My dad would have been 65 today, and I don’t know what to do about it.
As you might know if you’ve read my writing before, he took his own life when I was 5 years old. I’m now 32, which means I’m five years away from being older than he ever was.
And I don’t know how to feel about that.
Every year this date comes, and I spend the day grumpy, or with a forced smile, or trying to distract myself. But I think it’s time to confront the tornado of feelings I get on days like this. Maybe it’ll help me, or other people. Maybe it won’t. But I need to get it out.
I say “days like this” because it’s not just his birthday that makes me feel this way. It’s also the date he died, and Christmas, and my birthday, and any significant event in my life. The problem is, I can’t feel ‘just’ sad about him missing these events, because the knowledge is always there that he chose this. He didn’t have a debilitating disease like Robin Williams. He wasn’t hit by a bus or taken by a tumour. He sat in our family car, in our family garage, and breathed carbon monoxide into his healthy lungs until his healthy body couldn’t cope anymore. And he did it on purpose.
Or at least, that’s the logical way to look at it. The emotional way is to understand that depression is a disease like any other, and that in a way, it was a biological condition that took him. Maybe. Because we don’t know for a fact that he was depressed, and putting together the story of something that happened when you were a child is like trying to reassemble a window that smashed 20 years ago. The fragments have been ground into powder.
I try to apply the most generous interpretation of the facts I have. He must have been very unhappy to take his life, which suggests he probably was depressed. He didn’t seek help for it, other than talking to my mum, which is not unusual for men in our masculinity-obsessed culture even now. If he had seen a doctor, he might have been saved. If cars had catalytic converters then (they were implemented not even a year later), he might have been saved. If we hadn’t been out of the house, if I hadn’t been too young to help, if his company hadn’t been going under, if if if.
I have more ‘ifs’ than memories of my own father. And it’s difficult not to feel some level of anger at him for that. Rationally I know he’d probably be beside himself with sorrow if he knew how much his decision has impacted his two daughters all our lives, but rational thought doesn’t come easily on the date your father should be celebrating his happy retirement.
It’s this mixture of feelings that is so hard to cope with. I want to say “Happy birthday, I love you so much, you absolute bastard.” I want to buy him a card and rip it up. I want to hear him say how sorry he is, just so I can say of course it’s OK, I understand, and hold him and cry.
I wish I believed in an afterlife. He didn’t either. He once asked my mum to bury him with his backside sticking out of concrete so he could be used as a bike park. Thankfully she didn’t honour that wish — he was cremated, and the ashes were lost some time back.
It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t him. I have one video and some photos and a handful of memories.
Perhaps the nearest I have to him is his watch. Engraved on the back is “I love you Daddy. From Holly xx.” It was a birthday present. I love that it still has a kink in the strap from where he wore it — an imprint of him still left in the world. There are so few. Sometimes I put a new battery in just to watch the hands move again.
Truthfully, the closest thing to my dad left in the world is me. My sister has long since moved on, made her own family, overwritten the tragedy that dogged us for decades. I try to see bits of him where I can: his lopsided smile in mine, the obsession with gadgets, the terrible short-sightedness he gifted me. And I feel happy and sad and angry all at once. I miss you. I love you. I hate you. I need you.
It’s been so long since he died that I find it hard to imagine he ever lived. But if I take anything from this, it’s that none of us is ever truly gone. None of us walks through life without leaving a path, however short. But my dad has retired now — from work, from the world — and it’s up to me to walk the rest of the way for both of us.