The biggest mistake I ever made was believing that my father was invincible. After a few too many drinks on birthdays or Christmases my dad would speak of plans for his funeral. I always laughed and called him a silly old fool, keen to avoid the subject. I told him that he would probably outlive us all. Having been such a constant, solid, reliable presence in my life, it was difficult to imagine a time when he would not be around. He was my superhero and superheroes just do not die.
As a single father of 5 children, my dad ran a tight ship at home. Bedrooms were to be kept exceptionally clean and tidy, and were only to be used for sleeping in. We were never late for school, taking a day off was allowed only on those rare occasions when one was genuinely on their death bed, and homework was to be completed on the day it was set. Chores were shared equally and were carried out immediately after dinner. If you had spoken to me at 8 years old, I would have told exaggerated tales of child slavery. If you were to ask me now, I would say that I wish I had complained less and found more ways to help out. Hindsight is such a valuable thing.
Misconduct carried punishments. Extra chores, being banned from the computer and being grounded were commonplace.
Occasionally, for bigger misdemeanours, we would get a shoe across the backside. I know a lot of people do not agree with spanking children, but we actually found the other punishments much harder to bear than this. We all knew that my dad didn’t actually want to hurt us. We could see it in his face before the shoe made it’s appearance, and long after the shoe had resumed residence next to its pair. During a conversation with my older brother when we were about 7 or 8 years old, I remarked that the spanking with the shoe didn’t really cause any pain. My brother said that he had noticed this too, and that he had found the best way to handle a shoe punishment situation was simulate crying immediately dad picked up the shoe, so that the punishment would be over quicker, and spare dad too much distress. We all became quite good little actors and actresses when the shoe came out. We never had the heart to admit to any of this to dad, even after we had grown up and left home.
Money was always tight, but we were never short of food. Dad was an excellent cook, and the only time we ever turned our noses up at the food on our plates was when he served liver and onions about once a month. We had loudly protested many times, but he insisted upon serving it again and again, because it’s ‘good for you’. I can see how being in possession of my own liver is good for me, it is a vital organ after all, but I could see no advantage to consuming the internal organs of another animal. Liver days were okay for a while. We had a little system, my siblings and I. Prior to dinner one of us would conceal a plastic carrier bag in our pocket. We would all linger at the dinner table, eating our mashed potatoes and onions, and chopping up the liver for effect, so that dad wouldn’t notice we were not eating it. Then, while dad went to the kitchen to rinse his plate, the carrier bag would be whipped out of one of our pockets in a frenzy, so that we could all quickly throw our liver into it before dad caught wind of our deception. The liver-laden carrier bag would remain hidden under the table until an opportunity arose to sneak it out to the bin. Our system worked well for a couple of years until we were caught red-handed. After our lie had been discovered, my dad would sit with us on liver days until we had all finished everything on our plates. The were some epic stand-offs in those days. Some of us would sit at the table retching and holding our noses for several hours. Dad triumphed every time. We did not leave that dinner table until we had finished every last morsel.
Now, I would not have described my dad as my superhero if there was only this strict side to his nature. To the casual observer I hear he was rather imposing. He had the stature of a grizzly bear, a very blunt and direct manner, and a quick temper with anyone who dared question his parenting skills or attack one of his cubs. While we saw a lot of his tough nature, we also had the benefit of his softer side. We often regarded him as a big, cuddly teddy bear. He was the most attentive nurse when we were sick, his huge tummy was the best cushion to lie upon when watching television in the evenings, and his hugs offered the safest haven you will ever encounter. His sense of humour was second to none, and his bargain-hunting skills were incredible. On the tightest of budgets he was able to provide the most veritable feasts and a warm, comfortable home. While our holidays were not extravagant breaks abroad, we did take coastal caravan holidays at every opportunity and spent plenty of time bonding as a family.
