When you spend your time writing about romance, you involuntarily start to think deeply about love in all its forms.
Not just romantic love between adult partners, but platonic love between friends, familial love between siblings, parents and their children, the macro level abstract love we feel for fellow human beings, even those we don’t know.
More than that, you turn the microscope on love and what it means to you. Love as it pertains to all aspects of your life, and how it has shaped you as a person. Love in some form or other, weaves itself into the fabric of all of us. When you write romance you start pulling at the loose threads of your personal fabric, unravelling it to see what it reveals.
I did, and what it revealed was that I never loved my father.
There, I said it.
Bear with me, there’s a reason, and it’s not that I’m a sociopath. I guess the easiest way to sum up that reason is to say that I never knew my father, so in some ways there was nothing to love. I mean, I knew him, as in, I knew who he was, but I never had enough of a relationship with him to develop the parent-child bond that most of us assume to be natural and omnipresent. It’s not.
I first met my father when I was four years old. A stranger entering our home, and my life, carrying an oversized teddy, and a mouth full of promises. Even as a preschooler I regarded him with a healthy suspicion, which in retrospect, never went away, even as I grew up. It turns out I was right to have my reservations.
My father was to be an erratic and shadowy presence in my life, appearing at unpredictable intervals, often years apart. The general pattern was that he would appear, stay for a few hours, maybe take me to visit relatives, and then leave, promising to return the next day/week/month. Sometimes he would stick to that promise, but more often he would disappear, almost without a trace.
I learned to accept this as the pattern, but that doesn’t mean I liked it. I didn’t. I also learned that my father’s golden rule was ‘never explain, never apologise.’ Not that he ever said those words aloud, but he never did either. Ever. You could talk, rationalise, explain, plead beg and cry, and you’d have more like getting blood from an ancient stone. Eventually, I stopped trying.
Not that I stopped trying to have my father in my life in the merest of ways, but I stopped trying to mould him to the image of fatherhood I had in my head. I gave up hoping for, wishing for, or pushing for an explanation or an apology for his failings. I accepted that some situations just are, some people just are, and ultimately, there are some things we can’t know. I accepted that when it came to my father, there were many things I never would.
A woman shares her personal story about severing the relationship with her toxic father.
At 23 I reached out to my father whom I’d least seen and heard from when I was 17. Rather than pushing him for answers about the past, I focused on the present and the future, on building some relationship with him and my half siblings. I avoided any and all topics I knew to have been contentious between us in the past. I effectively wiped the slate clean, ready for it to be reused, for us to make new memories in our brave new world. My father told me he was happy and relieved to have rekindled our relationship, and that he was excited about the future, our future. He said he’d call, visit, and bring my younger siblings with him.
That was the last time I saw or spoke to him. He never called or visited. In the next 15 years, our communication amounted to six words, via Facebook message: four from him, two in reply from me. It had been twelve since our last contact, and by that point I had moved from London to Sydney. Three years later, he died.
My father died, and I didn’t cry. In fact, for the first week and a half, I felt nothing.
Nikki Gemmell speaks to Mia Freedman about the complex reality of her mother's death. Post continues after audio.
Not in the ‘I’m too numb to feel’ way grief can affect some people. I literally felt nothing. For that week and a half I examined why that could be. What kind of person loses a parent and feels nothing? The kind who never had the parent in first place, I concluded. Yes, he was my father. Yes, he was a vague and intermittent figure in my past. Yes, he was fifty percent of my DNA, but we never had a real bond. I have formed closer ties with friends, colleagues even, than I ever had with my own father.
Ten days after he died, the realisation hit me: I didn’t love him. That’s when I cried. Not to mourn the loss of the parent I never had, but at the abject sadness of a child not loving their parent. Except it wasn’t just an idea, it was a reality, and it was my reality. If there was ever anything to shed a tear over, that was it. I didn’t love my father, and I suspect that the feeling (or more accurately, the lack thereof) was mutual. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, as he’s no longer with us, but then again, for me, he never was.