. I’ve long been more physically robust than him, but he could hold his own. Now, though his mind is willing, his body is failing. And in the heart of that, there’s the chill reflection that ‘one day that will be me’.

He has arthritis and other ailments he didn’t elucidate. I suspect he’ll go on for years yet, but that the deterioration will continue. I can’t imagine him every losing his keen mind.

That’s always how we’ve engaged. It’s never, ever been a warm relationship. The best I can remember is when its been companionable, but then rarely. It’s mind to mind we’ve connected. We have different beliefs and perspectives, but similar attitudes and attributes. We might argue the point, but both sides of the argument will be lucid and considered, and each of us recognise that.

He asked about me, and absent an ulterior motive I was completely honest. This is what’s happened, this where I am, this is where I hope to get to. I admitted to him it had been a struggle and it was only just now that I felt like life might be returning to some minute semblance of what I used to consider normal. I guess in a way I was like him, accepting of what had happened knowing it couldn’t be changed. There was always the future, though – different for me though, than for him.

We spoke a little of my cousin and he filled in some of the gaps I didn’t know, or had known once and long forgotten. Suffice to say it’s a very tawdry tale that reflects poorly on most.

We left and I walked him to the tram stop to return home. Before I had the chance to speak, he said something along the lines of must do this again soon. I told him I was glad to have seen him again. We shook hands, and I let him go.


Being bold

There was a moment last week when I felt self-conscious and unhappy. I was unwell – I’ve been suffering from spells of vertigo – I was tired, the doctor had just told me that I should look after myself better, and for once I contemplated the fact that I’m getting older. Added to all this was the knowledge that I’m not living the life I want to live, and not even the life I’m capable of.

Of course, I’m always trying to change that. Though I’m not sure what more I can do I’ve taken the doc’s advice on board (the vertigo has cleared), and I met with another recruiter last week to discuss my situation. As with every recruiter I’ve met with he was positive, but nothing much seems to come from it. But anyway…

This is not intended as a grizzle session. All this is by way of background because, as always seems the case, I bounce back strongly. I don’t deny any of those things, but regardless I remain a bold and robust character. I plough on.

There have been times I’ve wondered at the value of that. I wondered if my character had the effect of papering over aspects I’d be better off facing up to. But then I’ve never been one to shy away from hard truths. I acknowledge they exist, but it’s neither my nature or intent to wallow in them. If there’s something wrong, I’m better off making it right than feeling sorry for myself. The hard part is making it right.

This manifests as an attitude, but it’s natural to me. I’m not sure what comes first, the attitude or the belief, whether my nature informs my mind or my mind directs my nature, or if in fact they’re one and the same thing, but here I am, a week after that moment and I’m as just a virile character as I’ve ever been.

Over the last year or so, I questioned the reflexive nature of this process. I’ve always bounced back. Always been resilient. And at times have felt that sense of purpose surge through me like a shot of electricity. That’s happened hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It was like I’d get to a point, and a failsafe would trip and off I’d go, almost unknowingly. I wondered, what would be left if that wasn’t there?

It was not that I sought to suppress it, rather I wanted to go on without expectation or reliance on it. I told myself, feel it. Let it take you and see what you learn and muscle through it. It was an attempt – in my mind – to be a more authentic self (which is a false dichotomy because there was nothing false about the process). Put it another way, it was like an athlete who wins on natural talent who is unsatisfied because there’s not enough of ‘him’ in it. I didn’t want natural, unthinking ability take me there – I wanted to work through it mindfully.

I’ve done that. I think I gained a lot from the exercise, but it was hard work. What’s happened in the last week isn’t that though. It’s that natural, reflexive buoyancy, and this time I’m willing to accept it.

It’s a gift in a way. I wouldn’t be here today without it. And I know it wouldn’t be possible without some innate strengths – being smart for one, calm by nature, and defiant by inclination. And they take off.

