As a kid, I had dad envy. I think I still have it. I hear stories about gentle compassionate fathers who taught girls how to ride a bike or change a tyre and I feel a small lump rise in my throat. I never had that. That part of my childhood is a dusty shelf.
My dad was a violent alcoholic who was killed in a car crash when he was 30. I was six. That is the story I tell when people ask. I have told it so many times I am unmoved by it.
Fathers Day is always triggering for me. The ashtray I pushed out at school with my fat little fingers was left uncollected on the pottery table prompting Sister Zita to ask, ‘Do you want me to give this to Father?’ Father was the Catholic priest. Not my father.
I don’t have many good memories of my dad. Trauma develops much sharper images – they don’t call it the ‘dark room’ for nothing. The happy memories of my dad are like shiny stones that I keep in my pocket. I pull them out and count them, wondering if I’ll ever find another. The first stone has me on his shoulders. I can see the world from here. I am two. I feel invincible.
The second stone I am practising a performance for a kindergarten graduation. At the end he says ‘Bow’ and so I bark like a dog. He and my mother laugh. She’s usually crying. He’s usually yelling. This small moment of harmony is particularly shiny. I love this stone. I realise right then how much I love making people laugh.
The third stone I remember is having eaten beetroot on a summer day. He hasn’t been drinking for months. I think the strange feeling I have that I don’t easily identify is joy.
The fourth stone is a pony. My father has tied it to the fence on Christmas Day. He is buying my love and I’m totally okay with that.
The fifth stone I am wearing an orange tank top. He has an identical one. My mother sends me to work with him painting houses. I feel really important. I find out years later that my mother sent me along so he wouldn’t go to the pub after work.
The last stone it’s January 1974 – the year of the big Queensland floods. He turns up at my school to pick me up before the rivers are impassable. My dad has come to rescue me. Just two months later he’s dead. No-one came to rescue him. He was washed away by his unaddressed familial dysfunction. Another lost angry dead boy.
Last year when I went home an old man approached me at a show and said ‘Mandy? You’re Noko’s daughter.’ He handed me a small black-and-white photo. I could feel my eyes prickling. It’s so foreign for me to be addressed as my father’s daughter. Noko is what his mates called him. I had forgotten that. His friends loved him. The old men of my hometown mourn their fallen young – they still talk of Noko with great fondness. They tell stories of him and laugh. A local travelling boxer called Bullet tells me how Noko would get drunk and try to fight him in the grass. Male bonding at a travelling sideshow.
They are stories I have never heard. They know him as funny and compassionate and wild. ‘He was so funny your dad,’ says one man. Another man told me how my father collected injured animals and broken people. It wasn’t unusual to wake up to find a one-eyed man sleeping on our couch. To the old men he is not a violent alcoholic. He is Noko, a young lad who died too soon.
I look at the photo. This is my father before me. He’s about 19. I see a handsome young man who looks a lot like my son who is that age now. The way he holds his body is so much like Charlie that I am transfixed. I feel this unfamiliar surge of love. I look at him and feel overwhelming sadness. For a second I can see who he was before it all went to hell. Before he went to hell.
My father stands with his friend Darryl and his little brother Neil. Neil has given me the photo. The back of the photo reads, ‘the day the boys left to join army in Sydney. Darryl got in. Noko didn’t.’ I didn’t know he tried to join the army.
What I see in this photo of him is hope. He was going to get out of the little town that authored his demise. I wonder what would have happened had he left. Most people fear death in war, but for him, death was more imminent if he stayed.
I exist because he stayed. I came at quite a cost. I look at this photo and feel I have gained an insight into my father. I feel a daughterly kindness for the boy he was before he became the violent alcoholic man.
It’s hard to love difficult and complex men. Damaged men. Especially when they belong to who you are. It’s even harder to love that part of myself. I held the tiny photo. I traced his body with my little finger. This stranger. This stranger from whom I inherited humour and compassion and a pretty large dose of wildness.
In that moment when an old man handed me a photo I saw something I hadn’t seen before and I forgave him. It was profound. And that simple. That was what I gave my father for Fathers Day.