Saturday would have been my father’s birthday.
Would have been: in those three words you know something of how I felt yesterday and feel today. As you read my opening sentence, you probably remembered the people who have gone from your life, and whose leaving still causes you, at times, to feel a lump in your throat and prickling behind your eyelids.
In that moment, we connected – you and I thousands of miles apart, sharing emotions. We may never meet in person, but we met in our emotions.
1000 Voices Speak For Compassion’s theme for May is connection so maybe that’s why my thoughts are turning to it today. Without compassion, meaningful connection isn’t possible. Without connection, compassion is meaningless.
I have also been thinking about my father. I rang my mother on Saturday. She was feeling grateful for a phone-call from 97-year-old Australian relative. Half a world is no barrier to empathy – and no barrier to feeling gratitude.
A few days after my father’s death, a neighbour told me that he was, “a remarkable man.” He didn’t see himself that way, but thought himself ordinary. He regretted not having more of an education, and he regretted any time he had been unkind. His last few days of life, he was in hospital and often couldn’t sleep well at night. He worried about leaving my mother to deal with a difficult situation; he worried that he hadn’t been as good a father as he could have been. I told him that anything he did that was unkind was made up for a thousand times by the kindnesses he showed people. It was true. I also reminded him of where he started – of the difficulties he had faced as a child both in school and at home.
My father was probably in his sixties before he realised that his mother had suffered an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness much of her life. Nobody spoke about such things in his childhood, and by the time he understood she was long gone.
In her later years, my grandmother argued with most family members. I didn’t see that, and though I often felt uneasy around her I also felt her affection when she allowed me to play with the jewellery on her bedroom dressing table. (If you’ve read my novel, Drawings In Sand, you might remember a scene where Stella’s grandmother catches her playing with jewellery – now you know where I got the idea!)
Which version of my grandmother was the real one? Or were they all? As a child, I knew my parents found her difficult, but I didn’t know how unkindly she treated my mother. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have understood the effects on my parents. In my childish naivety, I thought all adults felt equal to each other. It didn’t occur to me that my father might feel afraid of his mother, that he might struggle to bridge the bridgeable. My grandmother was out of reach, except perhaps to her grandchildren – and then only in unguarded moments, in the moments she felt safe. I didn’t realise it then, but my grandmother’s world was ruled by fear.
Fear is largely what stops us connecting with others. Fear of judgement stops us reaching out, silences us. Fear of attack makes us judge. Sometimes we even judge ourselves in anticipation of attack by others, in the vain hope that somehow this will help us. The irony is that our attacks upon ourselves are almost always harsher than anyone else’s would be, so, at our own hands, we suffer the pain we hope to avoid.
Fear of judgement stops us reaching out, silences us. Fear of attack makes us judge.
My grandparents were born in an era when illegitimacy was treated like a crime. When my grandfather’s mother, Baba, became pregnant with him, she was hauled before the parish council. In refusing to name his father, she struck out for dignity, but lost her child. Her mother raised my grandfather, as if he was the youngest son in the family. Baba left the island and spent her life “in service” (working as a maid) – coincidentally in the city where I now live.
Once, when Dad was visiting me, he and I were walking through a nearby street. He looked up at one of the tall tenement buildings and said, “That’s where my grandmother lived. I went to visit her during the war, but I didn’t know she was my Granny till long after she died. It was such a shame.”
My grandparents never told him and his sister the truth. They found out when an elderly relative died and her will revealed it. My father spoke about this again as we sat waiting in a little room for his final admission to hospital. “It wasn’t right,” he said. “They should have told us.” He felt sadness as he thought about that missed connection, of what could have been. He wasn’t angry at his parents, but grieved the lack of closeness, the lack of connection.
In his last few years, my father did the opposite of what my grandmother had done. Instead of becoming more guarded, he became more and more open. He listened calmly if someone criticised him, without trying to defend himself. In spite of his deafness, he listened to anyone who spoke to him, learning from them. In the two weeks Dad was in hospital, his room mates changed several times as patients came in and went home again. One man explained that he had schizophrenia, and talked about a counsellor who had been an enormous help. Dad didn’t divulge all of their conversation, but he did say, “I think it did me some good.”
I have a feeling the effect was mutual.