Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Father's 90th Birthday Celebration

I’m at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. And it’s a beautiful sunrise. No better time to reflect on life, death, and what the heck is going on in my life. Half a world away, at another seaside resort in England, my family gathers to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. I’m not there, because I was not invited.

No. This is not going to be a rant. It is just a reflection. I read on my Facebook feed of sisters traveling, cousins sharing breakfast in seaside hotels I remember all too well from the political games I used to play there, when attending conference back in the Eighties.

All is well with my life. I have few regrets. Much lies before me. And right now, with a huge orange sun rising in the sky, my only feeling is one of gentle happiness that members of my far-flung family are gathering in a group that will likely never repeat. Not least because, as the sun rises here, we all know these are my father’s final, sunset years.

I hardly know my father. He spent much of my youth traveling for his job with American Express. Which is an irony, since it was that traveling that had me born and raised in England in the first place.

As kids, we all of us form very definitive views about our parents. Almost all of which are tossed aside, as we become older, and realize that parenthood and childhood are a combined crapshoot. They were never trained. And we had no court of appeal.

All too often, emotional dynamics are set in motion, which then become ingrained, long before we are able to prevent them distorting our own growth, careers and relationships, not least with our own children.

If we are lucky, some of us are blessed with accidental discovery, which sets the world in new perspective. When my mother died, my sister and I found mementoes, which cast a new light on my father.

He wasn’t the cold, barren patriarch, who dedicated his life to career rather than family. For whom children were a fun past time when we were young. But all too difficult to cope with once we developed into thinking adolescents.

His mother, wife to his father the Bishop, made him give his favorite toy to the poor when he was nine. He crafted a hand-written newspaper at much the same age, declaring to the world his deeply held desire to be a scientist. A rocket scientist. He wanted to be an astronaut.

At the tender age of 18, and my father was a very tender, young man, he flew bombing missions over Japan, with his B-29 squadron. Somehow, between that newsletter, the upbringing within a missionary family, the demands of Boston Brahmin expectation, the cruel rite of passage in the USAF, and my arrival, with my twin sister, in 1956, on another USAF air base, just outside of London, the fire of earlier ambition had been doused.

He had become the bureaucratic functionary, within the sprawling American financial empire, where he remained for the rest of his working life, until 1990.

His parents made him. He made me. He was never a bad person. I realize now. Just repressed. Maybe this is why he left my mother after 30 years of marriage? And then a second wife and two young children, a few years later?

And yet, even though he may not have been able to pursue the vocation he dreamed of, he was not a casual or a bitter man. Not overtly. His dedication may not have helped me emotionally. But it supported two families and eight children. And led to a third marriage, which itself has lasted for 28 years.

My father does not believe he failed anyone. Not his wives. Not his children. Not himself. He does not like to be told that maybe he could have done better. Which is why I am here. And he is there. Or maybe we were never meant to gel. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, as I discovered only two years ago, he has never believed me to be his son. My mother was a saint, but no angel.

So. How do I feel? Right now.

I love the man who raised me. I love him for his dedication. I miss him. I missed him growing up. And I would like to spend a moment, in real time, thanking him now. But, even if invited, I could not be at his 90th party. To praise him. Whatever made him. Whatever passed between him and my mother. He did not treat her well after the divorce. And loyalty is the value I hold most important.

I have been blessed. With tragedy. For each moment of set-back in my life has brought with it the opportunity to learn and grow. The curse of boarding school made me strong. The lack of a father made me sensitive. The death of my closest friend in formative years gave me breadth and a willingness to understand flaw, in me and in others. Alcoholism, and especially its recovery, allowed me, finally, after years of self-hate, allowed me to be at peace with myself.

It is from that peace, this past week or so, that I have found myself able to talk with one or two of my sisters attending this week, to help them come to terms with what the trip means for them. What it should mean. And what they should leave behind. By and large, my father has meant well. Celebrate that. For myself, I wish him only the best. What was done, is done.

I sit here, with the sun now ascendant in the eastern sky. Calm. As I celebrate my own good fortune and good friends. So many of whom have helped me in the past few years to let go of the past, to look up from the fears and anger of daily drudge, and to envision and discover that part of me which so often in others becomes repressed in a childhood of parental mistakes, and youthful hurt.

I like my life. I like myself. My publisher likes my book. And my mates like my music. At the age of 58, the life I had, the relationship with the man who raised and molded me, gently morphs from regrettable nightmare, into a humorous, awkward, Robin William’s monologue of mishap and hilarity.

I hold no grudge against a decent man, doing his best to cope with his own demons, and find a tortured path through complexities for which no-one prepared him. I sigh. And thank life for allowing him to see his 90th year. A life which now permits me to be the rocket scientist he so wanted to be. Maybe the cycle has been broken?