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.

Fathers and sons

When you catch the same train to work day after day you get to know many of your fellow commuters – and when I say know, I mean recognise. It’s rare that there’s any meaningful interaction. The faces are familiar, the styles, even the spots where they sit, but except in rare circumstances everyone is so immersed in their own, secular world – music, book, newspaper – that no contact occurs (though there was a girl last year I would exchange enigmatic smiles with, and the occasional inclination of the head).

I don’t always catch the same train, but generally, it’s one of two. Most mornings one of the commuters getting on (at Middle Brighton) is a tall, slim man in his mid-forties. He’s a handsome man with a well-trimmed salt and pepper beard and hair approaching a bohemian length while remaining professional. He dresses immaculately, though in slightly old-fashioned attire (immaculate is passe these days). In winter particularly it shows out. He wears tweed, often three-piece suits, with an elegant topcoat like few wear these days. I admire his style and individuality, which I emulate in some ways, though with a more contemporary outlook.

Yesterday I left work around 1.30 to go home, where I worked the rest of the afternoon. The train was mostly empty, but sitting nearby me was this man with his son. On this occasion, he was dressed in shorts and a shirt with boat shoes. He had a relaxed look on his face and often he would smile. By their feet were a bunch of bags, including a few from Polo, and I imagined that father and son had journeyed into the city together mid-holidays to take in some post-Christmas sales.

I sat by the window and listened to my music. They were in the corner of my eye, and occasionally I would glance across to more closely observe. They seemed to be watching something on a screen that occasionally made them laugh. It was such a fond and affectionate picture that I was fascinated.

It was clear that the father dearly loved his son, and his son adored him. The exchange between them was easy and natural and I thought, that’s what a good father-son relationship should be. There was a communion between them as if nothing need be said, as if everything was accepted, as if neither for a moment doubted the love and affection of the other – and in every moment felt it.

For many years I was oblivious to this relationship. I wonder if sub-consciously I turned from scenes like this because it was foreign to me? It wasn’t wilful, but it’s a form of blindness that comes from unconscious rationalisation.

I can’t remember a single moment in my life where I experienced anything like that with my father. I searched my mind yesterday as I rode the train. Perhaps, I thought, the many Saturdays we would go to the footy together. There was never anything particularly affectionate about it, but at least there were shared silences as we communed upon the same thing – the game itself and, on the drive home, the post-game commentary by the Captain and the Major. But no, that wasn’t nearly the same thing.

None of this ever occurred to me until that day a few years back when he confessed that he blamed me for the parting between him and mum (I was 16 at the time). The illusion that had kept me faithful to him for so many years was abruptly dashed but – as I look back upon it – I know that we were never close even before they separated. I suspect that event either confirmed or became the excuse, for his indifference to me.

When I first learned of this I was bitter and angry and let him know. You don’t hold that too long though, it being effectively pointless and self-destructive. I became disappointed instead knowing what I had missed out on, and I feel that gentle regret each time I see a father and son as I did yesterday. It feels like something special I missed out on, and not something that can be found once it’s lost.

If I had a son I’d make sure to give him my open heart. I was grateful to see yesterday how simple and good it can be and, as I am so often, moved by it. And my wry, unspoken affection for the father increased. Go well, be happy, live long and prosper the both of you.

Seeing in the dark

Had an unexpected wobble earlier this week. I’ve been sailing along quite well after the storms a couple of months ago, then I hit turbulence again. In hindsight, it’s perfectly clear why, but at the time, in the middle of it and trying to stay afloat, it’s not so clear.

I wrote about how a friend here had likened me to a character on TV whose life was all fucked up. Normally I would have shrugged it off. I’ve got skin as thick as a crocodile. Normally I would have seen it for what it was, a light-hearted but ultimately complimentary analogue. This time all I could see were the negative aspects of it, and it hurt.

What made it abnormal was the conjunction of events that had left me more sensitive than usual. Having re-visited some of my bleak past over the weekend I was left a little frail. I was in a condition where it wouldn’t take much to tip me over the edge – and so it proved. What it really triggered in me was my absolute rejection of sympathy.

I did contact my friend that night. I pointed out to her that while there have been tough times my life as a whole has been interesting and rewarding and replete with fantastic moments. It sounds like an exercise in justification, but it’s true. I’ve copped some shit, some hard times, but I’ve had a full and interesting life too. I’ve been a participant, not a spectator. I wish some things were different, but on balance I’ll cop it.

Of course, this missed the point entirely, as our conversation over the next hour or so made clear.