I’ve learned the lesson I needed to, and now I’m happy to let things run their natural course. They make me a bold, confident man, full of ideas. Despite everything I’m not one whit cowed – in fact, the ‘everything’ I refer to has opened me up. What I’ve left behind is the extraneous frippery which these days makes me even more direct than I was before, and less inclined to be the diplomat. It’s not that I don’t know how – once upon a time I knew every lever to pull, ever button to push, knew how to shape my words and modulate my voice. There are times I still do, but mostly these days I just want to say it how it is. And, though I’ve always sprinkled my speech with swear words, I’m much less inhibited now than I was before.

I feel it in other ways that are so familiar, and in ways, quite joyous. Flirting, for example. There are occasions I feel like a heat-seeking missile, and it’s a great vibe. I love to flirt, love to look into another set of eyes, love to feel that frisson and the possibility that comes with it. And there are times it’s satisfying to call someone on their shit. There’s a lot of shit that goes on these days, and I won’t abide it. I won’t always say something (though often I’ll question it), sometimes it’s just a look as if to say I know that’s shit, you know that’s shit, don’t shit with me.

There are many other elements – I feel super switched-on, super observant, super sensitive, super smart – but the bottom line I’m infused with a sense of purpose and direction, even if it is only in service of tenuous goals.

The truth of it is that I’m not living the life suitable to my capabilities. This life is unsatisfactory. I am getting fucking older, and there are niggles and time isn’t about to run backwards and happy conclusions aren’t about to flow like milk and honey might. There are no fucking guarantees. I know that. That’s the cold, hard truth and that’s what grips me at times – but then I know it is in me to, that capability exists, I’m strong and smart and even if things aren’t as I desire them it’s in my power to change them.

In a way that epitomises precisely this feeling, and the value of it.

The quirks of family

It’s a tiresome subject, but I have some updates on my cousin, as well as an unexpected development to come out of it.

I made the mistake last Thursday contacting my cousin to see how he was settling into Melbourne. I thought twice, even thrice, before doing so. He’s done nothing to endear himself to me in the short time I’ve known him. He’s graceless and rude and with a mighty chip on his shoulder. I’ve not said a cross word to him yet he’s walked out on me once, told me to fuck-off on another occasion, and otherwise imputed that I had benefitted at his expense. Basically, I don’t like him. On top of that he’s a manipulative opportunist and I was afraid he would seek to take advantage of any contact.

I contacted him nonetheless, setting all that to one side. The family connection means nothing to me, but I’m sympathetic to anyone less well off. And, I figured, I’d only seen him at his worse, at the bottom of the curve so to speak. It seemed unfair to judge him on that. He was entitled to get another go.

Unfortunately he was true to form. I started off bright and friendly. As always, he responded within seconds. He didn’t answer my question, instead launching directly into an interrogation of his own. Did you know what happened with our grandparents will? Did you get an inheritance? Where do you work? What do you do? What are your qualifications? What’s your office address? Are you on Newstart? Why does your side of the family have money when my side doesn’t? Where do live? What’s your address?

I should note that some of these questions were repeated 3-4 times, and came rapid-fire, before I had a chance to properly answer – even had I been inclined to. They came, one after another, until there was a line of them scrolling down the page.

At first I was patient, looking to answer appropriately. I was suspicious though, and soon his interrogative tone began to piss me off. I refused to answer the contentious questions for fear of further inflaming the situation, and because I felt no need to explain or justify. I let him go on until he petered out.

Throughout this I had the fear that if I gave him too much information it would be used against me. I was sure had I given my address he’d have shown up on my doorstep. Likewise, I was fearful of him turning up to work and either demanding to see me or making accusations against me. There was in his tone something hostile and resentful. It’s clear he believes we – being my side of the family – have derived some magical benefit denied to him. It makes him angry and sneering. Amid all his tendencies he’s also narcissistic and superior.

Once he’d subsided I quietly muted him. I had made up my mind that in time, once things had settled, that I would block him.

Then a friend of mine – the friend he had cottoned onto – asked if I’d seen his most recent Facebook posts. I hadn’t, and when I went to check found that he’d unfriended. I quietly rejoiced at that. He’d saved me the trouble.

In the meantime he’d posted a scathing take-down of his mother that ran to paragraphs. My friend sent me screen-prints and they were nasty. Regardless of truth they’re not the sort of thing that should be shared on a social media site for every friend and family member to read – but then I’m old school.

