27 March this year was the last ‘coming-of-age’ milestone of my father’s suicide. He took his own life twenty-one years ago, in 1998, and for more than half of the years since, I have hated him. Intensely. Fiercely. Much too much.
Ordinarily I’m overcome with a sense of dread in the weeks before this annual milestone, but this year, I wasn’t. I was actually caught by surprise, and didn’t twig to the date until writing in my daughter’s reading diary that evening. Which was quite a nice thing in itself.
Why did I forget this year? I’m not sure. It did feel a little ‘bad’ that I forgot it, but reflecting on it in the weeks since, I don’t anymore.
As the cliché goes, he wouldn’t want me to feel burdened by it. My dad would want me to be at peace with his death, and living my own life. And I am, so being freed from his death is actually quite beautiful.
My father was 35, lived in regional Victoria and had four sons, the eldest three of whom (I’m the eldest) didn’t live with him. His marriage failed when he walked away from it, and we saw him only on school holidays.
He didn’t talk much about his feelings, not with me anyway, and certainly not about the depth to which they had overwhelmed him and allowed the black dog of depression to bite right into him. We didn’t know he was so troubled. No one did.
A part-time taxi driver in his later years, my father was smarter than his education ever recognised. He didn’t finish high school and he worked in auto retail for most of his adult years. He was a big man, strong and skilled at football.
My dad was the person whom I most wanted to be like, despite the flaws I knew he had. But then he left me. Permanently. And I have been broken, on and off, all the time since.
As a father of three myself now, also with a failed marriage and an uncertain place in the world, I have long feared that I was doomed to follow my father’s script. The one he wrote and which I felt I was playing out.
But in recent years, I’ve realised my fate is something I CAN influence. I don’t have to follow anything – no one’s example, no one’s expectations, and no-one’s directives. I am my own person entirely.
I am my father’s son, but I am not his legacy of intergenerational grief.
Because the key I have been handed is this: having been on the losing side of the parental suicide equation, there is no way I could ever inflict that on my children. No way at all.
In the past three years, my life has changed almost completely. Some of it within my control, some of it not. But all of it, when viewed holistically, points to a clearing of the slate. A fresh canvas. A new opportunity to build a house of contentment for me and my children.
It’s hard, challenging, and yet exciting, this building a new life thing. It feels like a long and complicated dance routine with barely-celebrity judges commenting on my every move. But I can see and feel a much happier time and life, and I know it’s unfolding a little bit at a time.
I miss my father, but I’m also thankful. That his black dog fatally mauled him, means I have learned to wear some protective gear and try not to feed the vicious beast. My father gave me the greatest example of what NOT to do. I am thankful for that.
These days I simply remember the happy memories I have of my dad. And there are many of those, for he loved me as much as I loved him. We will always be father and son.
At 37 and two years older than my dad when he died, I am comfortable knowing that I will be the one to have lived a longer life. And because of the decisions I made a few years ago and the work I’ve been doing on myself since then, it will be a much, much happier one.
Thank you for that enormous anti-lesson, Dad. I wouldn’t be here without you.
Originally published at The Westsider.