My Father, From A Distance
by Scott Manley Hadley
My father is slowly dying of Parkinson’s disease, and has been for over ten years.
I have never been close to him, and now I never will be.
I struggle to write about my father because I don’t know if I like him, and this question makes me feel like a bad person.
I know that he is (and always has been) kind and polite. He isn’t racist, he isn’t sexist, he isn’t homophobic; he never had a drinking problem, he has never (yet) had problematic debts, he never hit me, my sister or my mother, he wasn’t verbally aggressive, he wasn’t rude. It is not normal to dislike someone because they didn’t do anything special.
But sometimes I do.
This disapproval grew because when I was a teenager, going through those oh-so-important-things that teenagers go through, he wasn’t there. Well, not emotionally.
He was always present physically, which made this harder to ignore. He didn’t talk, he didn’t engage, he didn’t ask questions about me. And I found this unforgivable.
I hated my father because he never took me aside and talked to me about girls. I hated my father because he never took me to the pub, didn’t teach me how to shave, change tyres, put up shelves, fix things… he never did any of the clichéd things a dad is meant to do as his son turns into a man.
He wasn’t always closed off – as a child under ten, I remember many occasions when he played with my sister and I. I remember he used to take us for walks through local woodland and make up stories, always about wolves and wild dogs. When I was a small child, he did all the things a dad was supposed to do.
Actually, that’s unfair. He did MORE than was expected – he coached the under-11s cricket team I was a reserve fielder for, he was a governor at the primary school my sister and I attended, and when my sister got a paper round she was too lazy to do sometimes, he did it instead so she wouldn’t lose the job. So, yes, he wasn’t a bad father. He wasn’t charming, he wasn’t eloquent, he wasn’t rich – but he comfortably achieved all the basic requirements of fatherhood, plus a little bit more. He was a good man.
And that is the nicest thing I can think to say about him.
I never played a single game for the cricket team my father coached. He, however, played sport (hockey in the winter, cricket in the summer) every weekend until well into his fifties, at the same sports club as his brother and his brother’s sons, which was the same club his father and his grandfather had played at, too.
This was not the club I trained at. My father never suggested I play there, amongst the other Hadley men. My father decided I, with my glasses, bookishness and poor hand-eye coordination, was not suitable for the clubhouse that men of my bloodline had been frequenting for generations, and I was taken instead, from the age of about eight onwards, to a peaceful village club just outside the town.
There is a part of me that wants to look at this and read abandonment – that my father saw my lack of sporting prowess and masculinity as embarrassing, that he did not want the guys “up the club”, as he used to say, to know that his son was different. However, I think the opposite is true.
If my father wanted to abandon me for my lack of sporting aptitude, he would have left me at home rather than take me to engage with his interests elsewhere. And if his plan was that I’d develop sufficiently to become good enough to be introduced to his friends, why – when he ran the coaching sessions – would he spend more time giving tips and advice to the boys that were good at cricket rather than fruitlessly focusing on me? There was no visible disappointment, no sense of shame. I suppose he just wanted to be around his son, and a shared interest in sport was the only way he knew for men to interact.
Maybe he was being braver than I gave him credit for: aware that – as a bespectacled geek – I didn’t have the toughness for the labourers he played with, he went out of his comfort zone to find a middle class club where we could play together. I have pleasant memories of prepubescent summers at that idyllic rural ground, nestled in the side of a wide valley. I remember beautiful, wide skies, the vivid sheen of the yellow rapeseed fields surrounding the pitch; I remember sheltering against summer downpours in the clubhouse, illicit packets of crisps, and I remember being driven through the countryside and tunelessly singing along to old songs on the radio with my dad.
I remember a lot about those summers.
But I don’t remember much cricket.
When I was eleven I began to attend a grammar school, seven miles away in a more affluent town. There, my accent, clothes, camping holidays, lack of worldliness and my father’s unskilled factory job made me a swift target for bullying. But the counterpoint to this aspect of school was my pleasant surprise upon discovering (in teachers and the parents of my peers) male adults who had read books, could speak about things I didn’t understand, and who had been further from the West Midlands than Cornwall in the last twenty years.
