WE HAVE FOUGHT MONSTERS
Families. I’ve been finding this single, ordinary, but complex and emotionally charged word being batted about in my head like a demented ping pong ball a lot lately.
My dad died last month. An abusive man, our relationship was far from easy and proved to be problematic my entire life. After my mother died I essentially became his carer. I lived at home and overtook the role that mum’s death had vacated. I took care of the house; shopping, cleaning, cooking, washing and what I had initially thought to be a temporary measure soon lengthened into years. It became a frighteningly comfortable arrangement and one that proved increasingly difficult to break away from. I was isolated, mentally and physically ill, and the outside world became a distant memory. I went from one end of the week to the other without speaking to another soul, with the exception of sales assistants.
My dad had a well-established drink problem and I can honestly say I never had a proper conversation with him. Our brief token words were to do with the house, what he fancied for tea, and what time to put the oven on for him coming home from the pub. Our occasional arguments focused on my mum dying when it should have been him and involved me screaming at him out of sheer frustration at the situation I found myself in, while he stared at the TV ignoring me. I saw no way out.
My sister, fifteen years older than me, was happier to leave me to it. She saw it as my job. I lived at home. I didn’t work. She on the other hand worked full time. Having no family of her own, I would see her sometimes at the weekend when she would stay over treating me to a takeaway and a bottle of wine – payment in kind for doing what she herself refused to. Her constant criticism of me, helped keep me in the roll that had been carved out for me. She would walk around the house critiquing my housekeeping skills, wiping her hands along surfaces for dust, inspecting the kitchen cupboards to ensure dad’s favourite foods were present and correct. Both she and dad would often gang up on me making me feel that I was failing as a competent housekeeper. My self-confidence and esteem continued to fall for seven years.
All this was to change when dad took a series of small strokes. He had come in from the pub and had collapsed behind the front door. I assumed he was just drunk. But, as was par for the course, I dutifully called my sister to inform her of the latest incident. In the past, these had ranged from the police bringing him home after finding him lying drunk in the street to (as was more common for him) being physically, verbally and emotionally abusive to me. I really don’t know what I ever expected from her. All these different incidents rolled into one and became normal. My sister’s ambivalence reinforced the normality that this far-from-norm life was.
So, there he was, stuck behind the front door. My sister suggested I leave him there, put a pillow behind his head and throw a duvet over him, which I duly, did fully expecting him to be sober and mobile. But morning came and he wasn’t. He was coherent but unable to get himself up. I called 999. The paramedics took him into hospital. That was the last time he was ever at home.
His time in hospital added up to nearly a year. I continued to visit him daily over his time in three different hospitals. I continued to do his laundry on a daily basis, my sister worked full time after all. Things had changed, but essentially, much had stayed the same. It was a blessing when we got him settled into a brand new retirement home and his nursing care received while there was better than he deserved. At last I didn’t have to do anything for him, although the guilt of visiting him was never far away.
Three months later change was to enter my life again. My GP had recommended I attend a course at the Thistle Foundation for people with depression and anxiety. Although it was incredibly hard for me to go after having been isolated and controlled for so long, I made it. It was there I met my husband. I know it sounds corny but it really was love at first sight. I also made new friends and I began to rebuild my life, slowly but surely.
Needless to say my sister was less than pleased. I was slowly but surely fighting my way out of the box that my family had placed me in and she didn’t like it one little bit. My life was changing and she couldn’t be happy for me. Instead, she set out to undermine my fledgling confidence at every opportunity: we were both mentally and physically ill, she said, it would never work, the age difference, he was only after the house (which I part owned by dad), how could I be so stupid and naïve etc.
Eventually my sister and I grew apart and I found the strength to do that without backing down and also to stop visiting dad. I began to see the abuse for what it was. I had done my bit for dad. Now it was her turn.
My wedding day was the happiest day of my life, but it came at a price. Apart from my sister, who was my witness, I had no family members there. One of our friend’s had offered to video tape the wedding ceremony and I am so glad she did because my sister is there on camera, clearly looking bored and restless and even at one point looking past Jim and I to stare out of the window. It was the final nail in the family coffin. I resigned myself to the fact that my new-found life and independence was more important than being my sister’s puppet. It was my life.
A long time passed with no contact, until one day I received a phone call from my sister informing me that my dad had cancer. Shocking as it was, I still maintained my distance and continued to stick to my decision not to go and see him. Months went by and I heard nothing. I assumed that the immediate danger was over, and that he was living with cancer. Until that Good Friday – the same day mum had died.
To my utter shock and embarrassment, my sister called my next door neighbour, insisting that she had no way of contacting me, which she had – I’d texted her my new mobile number months before. She asked if he could nip through and inform me that my dad was in kidney failure. The irony of her choosing Good Friday was not lost on me. This led to series of argumentative texts shooting backwards and forwards, degenerating rapidly into who had done the most for dad. She had Power of Attorney for him and, as a legal secretary, this in her mind far outweighed the years of care I had dedicated to him.
Another fortnight passed and once more I made the decision not to go and see him. Nothing was to be gained and nothing would be resolved by my doing so.
I learnt of his death two weeks later by reading it in the paper. I learnt of the funeral details in the paper. She hadn’t even had the decency to let me know. After discussing it with my husband I decided to go to the funeral. It seemed the right thing to do.
We deliberately timed it to arrive just in time for the service. I had no desire to mill about outside the crematorium. As we walked down the hill to the main chapel, I saw the hearse waiting, but I somehow never made the connection that it was dad inside. After having wanted him dead for so long in the end it was completely surreal and not what I expected to feel at all. I was numb.
The chapel was dismally empty of mourners. Five rows to be precise. We sat at the back. I had no desire to be with my sister in the front pew. Even if I wanted there was no room for me or Jim. To my surprise some aunties and uncles from my mum’s side were there, flanking my sister. I was to learn later that there was a mysterious ‘cousin’ from dad’s side there as well. I was disgusted at my aunties and uncles. How could the show their respect for a man that had put both mum and I through sheer hell over the years.
The service was mercifully brief. As is the custom, the front pews emptied first and it was then and only then as my relations filed past that they realised I was there. The look of sheer disbelief would have been comical if it hadn’t been so tragic to witness. I felt like the family pariah. I was completely ignored. No one spoke to me. My sister didn’t even have the decency to glance my way.
I left my dad’s funeral not feeling any better or worse for having attended. Nothing was resolved. Nothing laid to rest, but for the man who was my father and a complete stranger to me. Little did I know I was to face a new battle; Dad’s last will and testament. The hold he had over me in life was to continue from the grave.