The next day my friend contacted me again telling me that my cousins sister had responded to his posts very eloquently. He sent me copies of those too. In them she basically refuted everything he’d claimed, adding that he had been abusing their mother for years, to the point she was afraid of him. There was reference to constant demands for money, among other more ambiguous, troubling references. It was quite compelling, and his response feeble. And he unfriended her as well as me.

So, that’s where I’m at with him – better off in a different orbit altogether.

But then there’s something else that came out of this episode. People often say things happen for a reason, but mostly it’s a case of applying a retrospective interpretation to explain a fortuitous happenstance. Sometimes it’s an easy thing to do.

When my cousin threatened suicide I contacted my father. He didn’t answer but responded with a message. That was our first communication for about four years. Having called him his number was now on my recently dialled list and on Wednesday the week following my bum inadvertently called him again. I caught it before he answered and disconnected. Awks!

That afternoon I was in a meeting when my phone rang. It was my father returning my call and leaving a message.

That left me in a quandary. I couldn’t ignore him, but nor could I tell him I hadn’t intended to call him – that would be too rude. I called him late in the day and explained that I’d been calling to update him on the situation with my cousin. We talked for about ten minutes beyond that when he explained his lifestyle – busy and unusually social. Maybe he’s mellowed. At the end of the call, unsure what to say, I said “catch up soon,” as you do. And having said I knew I had to do it.

Long story short we’re having lunch on Friday. Let’s see what happens.

Glimpses of how it was

Returning from my collecting my morning coffee yesterday I glimpsed a man wearing a quilted padded jacket. I have a similar jacket and you see them all over but the first time they ever registered in my consciousness was probably about 20 years ago when I was travelling in Italy, specifically in Florence. It seemed to me then that every second Italian male wore a stylish, elegant version of this jacket. And that’s the thought that occurred to me yesterday after that brief and incidental glimpse. The long forgotten memory was triggered and suddenly I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut.

Recalling Italy like that reminded me of how great it was to travel and in my mind was a diversity of memories. The pain was instinctive though with the knowledge that I haven’t done that for so long and, for all intents and purposes, it’s something I no longer do. That’s not by choice; circumstances have dictated that and though one day it may change I’m stuck here.

This was an existential pang. There’s so much I enjoyed about travelling, but being a dedicated and adventurous traveller was also a big part of my self-identity. Take that away from me and I feel staid and deprived. I miss the stimuli of different cultures, of being challenged along the way by a raft of things, and learning from the experience. I am left here looking along from afar.

I was surprised at my reaction – I see men in quilted jackets all the time – but I understood once it settled in me. I relate it now from curiosity and to give an insight into moments that otherwise would probably go unremarked. There are many instances like this, across a range of aspects, that grate upon me daily. That’s just how it is and generally it’s subsumed in the routine of the day. It’s a condition of my current existence. This was different, for whatever reason.

I’m trying to change this naturally, to ascend to a place again where I can get on a plane and fly overseas for a holiday, or buy something indulgent on a whim. It’s a great motivating urge. We make progress, though generally only by inches, but at least recently I was finally permitted to have a credit card again – an encouraging sign, and a relief knowing I can now manage unexpected expenses. And yesterday I spoke to two recruiters with an arrangement to meet with one the week after next.

Mulling it over

On Friday, as I prepared to head out for lunch, I contemplated dropping in on my dad. I haven’t seen or spoken to my father for about three years I reckon, maybe longer. I haven’t missed him much and even when we were talking we didn’t have much of a relationship. I don’t miss him, but I miss that functional relationship. It can feel pretty solitary when there’s no family network to lean upon.

Funnily enough, I was heading out to have lunch with a branch of the family I rarely see, my aunt and uncle and my cousins. They’re all decent, sensible people, unpretentious in every way. Growing up they were the modest wing of the family while we were glam – social, ambitious, striving, curious and challenging. I was very much of my family, but I found theirs almost an antidote to the occasional complexity of life on my side of the fence. It was lovely to see them again and it was a fine lunch.

The lunch venue was about ten minutes from where dad lived, though where exactly I didn’t know. I searched for him but couldn’t isolate him from the rest so never visited. Perhaps it was for the best – a friend tells me turning up on his doorstep like that might not have been the best idea. I’m not sure I agree – in ways I think it might have been the best way. And anyway, you can’t give up being ballsy.

