It was early one Sunday morning about a year ago. As I walked along the beach, my dogs careering around like crazy things through the waves, I felt a tremendous shiver overtake me, and an accompanying, quite overwhelming thought: ‘You must be so fucking scared!!!’
My father was in hospital having an operation for bowel cancer. It was ‘only’ keyhole surgery for a small tumour, so – even though he was 80 – he was expected to recover and return home within the week. Turns out, that wasn’t the case…
The phone was ringing as I made my way up the drive from the beach that morning. It was my sister. She was in Tasmania looking after Dad during his stint in hospital (she also lived interstate, like me). I was on call to head back to Tassy to care for him when he left hospital. I picked up the phone, expecting it to be her, saying get on a flight, he’s coming out of hospital.
“Dad’s had a heart attack and died,” she said, her voice tight with restrained emotion. His body just hadn’t coped with the surgery, and his stomach had been swelling since he had the operation three days prior. He’d even told the doctors his stomach was pressing upwards and he felt like he was going to have a heart attack. Turns out he was right. It seems he’d had the heart attack and died, right around the time that strange thought had come to me, and the shiver rocked through me. It was as if my body felt his shock, and the accompanying fear.
I had always felt very connected to my father – not necessarily in a good way. We had a love-hate relationship, and I’d left home at 18, moved interstate, and then overseas, so I had lived a long way away from him for a long time. And I wasn’t good at staying in touch. I left that to my older, more responsible siblings. But in some strange way, I felt like I had inherited a gift from him… an interest in things like psychology and the paranormal.
He had studied some sport psychology and become an athletics coach when he discovered that he had a potential Olympian as a daughter (no, not me! My highly talented sister – but that’s another story). And I used to catch him divining out in the backyard sometimes too, for water pipes. It seemed like a strange thing to find an engineer doing, but he was always a bit of an oddity.
He had always wanted to write a book too – another thing we had in common. But he never got around to it. Instead he’d written stories, anecdotes and memories in sprawling spidery handwriting on the backs of envelopes. Hundreds of them in a big pile on the kitchen bench.
He wanted to record these stories, and he thought that perhaps because I worked as a writer and editor, I might be able to do something with them – turn them into a book, get them published.
I didn’t think this was going to happen – it was a life, just a life, as extraordinary and ordinary as any life. But my dad wasn’t famous. He hadn’t invented anything, or created anything of note (other than us kids of course, lol). I knew from experience publishers would only be interested in a memoir if it was by a famous person, or if the author could ‘write like rock’n’roll’, as Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation and Bitch, once said of her own writing.
Neither my sisters or I wanted to hurt him by refusing to listen to his life stories, so – about a year before he passed – we dutifully booked our flights and returned to our home state to sit around the family dining table and listen to his stories.
Now my father – it must be said – had been something of a dictator and bully growing up. So there were mixed feelings about this whole scenario. I myself had to walk out of the room on occasion, unable to stand it a moment longer. The arrogance, the egoism, the expectation that his daughters would sit passively and take it all in. Just as he had expected when we were growing up.
I remember asking him to explain the stock exchange to me once as a teenager. I wanted a two-minute quick summary. Twenty minutes later I was still in my arm chair feeling trapped as he droned on about stocks and shares, futures and derivatives… I wanted to escape. I couldn’t interrupt him or he’d lose it. (That was a scary prospect, trust me.) And he just did not seem to understand body language – that if I fidgeted, or looked away, I was subtly – or not so subtly – letting him know I was getting bored. He just kept droning on.
When my sister’s second son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, it started to make sense. Dad – although high functioning – was most definitely on the spectrum. He was very bright, but not good socially; he had next to no friends – he left all that to mum. He was an engineer – Aspergers used to be called ‘the engineer’s disease’. He Iiked things to be very ordered – and if they weren’t, woe betide whoever introduced that disorder!
So we sat and we listened. I have transcribed those memoirs since, and I am slowly editing them with the intention of printing and binding them for family members. It will be my first attempt at self-publishing. As I read the direct transcript my nephew had the pleasure of transcribing for $500, courtesy of my dad, I see the different roles we all had when it came to our dad – simply by way of our interjections, or lack thereof. The oldest two sisters take his stories quite seriously, and ask questions to expand on the story. The third sister – the Olympian – interrupts him all the time, trying to bring his stories back to my mother… who he does seem to leave out of the stories rather a lot (again, another story for another day). Me, I don’t say much. I’m busying myself with the recording device. I probably had my mind on other things. That was a trick of mine – be there in body because you had to, but nobody could control your mind and where it went.