Fathers and Sons

The responses to the blogs I’ve written about David have been, without exception, very supportive, and thank you one and all. I really expected that there would be one or two that said something like “wake up and get a life loser, stop wallowing in self pity and write something to enrage the RWDBs or what’s happening in politics”. Instead I seem to have inspired a rash of fathers reaching out to their ’18 year-old- gawks’.

Displaying one’s innermosts is taxing on the tear ducts and it must be showing because my wife told me yesterday to get back to reality and ‘straighten up’. My wife’s like that you see, logical, pragmatic, organised – all the things I’m not; it’s a wonder we’ve been able to get along together for 35 years. Still, that’s the subject of another blog. This bit’s about fathers relationships with their sons and it will be the last for a while until I recharge my emotional batteries.

GUILT, ANGER AND DENIAL
Listen to the words of that song “The Cats in the Cradle”.

I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu,
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

When your kids are growing up you never seem to have enough time, or sometimes even the inclination to get up close and personal. There’s no reason is there, you’ll always have plenty of time, after the next contract, once the business is profitable, when I get my promotion, I promise we’ll spend more time together. Then they grow up and leave you. Or they die. I have to now tread a narrow path between overloading my remaining son Sean with all our hopes and giving him enough room to become his own man. Immediately David died, I started to entertain the thought of a replacement. This was not feasible for at least two reasons, I recognized the limitations of my age and secondly I could not reverse the vasectomy done soon after David’s birth. But now the continuation of the Wood name rests in the gonads of one mixed up boy who, according to his mother is prone to severe endogenous depression, and a skinny wisp of a girl who has probably had her womb scrambled by PID. When you think about it the whole family has failed to be fruitful and multiply.

Where is the point of balance. How much can you expect of your children ? Even though Sean has gone off on his own now, and I understand his need to do that, I’m really pleased he stayed with David to the end. Going overseas with for three years was the best way of growing up and away from my father. I hope that Sean can get over the trauma and start to develop his life. Perhaps he needs to go further away from us.

Ordinary men don’t leave anything behind. Religion uses this fear to attract acolytes by suggesting that we go somewhere, pandering to the horror of nothingness. That’s probably why old people get religious. Who amongst us wants to believe there is nothing but the abyss ? I believe that only the “giants” leave anything – Socrates, Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Michaelangelo, Newton etc. The only remnant of me will be my children, and how impermanent they are. Maybe somebody will read those journals we wrote on our travels, hopefully a few will read this on a weblog, perhaps these words will last after me. More likely it will all be thrown out when I die. We seem to have so little sense of family history, I had to keep harassing Pop to keep his journals and genealogical information for me to be kept in trust, and since Pop died it’s just as hard to get Dad to put in writing his memories, then I have to convince Sean to keep it all for his future.

I remember very few of my school teachers, one of them is Mr Wills at Enfield High. He was a fat man with protruding teeth that caused him to spit when he spoke quickly. He had to teach a bunch of mindless cretins English. Peer group pressure forbade me from admitting that I liked anything that involved thought, imagination or writing. That didn’t stop Mr. Wills from encouraging me to try to express myself. It was probably he who put the idea into my head that an ordinary man could leave something for the future. We kept several pieces of David’s schoolwork in his camphorwood box. One bit was particularly bittersweet. A couple of pages entitled “Imagination” seemed to encapsulate his potential. That is the worst part about dying young; what could he have been ?

I don’t dream in the normal sense that I wake up being able to distinguish between being asleep and awake. Instead I have sort of deep daydreams and fantasy states all the time knowing that I’m really awake. This may have something to do with having encephalitis when I was a kid. When David was in Adelaide having chemo and surgery, my daydreams were pretty normal;, winning the lottery, sexual fantasies, average stuff. But when we came home in January my daydreams became very morbid and I constantly had visions of David in great pain, screaming in agony and us being unable to help. Sometimes these visions were so clear that I would panic and couldn’t go back to sleep. I would go outside and read a book until I calmed down enough to go back to sleep.

Some nights I only got a couple of hours sleep and couldn’t get up in the mornings. I was dog tired all the time and when I got to work, couldn’t concentrate. In the afternoon I would stay at work and play computer games because I couldn’t face going home to see David. I never let my guard down. During the day I practiced denial – lying to myself because the reality of the situation was too painful – while at night I had these lurid daydreams about how David would look after he died, who would come to the funeral, what would we put in the paper, how would I feel, what would I do. At the time I think I was mental mess. Now I realize that what I was experiencing was normal denial, but what I should have done was quit work and stay home full time with David long before I eventually did.

I read an essay in a book compiled by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross about the Jewish tradition of Shiva. It seems like a good idea to visit and comfort someone after a death. The definition of mourning is especially precise.