So I didn’t visit him and mulled it over on the weekend. I didn’t seek a reconciliation as such, but I was conscious that he was getting older and anything was possible. I didn’t want to be the man who missed the important moments because of some petty dispute.

I wrote an email to him in which I expressed some of this:

We’ve had our differences but there’s nothing either of us can change or undo and I don’t waste my time thinking otherwise. Fact of the matter is we’ve never really been in each other’s lives, which is why this separation has been seamless – for me, at least.
I hope you’re well and healthy. Regardless of how we left it, I don’t wish for anything but good stuff for you. That’s what I wanted you to know. I don’t want you to think I’m bitter or angry. I’m none of that. Life’s much too interesting – and challenging – to be looking backwards.
I don’t know what I expected from this. There were times I have been bitter knowing what I was deprived of. Then I was disappointed that he didn’t fight harder to save our relationship. I think he was scared, so unlike the man I knew. As I said, there’s a time for being ballsy.
These now are no more than very gentle regrets. As I express, none of it can be changed now and perhaps that’s all I needed to say. I don’t think I could ever be close to him but I’m perfectly capable of being friendly and supportive.
So I sent my email and about nine hours later it came back to me, undeliverable. That was strange given I had sent it to an email address attached to his domain, and address I’d used before. So I tried another address with less hope and this too bounced back.
That’s where it stands. I can take it as the world telling me to give it away or I can try to source a current email address. That too I will mull over.

Returning to the fold

Some of the things I set out to do on this break have gone by the wayside, thus far anyway. Other things I’ve neatly ticked off. And then there’ve been unexpected eventualities. This week, particularly, is a week of reunion and reconciliation.

Last week I called my Aunt. I’ve not seen her or any of her family for years, and the occasions they’ve invited me to attend I’ve refused. They’ve probably thought me rude and aloof, but there were reasons for this. One was purely practical. They live 90 minutes from where I do and a couple of times I’ve been invited to events when my car was off the road and I had no way of getting there. The other reason is that I’ve had no wish to run into my sister or father, also invited to these things.

Last week I wanted to make that good. My call probably came as a surprise but was well received. I proposed we catch up for lunch at a time suitable to them. Later I suggested a venue – the Eltham Hotel – which I knew very well once upon a time, but haven’t been back to for decades. Tomorrow I catch up with my aunt and uncle and two of my cousins. They seem to be quite excited, and I’m much relieved – this is the right thing to do.

Then on the weekend, I received a call from a long-lost nephew living in Brisbane. He had contacted me out of the blue the Christmas before last after a gap of more than twenty years. I’d attended his father’s funeral back in about 2003, but he didn’t attend, nor did his sisters, nor his mother, my uncle’s ex-wife.

I’ve had erratic contact with him since that contact. He’s clearly intelligent and a passionate supporter of Labor politics, openly gay, but seemingly troubled. His call to me was disturbing in ways. He was unhappy and hated Brisbane he told me and wanted to get away from his mother, who he still lived with. He seemed to have no close friends and he admitted he basically had Aspbergers – unsurprising in retrospect given his feat of memorising the Brisbane street directory when he was a kid. His speech was faltering, doubling back on itself and almost stammering at times, though the stammer was not syllables but words, which he would repeat 2-3-4 times before going on or doubling back.

I found it hard knowing what to say. All I could be was encouraging and supportive, but the conversation – in my ears – was awkward as he repeated himself and failed to pick up verbal cues. He wants to move to Melbourne after he does his Masters and I told him to call me whenever he needed to.

When he asked about my sister and father I reluctantly conceded I had no relationship with them. That was all I wanted to say but he pressed on, oblivious to my discomfort. The conversation turned to his father’s death and something he said sparked a vivid memory in me, that of my father – a hard-arse, strong and intimidating – breaking down as he gave the eulogy for his younger brother, distraught that his children weren’t there. My cousin had expressed regret at that – he wanted to go but his mother wouldn’t let him – but long afterwards and in the days following that memory lingered in me.

