I went to a funeral today.
It was for a man I knew, he had died on Monday after a long illness. He was in his 80’s and had been diagnosed last year with an aggressive cancer. I knew him from the local radio station, he was a presenter there, as was I. He was silver haired with a beard that still had hints of russet. His eyebrows were overgrown and moved animatedly when he spoke and laughed. All of my interactions with him left me with a fondness for him (hence I was at the funeral) and I felt I knew him, I had the sense that he was a gentle man, intelligent, idealistic and with a great sense of humour.
The chapel was full of people. I thought, isn’t it great that he was loved. Of course he was loved. I was looking forward to hearing about how much he had been loved. Perhaps it was voyeuristic of me, but I love seeing functional families.
The service began with his vivacious sister telling childhood stories. He had been a child during the second world war, played war games in the trenches of his back yard etc. etc. etc. Professionally he had been a teacher and then later in his life he had been instrumental in running a well known Australian publishing house. This I knew he had been proud of, as he had spoken of it several times.
Then his daughters came up one by one. He had planned his funeral service, minute for minute, and had chosen a list of poems he would like read out, but all of them were disregarded, each daughter said their own words and chose their own poems if they read one at all.
The first daughter talked diplomatically but honestly about how difficult their relationship had been. She said openly that she had had to have over a decade of therapy to come to terms with her father and his seeming lack of love or care for her, and I assume her sisters.
Her tears were of frustration and the loss of the father she had never really had, not tears over the loss of a much beloved father.
They were the words and sentiments I almost spoke at my father’s funeral. But mum and had been edgy about it and I knew she didn’t want me to talk. No one had encouraged me to speak and I had not ever been able to say it to his face, so I felt like it wouldn’t be right to air that dirty laundry at his funeral. A lot of people knew we had struggled, one of his best friends came up and begged me to visit him and assured me that my father loved me even though we had had so much trouble…
The second daughter came up and spoke in a similar way.
I began to wish that I had had sisters, so there was someone else in my family to understand my position. They thanked their aunt profusely for the support and help over the years, helping them understand that side of their family, to which they had obviously be estranged for some time.
I wished I had had such an aunt.
The tears that came to my eyes were not self pity, nor sadness over a man I had barely known, but profound sadness for us all.
As the service went on the two remaining daughters and some grandchildren came up. They had obviously been closer to him. They cried more and read poems without personal notes.
A few letters were read out from former colleagues, glowing.
It left me wondering if the hurt his daughters had felt was due to a father who worked too hard and valued career over family.
What is that worth?
I work hard. I don’t have a family to sacrifice for the sake of it, but I struggle anyway. I struggle with the sacrifice to my creativity that happens when I work hard. But I have to work hard to survive, I have no partner to lean on or share the burden of survival with.
The work I do I believe in. It is a worthy cause and even though I would love to have enough money to quit and write full time, I value the work I do. I think it makes a positive difference in the world. Sometimes I think I could do that work and only that and still die happy, knowing that I helped build and sustain something that is good.
Perhaps I am projecting, but I wonder if he felt the same. I wonder if he felt like his wife was taking care of the family and so he could go and build something, make something happen that would change the world for the better. I wonder if he knew what damage he was doing to his family as he did that… or was he oblivious? Did he even care?
The charming, sparkling eyed old gent I knew was not the father the girls had.
Just as the dynamic, intelligent man the world knew as my father was not the father I knew. He too was idealistic, he too thought he could save/change the world.
But what is that worth if you are creating so much hurt at home?
I had gone to the funeral to pay my respects to a man I had thought I knew. I came away with a different grief in my heart, a more personal one. I was reminded that families are very hard for a lot of people. I’m not alone. I may not have the sisters, or the understanding aunt that these women had, but in a larger sense, I am surrounded by people who get it. There are hardly any functional families, in my experience, everyone has some level of fucked up in their childhood. So a lot of people, no matter how alone I have always felt with my particular version of dysfunctional, get it.
Also, though, a lot of people don’t get it. They think that if your dad seemed nice to them that he must be ok. They think that even if he was a bit of a prick, he loved you so that makes it ok.
But it was really clear to me, listening to his daughters – women I may have passed on the street without thinking twice about them, that a lot of other people get it. They get that parents sometimes don’t love their kids. Families are hard. Sometimes you need ten years of therapy plus some, just to feel like you are approaching anything resembling healing.
A fellow radio presenter was also at the funeral and we spoke at the end. He was a bit disturbed by what the first two sisters and said. He thought it was a bit distasteful.
I simply said ‘I think it is really important that they spoke the way they did. It sounded like he was not a great father to them. I wanted to speak exactly like that at my father’s funeral, in some ways I regret that I didn’t.’
How many people came to my dad’s funeral expecting to hear how much he was loved? Anticipating that of course he was loved. But also, I wonder how many people at my father’s funeral saw more than I realised. I wonder how many saw through the family facade, what I have come to call The Party Line – that family propaganda machine that maintained the mask, so the world would only see Happy Family.
I never got up to speak. I never shared how different it was to be behind the mask, a member of the party, the Happy Family. How many people at my father’s funeral would have understood? I’ll never know.
Image from: http://aifd.org.au/