The Jewish custom of Shiva – copied from DEATH – THE FINAL STAGE OF GROWTH.
When the burial is completed the grief work intensifies as the focus of the community’s concern shifts to the mourner. Mourning is essentially a process of unlearning the expected presence of the deceased. Returning from the cemetery the mourners find a meal of recuperation waiting for them. The meal serves several purposes. First, it is a visible sign of communal solidarity reassuring the mourners that they are not alone and that others stand ready to help even if the one who helped in the past is gone.

Second, it restates the theme of life and forces the mourner to recognize that life must still go on, even though they may feel that it has ended with the loss of the loved one.

With that first meal there begins the week of Shiva, the institution through which the tradition advances the grief work for the mourner most effectively. Grief work begins with the initial release of feelings usually expressed in the recounting of the events leading up to the death, and moves from there to the recounting of the memories of life. It is important that the bereaved person have a safe framework within which they can express all the feelings that are set in motion by the loss of the beloved.

The Shiva brings the mourners together to retell and relive their experiences of the death and to share once again the memories of the past when the family circle was whole. The condolence call provides the mourner with the opportunity to tell their story many different times to many different people, each of whom are enjoined to allow the mourner to speak first so that the mourners interests are allowed to be the focus of conversation. The visitor is asked not to say platitudes, but only to listen, and by listening, to enable the griever to vent their feelings. If a mourner cannot find the words with which to express their grief, then the visitor comforts them with silence and with shared physical presence. At a time when there are no words, the visitor should feel no need to fill the spaces with chatter or divert the mourner. Silence has it’s own kind of eloquence and sometimes can be more precious than words.

I have often felt guilty about not writing to my grandfather. He usually included a few lines in a birthday card or dropped a little note when something special had happened. I always told myself to take the time to respond because I knew it brought him pleasure, but I’m too selfish, and now it’s too late. I’d like to talk more with my Dad but we don’t seem to be able to communicate with each other. Mum’s no problem. She and I are able to sit and talk about almost anything. I shy away from telling her my innermost thoughts about Dad because I know she would be hurt, but about anything else we treat each other as adults. I have the same difficulty with my middle brothers. Paull is different. As he said at the funeral, he and David were kindred spirits, so too are we. At first I didn’t want my brothers to come to the funeral. My grief was exclusive, I didn’t want to share it with anyone else. I’m glad they insisted or Mum convinced me, I can’t remember now, but in any case on reflection it would have been very selfish of me to deny them their expression of grief. As it turned out both Russ and Paull made a valuable contribution to David’s farewell. When I think about my relationship with David, I am reminded of the bit in Taylor Caldwell’s book.

I DO NOT KNOW MY SON, I NEVER KNEW HIM.

It’s strange that we never really talk to our fathers. David’s inability to express himself and let me into his head is inherited. I didn’t know my father loved me until I heard him talking in his sleep the day before I was married. I’m sure he feels the same about his father, I wonder if Pop has ever taken Dad in his arms and hugged him, to demonstrate his love. He was at hand for seven months during David’s illness and we never exchanged more than a handful of words about how he felt about David. At least having David at home and being so intimately involved in his care allowed me to tell him that I loved him and for him to acknowledge that love. There was nothing left unsaid between us when he died – not on my part. I wish he had talked more about how he felt and what he thought about. But then that was his way of getting through the day, of putting off the inevitable. “Maybe if I don’t make a deathbed confession I’ll never die” he may have thought. Who knows what little games he played in his mind before it became befuddled by morphine ?

I copied this from a book by Taylor Caldwell. (I think it was Dear and Glorious Physician)

I do not know my son, I never knew him.

It is not a matter of the generations, or of the few years between us, nor experience, nor wisdom, nor obstinacy, nor youthful stubbornness, or blindness or rebellion. It is a human matter. No man knows another. It is unfortunate that men expect that, because their son is the fruit of their loins, they have a closer intimacy, a clearer comprehension, as though they were one being. Yet a man’s friend, older or younger, often has a deeper loving insight into his heart and his thoughts than does his son, for kindred is not a matter of the blood but a thing of the spirit. Blessed is the man who discovers in his son a friend !

Our children are strangers to us. Wise is the father who understands that from the beginning. He clothed his son in his flesh, but is not the father of his soul. Let him cultivate his friendship as he would that of a stranger. If friendship is repudiated, then it should not be demanded, for what man can be a friend to another if there is no sympathy; friendship cannot be forced.

A son’s love is a vagrant thing and may be given and refused without reason. It is not a jewel in the marketplace that gold, or even devotion or any other currency can buy. A man must not seek to compel his son to love him for it may be impossible for a thousand illogical impulses. He must only earn respect and honour, and in the end these may be of more value.

