There are loads of things that I never asked my father, things that I now need answers to. Perhaps I didn't ask him at the time because it didn't seem possible that he was really going to die. But I think it was mainly because I didn't realise that I had so many questions. I was 18 when he died and still convinced that anything your parents believed was necessarily old-fashioned, stupid and conservative.
We argued about practically everything we could think of: my being a vegetarian; his voting Tory; the colour I had dyed my hair; the "effeminate" boys I hung around with; the fact that he made so many decisions without consulting my mother ... most of all I was furious that my father so cheerily dismissed my younger brother's tantrums, waving them away with the excuse that he was "just a baby".
Perhaps, because he was away a lot when I was young, he was determined to be less of an absentee father this time round. But when I was 16 my mother decided that she wanted to leave him. She didn't leave, though, because he begged her to let him be there to watch my brother grow up. He had left behind three boys from his first marriage when he met my mother and he couldn't bear not to be around for his son this time. His daughter, apparently, didn't count.
Of course, I never asked him exactly what he meant by this; I was too busy pretending that I didn't give a damn. Anyway, this interpretation seemed to fit perfectly with something he had said when I was much younger. I vividly remember him telling me that he liked to come home to a sweet, pretty, undemanding woman - he could get intellectual stimulation at work. This was the first time that it had occurred to me that being a girl meant conforming to certain expectations. At the age of 10 or 11 I wasn't equipped with the knowledge or intellect to reason with him. Now it is one of the few things he ever said to me that I can quote almost word for word. Yet, had we talked about it later, he might have changed his mind. He might even have been joking.
Unfortunately, when he became ill, my opinion of him was that he was a paternalistic tyrant who thought he was always right. To make matters worse, I had just dropped out of university. He, despite being a brilliant student, had been forced to leave school at 15 to help support his mother and younger siblings. He could not believe how ridiculous and ungrateful I was being. I couldn't believe that he thought a stupid degree was more important than my happiness.
Watching him in that hospital bed was too confusing for me to cope with. It embarrassed me. I had no idea what to say to him. Once I went to visit him on my own, determined to talk to him properly, maybe even to tell him that I loved him (because of course, deep down, I did). But he had just had a course of radiation treatment and was feeling nauseous. He called for a nurse to bring him something to throw up in while I stood there, horrified and mortified. I asked him if he wanted me to go and, between being sick, he managed to mumble "Yes". I ran out of the hospital, crying but relieved to escape. The next time I saw him he was dead.
That was eight years ago but, as time goes on, I think more and more about the positive things that I have learned from him. I can acknowledge that he was a generous, honest and unpossessive husband. I can appreciate how much he helped and encouraged me to do well at school, how he taught me to think logically and argue intelligently, how he never held a grudge and was always quick to offer a hug. Now that it is too late I want to know more about this man - about his childhood, his first marriage, where his beliefs came from. I wish that I could talk to him about what has happened to us all and tell him that I did, three years later, get a degree after all. Now when I think about him he is the sort of father whose advice I would often like to ask.
Next weekend I'll be going home for Christmas. If my father was alive, I could probably expect rows about Christmas dinner, my job status, and why my boyfriend doesn't like football. But I still wish he was going to be there, so that we could have a damn good row about it.Reuse content