Is it possible to have a single most important skill in anything? I mean even a goalie in soccer must have many. It’s a brave statement: single most important… in anything.
I was nineteen when she became a person in my world. I didn’t know exactly who she was. I just knew that there was someone around that made me smile. I had to look past her parents to see her. I’d never met someone so strong. After her father punched me in the face for saying that I loved his 18 year old daughter, (six weeks after we met) she jumped out her bedroom window and eloped. She took a few clothes to live with me in a derelict house. About a month later she threw a full beer bottle at me. Sitting across a room at a party I was talking to another girl. I already knew I’d chosen a fire ball. Her red hair was a giveaway. But the beer bottle was serious, and so, six weeks into our relationship, I got the first tinges of doubt. They stayed with me for the next thirteen years with her. In those thirteen years we made three babies and moved home thirteen times, built a big business and got wealthy. But the doubt never left. I lost five years of my life in the divorce from her. I just couldn’t let go. Even though I had long stopped loving her. Letting go was just not one of our family’s strengths. I had to learn it or it’d kill me.
As a kid, when things got frightening my Dad would tell me to hold onto his wrist, and he’d lift me into the sky with one hand. In other words, “don’t let go” or ” learn how to hold on and it’s all safe.” I never forgot that lesson. I think he was passing on his own story. He never let go. He dreamed of being who he used to be. After mum died and we moved to outback Australia, he decided to marry the house keeper even though she was an alcoholic and very violent. Dad married her so he could stay in the past but manage the present holding onto his grief. It’s not easy to be holding onto the past, wishing things were as they used to be and yet, with love, bring us up in the real time of life. My sister gave him so much challenge. She wanted the future. He wanted her to be the past. He never let go of his pain. He was always building things with the hope of being who he used to be. His grief and open desire to live in the past infuriated my step mom and helped her alcoholism along nicely. Dad tried to be part of our present. He loved making things. He built my first bike from scraps. He encouraged me to be independent. It was almost as if the more he encouraged me, the more he could reminisce about the past. Maybe I was his vicarious future. In my first marriage I accidentally projected all the great things he told me about his life before mum died onto my marriage. I wanted to have the life he never had. Happy. Loving. Joyful. Successful. It was an impossible expectation. It was really hard for my wife. I had such an idealistic idea of love and romance. Then, inevitably with such a myth, my marriage failed. I’m not sure whether it’s irony or something more psychological but at the exact time we separated my ex-wife was at the exact same age my mother was when she died. And our three kids, almost the same age we were when mum died. Stories repeating themselves.
And like my Dad taught me, I couldn’t let go. Five years going through the emotions of separation way too long. Like Dad, I didn’t know how to let go. I mean, at the end of it all, I could see that I could have achieved that letting go process in five minutes, not five years. I think the time it takes to let go is the measure of how long your relationship will last. It’s unhealthy to be needy, and it is the cause of most relationship crashes. It’s a really ugly quality. Smothering and spiritually empty. Neediness is not a sign of how much in love we are, quite the opposite. It’s a sign of how much in need we are. People can’t let go because they are not in love. People can’t let go because they are in need, not in love.
In 1998 Dad was diagnosed with dementia and that started forcing him to let go. He already had a bad heart condition. His clock was ticking and he knew it. First there was a little weakness. Then there was a walking frame. Then there was a wheelchair. It got to the point where he couldn’t even hold a file in his workshop to cut another shadow board he loved. The closer he got to the end, the more he talked about the past. It was hard for his current wife. She wasn’t his true love. She knew it too. We did his hospice at a retirement home. During his final days in the hospice, he kept packing his luggage to go home. Home to my mum. Then, he’d unpack his possessions, one by one. He wouldn’t even remember that he was in the same place he was five minutes ago. His mind was going. But it was weird because anything from before my mother’s death was clear, that part of his mind didn’t fail. Only everything since her death failed. I think he was so brave because some part of him only stayed alive to care for us. I think he would have gone to be with mum if it weren’t for us. Slow suicide is what I called the cause of his death. 60 years of it. He could still do the morse code he used before mum died. He would sometimes speak to me or the friend I bought with me to visit him in morse code. Dit der dit dit der der dit dit. We’d have no idea what he was saying but he did. He was in a part of his mind that was perfectly vivid. The part that never let go. He even knew his radio call sign from 1930. Seventy years ago. But he couldn’t remember who I was. He never learned to let go. Regret killed my Dad. He also left the world holding grudges. He never let those go of either.
In the last days of my Dad’s life he once again repeated the ritual, unpacking his little old timer suitcase. He was living in the past, and happier than ever. The more his mind escaped the present or future, the happier he was. My Dad never let go and so I really never got to know the real him.