A message to my late father

This Father’s Day, broadcaster Nadine Higgins reckons with her complex relationship with her estranged Dad who passed away last year. 

When someone you love dies, people console you for your loss. But in truth, we lost each other some time ago. Long before that Sunday when I woke inexplicably at 3.30 am, anxious but unaware you were taking your last tortured breath. You’d always joked that smoking was suicide on the instalment plan and that night, your last instalment came due. You liked to issue ultimatums and the ultimate one was that we’d hear nothing more from you until we were notified of your death.

And so we were.

You didn’t want a funeral, you were stubborn like that. 

But we inherit a few of your traits, so we gather in a side room of a rundown funeral parlour in the middle of an industrial area, to hold your not-funeral. No flowers, no poems, no prayers – we grant you those wishes. There are plenty of things we could say but we mention none of them. Instead, we rummage deep for the good memories, because you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. Grandma sobs at how disappointed you were to find out Santa didn’t exist. It isn’t just her 98-year old memory that wants to skip over on the ensuing years. 

The wind bangs rudely at the doors as if there are others fighting for their right to attend. But we number only six, and not all of us are here on account of you.  

The plaque on top of your casket reads ‘Harold John Ross, December 3, 1949 – August 12, 2018’ but not for long. You’re just a tenant and soon it will be removed so it can convey the right dates for its next occupant. Inside, you pretty much got what you asked for – to go out in a cardboard box. I can almost hear you, when they asked you want you wanted, cackling, “Why would I care, I won’t be there for it, will I?!”

But for someone who didn’t care, you planned every last detail – and it’s bloody grim. ‘Just Funerals’ delivers just that, with not even a side dish of sympathy. A conversation about payment precedes our time alone with you. They seem worried about who to invoice, given their client is leaving in a box.  

We follow the hearse across town and drive you directly into the garage of the crematorium. If this is the pearly gates, that must be St. Peter – yarning to the staff, next to the furnace. We sing a verse of a song, or rather mumble, because the words evade me when I need them. Then we just stand there, unsure of how to interrupt their cheerful conversation. Throwing money at a funeral doesn’t make death any easier, but the absence of it leaves very little to mask the cold machinations of dying. 

So now it’s Father’s Day. 

It’s always felt like an odd day because we never had the daddy-daughter relationship the Hallmark card range suggests everyone does. I’ve always felt a bit bereft when other dads open gifts of power tools and socks, but never more so than now.  

I know there’s no rulebook for how to grieve, but the rules are even less clear given how much you grieved me when you lived. I don’t feel sad today because I lost a great Dad or even a good one. But I feel very, very sad.

Sad that you died in such pain, that you never found peace, that we never found peace. I grieve for what wasn’t and now will never be. But I also grieve for what was. A sick man, with a broken mind, who had so much potential but fulfilled none of it. 

A life so littered with broken relationships that the best most people can muster is that you were ‘difficult’. Your death barely rates a mention in your sister’s New Years family newsletter, which bothers me, but you’d probably have preferred it that way. Most of the things I learnt from you weren’t the lessons you were intending to impart, and your last treatise is no different. 

A parcel, full of vitriol and devoid of love, concludes with my inheritance: a five dollar note taped to the bottom, as a final ‘fuck you’. It lives in a box along with the fading photo albums that catalogue your journey to the grave. I have no idea what to do with it all. So it sits in my basement, but I can feel it seeping up through the floorboards, trying to teach me what you failed to learn: that a life full of bitterness is no life at all.

Which is why I need to say: I did love you. I’m just so sorry you didn’t know how to be loved. 


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