Love that encapsulates understanding
When I was very small, I’d hear my father singing a certain lyric with a plangent tune. Decades later I’d discover it was a pop song called The Quartermaster’s Store, a song for children with nonsense words.
But that’s not how my father sung it. For him, the chorus was: I have no eyes, I cannot see; I have no one to comfort me.
He was the unloved middle child of a humorless and dour upper-working-class family in a claustrophobic terrace house in a small town a few miles from Leeds. The eldest child got the hope and pride; the youngest got what little affection (or at least absence of perpetual criticism and silent disapproval) there was to be had. My father, stuck adrift in the middle, was about as emotionally deprived as it’s possible to be.
I didn’t understand any of this as his son. I was too small. All I knew was the man who rolled home stinking drunk every night and who left the next morning without talking to his family. All I knew was the abusive hard man who on Sundays made our lives miserable.
It’s not so great, being afraid and ashamed of one’s father. As I grew up, from time to time I’d have to take care of him. Like when he dropped a case of beer bottles on the stairs because he was already too drunk to walk properly. Or when he was shaking with alcoholic sweats while I sat with him, mopping his brow and keeping him hydrated.
And then he died, overtaking a row of cars in the pouring rain and at the last minute swerving to avoid the truck that had nowhere else to go. He ended his life wrapped around a lamp-post.
I was only surprised it hadn’t happened earlier.
It took me a long, long time to realize how impossibly lonely he was. He had no idea what love was, nor how one might go about finding it. His marriage was a catastrophe from the beginning, resulting from an accidental pregnancy and sheer desperation and then going quickly downhill from there.
His colleagues were all isolated loveless drunks too, unable even to offer one another much in the way of comfort.
In the few photos I have of him and my mother back then, everyone was drinking heavily and each person seemed to be smoking at least a half-dozen cigarettes. They were consumed by their desperate and doomed attempts to self-medicate, to flee from ever-present emotional distress.
On the rare occasions we spent time together when he wasn’t entirely drunk, he gave me the only emotional contact he had in his repertoire: disappointment and disapproval.
Sure, I was only eight years old but why on earth couldn’t I create a precise engineering drawing and then use it to build a complex shape out of wood, using the correct saws and lathe and nails with the right dovetail joints and clever internal swivels?
Likewise when at age ten I thought I’d invented the concept of the base-10 logarithm and proudly explained it to him and why I thought it would be useful, he made it clear I was an ignoramus for not already being aware of the fact many different forms of log already existed, log-e being the most interesting and log-10 being patently obvious.
When I was fifteen and visiting him briefly in Spain we had the single positive moment of interaction in our lives. One evening we sat together while he explained how crude oil is fractionated and how the various fractions can be subsequently altered in various ways and with various catalysts. I understood enough chemistry and physics by then to chime in from time to time, which he seemed to appreciate. And I saw how much he really loved his work (he had undergraduate degrees in both mechanical and chemical engineering).
When he died, I didn’t feel much.
I’d built up enough protective emotional calluses that I could get by without needing other people. People would, in fact, mostly just let you down.
I was on track to becoming a not-so-great adult, even though I was always trying to understand why things were the way they were, why people behaved the way they did, why people believed the things they did. Understanding was my route to growth, because I had no other options. I was always diligent, always ready to help others when they needed it, and I learned that this generally breeds resentment within those to whom one gives aid. So I learned to accept this fact too, without rancor. My armor was pretty good, all things considered.
And then, my son was born.
Everything I know about love and compassion and kindness and being truly open to another human being has been the result of becoming a parent.
If I’d remained childless there’s a decent chance I’d have been a slightly-improved version of my father: rigid, task-driven, utterly reliable, and terribly lonely. Instead I discovered the wonder of loving absolutely and unconditionally without any expectation or hope of return — and then being delighted when love was returned. I learned tolerance and compassion and forgiveness and tenderness.
Like a great many people must surely do, when I held my infant son in my arms or felt him fall asleep on my chest, I understood profoundly that whatever had happened to me at that age had not been my fault.
All children internalize, all children assume deep down that if bad things happen to them it’s because somehow they deserved it. In my case it took the physical act of looking at my small helpless and defenseless son to understand emotionally as well as intellectually that I’d just been unlucky. My family hadn’t been adequate; it had not been my fault.
As my children grew, I grew with them. I saw my role as helping them become the best people they were capable of being. I answered all their “why” questions, helped them deal with emotions, and told them every day how much I loved them and how proud I was of them. Even when we’d had a fight or a major fuss.
Most of all, I learned to make it abundantly clear that I’d be there whenever I was needed, whenever I might be able to help in whatever way, large or small, could potentially make some kind of positive difference. No matter what our ups and downs, my children always knew with absolute certainty that they were loved and that I’d always be there for them.
I also learned, some year later, that it’s just as important to reach out and let adults know that, should they need it, they can get support or simply a compassionate ear. Due to the fact I learned this lesson too late, I lost someone whom I might possibly have saved if I’d made more of an effort, if I’d made it more clear that I would be there for them.
Since then I’ve intentionally erred on the side of potentially being too ready to volunteer help, and not surprisingly this can come across as pushy or just odd. But then, folk are always free to ignore the offer, decline politely, or just tell me to fuck off; I have no problem with any of these reactions. I just don’t want ever again to learn someone I could have helped took their own life because they thought they were totally alone in the terrible darkness of despair.
Perhaps it’s different for others, but I’ve found peace in the knowledge that one loves and is loved. Jobs may come and go, money may never be quite sufficient for one’s needs (and damn, mine are modest!), friends may depart, the body may slowly age and decline. But when you’ve truly loved without reservation and been fortunate enough to have felt love in return, there’s a foundation of contentment and stillness inside that no external tempest or quake can disturb.
Sometimes I wish my father had lived another couple of decades. Perhaps by then I’d have understood enough and matured enough to be able to reach out to him and maybe, just maybe, let him know he didn’t need to die alone and unloved.