On Loss, Healing and Dad Jokes
I’ve been wanting to write this story for six months now, but I didn’t know how. It wasn’t hard to formulate, it’s just that I’m a comedian and it felt too dark. I hate doing anything where I can’t find the laughs. But this is a story that has a use-by date, so I thought I better get on with it.
My father died when I was four. See? No laughs there. Unless you include the time I was 15 and my hairdresser misheard me after she asked me what my father did. What I said was, “My mum’s a widow.” But what she heard was, “My mum’s a weirdo,” which was true on some level. (Whose mother isn’t a little weird?) But judging by my hairdresser’s reaction I suspect she thought “weirdo” was code for “lesbian” – quite the risqué family arrangement in the ’80s. The awkwardness after I corrected her – “No, no. A widow. My father’s dead” – was difficult for both of us, which was why I had worded it as I did in the first place.
For years, adults – teachers, friends’ parents, employers – flinched at those words. Instinctively, they would stutter over the awkward silence that followed when they found out, and I hated it. I hated it so much I can still feel the sensation it created, like insects crawling on my skin. I hated it so much that when my piano teacher asked me what my father did – (why that question was repeatedly asked, I do not know. What’s wrong with, “Which Duran Duran member do you like most?”) – I replied, “Not much, he kind of just lies around.”
Can you believe that? What kind of horrid Satan-possessed child says something like that? And of course it made the situation so much worse when I finally came clean about my apparently chronically sedentary dad. I feel sick in the stomach when I think about the horrible position I put that lovely teacher in.
But I say it here now, knowing there isn’t much lightness in the statement, because of something it’s connected to. My daughter, Willow, is now four, the age I was when my father died, and at this milestone, I can say I’ve learnt something about loss – and it’s that new generations can help heal past hurts.
I don’t remember my dad. He was tall, which I’m not, but apart from that I look a lot like him. In photos I can see in me the same dimples, same jaw, same eyes. But I don’t have any true memories. There’s a faint recollection of him helping me find shoes to wear to church on a Sunday morning. And a random image of him and another man carrying some furniture down some stairs. But that’s all, and I couldn’t tell you if those are actual memories, or something I might have been told about, or even seen in a movie.
What I can tell you is that loss and grief manifest in many different ways, and that healing can be as unexpected as the sun coming out after a thunderstorm (for people who don’t live in Melbourne, that is). There have been moments in my life when grief and sadness have taken my breath away. Such as when a strange connection between an external event and my own loss catches me by surprise: watching the 1980s movie Out of Africa; seeing a boyfriend’s sister on her dad’s knee; Steve Irwin’s death.
The reminder of the things I didn’t have because of my father’s absence has always been painful. It is true that you can miss what you have never known. But now a healing has emerged from the happiest of circumstances, for when I had my daughter, I understood for the first time how wonderful a daddy/daughter relationship can be. And in this understanding, a void has been filled.
My husband is a wonderful father. He does the yabbying, theme park rides and water slides that I have absolutely no interest in. I’m eternally grateful, because without him I’d have to get my hands dirty, challenge my fear of heights and get into bathers in public (now there’s a laugh!).
But what he brings in his present and active fathering is so much more than that. I have no real memory of the four years I had with my father, so to have the privilege of seeing my baby with her devoted dad allows me to imagine what he, and we, were like.
I imagine he was a father like any father, and that he loved his little girl like any father does. So in the tickles and giggles my husband and daughter share, I am both mother watching with an overspilling heart, and a student learning of a bond that I am certain I once had. The shoulder rides, wrestling matches and shared lame jokes are all pieces of the puzzle handed to me through time. They may be sticky, jam-covered pieces that leave an incomplete jigsaw, but at least I can now make out the picture.
So there it is, told before my daughter turns five and her relationship with her father outgrows any I had with my own. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel as awkward as my hairdresser. Let me break the tension with a laugh. A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his pants. The barman says to him, “You know, you’ve got a steering wheel in your pants.” And the pirate says, “Aye, and it’s driving me nuts.”
Sorry, it’s a dad joke.