My dad, Anthony Johansen, would have been 90 this month and I would probably be in the process of preparing to fly to Ottawa for his birthday party. I went to both his 75th and 80th birthdays and they were joyously life-affirming, cementing, finally, a somewhat tortuous lifelong father and son relationship. As experiences go, they were better than the one that followed his 80th birthday when I once more flew again, two years later, to Canada for his funeral.
The history can wait for another day but most of it revolved around how far apart we lived. For most of my life, my dad lived in Canada or was at sea in the merchant navy. I have literally no memory of the years he lived with my mum and me back in the 1960s.
My dad’s 75th birthday in 2004 was one of the turning points of my life. Of course, we were joined by blood, but absences, especially long absences, affect relationships. And whilst he made consistent efforts to stay in contact, I did not. In fact, for many years, I turned my back on some members of my family, perhaps somehow trying to bury the pain of how miserable I was growing up out of a dysfunctional relationship between my parents and going into the world of education and later work without the requisite tools for success. And this played on my mind for years.
It is pointless, I suppose, wishing things had turned out differently. Where I largely failed in the world of work, my dad was an unconditional success. Indeed, he went to McGill University, Montreal as a mature student, gaining him a degree which propelled him to high office, working for prime minister Pierre Trudeau. I had one O level. What I could have learned from him – and I turned him away (even though this was relatively easy since we lived an ocean apart).
Finally, getting close to my dad was a revelation. I was so happy and so lucky and later, it has to be said, so sad at what I had missed for most of my life. The joy I felt had to measured against the depression I felt at my loss. Then, when I lost my dad in 2011, the loss was unbearable. So was the guilt.
Oh, how I wish my dad was here today, to advise me on those big decisions in life, to tell me if I was good at anything because no one did when I was a child or, for that matter, since. I grew up living down to my low limitations and expectations. I have never gotten over it.
I can still remember our last afternoon together back in May 2009. I joined him in the living room where he was playing George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass on vinyl and I remembered how much he loved from the last time he’s played in my company, which was in St John, New Brunswick back in 1975 when I was a slip of a boy. A lifetime blew past me in a heartbeat. We hugged, shook hands and my step mother drove me to the airport for the flight back to England. I never saw him again.
“Never worry about the things in life that you can’t affect,” he always said. But I always have and I always will. And I worry, more than anything, about the years without my dad, and other assorted relatives, who I turned my back on, quite possibly because of – here we go again – mental illness. I’ll worry about those years and I’ll always regret them.
“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, sang Joni Mitchell in her Big Yellow Taxi. Rarely have more meaningful and profound lyrics been written. That’s how I feel about my dad and today, as I continue to bump along the bottom, I think it’s how I always will.