My Father’s Poor Health Can’t Erase His Betrayal
A heart attack and a stroke changed my father irrevocably, but does that mean I owe him a clean slate?
I have a problem with forgiving people. I hold grudges. I will judge you based on the tiniest act of rudeness. Someone once sat in my seat and now that “someone” is a just a “someone”. I don’t really give out second chances. I think it’s because someone’s already taken them all.
When I was 5 years old my dad told me to bring him my savings book. I remember going with my mum to Woolwich to set up the account, so excited to receive the little book with the cartoon sleeve and the positively gigantic sum it held – £50 – all earned by me in one summer with my bright red Argos bubblegum machine. (The gum I sold was tasteless, but who could resist a 5-year-old entrepreneur?) It only dawned on me years later that I had had a bank account before my own father did. That’s probably why he stole from me.
The second walk to the bank, this time with my father, didn’t feel at all the way it did with my mother. It was an uneasy walk, a walk that even at that young age I knew wasn’t going to end well. When my father withdrew the entire contents from my account and I saw the 0.00 imprinted on my perfect book, now rendered imperfect, I felt my first sting of betrayal.
I don’t really give out second chances. I think it’s because someone’s already taken them all.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that he’d already betrayed me once before. He’d owed some money – I don’t know to whom – and sold all of my mother’s jewellery in order to pay them back. Jewellery she’d inherited from her mother. Jewellery that I would eventually inherit. A family legacy sold to Cash Converters.
But betraying people was my father’s speciality. As a self-employed builder, he was a people person, never without a job due to his charisma, persuasiveness, and wicked sense of humour. He even had celebrity clients: “I did Sade’s basement!” “Do you know the famous hairstylist Guido? I did some work for him!” The problem for his clients, celebrity or otherwise, was that the man with all the jokes was the biggest joke of all. He was a con man. He never, ever finished a job.
Worse than the stealing and the cheating was his temper, his thunderous voice that could erupt from something as small as one of us forgetting to switch off the light in the bathroom. It triggered randomly but often; I grew up with my heart always thumping in my chest, wondering what had set him off and whether we could have done something to prevent it. My mum, although never quite having the strength to divorce him, never left him unchallenged, so they would fight for hours on end. It was during these long, tempestuous battles that I would find solace under my duvet, where I would pray to a god I didn’t even believe in that my father would just go away.
One heart attack and a stroke later, and he’s still here.
The heart attack happened when I was 14 years old. By that point, I had been betrayed numerous times, in ways both big and small. The stealthy but terrifying pinch on my arm at my own birthday party. The violent episode of road rage in front of my then-best mate (please don’t embarrass me in front of my white friend, Dad). The bailiffs turning up at our door forcing Mum to part with her life savings so we could keep our house.
When the ambulance came, I remember feeling very confused by what was happening – not alarmed, confused. And not even by the events literally taking place before my eyes (my father in pain being hauled into an ambulance outside our home) but rather by what I felt – which was nothing at all.
I didn’t show it. I visited my father in the hospital, I comforted him when he got upset because he hated staying overnight at the ward, and I monitored everything he ate and drank closely: “That’s all the butter you’re having, Dad. Remember what the doctor said!” “You’ll get used to the semi-skimmed milk – look, I’m having it, it’s fine!” But it was as if I was on autopilot. I did all of these daughterly duties with a kind of numbness I imagine people who suffer bereavement can experience.
Except he’s still alive.
Eight years later, my father suffered his second major health issue, and once again he unravelled right before me, as if I were meant to see it. I was watching TV in the living room when he walked in for no apparent reason at all, looking confused, trying to do up his shirt but failing miserably, his fingers sloppily grazing the buttons. Though I noticed how strange this all was, I said nothing.
Turns out he was having a stroke.
The man who is no longer the same man is no longer guilty. But the women who try to leave him are.
The numbness that had enabled me to play the part of the doting daughter when I was 14 had disappeared. It was replaced by a flat refusal to engage with what was happening in any way. Since the heart attack and his triple bypass, my father’s temper had got worse, (the doctor had warned us about this, that major heart surgery was capable of changing people’s temperaments, often in a negative way) and so as his temper grew, so did my hatred for him. I didn’t want to visit him in the hospital this time. I did not want to care for him in any way. I did not want to see him vulnerable – because what if it made me vulnerable? The only person who really understood all of this was my mother, who always defended me when people would note my absence through thinly veiled digs: “Why hasn’t Remee visited Hasmukh yet?”
When I finally did visit my father in hospital it wasn’t because I’d buckled under the pressure from my parents’ friends; I did it because my mother had needed me to. Those friends who had been happy to lay judgment on my absence had stopped calling, stopped visiting. My brother, who lived in New York, was still making arrangements to fly over. I did not want her to face my father alone because then she would start believing that she was all he had, and what do you do when you’re all someone has? You feel like you can never leave them.
