Father: A Personal Essay

Father was not a bad man.

People, especially in relationships, are not bad; they are stupid, foolish, ignorant, cowardly, miserly, proud, angry, guilty, or sometimes even, well, just plain sad – but they are not bad.

No, he was not bad.

He loved you, once upon a time, when you were very young, before your own personality, as a human being separate from your parents and siblings and friends, fully formed; when you could not see into the core of his character and could only see Father, Father, a paternal figure, a strong column which held up the sky, a God, blessed, enclosed in a corona of heavenly light.

How much easier it is, to be blind to the rot in those closest to you, whom you are most familiar with – it is difficult to realise the presence of a problem if it is all you have ever known. Put a mouse in the desert, and it will only know hardship; put the same mouse in an oasis, fields of seeds and bushes clustered with fruit, and it will only know abundance. Humans are the same: We adapt.

First and foremost, he was a miser, hoarding money instead of love, bent on counting coins rather than kisses – a sure way to unhappiness, in the long run, you say to yourself, almost spitefully. Serves him right.

You remember those terrible memories, each surfacing at odd moments during the day, to be pushed down with a bite of your lip: Your mother, gripping his arm, her voice a disgusting plea, begging for money to feed her own children, his children; the day you riffled through his wallet to get twenty dollars to pay for a school excursion, only for him to come barging into your room the next morning, shoe in hand, to hit you and hurt you and scream at you until you cowered and wept; those Christmases when he showered gifts on his nieces to show off to relatives as you watched on, hands empty, your ears filled with their delighted shrieks, face carved into a smile as stiff as those on the faces of the expensive dolls peering out from behind gleaming plastic, dolls that should have been for you.

But then you recall the teddy bears he used to buy you each visit to the shopping centre, the enviable collection you amassed, lined up along your bedroom wall in all colours of the rainbow (Oh, how your mother used to croon over his generosity: “Don’t you have such a wonderful father, my children?). When you were born, he spared no expense, lavishing on you movies and clothes, stickers, a sturdy, expensive pram, a cot, the best baby food, the best of everything; you were a tiny Princess, and he a besotted King. There are photographs of you smiling up at your father, and he smiling down at you, a girl no taller than the kitchen table, as you stand beside a pink birthday cake with the candles just blown out, cuddling an extravagant plush toy, and they say Happiness. They also say Money, yes, but Money to show Love.

You tried very hard to impress him, even as you grew older, and harder, tougher, a weather-beaten young lady whose eyes wept rain into her pillow each night. The memories come in a flood, breaking the banks of your mind: That time you came home, proud, with A’s on your report for every subject except Mathematics, and he barely even glanced at it; the stories you wrote, some of which you even translated into Chinese, patiently typing them out onto the computer and using Google translate and then printing them out, that lay, in piles, unread on his desk; that time, which still makes you cry very hard whenever you think of it, when your sister made him a card, spent hours on it, hours and hours and hours, getting the glitter and lettering just right, only to find it discarded in the communal rubbish bin minutes after giving it to him, amongst the orange peels and rotten cabbage.

Despite this, you remember what it was like when you were younger, only seven years old, and smart for your age, the delight your father would take in the books you could read, the Mathematical equations you could solve, your childish wit and sharpness. He loved you, because you were his daughter, and you were bright, brighter than your siblings. A clever offshoot of his, someone who would grow up to do well in school, and then in life – not foreseeing his own indifference, not then. And how happy you were, to have pleased him.

Ever since the marriage between your parents turned sour when you were ten years old, he has never touched you: Not a sign or word of affection, no fatherly talks and advice that leave a warm glow in a daughter’s heart, no embraces and strokes of hair that the books and movies portrayed and made you so sad to see and read you wanted to scream. You were left out in the cold. In the wind, and the snow, a little girl, in gumboots and a thin dress, dark hair plastered to her cheeks. You were not passive about it: you stamped your feet, railing against the cold because it was easier to get angry at it than your own father, slammed your fists against the door, half-sobbing and half-screaming to be let back in.

Then you remember how he treated you as a little girl. You loved the steadiness, the firmness of his arms, that you allowed no-one to hold you, not even your own mother, except him. He made you feel safe. He held you, and hugged you, through the long hours of the night, sitting up with his back against the wall, for you could not fall asleep without him cradling you, until his arms ached – yet he still held on. You wish he had never let go. He held you, in his arms, to look at window displays in shops, or whatever else caught your fancy that you were not tall enough to see by yourself; you sat on his shoulders, happy, laughing, smiling. He held you, then.

What changed? For years, you thought somehow you were bad, defective, wrong; that you had changed in some way to make him no longer like you, or even be impressed by you. You tried various tactics, over the years, ranging from over-achievement at school, to rebellion, staying in your room for hours on end and coming home with bad grades, yelling and screaming at the slightest provocation. Yelling to be heard, and seen, by him. Your mother thought you mad, her shy, obliging daughter replaced with a monster. You, sometimes, thought you were mad. Crazy, stupid girl – no wonder your father does not love you anymore.