My father has been a daily reader of The Sun for as long as I can remember. I persuaded my mother to buy him The Times instead, once, when I was about twelve, but it went unopened and unread. Even then, I still tried to cluelessly brag to my middle-class peers that my parents had bought a broadsheet. Events like this, and the loud classroom jokes that followed my first grammar school friend visiting my home, combined to – gradually – make me feel nothing but scorn for where I came from.
David was my first best friend at grammar school, and his father was a management consultant who sometimes lectured at a nearby university. David and I both had younger siblings and we bonded on induction day by singing together the theme tunes from CBBC shows aimed at six- to eight-year olds. Induction day happened before the end of primary school, and I remember being awed by that first day inside a middle-class school. I’d never been to London, I don’t think I’d been to Birmingham (the nearest city) more than a handful of times, I’d seen very little of the world. There were three children in my new class who’d been to private school (like Hogwarts!), they wore blazers and straw hats as uniform (‘It’s not a straw hat, it’s a boater’, one of them told me). Loads of them were going to France, Italy and Spain that Summer, and almost all of them spoke in voices clipped and proper, like people on telly. There was only one other boy with an accent like mine. I felt I was sneaking into a different world. At the end of the day, when everyone’s parents picked them up, I don’t think I’d ever before seen so many cars that weren’t dented or gushing black smoke in the same place. My father looked distinctly unglamorous in a fleece jumper and a scratched-up Metro, particularly when parked next to BMWs driven by proud men in suits.
A year or two later, David told me my dad was stupid, and David made up a song about my mother being fat. David came to a sleepover at my house and then the Monday after told everyone at school about the grubby wallpaper and the worn carpets and the stacks of tabloids my father use to stockpile before taking them to the local recycling point.
I used to dread non-uniform days, because I knew other people would laugh again at my tracksuit bottoms by George and my t-shirts from Tesco, my clunky trainers a knock-off of an uncool brand. The materialism was relentless.
And I felt no loyalty. I felt no love. I was twelve then thirteen then fourteen then fifteen – I listened to the people whose parents had degrees and detached houses, crammed bookshelves, DVD players, theatre trips, spare bedrooms, art… I distanced myself from my family, because they were poor and lacked culture and I was taught this had to be despised.
I just did an Internet search for my father. I tried where he lives and the company he worked at for twenty-five years, but I couldn’t find a mention of him anywhere except on 192.com. I found another man with the same name who lives about ten miles away from him, a man who continues my father’s abandoned hobbies of cricket and jogging. This felt odd, almost like his identity had been usurped. Maybe the Mark Hadley from Halesowen would prove to be a better father to me, maybe I could call him up and we’d talk about my worries: my sister’s laziness, my terrible relationship, my mother’s health, my lack of a career, my drinking, my grandmother’s cancer, about how I’m really struggling to fucking adapt, dad, to adult life.
But Mark Hadley from Halesowen doesn’t want to hear about my problems. And Mark Hadley from Redditch, the “real” Mark Hadley, has never wanted to either.
You could argue that my father came from a different culture to me. That by choosing to attend a grammar school, I threw away my rights to legitimate expectations of camaraderie with a sports-loving unskilled labourer without any O Levels. But this isn’t true. Part of my father’s limited education happened at private school, his family regularly holidayed abroad when he was a child, and his younger brother went to Bristol University and still has about ten years left of a career that has seen him occupy high-level administrative positions at several of the huge car factories in the Midlands. My uncle, who I barely know, subscribes to the Guardian, has read B.S. Johnson and travels widely: he seems to be happy and well-informed. He likes sport too, so he and my father have always got on. This is one of the ways I used to justify my feelings towards my father – he had opportunities growing up that I never did, and he squandered them.
The private education he had, his parents couldn’t really afford. His mother was mayor of the town in the 1960s, my grandfather an estate agent. They spent a lot of money, leaving nothing for later. My grandmother died in a cramped council flat when I was about five, though her husband made it to his nineties, alive and active. He is regularly burgled, the block of flats he lives in surrounded by burnt out cars, syringes, empty K cider cans, roaches and broken glass. But my grandfather is fine, despite all that, and he recently installed the Internet. By contrast, my mother bought my father a tablet computer for his 60th birthday, which he broke within a week and hid out of shame. He found it confusing.
