Today is a weird day…let me count the reasons…
My Dad died in 2014, rather suddenly of a heart attack.
We had a complicated relationship in our 31 years together. He was charismatic, often larger than life, full of stories and hugs; political debates and brand new music to share. He taught me that you should treat everyone equally because everyone has something to teach you. He championed LGBTQ+ rights and anti-racism to me alongside a (possibly unhealthy) hatred of Margaret Thatcher. He taught me to use a band saw, change a spark plug, and carve on a lathe. He encouraged my music – and was so proud of me at every concert, exam and performance. He showed me the different plants and flowers and insects on forest walks, and had such high hopes for my future career paths. I always knew that he loved me unconditionally.
But he was also an alcoholic, and an expert emotional manipulator. As a child he would wake me up at 3 in the morning to watch old films, so that he had someone to keep him company and regale with old military stories. He was embarrassing when drunk, and volatile when hungover. Even now I freeze at raised voices and conflict in any space. I often find myself telling Ethan off for shouting and then realising that he wasn’t really, I am just super-sensitive. His habit meant my childhood was financially insecure and led to a tense and distant relationship with much of his wider family – something which saddens me as the new generation grows.
He was the best and worst of fathers. And Father’s Day when he was alive was conflicting enough. Now that he is no longer with us it is even more so. There is so much he has missed – he would have delighted in Ethan, with his enquiring mind and blossoming musical talent. They would have had long talks about engineering and politics. And a granddaughter would have brought an extra twinkle into his eye, he loved little children so much. He has also missed much of me, and although he wouldn’t have been particularly impressed with my stilted career path when I always promised to be Prime Minister, he would have been proud of my writing and the lives I shaped with my youth work.
7 months after my Dad, Mark died. 2014 was a shitty year.
It has sometimes, in my adult life, been difficult to know what it is that a “normal” father is meant to do. I tend toward self-sufficiency, and away from asking for help. Mark was a wonderful father. His joy in Ethan was evident from the moment we found out I was pregnant. His entry into actual fatherhood was raw and terrifying, beginning with him sitting in a room holding a baby, contemplating the possibility that he would have to raise it alone. But after that tumultuous 72 hours, he came into his own – relaxing into a role that he had been looking forward to for so long. He was hands-on (if a little nervous) and spent as much time as physically possible with his beautiful son – watching first food and first steps and first rugby ball throws.
He showed me a wonderful example of a steady, loving, consistent father, and I am so happy that Ethan had him as an influence in his life for even that short time. As we continue to tell Ethan stories of his Dad, favourite songs, quirks and habits, this influence will continue. Mark continues to be celebrated on days like today, with a card delivered up to the cemetery and some time spent watching old videos. This part of the day is particularly difficult for me – the tightening of my chest and holding back of tears – too many emotions all rushing together. For the first few years there was also the policing of over-enthusiastic nursery and school teachers excited for an easy craft activity. The furtive word at drop-off explaining that this is our circumstance, and that there will probably be tears and/or matter of fact “my dad is dead” explanations during the class discussion. These were almost always met with well-meaning apologies and a heavy dose of pity – neither of which I’m that comfortable with. There was the Daddy’s Day at playgroup that meant well (getting fathers more involved in their children’s education is a wonderful cause) but that resulted in a tearful phone-call to my 21 year old brother asking if he’d step in for the morning.
Its possible that it would be easier to forget about these little rituals, but good dad’s should be celebrated, even when they are no longer with us.
Mark’s father took me under his wing after Mark died. He phoned to check up on me regularly, he fixed patio lights and wardrobes, he (and Wendy) fed me red wine and let me sit while they had water fights with Ethan. He solved problems in the no-nonsense, ex-policeman way that only he can. He deserves to be celebrated on a day like today; he raised 3 lovely boys and is a constant caring and secure figure in all our lives…
But each day like this reminds him that he is missing a son, that his family unit is no longer complete, and that under celebration there is often sadness. I know that Ethan brings him much joy, and I try to use this day to let him know how valued a father-in-law he is.
Then came Nick. Nick’s dad died a few weeks after we starting dating, the night before our planned, child free weekend away in Edinburgh. I’m so happy that I got to meet him once before he passed away, at a birthday meal in a cute little pub in Wanborough. I met his sister, brother-in-law and Uncle all at the same time, thrown in at the deep-end! He was quiet, and I could see behind the ravages of Parkinson’s disease the strong and humorous man that he used to be. I know that Nick saw his death almost as a kindness, with all that long-term illness had done to his body. But, however kind, losing a father is losing a father.
It is Nick’s first Father’s Day with Erica. But I feel weird about calling it his first Father’s Day, as he has been the most incredible father to Ethan for 4 years. Coming into our unique situation was daunting, I’d imagine. It was tricky for both of us to work out how much of the parenting role it was right for him to take on at different times. He was a natural with Ethan, and their bond has always been so special, even now we’ve hit grumpy 8-year-old hormone territory. We all felt our way, and often let Ethan lead. Nick’s graciousness allows space for Mark and himself as father figures in Ethan’s life. And, honestly, it’s as if being a father was what he was always meant to do. He is firm but fair, always ready to be ridiculous, has never balked at the 2am wake-ups and interruptions, builds dens, and has the most accomplished range of accents for story time – his cockney fish is a firm favourite! Without replacing Ethan’s daddy, he has been everything Ethan has needed these last 4 years.
Having jumped in to parenting starting at 4, I know that Nick was nervous about never having done the baby thing. He needn’t have worried. Apart from being unable to close doors quietly while she’s napping (cue mummy-rage), he’s been just as good at the nappies, trapped wind, late nights and teething as he was at learning all the names of the Disney Cars characters, listening to solar system facts on repeat and battling with hair washing. He’s got this down. Erica and Ethan are both incredibly lucky to have him.
Male role models in my life have sometimes been hard to come by; we are something of a matriarchy, and I have had to collect them for myself. So there are many others to be celebrated on a day like today:
My Grandad – who was always the best clothes shopping companion in the January sales (Dewhurst men have an uncanny ability at picking outfits for the women in their lives!), and took 2 weeks one Easter to teach me the whole GCSE Physics syllabus so I didn’t fail my exams.
Uncle Martin, who taught me the joy of disobedience and blaming other people for farts at the table, who shows me that you don’t need to be loud to have a presence in people’s lives. And who gives the best hugs.
Pete Wilderspin, who, without being in any way related to me, will forever be remembered as opening his home in a quiet, generous way to a bunch of teenagers who monopolised his living room and ate copious fried egg and bacon sandwiches; and who taught me how to cook English Breakfasts “Caff-style”.
Then the Uncles. Daniel, Bryan, Chris and Taddy; in all their longbow practising/Dr Suess reading/rugby playing/science conversation having glory. All of whom show me every day how much they love their nephew, and are the best examples to him of how to be a man, in all it’s varieties.
And so many of my wonderful friends who have shown me what being a father means – the kindness and capability of men and the beauty of watching them love their children to distraction.
So today is not as simple as sending cards and saying thankyou to one or two people. It isn’t completely joyous or completely sad. It is a messy, complicated and unexpected reflection of my own situation. And it gives me one of those teary smiles. Which is fine by me.