I find it simpler to remember the most important years of my life in couplets. Two is a very organic number: two arms, two legs, two eyes, and between my parents, two years. In these numerals of two I have found it easier to reflect.
Drawing an image year by year carries a certain gravity; indicative of a biography, or a eulogy. Yet, my dearest, this will not be my memoir, I write in the hopes that it will be yours.
The role of family in a life is often mistaken as a birthright. As a child we are encouraged to believe these people do not possess the ability to withhold love from us. As an architect is to a house, or a sculptor to their artwork, they are to shape and chisel.
It is their exclusive responsibility to invest the greatest of their qualities within us. Yet, even the kindest of people may not be able to rise to this immense commission.
My family showed the greatest dedication in their care for us, and I was far from thankless for their indelible imprint. But, despite their religious attention to my education, I feel I was left without the very instinct that brought me into being.
I was deathly afraid of fatherhood.
* * *
I was a lethargic adolescent. I wasn’t a disgrace or an embarrassment to my family, I was just terrifically apathetic. This was to be the stem of a larger problem. My inability to thank my parents as a child made it much more difficult to understand their role. A role that was still completely foreign and, whilst I was studying, conceivably unnecessary.
It was the years with my daughter, with you, that taught me these responsibilities; not my own reflection.
There was never a great spiel from your heart, about how I’d overcome my stubborn ways, about how I’d ascended to be the paradigm of a loving parent. You didn’t know about any of this, and you never would.
Only my parents and I would know about my feelings of inadequacy.
It wasn’t your job to baby me. And so, I understood.
* * *
Only as I arrived at twenty-five, did I first catch a glimpse of you. I felt as though I was staring into the sun. From my little spot on the surface of the earth, I could only glance at you. I could still feel your warmth as I looked away.
I like to think about my father, and how important he is to me. He taught me invaluable lessons. To be a real man; not the big man, not the hero, but to be an honest and genuine man. He showed me how to love the pure things; to play music, to read, to read people.
He was my father without a father.
My grandfather passed away before my dad was ten. So, to think that many of these beautiful lessons of my adolescence were in their first iteration, makes me rather emotional. I’m worried that in my adulthood I will never find the right moment to tell my father what he means to me, and as a parent now I realise, you won’t have to my dear. Just watching you grow is a blessing some parents may not receive.
The first time I learnt of you, and how you’d soon be in my life, I was gripped by anxiety; fearful excitement. I wanted to be the best I could for you, and for you alone I decided to make some changes. I quit drinking, and then a while later (with some trouble) I quit smoking, as my father had before I turned ten.
When I first saw you, I was dumbstruck. The people in my life had increased by just one, but the substance of my days had multiplied one hundredfold. You struck us like a bolt of lightning. Silent, pensive, not a scream nor a yelp; you seemed wise beyond us from the first week.
We moved out of the city before you were two, and as if you knew why, I could see how you flourished in the fresh air. I did my best to shape a space for you, but as my hands were more familiar with the strings than the brush, I spent many afternoons making a fantastic mess of paint and lime render. You would have found it tremendous. I recall you tottering around the fruit trees, roaming and exploring your newfound kingdom.
It was as you approached four that I arrived at what would be my final vocation. I had learnt at university the tools to teach that which I had, so ardently, studied; so, I began my career as professor Martin FH. I taught the humanities to both my students, and to you. With each fascinating person that wandered through my door, my anticipation grew for the day you could spiel to me your passions; and as we began to have larger and more fascinating conversations, I could tell that day would approach soon.
Around six your toddle turned into a run. Your mother had impressed upon you the necessity of being well read, so read you did. You were voracious, your appetite for worlds yet unseen was miraculous, you were traversing the universe through the pages your mother passionately stocked for you. I bought you the entire Tolkien collection when you turned seven, we didn’t see you without a book for two months. Your imagination was expanding like the big bang, but it was manifesting on the walls of our house in crayon, and the paint was peeling off every time I had to scrub it clean.
