It was the legendary songstress Joni Mitchell who sang the words, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” and how right she was.
By the way, Joni and I have never met although I am good friends with one of her ex boyfriend’s drummers. And I have met this particular boyfriend, Graham Nash, on two occasions, once backstage at the Royal Albert Hall. (Remind me to tell you about it sometime.)
Anyway, I digress.
I don’t think I appreciated my dad properly until he had died.
He lived in Canada and our relationship consisted of letters (ask your parents, kids) and phone calls.
As he got older and as I got older (there’s a coincidence), we became a bit closer and in 2004 when I was fortunate to attend his 75th birthday party in Ottawa we got to know each other a whole lot better.
Having missed out on having a conventional father – you know, one who comes home from work, usually in a bad mood and shouts at everyone about the mess they have left – yes, me – the fact that my dad actually did exist albeit thousands of miles away sat awkwardly with me and there were times when I pretended he didn’t exist at all.
Five years later and I was in Ottawa again for his 80th birthday.
He had definitely aged in those five years but he was healthy enough and I imagined that in 2014 I’d probably be back for his 85th.
It did not occur to me when I flew home in the big Air Canada jet in 2009 that I would never see him again but by the end of the following year he became seriously ill and on February 28th 2011 he died.
I didn’t cry when I heard the news because I had kind of expected something like this might happen due to the nature of his illness and I prepared to fly over for the celebration of his life (funerals were not for him).
I think my mindset when I caught the bus to Heathrow Airport was that this would be the same as my previous visits and I hadn’t really reckoned with the fact that he might not be there.
I checked in and the woman asked me the purpose of my trip. And that’s when I started crying, uncontrollably, startlingly.
I recovered my senses in the departures lounge with a few beers but when the flight was called my emotions overcame me again and I spluttered to the Air Canada person whether it would be possible for me to sit alone. Luckily, there was a seat away from other people and soon I engrossed myself in the flight, in the movies, in the music and industrial quantities of red wine.
Why did I cry? I worked out quite quickly that I had not prepared myself. I had not realised what was coming next and how it might affect me and when I was unprepared – bang!
I had blamed my father for years for my lifetime of struggle with mental illness. I couldn’t think of another reason for the bouts of debilitating depression and terrifying anxiety that barged into my life from time to time. It had to be the absence of a father figure.
Maybe it was, but my subsequent plunge into more depression this time brought about proper psychotherapy and not just counselling.
Without boring you too much, dear reader, my dad played very little, if any part of my problems. It wasn’t his fault.
I had not just blamed him, I had blamed him for years. I never told him, especially as he got older – why mess up someone else’s life? – and I glad I didn’t.
Although of course I knew he had died, it was when I set foot in Ottawa airport when the realisation was final because he wasn’t there. (This probably sounds ridiculous: I guess you had to be there and be me.)
And what I no longer had was my dad or, in fact, any relatives who were older than me. No longer was I the junior of the family, I was the senior albeit with the mindset of a junior.
I discovered late on that I was much closer to my dad than I realised and that he loved me much more than I realised.
This was partly down to my habit of mind reading – something I discovered through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), where I would make assumptions on what I thought other people thought about me. It was just the way he was.
Most of us lose our parents and we assume their positions in the pecking order.
I miss being one of the younger people in the family and yet there is something magical about being the oldest, if not the wisest, person remaining.
There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with your status as the older one which sits uneasily with my lifetime of irresponsibility but you get used to it or you die.
I wish I’d known then what I know about my dad and I wish I had treasured his life and company a little more but I got some good years and great times out of it and when he died we had never been closer.
Anthony Johansen – the obituary.