I wrote to Phil Kearns, the Wallaby captain, telling him that David had been ill and asking if he would send a note of encouragement. He sent a package including the dress shirt and boots saved from the tour of Ireland, a signed photo and a note on a poster. The letter said;

Dear Dave,

Just thought I’d drop you a short note to wish you all the best in your test match battle against your illness.

If you remember some of the tests the Wallabies have played in over the last few years, we have fought back from being behind. Just when the others thought we were down and out we always knew, deep down, that we had the courage, determination and the will to win, not to mention the mateship and spirit to overcome the odds. We all know that you have these qualities.

You will find that as you get older and you’ve beaten this cancer you will have a perspective on life that is different to people who haven’t gone through what you have. This is something special, cherish it !

Enclosed is your poster, a photo of me in South Africa before training in Pretoria, one of our liesureware shirts ( which may be a little big) and my football boots that I wore in my first test as captain against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. I expect to see you wearing them one day if you fit into them.

Keep your chin up, good luck and beat the bastard,
all the Wallabies are with you.

Best wishes, Phil Kearns.

It was a long time before I felt capable of writing to him. Every time I attempted to put something on paper I would start crying, become deeply depressed, and stay that way for a couple of days. Eventually I was able to get through it.

16 January 1995

Dear Phil,

Perhaps you remember writing to a boy in the Territory who suffered with cancer and sending him your shirt and the boots you wore in Ireland. David died in August. I’ve left this letter until now for a number of reasons, mostly that I can only now think about his death without weeping.

You will never know how much David appreciated your gifts. He never let on whether things were upsetting him or making him feel better. When I spoke to you on the phone he was in remission, that is, between treatment and resurgence of the disease. During this time he absolutely refused to concede that he was sick. He just tried to act normally and get on with being a teenager.

That’s why he never thanked you personally, that would have meant recognizing that he had been ill, and his way of coping was to try and blot it from his mind. It was the same when, during the game against Italy, the commentator sent a message to David, he didn’t respond. Although I think that by then he knew that he was dying – he never gave up until the last moment. You would have been proud of him.

David displayed all the attributes you mentioned in your note; if courage, determination and will had been enough then he would still be alive. Unfortunately his physical strength wasn’t enough and current medical technology hasn’t advanced sufficiently to help him overcome the disease. If his physical size approximated that of his spirit then your shirt and boots would have been too small.

We’ve put all of David’s sports medals, his representative jerseys and other stuff in a camphorwood box so that we have all our memories together. Your gear holds pride of place amongst our mementos. We wish you and the Wallabies all the best for the World Cup, no matter what happens, you have at least two supporters in the Territory who know that you gave your all. We hope that one day we can meet to thank you in person, and better articulate our feelings.

We will never forget your kindness to our son,

Your friends in Rugby,

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Niall
2022 years ago

Indeed, Wayne. Time for a recharge. You have given this little black duck a lot to think about.

Carita
2022 years ago

My condolences Wayne for your terrible loss. I hope you may get back to your life again soon.

The post was lovely. I’ve never experienced the loss of someone close, in all of my 21 years, and I can’t even begin to imagine what your family has been through.

I wish you all the best,

Carita.

Jozef
2022 years ago

Silence has it’s own kind of eloquence and sometimes can be more precious than words.

I know it’s rare for a post to touch so many lives, and I appreciate your timing of the broken silence, Wayne.

My late father was just as thoughtful as you.

Jozef

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Wayne, it takes inordinate amount of courage to be a human being in life’s difficult moments. I’m sure your son exemplified this. I know how difficult it can be to write about certain episodes in one’s life. It takes enormous personal strength to write with unabashed sincerity, when it can seem much simpler to self-censor.

Humanity is plagued with its misunderstandings. Now that I’m a bit older and having made my fair share of mistakes, I can appreciate my father a lot more. Despite being such different people with sometimes quite different aspirations, I think there is a far greater understanding than when I was younger. Its always hard to evaluate filial relationships, and I think all father-son relations are riddled with these complexities. Words that should of been said, things said in fury, things interpreted in totally different ways.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

Glad to see that the swinish comments have been expunged, so that I can get in a more or less sensible word. As I said over at my blog, this post is one of a kind – and well worth the writing. I’m not sure that you should write yourself off as an “ordinary man” either; it’s history which judges which of us is ordinary and who is to be counted among the greats, not our contemporaries. I think this applies especially in an era where the main qualification for renown as a public intellectual seems to be a capacity for strident and unreasoning advocacy of personal prejudice.

Perhaps it was ever thus; it takes time, and the backward glance of posterity to sort out the blowhards from the truly wise.

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2022 years ago

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