When I’m being harsh I think of my father’s love as one of those oversized Easter eggs – the kind wrapped in gold foil, with red ribbon tied around the middle – exciting to receive, but a hollow shell containing nothing of substance. He loves me in an abstract way, worries about me and for me, has told me that he is proud of me, but he doesn’t know me, not really. He has said more than once that I am the most honest person he knows, but as much as I enjoy the compliment, it is not true. I can be, and have been, as mendacious and deceitful as anybody else.
He doesn’t know the real me, and I suppose I know as little about him, in spite of listening to his stories, told to captive audiences at dinner parties across the decades, of his days in the Ulster Constabulary and the merchant navy, of being ordered to fish a dead body out of a well only to have the slippery corpse escape the rope and land on top of him, pushing him under the fetid water. Or when he and his fellow constables bury barrels of confiscated poteen in the garden of the station house instead of destroying them, and then dig them up and go on a bender for Christmas. Or the time he crosses the road to avoid an encounter with the writer Brendan Behan on a London street.
Like many men in their prime during the sixties and seventies, the meat of my father’s life takes place away from the home, in board rooms and offices, restaurants and bars – places of wood panelling and ashtrays and fingers of Scotch.
When I am a young child, the ritual of his homecoming includes being lifted and held for a moment in a miasma of cigarette smoke and alcohol vapour before he deposits me and retires to his chair in the living room, where the television captures his attention for the rest of the evening. After an adequate dose of news and current affairs, he watches sitcoms from England or America, and I sit as close to him as he will allow. We laugh together at the hapless idiots of Dad’s Army or Gilligan’s Island, and it is a sharing of a sort.
On family holidays, we drive from town to town, staying at low-slung motels with bare brick walls and chocolate-coloured décor. My sister and I sing out the names of the towns like incantations – Dookie! Yackandandah! Badaginnie! Nar Nar Goon! Dad is the tour guide of the obvious, but his enthusiasm is infectious. ‘Look, there’s a cow! See that horse?’ In one motel a goat eats Dad’s suede jacket. In another, I celebrate my birthday and receive a doorstop edition of the Concise Oxford dictionary as a present.
Each year in summer we rent a house in a different seaside town for a few weeks. At the beach Dad wears the same pair of tiny faded blue shorts year after year and refuses to put on sunscreen, so that by the end of the first day he is unfailingly ablaze with sunburn. Despite having been a merchant marine he has never learnt to swim, so instead he stands in the shallows and stirs the water with his arms, or else wades into the breakers and lets them crash against him.
For a brief period in the eighties we are drinking buddies. I have returned from a year’s exchange in America too late in the year to return to school to do my HSC. In limbo, I am available for marathon lunches and pub crawls with AFL stars, TV journalists and others who are free of nine-to-five commitments. My father is proud of the way I hold my liquor and of the attention I attract, although he circles the wagons after a close call with a now-notorious former entertainer who tries to pick me up outside the toilets at the Hilton Hotel.
It’s not the first or last time he rescues me or warns off an unsuitable suitor. There are fisticuffs with a deranged composer who has been haunting me, long before I have heard of the term ‘stalker’. There are threats made to the randy neighbour who gropes me at a local street party. There are hindsight mutterings in the wake of my disastrous first marriage, which is ironic considering my ex-husband’s sins mirror my father’s in ways that border on the Shakespearean.
I lose his attention again when I have children. Their radiance casts me into such deep shadow I feel obliterated, but in the same way that we watched television shows together in the days of black and white, I can imagine that we share the experience of adoring my children. At the very least it gives us a topic for conversation. But even that is gone now that failing sight and hearing, along with the progression of dementia have severed the last shreds of any bond we may have shared.
His attention now is given over to benign hallucinations of babies, and visitors from who knows where, who bring him gifts of ribbons and flowers. His eyes roam unmoored around the room, mostly blind to the television that nonetheless still transmits its news and current affairs, its quiz shows and cops shows into his sightless eyes and deaf ears. He is confused now about how many children he has, and what their names are. He has more of a relationship with his GP, his podiatrist or the nurse who gives him his chemo infusions than he has with his daughters. But he still remembers that stinking well, and the Christmas poteen, and probably the name of the street where he avoided Brendan Behan. Those stories and so many more like them are the fabric of his real life, his coat of many colours, and for whatever reason, being a father is just a pocket in that coat – a pocket with a hole in it that his daughters have fallen through.