Today is my father’s 66th Birthday. I’ve been living in the UK for 10 years now and I have missed the last decade’s worth of birthdays. I’m going home in 9 days and I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to give him. People have offered up suggestions that have ranged from a set of bagpipes (I live in Scotland) to a bottle of Glenmorangie (which I send every year anyway). I think I’ve settled on a Scotland rugby shirt for ease of transport, but it hardly represents the depth of feeling I have at the prosepct of seeing my dear old Dad again.
My father and I were not close when I was a child. Although I sensed I was the apple of his eye and I was spoilt for all things material, in terms of being able to communicate with him beyond the hugs I gave him, there was not much there. I admired him, and feared him a little. Being from a large Mexican family and the oldest, he was used to giving the orders and although I doubt he was aware of the effect his presence had on me and my brother, we avoided him. We respected him, but opening up was not the done thing. So, the development of our parent/child relationship was largely left with our mother to contend with. The PTA meetings, bake sales, conferences and pep-talks were her remit while our father worked all hours, 65+, 6 days a week, to keep us fed and better off in the toy department than that other kids in the neighbourhood. The downside, is that we didn’t know him, except as the disciplinarian, a role my mother was happy to relinquish.
When I was about 14 years old, my mother fell seriously ill. She was in hospital for about two weeks and in that time, my brother was away at college. Suddenly, I was alone with my father. We went to the hospital each day and sat at her bedside. Each evening, as he whispered to her, willing her to get well, I sat on the stiff backed chair in the corner of the room reading and sketching in my notebook. Dad would sometimes disappear into the corridor where the vending machines stood and come back with a coffee in one hand and a snickers bar for me in the other. We barely spoke in those first few days, when the outcome was uncertain.
As my mother’s condition improved, my father underwent a change in demeanour. He was no longer aloof, but engaged me in conversation, asking me about my life and interests. We went out for dinner together in the evenings and talked about ourselves and our family. I learned about my father’s life on a ranch in Mexico, about how he and my mother met. This is a story she had told me many times before, but hearing it coming from him made it more real. For the first time, I realised my workaholic father was human and that he had a wife and children he loved.
When my mother recovered and was home again, he was a changed man. I began to go to him for comfort and consultation when I had problems at school. I turned to him not for pocket money, but to learn from the benefit of his experience and to hear stories about the life and culture I was a part of, but never bothered to learn before.
Now, when I need to talk about work or family or issues that concern me, I ring home and listen to my parents fight over the receiver, each wanting to be included in my life even if it is just for the hour we share over the phone at the weekends when I remember to call. I hang up happy to know they are well, but filled with guilt for not calling regularly enough or for assaulting them with my problems when I do. I realise that, like so many people my age, I take my parents for granted.
I’m trying to remember my father’s size for the rugby shirt. I’m anxious for September to come so that I can be home again. I make a mental note to call more often. All these thoughts pass through my head as I wonder if once I’m back I’ll keep my word or if life will be allowed once more to get in the way. I have become my father of the early years, too busy with work to speak about anything real; a ghost to my family and I wonder what event will befall me in order for me to change.