But, gradually, you realised it had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with him. Relationships take a turn for the worse because people change, and love fades, and what is left behind is dark and unsightly, the magic spell on a polished ring slowly wearing off over the years, until one day you are left with only a tarnished piece of junk. Things happened: Businesses failed, he grew more isolated, spent more time on the Internet embroiled in an online world less disappointing than the real one, distanced from both reality and his family.

Sooner or later, something had to give. The cracks were already starting to show. Your mother screamed at you, a pressure cooker of internal, unspent grief. The police came to your house to investigate domestic disturbance, ticked off by some neighbours who had been alarmed by the screaming. Oh, you did not know you had Asperger’s back then, that you were abnormally sensitive – and the loud noises, the screaming, the flashing car lights, the strangers barreling into your bedroom while you were half undressed, was so overwhelming and scary you nearly jumped out the window, from the second story of your two-storey home. It was not that high of a drop, you remember thinking. Perhaps if you broke a leg or two, people would notice. People would care. He would care.

One night, by chance, by awful, awful chance, you discovered what had made your mother hit you and scream at you, because she could not do the same to her husband. You walked, unthinking, into your father’s room, to find something, when it was, surprisingly, unlocked, and you saw what was on the screen, who he was talking to. Agony and disgust carved you open. He was angry – of course, he was angry, what else could he be? It is easier to scream, to throw things, than cry, and show you are broken, and ashamed. Even then, as you fled, all you thought was: He will never love me again, not after I have seen that, his shame and my disgust, like bricks and mortar, working together to build an impenetrable barrier between us both.

That was the final snip. The strings that tie loved ones together like a cat’s cradle, by the chest – your string, to him, was cut. You confided to your mother, of what you had seen, and what you now knew, and watched her break down before you. She wept. Your parents, once Gods, now seemed all too human, and you hated it. You wanted them to be strong, and infallible again. You wanted to feel safe, again. You wanted them to love each other again, and you wanted them to love you, and, most of all, you wanted to love yourself. As time passed, you go on to learn that only one of those three is in your control.

Mother, having spent her years as a housewife under your father’s roof, now sought to leave the house with her children, with no job, no skills, no experience, no money. All she wanted was to leave the toxic environment, like all of us. True to form, father, seeing the end in sight, suddenly changed heart, and grew obliging, his affability veiling the panic underneath. At first, you thought he did care about you, and mother, and your siblings, after all – but then you realised he was simply afraid of losing the money the government would grant to single parents to help look after their offspring.

Your mother left. There were threats, raining down on your backs like arrows, as you departed, but the relief was far greater than the sting. Yes, your mother had to take on menial jobs, and work hard after sitting on a couch for several years, but that still made her happier than living with your father. A few sporadic phone-calls, perfunctory meetings, trickled in the first few weeks. Very soon, they dwindled, until all contact was lost. You wanted to feel relieved. Instead, you felt sad, and disappointed.

Even today, a year after the incident, when life has settled down into a pattern, if a hard and uncomfortable one, you still are, deep down, hurting. Every time you see your mother come home, tired from work, her left knee aching, you remember Him. Each time you worry about the price of toilet paper, or eat eggs to get your protein intake because meat is too expensive, or gaze wistfully at that book on the store shelf, you remember Him. When your lovely, beautiful sister’s eyes grow hard and heavy-lidded at any mention of him, you remember Him. When characters who have unhappy relationships with their fathers crop up in your writing, you remember Him.

You hate him. You hate him. You do. He was supposed to be kind and strong; he was supposed to protect his lost, little girl; he was supposed to be there for you, love you, care for you – instead, he left, not only you, but his whole family out in the cold. But a crackling fire without the company of others, the warmth of other bodies, laughter and conversation, offers very little warmth.

He is sad. Deep down, he is sad, just like me. Something happened to him, something to make him change. Maybe he wanted, as a young man, to make something of himself, only for his businesses to fail, one by one. When the world comes crashing down, you must cling to something: Unfortunately for him, rather than reach for love, he reached for his purse. But there is no excuse great or convincing enough that even you, with your imagination, can explain, and more importantly, atone for what he did and how he treated those he was meant to love and care for. None.

The scars he carved into your flesh will stay with you, until the day you die. It will impact you, subconsciously, in ways you cannot yet imagine, though you pretend to be unaffected. You will be afraid to allow men to whip out their knives and carve their signature tattoo onto your skin, because scars are forever – even when they heal, they still remind. You have to constantly remind yourself that you are beautiful, even with your scarification. You have to remember to hope, and learn to love, and learn to let people in.

No, your father was not a bad man. But he was wrong. What he did was wrong; and what he made you think about yourself was wrong.

You can make things right – you have the power to do that. You can spend the next few years healing yourself. Scars never fade entirely, but they can hurt less, and less, and less.

And one day, there will be someone who finds you beautiful, scars and all, and you will lean your head on his shoulder, a boulder against a mountain, the sun coming out behind your eyes and lips – and even if you do not find this special someone, after the rain and the storms, a rainbow will appear, across the sky of your soul, and that is all the love and happiness you will ever need.

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