From time to time I miss my old man. But missing is just memory and memories are a funny thing. I mean, they’re real, they’re definitely real. Enough for us all to go about life trying to acquire them. Enough for us to defer to them as a means of bonding with friends we have nothing else to say to. But memories are unreliable. I guess that’s all I’m trying to say.
My old man got stupider with age. His memory got worse and that’s another thing that makes it hard to trust my own memories of him. If I’m being honest with myself though, I know that my whole personhood is little more than a pirated DVD of his film. I know it full well. As a teenager, I would observe his mannerisms, his words. Phrases like, ‘no worries’, ‘understood’, little things like that. The way he would make people feel like he had time for them, the way he would self-deprecate. I don’t know if it’s really all that rare, but people would tell me it was for a man in his position, and that made me admire him more.
Here’s the other thing about memory. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the story about my old man in a minute. I almost forgot what the other thing about memory was—I want to get it all out while I can. It can torture you when you have a good idea that you can’t remember. The other thing about memory is that it’s the basis of everything. I know I’m not saying anything particularly original, but isn’t it bizarre that we wake up every morning, momentarily confused, and then gather ourselves to carry on with our lives?
Anyway, my old man was dying for a few years before he actually died. And a few years before that, he wasn’t quite the same. It’s a strange thing, watching the deterioration of your role model. I guess it’s similar to how people say you should never meet your heroes. The story about my old man though, is this.
We were at home—the family home, I mean—on an afternoon when my mother had been drinking. He was seventy, her sixty-three, me forty. My mother started doing that thing where she niggles at him, criticises, fishes for a fight. I’m glad my wife never really did that.
My mother said, ‘Gary, stop being so lazy. Get your son a drink.’
I said, ‘It’s fine, Mum. I’ll get myself one when I want another one.’
‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘Get up, Gary. Get up’
‘He’s falling asleep, Mum,’ I told her. ‘Let him sleep.’
‘He doesn’t do anything,’ she said. ‘He never helped out around the house, but now he does nothing at all.’
Now what my mother was saying was mostly true. My old man was no saint. Don’t get me wrong about that. When I was young, I hardly saw him because of his work, the business. And there were periods where his philandering was obvious to me, even as a teenager. My mother managed all of that stuff like an adult, to give her credit. To her, the family always came first. But none of that is really the point of this story.
My father got up and mixed me a gin and tonic then said, ‘Here, Son.’ He went to the record player and put on Guy Clark. We both always liked Guy Clark, but my mother never understood him. He sat down next to me on one of his big La-Z-Boys with cup holder armrests.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said. Then I pulled the lever to recline the other La-Z-Boy I was sitting in. The last bit of afternoon light spilled out red onto the hardwood floors. It had passed through the rose of a stained glass window—one of the remaining original elements of the Edwardian Queenslander he’d renovated.
I was already divorced by that afternoon. My mother loved my wife, and though Dad liked to think he kept his opinions on these matters to himself, he was of the same view. I think he saw the tolerance he was never afforded. My wife’s old man was a businessman too, so she understood the meaning of sacrifice—the idea that work comes first. I think Dad saw that in her, that she would be pragmatic about the situation I was getting myself into. That she wouldn’t give me a hard time about missing things like anniversaries, ultrasounds and school swimming carnivals.
My old man stood up to stretch, then sat back down and said, ‘How’s Chris going?’
‘He resigned, Dad,’ I said. ‘He’s going out on his own. Starting a consultancy. We spoke about this.’
‘He’s really good,’ Dad said. ‘I told you to hang on to him.’
I said, ‘I tried, Dad.’
He said, ‘Clearly not hard enough.’
‘I offered him more money,’ I tell him. Then I said, ‘He wouldn’t have it. He wants to spend more time with his family. What else could I do?’
When my old man got in his head that someone at the company was good, he never forgot it. But he would forget that I already knew his opinion, and then he would repeat himself whenever I saw him. It drove me crazy. Dad was a decent judge of character, but he had his biases. They were typically geared towards things he understood, people he knew. I think that’s why he loved history, tradition, too. The English kind, specifically. He liked the unexplainable empiricism in things like monarchy, table manners, Protestantism. He enjoyed knowing little details about the Battle of Britain. A week earlier, he’d taken a DNA test and discovered he had 29% Irish blood. He was joking around about it that afternoon, but I think it was actually bothering him.