My father’s mother died of Parkinson’s Disease too. There is no scientific guarantee that it’s hereditary, but there is, already, in my family, evidence to suggest that it is. I am not happy to accept a slow decline and a painful death. I am pro-euthanasia and often behave impulsively because I am certain that if I do not die through misadventure or suicide by the time I’m fifty, I will follow in my father and my grandmother’s horrible shuffling footsteps.
Secretly, I’m scared.
I’m really fucking scared.
And I feel like I can never have children in case I pass it on to them.
Or in case my personality is destroyed before they love me.
My father was diagnosed, definitively, during my second year of university. It was explained to me that a lack of emotional engagement is a very early symptom of the disease. So the blank-faced man I grew to hate as a teenager was not a man who refused to engage, he was a man who, due to a degenerative, medical, physical condition, could not.
The first person I tried to discuss this with was my friend Mike, someone who I still see occasionally, but really our relationship peaked in the minutes before this exchange. We were sat next to a roaring summer bonfire at an “End of Term” (though, for him, pre-graduation) afterparty.
‘I’ve just found out my Dad’s got Parkinson’s,’ I said.
‘Well, my girlfriend’s just broken up with me because “I’m not a suitable partner for a graduate”,’ he said, doing air quotes with his fingers like everyone did that decade.
‘I’ve hated this man for years and the reasons can all be explained by illness,’ I said.
‘I get it,’ he said, ‘I know I like the pub and my football, but I’m a grafter too, yeah.’
‘I don’t like him but I don’t want to watch him die.’
‘Sure,’ said newly single Mike, ‘I’m gonna go get stoned.’
As he walked away, someone ripped off a fence panel and threw it on the fire.
Everyone’s got problems. But I wanted to talk about mine.
The years of disgust suddenly felt shameful. It felt so unfair and so unreasonable to feel that way about an ill man. I cried and railed and drank and smoked and partied too much for a few weeks, but then I decided there was something I was ignoring. My father had been emotionally unavailable during the “important”, teenage, parts of my youth. That is a thing that happened. My father was not there for things I saw other people – male and female – do with their fathers, and this is something I did miss out on.
But thinking this makes me feel like a prick – my father never beat me, didn’t run away, didn’t fuck my girlfriends, didn’t vomit on my bed, didn’t steal my books to sell for crack, didn’t go bankrupt, didn’t throw me out when I talked about kissing boys. He didn’t do anything bad. And he kept me with a roof over my head, fed and watered. I had my own room, a bicycle, an N64: it wasn’t poverty. So why did I care so much that he wasn’t rich?
I often used to form weird obsessions with successful men I met: in sixth form I found myself thinking about a friend’s entrepreneur father all the time. His name was Glen and he had an Aston Martin, like James Bond. He smoked cigars and stayed in hotels and knew how to scuba dive and was on his second marriage and wore beautiful shoes and sharp suits and said things like, “The most important thing in a man’s life is a good wallet” as he poured champagne into a crystal glass. He was a self-described school drop-out who night-schooled his way from O-Levels through to an MBA, and was the richest person I’d ever met. It was only because of him that I realised something else my father was lacking: there was nothing cool about him, nothing fashionable. And he wasn’t the only man cooler than my father I became fascinated by; I still watch with filial pride my favourite teacher’s career development over Facebook. He was a giant Chicagoan jazz singer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, poetry, prose and art. God, I wanted him to like me, but he had conspicuously less time for me the harder I tried to fit in with the other pupils. I wish I’d paid attention to that.
Since school, I’ve continued to seek approval from bosses and lecturers and other people’s fathers because I never knew it as a thing you could get at home.
My maternal grandfather, who I respect, has started having heart trouble recently. I see him only a few times a year, but I know that when he dies my non-butch tears will turn heads at his funeral. And if, as is likely to happen given his age and the time since my father’s diagnosis, these two men die at a similar time, I know that my visible grief will be heartily disapproved of, up in the repressed West Midlands. I’ve already cried many tears for my ill father, as well as for imaginary perfect father I’ve never had and now never will, but there are still more tears to come.
A good father-in-law is all I can hope for. But I’m getting older, and so are the fathers of the women I could marry. The father of the woman I live with doesn’t like me. My girlfriend tells me he doesn’t approve of my lack of ambition, by which he means my lack of interest in making money. He, the man of an older generation I see most frequently and probably, deep down, most want to impress, doesn’t like me for the exact same reasons I don’t like my own father.