Dad watched us carefully as we grew up, all the time looking out for our personal strengths and interests. Once he had figured out what each of us were good at or interested in, he would make sure that we had whatever we needed to get better at it. Some of us were good at more academic things, others were better at sports, and some excelled in more artistic ventures. Whatever we wanted to do, we knew dad was behind us one hundred percent. I always suffered from a crippling lack of self-esteem, believing that I was no use at anything, despite being the only one of my siblings to go to Grammar school. For the benefit of any non-British readers, the Oxford Dictionary describes this as ‘a state school to which pupils are admitted on the basis of ability’. What faith I lacked in myself, he more than made up for. He was sure to let me know he was proud of me, and good grades were always rewarded. I would never had made it to university if it was not for his constant reassurance and support.
As you can imagine, raising 5 children on your own is no walk in the park. I look back with a sense of shared guilt at how hard we made things for him sometimes. He always did his best to reconcile differences between warring siblings, but somehow he would always come out worst. He understood that he was dealing with 5 very individual personalities, but the moment he treated any one of us any different from the others there were protests of favouritism. Arguments between siblings were quick to flare up, but could just as easily disappear. When dad was in a stinking mood, stressed about health and money worries he could not explain to us, we often united against him. I don’t know at what stage my siblings started to understand his position, but by my early teens I began to realise just how difficult his life must be.
He had the occasional girlfriend, but the relationships never lasted long. He made it clear that he had to put us first, and no woman he dated could handle the pressure of 5 children. Dad had sacrificed so much for us after our mother walked out of the family home when we were all under 7 years old. He was a man fraught with anxiety. Dad worried constantly about making ends meet, and I recall hearing him pacing the floors at all hours trying to figure out how to get through the next day. Whenever he was ill he hid it from us so that we would not worry. When he suffered any injury or ailment, he soldiered on without a word. If questioned, he said he was fine.
Once we all got older, things started to change. With each child that left the family home to start life as an independent adult, the rules relaxed a little. Punishments were not as tough and dad got softer and more sentimental. He had grown accustomed to a busy household, and soon we would all grow up and leave home. Once or twice he confided that he would be lonely without us all. I assured him that I would never be far from home. Then his mask began to slip. Daddy Invincible suddenly became less strong and more mortal. He took lots of medications for various ailments and though his arms were still the safest place in the world to be, there was no denying that he was becoming more fragile.
I was the 3rd child to fly the nest. I moved 120 miles away to university. Far enough away to achieve some level of independence, but still close enough to visit home every other weekend. I was immediately homesick. I fretted day and night about him, but he always insisted that he was fine. Dad and I exchanged calls, texts, emails and letters regularly, each worrying about the other. There was never any doubt that I was loved and missed at home, and that he was ridiculously proud of me. He told me almost every day I was away.
Doing well at university was my opportunity to repay him for all the sacrifices he had made for me. I still battled with my chronically low self-esteem, feeling stupid and unworthy of my place at university. My final year thesis/dissertation was awarded the highest grade possible. It was placed in the university library for other students to read and reference. Rather than celebrating my achievement, I felt sick about it. What if the grade I had been given was a mistake? I felt like a fraud.
This all changed when I graduated and moved home. My daddy asked if he could read my dissertation. It must have been mind-numbingly boring for him, but to his credit he sat there and read every single word of it. I was so touched by his interest in my work that I went to my room and cried. He ranted and raved to anyone who would listen about how clever it was and how proud he was of me. This was the happiest day of my life.
Just a few short months later I returned home one evening from a friend’s house to experience the worst day of my life. The feeling of dread hit me the second I noticed the morning post still on the mat as i pushed the front door open. I stumbled to my dad’s bedroom, noticing the door open and the light on. Empty. I staggered quickly but unsteadily down the hallway, calling his name, holding onto the wall to keep me upright. I just knew that something was wrong. As I burst forth into the front room I saw my dad slumped face-down over the arm of the sofa, twisted at an unnatural angle. I heard a deafening, high-pitched scream. It took me a long time to realise that the sound was coming from my own mouth. I glared in horror at his cold, lifeless body, pleading with him to get up. This was surely not happening. He would stand up any moment now, with his big, silly smile and shout “April Fool!”, even if it is September.
That was the day I learned that superheroes do die.