It seemed ironic to me that if my father died tomorrow then I might never know and not be there for him. I wouldn’t want that. I’ve been mulling it over ever since but done nothing about it as yet. I suspect I’ll wait until after my lunch tomorrow to decide, but I’m inclined to send him an email relating to him some of this story and let him know that I would be there for him should he want it. It’s the right thing to do but it doesn’t mean we get buddy-buddy.

Last night I spoke to a friend who lives interstate. We spoke for about an hour about current events – sport and politics mainly – as well as shared memories. Funnily enough, he made reference to a skiing trip many years ago which was a part of the group of pics I digitised last week.

Finally, an old friend is visiting town. I caught up with him for dinner on Tuesday and will again tonight and tomorrow. We were very close once but had a falling out. In the years since I think he’s learned a lot, as have I. We made no reference to our division but caught up as two men who knew each other well. I know well his faults, but I always cherished his gifts also – a sharp mind, but most particularly a deep sensitivity when he allowed it and a generosity of spirit. I can have conversations with him I can have with no-one else and I’ve missed that.

He’s back living in Australia now after many years in Asia. He’s not settled in Melbourne but perhaps that will happen. In the meantime, we’re getting to know each other again, and he getting to know again the people and places that loved him.

Humble affection

I’m always learning, always adjusting. Things come to me, seemingly unprompted, or triggered by something, and sometimes mirrored unexpectedly in the fiction I write (that’s a very rich two-way relationship).

I keep on working on myself trying to be better and happier and sometimes I believe I can make it so by applying myself with intelligence to the hard-won lessons along the way. Sure, I learn a lot and it makes me wiser maybe, and maybe it makes things easier at the edges, but it takes more than knowledge to make things better, it takes change.

So, this is the thing. There’s a hole in my life where my family used to be and all the life that emanated from that. What was so abundant once is barely a trickle now. I deal with it in my usual way, by pressing on. Keep adjusting, keep processing, that’ what I figure, but I realised last week that can never be enough until I replace what I lost with something else.

It came as a surprise, though in retrospect it seems an obvious thing. I keep thinking I’ll get over it and I’ll be good, but the only way you really get over it is not by adjusting to it – as I have – but by replacing it with something of similar weight.

Then I was thinking about my friends and my changing relationship to them, and something related struck me. I keep saying I haven’t changed all that much, but I think there is one important thing that has. Because I had fewer concerns before, less pressure and stress, not as much baggage, my midpoint was a lot easier, a lot freer. I could be frivolous sometimes and whimsical and generally less caught up in things. I was a lighter human being.

There are occasions I’m whimsical now and I still get told I’m charming, but I know in myself that I’m much more close-mouthed than I was before and that it’s perfectly understandable. I suffered a great wound, the effects of which are still present in my life every day. I have small wins every now and then, and I’m making my way back slowly, but I can’t be the man I was before until I have the life I had before. I am a reflection of the life I’m living, which is determined but also is hard and sometimes grim and never easy. I seek to surpass that consciously, but my unconscious won’t be released until there’s more to be joyful about and less to struggle for.

Finally, I said something to Rigby yesterday which immediately triggered an epiphany. Again, it’s not terribly profound – in fact, it seems bleeding obvious, but anyway… As he gambolled playfully about me, seeking my attention, I said to him: “you get my affection because you seek it.”

There it was. He craved my affection, as dogs do, and I gave it to him freely. How simple that was. It works with people too, though you have to be more clever with it.

I never seek affection. Just the opposite, if anything. I never curry favour, as if it goes against my principles. I’ve lived long denying the sympathy of others as if it was weakness to accept. I’ve always been rigorously independent and rejected undue favour. Seems awfully silly now.

I’ve opened up a bit this last year and addressed some of this almost unwittingly. I recognised the general problem and have tried to adapt my behaviours. I’m better than I used to be, but I feel as if I’ve been dealing with symptoms without addressing root causes. It seems simple now, if I want affection then I should open myself to it – indeed, I should actively encourage it.

All of this is circular. One thing leads to another. I need change if I’m to progress, but the change required is of such a fundamental nature that I have to change myself in this one key regard at least: like Rigby, I need to humble myself for the affection of others.