My father and I look alike. I find this harder to ignore. I’ve put on weight recently, just a little bit, but enough to make me look both older and less handsome. And more like my father. Our faces are the same shape.
No, that’s not true. My face is the same shape as I remember his face.
Because when I see him now, he looks like an old man. Ten years ago, five, maybe, he looked young for his age. But as his body has destroyed itself from within, he has developed a stoop, his walk has become a shuffle, his hands have begun to shake so, so, much. So much. I stare at them when I’m with him and want to scream STOP FUCKING SHAKING, but even I have the tact to keep that inside. His hair has greyed and fallen out.
I remember him carrying a comb around when I was a child, always keeping his hair fixed. I suppose he used to be handsome.
Well, I have to convince myself of that if I want to feel comfortable leaving the house.
Because when I look in a mirror I see his slack eyes staring back.
It’s why I always kept my hair long. Not because I looked better, certainly not because I look more mature, but so I looked less like him.
There is only one photograph of him in my possession. I tried to find a digital copy to paste in here, but it’s not on this computer and I’ve never put it on the Internet. I must’ve last seen it in a physical form last Christmas, while looking through boxes of teenage possessions.
In that photograph he looks great. Tanned, strong, healthy. He always had good teeth. I don’t know what they look like now.
The photograph I’m thinking of was taken on a disposable camera just before a party I went to at the beginning of sixth form. It would be the first night I drank alcohol, the first time anyone ever touched my penis, the first time I smoked a cigarette and the first time I fell asleep with another person in my arms.
It was at a farm that belonged to the family of two sisters I went to school with. There was a field of tents, a makeshift stage in a barn, live music, a lake, a botched attempt at cunnilingus in a hedgerow, a fire, a barbecue, parents laid back about the idea of a hundred teenagers sleeping and pissing and vomiting next to their house, dogs, cats, chickens, and – visible as the sun rose, their voices echoing across the dew-licked fields – cows.
This was the point in my life when key changes were coming and the adult I was to become was being born. And as much as I teen-angstly hated my parents and was getting ready to go to the first “wild party” of my life, there was still a part of me that wished to include an image of my father amongst the visual, material, evidence of that party. Maybe I wasn’t so bad.
A few weeks ago, I went with my father to a professional football match. I had never been to one before, not even to my father’s hallowed Villa Park. He was meant to be going with his brother, who cancelled. I offered myself as a replacement, to allow my father to have a father-son experience like a normal fucking bloke should’ve already had by his age.
It was strange. And it was a façade. When men go together to football, I imagine, they talk. I imagine they discuss players and the opposition and tactics. I imagine they “banter”, chat about women, politics, business, whatever. But my father and I had nothing. He is quiet now. He says very little.
I knew nothing about the game and felt no interest in the performance of either team. But I sat there, and enjoyed the spectacle.
We parked in an industrial estate to save money and walked from the car. We crossed over a dual carriageway and, as we began to walk down a residential street that my father said was a shortcut, he suddenly shouted to a man he knew, Rocky. For a moment they discussed the forthcoming match, energetically, with excitement and insight. Then I was introduced.
‘This your lad?’ Rocky asked, and my father said a monosyllabic ‘Yeah’ before their conversation petered out. I shook Rocky’s hand and he jogged off to catch up with his friends. ‘He’s a good bloke,’ my father said, pointing in the direction he’d gone. He wasn’t much older than me.
Inside the stadium, staring at the rectangle of green, I began to understand the mentality of the crowd. I felt lifted and buoyed and shaken by the vast amount of emotion being expelled within those walls. I heard my father say names and words under his breath I didn’t understand. At one point I got swept up in the excitement and stood to watch a player almost score a goal, when I looked across at my father stood beside me, he smiled.
I enjoyed too the booming echo the stadium made whenever the ball was kicked particularly hard, and I was amused by the low quality of the entertainment and the cheap local adverts scrolling on the big screen.
Also, too, I felt good giving my father the opportunity to enjoy an archetypal male activity. But it felt false. He hadn’t taken his son to his first football match, I had taken him. I had driven, I had helped him cross the roads, I had tried to keep conversation going, I had tried to make sure he was excited and enjoying himself. Even though I wasn’t somewhere I had been before, I felt responsible. I felt stressed watching him count coins out of a plastic bag as his chubby, shaking fingers struggled to grip the metal discs. I felt like a carer, I felt in charge, but I didn’t feel comfortable grabbing the bag from his hands and counting out the money for the tickets – he insisted on paying – myself.
