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The awful day I realised my father wasn't a good man.

Looking back, it was probably the day he threw the dinner plate at my mother’s head. I’m guessing that was the moment I realised my father wasn’t the great man I thought he was.

My father wasn’t an aggressive man, well not physically. And not usually.

Depending on who you listen to, he was either a top bloke, a bum or a misunderstood genius, but whatever he was, there’s no denying he was an alcoholic – and not even a particularly good one.

He was a man lost to his mad mind long before I was even born. To me though, his young daughter, he was just ‘dad’. A dad who took us to church on Sundays, a dad who bought us chips and coke and let us play Pacman while he drank beers with the other barflies at the pub on a Sunday.

Bern with her brother and father. Image:supplied.

He was the fun one, the one who tickled me and told me jokes I never really understood and the one who let me sit on his lap and help him drive his old Holden station wagon around the back yard.

Yet in hindsight, seeing him through my grown eyes, I realise that for much of my life, I idolised the wrong parent. It's so obvious to me now that my brother and I weren’t aware that our lives weren’t normal. That to have a father who verbally abused his wife on a constant basis wasn’t normal. That to be in a household where as a child, were often afraid of what your father would do next, wasn’t normal.

And do you know why?

Because it’s all we ever knew. It was our normal.

That particular night started out well enough, and my brother and I tell this story often when we get together at barbeques or dinners and we inject it with humour. It's crazy really - in reality, domestic violence is anything but funny.

Bern and her father. Image: Supplied.
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I was about 8, my brother 11. Dad was in the kitchen trying to light his cigarette off the hotplate after returning home from the pub. He was also whipping up some fried rice, as you do. Meanwhile, behind him, Mum was dishing out the perfectly fine meal she had just spent an hour cooking. My brother and I were in the room we shared, mucking about, probably playing Atari.

We heard a commotion and both of us eagerly ran up the hallway to check out what was happening. I was in front, he was close on my heels.

That’s when we saw the fire. The one he had started after leaving a tea towel over the hotplate he'd forgotten to turn off in his paralytic state. My brother and I watched on in horror as Mum raced around trying to extinguish it. She started to shout, told him to move.

That’s when I saw him walking towards us with such malice that I remember I physically tried to shrink. To become invisible from his gaze.  As he reached us, he turned on his heel, grabbed a dinner plate and frisbee’d it directly at my mother’s head. Somehow she had a sense to duck.

It smashed into a hundred tiny pieces on the wall behind her.

My brother and I gasped and turned to run as fast as our little legs would take us, back into our room. The next thing I remember, Dad was reefing open our bedroom door as I cowered in the corner, my brother standing protectively in front of me. I remember Mum screaming and chasing him up the hallway with a frying pan. He didn’t hurt us, he simply, with a little more force than was necessary, removed us from the room. The next we knew the television was being thrown from the second story window, then the fan, then our toys.

Mum bundled us up and we fled. I can’t even remember where we went, I just know that mum kept up safe.

This wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened: it was just the catalyst that made me realise he really wasn't the great man I so desperately held onto him being. When we returned to the house later that night, he was gone.

Mum did what she had to do to make sure he could never return. And believe me, back in the early '80s removing your husband from the house, supporting yourself as a single mother and not losing your mind was no easy task.

Not long after mum and dad separated, she was told by family members that dad had been caught and charged with stealing from the church collection plates - the same church where my brother and I had helped him collect money, oblivious to his shameful, disgraceful behaviour.

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I realise now this is was the moment that broke her. I was unaware of it at the time, but this is when my mother had a nervous breakdown. The fact that we were were oblivious to this truly is a testament to her character.

Bern with her husband and children. Image:supplied.

In the intervening years, I had very little to do with my father. He would occasionally remember our birthdays and send us a five dollar note in a card. Or, in what I'm guessing were his more lucid moments, he'd try and arrange to meet with us. My brother and I shied away though feeling, I guess, a need to protect mum, just as she had us.

He died in 1997, when I was 22, from what was believed to be lung cancer. He smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. It was either going to be the liver or the lungs that would kill him.

That, of course, wasn’t the end.  After he died, my mother, my brother, my fiancé and I cleaned out his caravan, his home for the previous 11 years.  Dad was a hoarder. He was obviously very sick before he sought help and clearly close to death inside that caravan.

All four of us spent a day clearing out the rubbish. In between the empty goon casks and nuclear-resistant cockroaches, we found sealed buckets of faeces and vomit of indeterminable age in takeaway containers. I cannot describe the smell. The fact that my husband still became my husband after that day says a lot about his character.

I cannot describe the smell. The fact that my husband became my husband after that day, says a lot about his character. Image: @piratiesirene.
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I know it’s sad he lived that way. That he was sick with a disease and addiction that is as bad, if not worse, than any other drug addiction out there. You know, I even found a tattered, rat-eaten picture of my brother and I inside of a book he had half-read. I wondered if he, in moments of clarity, thought about what he had lost due to his awful affliction.

But fuck me if I was able to cry when I sat and listened to all the glowing praises he received during his full requiem mass funeral. They weren't chosen by us, obviously.

My mother sat stone-faced. I didn’t cry. I don’t recall who was there, what was said and what went on after it. I just know I was pissed off. Pissed off that in death, as in life, dad had made mum suffer again.

I look at my own life now and I know a couple of things. I know I am very lucky. I know my children are lucky they don't have a father who has been afflicted by something so heinous that it makes him choose the substance over them. I know that a loving and dedicated father will be their normal.

I also know Mum was stronger than I could ever have been.

Mother's Day
Bern and her mum. Image: Supplied.

Finally, I urge you, if you need a safe place to discuss your situation, please do it. Don’t let domestic violence become your normal too.

If this raises any issues for you, please contact 1800respect.

For more from Bern, try ...

‘I still struggle when I realise: Mum, I knew so little about you.’

Scattering your parent’s ashes. And other hard decisions.

“Finding my biological mother was unlike anything I expected.”

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