I didn’t blame her or anything like that, but she picked up that she had offended me. After some initial confusion, she discerned the cause of it. She was apologetic but pointed out she was always teasing and jesting and this was in the nature of that. She was right. She made it clear that far from pitying me she had the utmost respect for me. The point she had tried to make was though I’ve suffered hardship I’m always smiling, always positive, always helping others. I had her admiration for that. I was a winner in her books. Plus I was cute.

At some point in this, it dawned on me. You see, I’m getting closer to things. I’m learning all the time.

What I really struggle with is being vulnerable. When someone points out the obvious I feel exposed. The very fact of being frail and struggling is to some extent unmanly in my books – I should be above it. This is why I reject so vociferously any hint of it. I can’t believe that anyone can like or respect that me – frankly, I feel pathetic, and part of that is because I have no control. There’s H in control, which includes my emotions – and there’s H, allegedly, out of control, embarrassed, and subject to prevailing winds. I don’t like myself then and don’t believe anyone else can either.

I think I’ve always known this about me but never wanted to own up to it. It goes to the nub of this issue too, and it’s resolution.

This is the path I’ve set myself on – to be vulnerable, to expose myself, to learn from it and come to accept it as valid and reasonable. It’s bloody hard though and goes against my nature.

I understood that as I spoke to her and apologised. I explained the problem and said I had a tendency to push people away when I suffer from this. This is the very thing I have to stick out though.

In the past I would’ve rebounded from this in my belligerent way, refusing to be frail, refusing to be intimidated. That was my hard shell. That’s what made me survive the tough times, a native combativeness that refused to submit. I’m like a boxer taking a beating but getting up from the canvas each time refusing to accept the other man is a better fighter than me. Somehow I managed to survive the big fight, but after it now I realise there are other ways, better ways, to deal with it.

This is what I’m trying to learn. The easy thing is to get belligerent again, but that solves nothing. The very hard thing is to remain vulnerable, but that’s how I heal and, ultimately, become a better, stronger man.

I have to remember that. I’m standing out in the dark alone. I could turn and return to shelter and to light, but then I’ll never accustom myself to the darkness. This time I must refuse to be tough. I have to submit myself to the darkness until I can see.

Not fucked up

I’ve been opening up and sharing more lately, going back further and deeper. It’s a way of neutralising the poison of things held too close. And it makes me acknowledge these things, which is very different from overcoming them. In my combative way, I sought always to defeat these things when what I should have done is accept them. By saying them aloud I let these things out into the world where I have no control over them.

A good example of that is a conversation I had today with one of my closer confidantes at work. She’s a 30-year-old Indian with a big personality and a heart of gold. I told her some things way back when and again more recently. She’s sympathetic and even admiring, and very supportive.

She was telling me about a show on Netflix she’s been watching and of how the main character reminds her of me. He’s such a good man and he’s calm and composed but his life’s all fucked up, she said.

I wondered, is that how people see me: that my life’s all fucked up? It’s hard to argue against but I never feel that – well, rarely feel it anyway. I didn’t like hearing it obviously. It makes me sound like a victim. Like I’m helpless. As if I’ve been put upon by forces bigger than me. That’s my paranoid spin on it when what she has said is much simpler than that. Yet there’s an inference in her words that I’m due sympathy, if not pity.

There’s nothing in the world I want less. And I don’t feel that either. In my mind, I’m still striving forward. As I always used to say, I’m not winning but I haven’t lost yet. I’m still in the fucking game.

I know this is something I shouldn’t care about. I’m supposed to be above this. Anything else and I’d let it go, but this is hard to stomach. There’s every chance I’ll try and set her straight. I’m good, things could be better, but I never give in.

The things that come back to you

It was a funny night last night. Rigby was unwell and throwing up, it stormed for a while outside, and later when I switched off the light I couldn’t get to sleep for ages.

After a month or two of sleeping very well, the last few nights have been ordinary. Last night I felt unsettled and restless. I felt it in my stomach as if there was something unwelcome I should be aware of. It teased at me. Naturally, it leads one into reflection.

What thoughts it leads too is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. How does one thing get linked to another? Why does a general sense or feeling call up something seemingly totally unrelated? Is it random? Or is there some true sense to it?

Life has random elements, but I’m generally inclined there is some meaning to it, even if obscure. In this case, I suspect it’s not the details of the thing that matter, it’s the feeling they engender. What is recalled is not the facts, but the emotion. Today’s emotion resonates with an emotion in the past, and what follows are the thoughts associated with it. So I reckon.

What I remembered was a seminal moment in my life many years ago.

