So it’s been a while since I’ve posted in this space. Life has been busy and tumultuous – more on that in a later post perhaps. But I’ve been wanting to blog more about the things that have shaped me into the person I am today – in an attempt to define the values I hold and the beliefs I cherish. And in the hopes that in writing down my origins I can get some sense of where I’m headed. Something that is especially timely these days. And if others find enjoyment or learning from these stories, well, all the better.
Today’s blogpost theme is Fatherly Love. In it I explore my relationship with my father, a man whom I loved deeply and who passed away after a long struggle with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005.
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I had a strong respect for my father from an early age; I wanted above all else to earn his approval. I was also terrified of him, of what he represented. He was an authority figure whose job it was to show me right from wrong and who, I felt, was judging my every action. He was also a man who had endured great suffering. My mother took great care to tell us, their three children, about my father’s kidney transplant at age 25, how he had almost died and then miraculously survived. How they had embraced life together afterwards and had accepted that life was precious and in need of cherishing. Life was also, we were told, fragile. Very fragile.
My father’s health was never good, for all the years I knew him. He had vertigo and sometimes would black out, especially as he grew older. He was a hemophiliac, which means bumping into objects left him bleeding all over the place without end. His skin as thin as parchment, this was not an uncommon occurrence. He also battled with skin cancer for years and regularly would go in to the doctor’s office to have a malignant wart frozen and removed. He wore thick glasses that doubled the size of his eyes when he wore them and rendered him even more imposing. But the kidney transplant was the main threat to his survival. He was living on borrowed time, we were told. And I, for one, had no reason to doubt it.
The medications he was on kept his body from rejecting the organ his mother had donated to him, but they were also slowly killing him. The drugs ate away at his muscles until, as he crept towards his 60s, he could no longer stand on his two legs or walk. His muscles had atrophied and the rheumatoid arthritis was so severe that his feet jutted out at a 90 degree angle from his legs, and his fingers dangled useless from his gnarled hands, the swelling having cut off the nerves. He crawled around the house on his knees, shuffling across the carpet from one room to the next on styrofoam pads. My father never complained about this. Each night he would do stretching exercises, at first in the pool in the back yard and then, when that became too difficult, in his bedroom. I could hear him huff and puff from my room at the top of the stairs.
The family treated my father with deep reverence. Here walked a sage who had endured great suffering and to whom we were all beholden. Because despite his great personal suffering he had also managed to establish himself as a well-respected psychiatrist. He had his own private practice until the day he died at 65. And throughout his life he dabbled with teaching university-level courses, though he always seemed to prefer working with patients, first hand. Forensic psychiatry was another strong interest, and one that he practiced more and more in later life, appearing in court as an expert witness in murder trials. His work kept him alive, he said, and it was the single most rewarding aspect of his life. Besides his family, perhaps.
He loved the family he had built. I never heard him say an unkind word to or about my mother, his loyalty complete until the very end. He doted on his then three daughters and had big dreams for all of us. My sisters were much older than me and left the house before his illnesses truly crippled him. But we all lived with the fear of not knowing how long he would be around, and witnessed his constant pain, the result of severe rheumatoid arthritis, another side effect of his medications.
I loved, respected and feared my father, and, in a childish way, believed that his life depended on my total obedience. That was unfortunate because I was a naturally energetic, rambunctious child who seemed to get in trouble at every turn. I wore out my babysitters with my constant drive for excitement and enjoyed nothing more than activities like playing outside in the Prince George snow, barefoot, wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt. Even then, though, I carried a darkness in me, a sense I could not shake that I was evil beyond hope. A belief that was probably born from the vestiges of my cultural heritage as a protestant Afrikaner from South Africa.
As Calvinist Christians, my parents – especially my father – held the belief that we were all born in sin; only by the grace of God did any of us stand a chance to achieve forgiveness and gain access to heaven. I took these beliefs to heart and struggled to regulate my impulses, sexual or otherwise. My father had a temper too, and when I behaved particularly badly he would take me to my room, throw me over his lap and spank me with his bare hand. This is hurting me more than it’s hurting you, he would say to me, but I didn’t believe him. I recall one particular day when my father’s voice bellowed forth from a neighbouring room, calling me. I froze. Terrified of the upcoming spanking I feared was inevitable, I sought to protect my behind – and sat down. The loud crack that followed was the sound of some of my father’s prized vinyl records breaking under my weight.
When my father entered, his anger exploded. I darted from the room, up the stairs and to my bedroom. My father soon followed and I received my worst spanking ever. That was perhaps the only time my father came close to losing control with me. Most of the time he was a gentle man, a kind and loving father. This moment was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps that is why it terrified me so.