My father has always kept his change in plastic money bags. I have many memories of his thick digits scraping twenty pence pieces out of them in fish and chip shops, gambling shops and petrol stations across the UK. Glen, my friend’s father, once told me that having a nice wallet was a masculine essential, and back then seeing my own father extract torn plastic bags from the pocket of a dirty, high-vis coat was enough to make me blush. But the meaning of the lack of wallet is gone. Now it is the loss of dexterity that has meaning, the way his palm cannot keep still to hold the bag steady, the way he has to screw up his eyes like a toddler to control his fingers. The most important thing in my father’s life isn’t the lack of a good wallet and the lack of money to put in it, it is the disease that, bit by bit, is ending his life.
At the football, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the crowds, I wasn’t awed by the game. It wasn’t the important moment in my life or his that I know it could have been. And I didn’t know how he felt because, though I asked him, he wouldn’t say. He never says.
And now, when I know that I should be “cherishing every moment” because he can’t have more than five years left, tops, I can’t be bothered.
I don’t feel enough. I don’t feel sad because he’s dying, nor do I feel sad that the only traditional father-son activity we ever shared as adults was something I initiated. Would it be worth repeating? Not really, as to do this regularly would be inconvenient, we live a hundred miles apart. Gestures like this don’t mean enough to make them worth the time and expense. But what retains disproportionate meaning is that idea of the imaginary father I never had.
And I know that none of the ideals are perfect – I know my friends with successful fathers have weighty expectations pushed on them, I know my friends whose dads are actively trying to be “cool” wish they’d grow up a bit, I know my friends who never knew their dad wish he’d been more present, and I know my friends whose dads died unexpectedly wish they’d had the opportunity for a prolonged goodbye.
And that’s just it. My relationship with my father feels like little more than a prolonged goodbye – he’s not going to get better, and he’s not going to become articulate and charming and affluent either. He’s nice, and he didn’t run away. The general consensus seems to be that this is what makes someone a good father.
But why couldn’t he have been nice and exciting?
I know I’m a bad person for not being able to love my father. But every time I see him there is more he cannot do. He has been forced into early retirement, I no longer feel comfortable being driven by him and find it hard to believe he will be legally allowed to drive for much longer. He cannot keep himself fit, he cannot learn anything new. I look at his life and see nothing to be proud of, nothing to define him in any way at all. I see this, despite knowing that the achievements of my school friends’ fathers are equally as transient, they will leave no more significant an imprint on the world. In 100 years’ time, we will all be forgotten.
My father’s best quality is that he is kind. He has never knowingly hurt anyone, destroyed anything or committed any act, in front of me, that has any kind of selfish motivation. But it is from this that my apathy stems – he is selfless to the point where he has failed to form set ideas of what and who he is. He does not display desire; he has never displayed ambition. He has failed to impress me because he has never achieved anything – and he has never achieved anything because he has never tried to.
My apathy towards him may be rooted in materialism, but it is also connected to the fact that his existence, his idea of self, is so minor in his existence. I felt fatherless as a teenager because I had a dad I couldn’t debate with, I couldn’t learn from, I couldn’t hang out with, and this empty father has slid, with characteristic lack of effort, from uninspiring middle age to dying old man. Though I am not yet literally fatherless, maybe given my lack of empathy it’s fair to call me a bastard.
The real betrayal was mine, growing to despise a peaceful, unimposing, father; I know he did nothing wrong by failing to be a proper, rich, grammar school daddy.
I wish I hadn’t listened to the schoolroom jeers. I wish I hadn’t learnt contempt. But there isn’t time to make amends. And if there were, I don’t think I’d bother. I’m letting him down, but he let me down first. So what if it was Parkinson’s fault? I did live through years with an emotionally absent father, so he’s probably going to die with an emotionally absent son. Nobody wins, and both of us lose.
Image by Chris Schmich.
About the Author:
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and his debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, is published November 2018 by Open Pen. He is Satire Editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House and is on Twitter @Scott_Hadley.