‘They’re good talkers,’ he said, ‘but they become your friend too quickly.’
I said to him, ‘What do you mean? The Irish I have worked with have all been fantastic.’ I paused to think. ‘Plus, whatever happened to the Enlightenment? Judging the individual?’
‘That was a Scottish phenomenon,’ he told me. ‘The grumpy buggers were the only ones sceptical enough.’
‘I know that,’ I said. ‘That wasn’t my point. My point was about judging the individual on their merits, not their group.’
‘Meet enough Irish and you see a pretty clear pattern,’ he said.
I think I was particularly argumentative because my wife’s father was Irish. I loved him, but in many ways he did fit my father’s stereotype. Heavy drinker, very friendly. It’s funny thinking back to my old man and my wife spending time together, the father-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship. Significant one day, forgotten to the next. I guess they’re not exactly going to stay close, are they? At least not in usual circumstances. But when I get to missing my old man, I generally miss my wife too.
My old man was the one who brought her up. He said, ‘Siobhan being an exception, of course.’
‘She’s hardly Irish,’ I said. ‘She was born here and spent her whole life here.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But we are talking about thousands of years of genetics and culture.’
‘It’s hard for me to buy into all that,’ I told him. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to get into it. Let’s drop it.’
Siobhan liked my old man too, I think. She tolerated those bits of casual prejudice like it was nothing, like it was something to be expected. And she respected what he had built, the way he’d stuck with the one thing and managed the same group of people over a long period of time. The thing I struggled with—well, still struggle with if I’m being honest—is how to accurately account for his success. How do you apportion it among the myriad of categories like luck, oppressive systems, the intelligence and hard work of one man? The arithmetic is so impossible and abstract that there is really no use in thinking about it. I doubt he ever wasted much time thinking about it.
My old man changed sides of Old No. 1, then said, ‘Have you heard from her recently?’
‘You know she’s remarried,’ I told him. ‘Very happy by all accounts.’
‘She was a good woman,’ he told me. ‘You should’ve never got married young, but she was a good woman, regardless.’
I said, ‘You’re probably right, Dad. But I was worried she wouldn’t wait around for long.’
‘She would’ve waited a while,’ my old man said. ‘She was a good woman.’
He wasn’t wrong. About that I rushed into it, I mean, and that she was a good woman, too. He used to call me a love-struck fool to describe the way I’d think every woman I met was the new great thing, the way I’d jump from dopamine hit to dopamine hit. The marriage lasted seven years, the one between my wife and me, so it was hardly an abject failure. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. I was always searching for something to fill the void.
I got up to mix three more gins. The record played and it occurred to me that the gin, not my mother, was my father’s coat from the cold. And vice versa. Then I sat back down in the upholstered recliner and said to my old man, ‘Hey, we got confirmation on the Qantas tender during the week.’
‘Oh yeah?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘We’ve been awarded the contract.’
‘Can you actually deliver it?’ he asked me.
‘I wouldn’t have tendered if I didn’t think we could,’ I assured him.
‘It’s one thing winning a contract,’ he said. ‘Another thing delivering on it.’ Then he sipped on his drink and reclined back to the level I was at. His face was smug and stubborn, one that he always had in his arsenal. The one that made me feel a child, small, like any personal development I’d done since I was eighteen was little more than a sham.
It was not long after that when I said, ‘I need to get home, Dad.’
I got home that night and my girlfriend was waiting. My two boys were with me for the weekend and already fast asleep, but she still gave me a hard time about being drunk and almost waking them. Siobhan would’ve let it go through to the keeper.
My father died three weeks after that; I didn’t see him again. It was pretty sudden in the end, and I was travelling for work. At his funeral, I spoke of the impact he’d had on me, about how I’d basically just copied him and how that had served me well in life. From time to time, the memory of giving the eulogy overwhelms me—gives me shivers.