I’d been in love with Berni and for about 3 years we’d been on and off. She had wonderful qualities, a mighty heart, a generous spirit – but she also struggled often. A shocking episode abroad with a man had left her with trust issues, and poor self-esteem. At its best, our relationship was vibrant and happy. She had a great sense of humour and took great pride in giving me a rollicking hard time. I thought we would marry, and in fact, I recall one day sitting down with her to map it out. But then, for seemingly no reason it would become hard. It was the cycle of the moon, every four or five weeks she would plunge into despair and I would hang on for dear life. It was very hard and I used a lot of my energy trying to reassure her and make her feel better about herself and about me. That makes me sound noble, but on reflection, I doubt I was as good as that. At times I was exasperated, even angry, sometimes I felt despair. I loved her though and though we must have broken up ten times over the years we made up nine of them.

This story is about the last time when we failed to. I remember it was like yesterday. It makes me so sad and the thought recurs to me all the time – what if things were different? What if I’d done this instead of that? We might have married, who knows, but more importantly she might be alive today.

I always felt as if I was working on Berni. Over time I felt as if her default mood had improved to the extent that she could hope to be properly happy. I remember the day she told me she trusted me. That was such a big moment. I felt as if most of the hard work had been done and we were happier than we’d ever been.

But then I heard about a skiing trip she was going on the next weekend. I had no problem with that except that she hadn’t told me – I heard it from someone else. I felt a little put out and wondered if I was justified. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it but it sat in my stomach like an undigested meal. In hindsight, I can see it was another attempt by her to assert her independence, but I don’t know if I recognised that then.

I didn’t do anything at first, but coinciding with this she had begun to withdraw again. I was so sick of it, especially now when I felt as if we might be past it. I understood – she couldn’t be hurt if she didn’t get involved, but I was a part of that and she – she had to get beyond it if she ever hoped to be happy.

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of winter that I got in the car to drive to her place. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or if I was right. I wanted to talk to her about what was going on but feared that might be the worst thing to do. I was unsure, but the whole thing was taken out of my hands.

I parked outside her home and sat there for 5-10 minutes just debating the pros and cons. 50/50 I would just drive away. Instead, I got out of the car and started walking up a street. I got to the end and turned and was halfway back when a car drove up the street and stopped beside me. Two men got out. What are you doing? They asked. I was salty even back then and said who wants to know. They flipped their police badges at me and said they had someone report a suspicious character sitting in his car and come to investigate. They asked to see my ID and what I was doing there. I explained my girlfriend lived just there and that we’d had an argument. Fine, they said, get in the car – we need to check the story with her.

That’s the last thing in the world I wanted but there’s no arguing with a couple of cops. I got in the car, we drove down the street, and we knocked on the door. “Do you know this man?” they asked when she opened the door. She confirmed she did. The first words out of her mouth after they had gone was to ask – quite reasonably – “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

That pissed me off. I’d done nothing wrong and I’d just been sitting in the back of a cop car. I felt tainted. We argued, to and fro, and I stormed out, that’s it, all over.

And it was. We saw each other occasionally after, and when I cooled down I knew I still loved her – but every time it looked like we might reunite something would happen.

This changed me. I was distraught. I’d been an exuberant personality beforehand, now I became guarded. I had suffered so deeply that I knew I couldn’t face that again so I made myself strong by building a wall. It’s crumbled a bit in recent years, but the remnants remain.

By itself, this is a sad story but there’s a tragic kicker.

We went our separate ways and didn’t see each other. My life went on, I had other flings without giving myself to anyone, I travelled and lived. I thought of her sometimes hoping that she had found the happiness that had so eluded her. I loved her still, loved her soul, she was someone I had cherished. I wanted her to be good.

One day I’m speaking to a friend on the phone and he asks out of the blue, whatever happened to Berni? I was sitting at my desk and on impulse typed her name into google. To my great surprise, a result came up – a funeral notice.

I was shocked. Over the next week, I did all I could to discover what had happened. Eventually, I got onto someone connected to the cemetery. He told me much as I had suspected – that she had taken her own life.

I think something broke in me then. I felt so miserably sad for her. Such a tragic life. And I thought – if only it had been different. If only we hadn’t broken up. If only the nosy parker hadn’t dobbed me and the police take me to her door. If only I’d been more reasonable. If only I’d gone to her the next day and told I was sorry. There were hundreds, thousands of if onlys. I felt responsible, at least in part.

I visited her grave after that. I had too. I drove to the country and spent the night in the town she grew up in and stood by her grave. I’ve never forgotten her. Ever since I’ve felt as if I should make my life worthy of her too – as if I had to live for her as well as me. It’s one of the things that has made me endure and be brave – I could fail for myself, but I couldn’t allow myself to fail for her.

It’s an awful story and a tragic life. It was in me last night. Writing it today I feel it deep. I wish I hadn’t started now – the sadness abides. It’s a true thing though and perhaps more than anything else this has made me into the man I am today. I wonder if that’s why it was in my mind last night – and what it means.