The stroke did a serious number on my father. He lost partial use of his right leg and left arm, and he suffered some brain damage too. It was as if he’d aged 20 years overnight, the severity of the attack washing away almost every trace of his previous identity and replacing him with an old, frail man who needs people to repeat everything they say before he understands it. A man who is no longer guilty because he is no longer the same man.
It took my father’s heart attack to teach me how to protect myself, but it took his stroke to teach my mum how to take back her life. His disability has meant that she is now able to control most aspects of their life. She knows she will no longer get surprise calls from angry people wanting their money back, that he is not able to go out drinking and embarrass her with lies about our family; she is in the driving seat and he knows it. Now when his temper gets the best of him he can’t slam doors with the kind of violence that takes your breath away or call her a fucking whore in our mother tongue; his boldest act is to drop his walking stick petulantly.
It would almost be sad if it wasn’t poetic justice in its finest form.
But why does my mother still suffer through this marriage?
It took my father’s heart attack to teach me how to protect myself, but it took his stroke to teach my mum how to take back her life.
If she lived in a society where divorcing him was acceptable, then she probably would have done so in a heartbeat. But the gaze of the South Asian community is strong, the pressure is insurmountable. Add the fact that her spouse is now severely disabled, and she is subject to judgment from everyone, not just our culture, if she leaves him.
The man who is no longer the same man is no longer guilty. But the women who try to leave him are.
I think there’s another reason why my mum won’t let go of my father, why after all the years of emotional abuse she still makes him his favourite meal, khichdi and kadhi. If you ask her about some of her deepest regrets, you will hear about her previous marriage to some guy in India that lasted three days, about not saving me some of her prized outfits from Biba, about the time she rejected an offer to be in a Bollywood movie. She will never tell you that she regrets marrying my father, because after all, it gave her the two most important people in her life – my brother and me. It’s because of us that her marriage has been the very definition of bittersweet. I remember being aware of this from a very early age, that in an ironic twist, my mother feels a sense of duty to my father because whether she likes it or not, we exist because of him.
So as much as I grew up desperately wanting it, I knew divorce was never going to be on the cards. But it’s only now, as I recall some of my oldest memories, that I realise that before either the heart attack or the stroke, I’d already figured out a way to achieve this separation from my father myself. When I was quite young, 6 or possibly 7, I saw a courtroom scene on TV where a kid was divorcing his parents. The idea affected me so much to the point that I immediately ran over to my mum, my eyes big and full of wonder, to ask if it were truly possible. She wasn’t sure. But it didn’t matter. It had already planted the seed: If she can’t divorce him, I will.
My disengagement from my father hasn’t been the result of two events: It’s been a gradual process of emotional and physical separation since I saw that scene on TV. I’ve been working steadily to dismantle my relationship, but why? Did I think my mum would follow suit? Did I think that maybe if my father saw how much I hated him he would just give up being in our lives and leave? Or did I think he might realise the error of his ways? Whatever my reasoning was, it’s clear it has been ineffective, not just because none of these things have happened, but because no matter how hard I try to disconnect, I still hurt.
People have a hard time understanding my estrangement from my father; the idea is alien to them simply because it does not reflect their own relationship. “But he’s your father – you must love him on some level,” they say emphatically, like I’ve simply misplaced my relationship, forgotten where I’ve put it.
Even very close friends of mine who know about my father can’t help but ask after him, even though they know it makes me uncomfortable. It’s as if they desperately need to relieve their conscience, and I don’t blame them – the image of my father is a heartbreaking one: the man who once told them jokes so terrible they were funny now shakes nervously when he says hello, and permanently looks like he may break down at any moment.
No matter how hard I try to disconnect, I still hurt.
If my father weren’t my father, I would also need to relieve my conscience. I would ask after him often and I would feel confused by the vacant response I would receive each time. I would cry when I thought about his drooping right cheek, the way his good hand always cradles his bad one as if it were comforting it, his confused yet deeply sad brown eyes. I would wonder if his daughter ever cries about this too.
I want to but I can’t.
But my father is my father, so when I meet someone whose story I don’t know, I wonder what ugliness lies inside them. Do they steal people’s chairs when they've only got up for a cup of tea? Have they fucked up their children?
If you ask me to think of a positive memory of my father I will have a hard time giving you one, but this isn’t because there aren’t any.
He used to call me darling.
Dancing to “Let’s Twist Again”.
The sweet smell of his cigars.
Eating off the same plate.
Always feeling safe in his big, warm embrace.
I love you, darling. Do you love me?
I love you, Daddy.
My good memories are hidden away in a trunk buried deep within me. You have to sort through all of the other stuff just to get to it, and when you do you will have dislodge it from the spot it’s so deeply rooted itself in after being untouched for so long.
But it’s heavy, unbearably heavy.
And it’s locked.