Updated: Jun 28, 2019
Reflections on the small joys
Late last year my partner Megan gave birth to our baby, Finnian. As somewhat older parents, Finn is our first child and, likely, our last. Finn was an unexpected arrival from the beginning and was born two months premature. The early birth was the worst and the best of times for us, with months in hospital living on the edge of seats with wires dangling precariously over us and alarms that could shake us to the core. In the whirlwind of things, it's taken some time to take stock and reflect on what it means to be a father. Finn is every bit here, a bundle of joy, distress, and more. His laughter is infectious as he passes six months of life, and I couldn't be happier to have this strange new life in my hands. At the same time, there's that niggling feeling of needing to reflect on what it all means. What's helped, as always, are friends to share my experiences. No friend has had a bigger impact on my life than my friend Ben. I grew up with Ben as my neighbour, and we went through all the joys of being the young terrors of the street in the suburbs, the angst of teenagers, and early adult life. We also shared some of the most difficult reflections on living with the challenges of identity, religion, and varieties of mental illness, as Ben wrestled with his Jewishness and sense of family and I wrestled with my father and sense of family. It's an intimacy that means much as you age and become a parent. Ben left Australia years back to live, study and work in Europe, but as the happy coincidence would have it, he had a baby boy some months before Finn and recently moved back to Australia. We are getting together now to share a new life. Last week when I saw Ben he was reading a book called Blood Ties: A memoir of hawks and fatherhood, by Ben Crane. He offered to give it to me after he read it, and I made him promise he'd discuss it with me after he did.
I have read some good things about the book. Ben Crane doesn't sound like someone's idea of what a father should be: the book is about his autism and how he lost contact with his young son because of a struggle with communication. In falconry and the hunt he finds a way to build himself up, and in fishing he finds a way to reconnect with his son. In some ways the book reminds me of Helen Macdonald's excellent book, H is for Hawke, which is about the way the author overcome her grief of losing her father through falconry. The importance of small details in reclaiming a sense of self is what books such as these are all about. Now it is true that I am an animal advocate, so I should probably express my discomfort with books that use and harm animals as pathways to communication or to overcome trauma. All I will say is that bird watching does less harm to animals and is much more popular than hunting in the United States by a very big factor (so much so it's often counted in hunting stats). It never gets much literary attention, especially not in the masculine imagination, but perhaps one day we'll get our birder Hemingway. Not to derail the story, though, the conversation with Ben about Ben Crane brought up some strong connections. It reminded me of my own relationship to my father. There was his struggles with mental illness to remember, and his death by suicide in 2016. There was the way he connected to me in emotional ways that had their own burden. And then there was the way that thinking about him makes me consider my own path as a father with a young son. Rather than turning to a book to reflect and learn about parenting, in the last few months I have found myself reading and rereading a small postcard that has been sitting on a bookshelf in my study.
As I hold this postcard in my hands, the memories flood in and I suddenly begin to understand the various ways in which I connected with my father. Often it was over books and ideas about history and alchemical connections, or jokes about our true ape nature. Once it was over fishing, but we never caught anything with a spindle line and a boat whose engine gave out. Above all, it was always about the way he expressed himself: tenderly, affectionately, with a sense of humour, and in small ways that mattered. This postcard has survived 34 years intact. My mother, who knows the effects of these things, often worn down from her own experiences of family, kept it in storage and gave it to me this year.
My father sent the postcard to me in 1985 from Adelaide, when I was four years old. We all have these souvenirs I suppose that may come out in times of change and transition.
This particular souvenir offers me evocative memories, and as I said I have been pouring over it while watching my bub Finn come into the world.
Here was my father at his most free and expressive, with that energy that seemed to bound over and overcome everything. He was pursuing a jewellery business and he would take his family with him - that family never completely included my mother or me, an exclusion that became more obvious as the years went on.
Here he was careful to make that effort and tell me I was being missed. He sent his love to my mother, my grandma and her cat miaow.
We all lived together in a big crumbling Victorian mansion in Armadale with three different families and friends and two families that I belonged to by relation. This was the remnants of the new age experimental community, most would call cult, in which I was born, the son of my father, the guru.
It was a strange time, even for a four year old. Years afterward I would have nightmares about the gothic dramas in that house, the terrors that only adults could create but that children lived second hand, like images from old busted black and white TV sets.
The hippie generation wanted to free themselves of the restrictions of the nuclear family, the patriarchy and disciplinarian fathers. They didn't entirely succeed as it was a huge effort and no one lives on ideals alone.
My father tried and couldn't maintain lots of relationships at once - he kept on trying of course with many women while remaining with his partner in gurudom, the woman of his family life, then his wife, and not my mother - and then he early on became an absentee as a father in all but emotional expression.
I had had enough of that, and I still remember one afternoon punching him in the balls in front of the family gathered at the kitchen dining table. It had a surprising impact, my four year old fist. It was all because he wasn't going to take me to the pool as he promised five times before and after this trip to Adelaide.
My face burned with shame in the aftermath as I realised I had been as moved hypnotically to a shared violence with the adults around me who were uglier in their acts when they thought I wasn't watching or knowing their consequences.
I didn't live with my father and his family much longer after that but would return every week for karate in the area, where I learned that violence should only be used in self defense. My defenses became very good as I protected myself from the frying pan and fire of the neglect and worry of my parents.
I never said what I wanted. I lived for others and observed and dreamed. And I went on to win the sumo wrestling championship with the street smarts and the social aikido.
Years later my father lost that energy that supported me to find a temporary place in a family no longer my own followed by appeasing a single mother who feared the worst, a tour of duty that was enlivened by my imagination and furtive relationships with my half brothers and sisters.
I was an adult who had had years of being the adult to my father when he started losing his battle with depression. Five long years of the worst clinical treatments followed and in 2016 he surrendered following a number of suicide attempts. These were years of being there for him and his black dog.
All these memories and more come flooding through as I look at this postcard, along with thoughts about how I will be as a father of my own beautiful boy. There's no secret to it all I suppose. I will just be there and show up and support my son and make him feel included in all things.
And he will love me I hope for what I give him, as I loved my father because he still stayed loyal in fugitive moments of music and apologies to the broken dream of two families that never stayed together.
I could never let my families cut me down the middle, but I still loved my father. Even as he gave me a broken shelf he had amateur carpentered or cracked my neck in dangerous untrained chiropractic feats or burped and farted in shops or offered to give me therapy or did kinesiology on me in a hypnotic state or forgot to pick me up from school. Or broke down and discussed his addictions and fears. Or slipped away from me and kept falling into the half-truths of dystopia.
You always want to offer your child more than what you had. This postcard reminds me that little gestures matter and stay with kids and comfort them down the years.
No family is perfect, although moments like these come closest to perfection. And there will be many of these moments with me, Finny and mum Megan and I will always be there for my beautiful boy as best I can without losing to life.