Eight was a huge year. We had pondered, and then agreed, you were old enough to travel. Not just from our small town, but from the country that had oversaturated you. We trekked for weeks, carrying you through the Netherlands, through Germany, to France. We scaled the slopes of the Pyrenees, approaching the Spanish plains from above; just as my father and I had twenty years prior. Not a single complaint was heard from you, too busy relishing in Monet’s landscapes to feel your young legs weary. You ate a lot of ice cream in the heat. I think you must have burnt off all the calories, or I would have had to roll you everywhere.
Regrettably, as you surpassed ten, my hereditary sickness began to display its symptoms. Early onset dementia was the plague of my father’s family, especially amongst the men of the Martin tree. At thirty years of age I decided to ignore it, I’d tell her it was aged forgetfulness. Letting on would have proved more detrimental now as it would later on.
Of course, you’d have no understanding of this at your age. Dads were supposed to be infallible; the strong, sentinel watchmen of their children. I began recounting our experiences anyhow, so I would have a reminder, for when my memory decided to fail me.
Often the tumult of puberty is enough to show stressed fractures in a relationship, between parents and child. As an angry youth, I had observed all there was to maintain a relationship, even amongst my throes of mental instability. So, as it was that you felt ashamed or neglected, I struggled to hold us together. I can still, just, remember the apathy I held against my father; he was trying to help but I wouldn’t realise until years later. It’s fucking difficult to watch someone you love hating themself; its disempowering. It was horrid to watch how your youthful confidence could dissolve so quickly. It happens to so many, but I know it doesn’t feel like it; trapped inside your frozen box, all we could do was wait, and try to keep you warm.
Quickly, you grew to be a woman, and ceased to be my child. I’m still your father, and nothing can change that, but you needed less guidance and more free reign. Beautiful, watching you build your future; troubling, me not being a part of it.
You studied art like your mother. You went through your blue period and came into a surrealist hellscape for a time. We had paintings of crucified men and maimed goats and were genuinely worried for a couple of weeks. You moved on though, apparently it was an exercise in ‘counter culture subversion’, but we both know it was just to shock your prudish art teacher. You painted landscapes, not portraits like your mum. It made sense, we lived in the fecund lands of the west, our garden could have been built over the garden of Eden. I bought you cameras, so you could transpose what you saw to what you felt.
When you were twenty you experimented with drugs, to your mother’s displeasure. I knew it was just pot that your friends had procured, and that I hadn’t raised you to be predisposed to abuse; but I still had to give you ‘the talk’. It was a bit hypocritical. I had done the same when I was at that age, but things were different now, you were my child. You understood that I cared for you very dearly and didn’t want you twisting yourself on the shit that they’d offer you next. So, you promised to be safe, and that’s all I could ask you to do.
I bought you Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting anyhow. That nipped the bud.
* * *
“Pick a job and then become the person that does it.”
I heard that in a television show. I laughed. It sounded like parenting; make a child, and then become the person who raises it. Pouring years into you, to shape you, was my fleeting pleasure.
So, when you told us you were going away, I was rattled. What was I to do now? Keep teaching? These kids could never hold a candle to you, the Bayeux Tapestry; they, an etch-a-sketch. I obviously couldn’t follow you to Germany, I couldn’t drag myself behind as you flew so gracefully.
So I held myself high as you left, wishing you luck with love, and then sank into my chair as I lost sight of you. I’d probably die in this chair, surrounded by our books.
* * *
This account is all too brief. I seem to have raced through years, in a handful of minutes. But for me this was necessary, expedient, but crucial. I’m having trouble now, trouble remembering the shape of your face and the pitch of your voice. In the rooms full of wrinklies, doctors behind desks and pews of patient pensioners, I’m starting to have trouble recognizing myself.
I’m still waiting for you to come back and remind me.
Remind me where I kept my books. Remind me which system I used to categorise them. Remind me which I had written for you, because I’m having trouble remembering.
I was struck by hyperbolic doubt last week, as Descartes would say. I lacked the certainty to open my mouth, I was so stricken with uncertainty that I couldn’t even speak of you. Everything seemed too surreal, all your exploits, achievements, the tremendous impact you had had in my life; I mistook this as a dream. I’m not speaking in hyperbole, I contemplated for a moment whether or not I had schizophrenia; perhaps it had gone unnoticed for decades, fabricating all this wonderment to keep me satiated.
I was bemused, but not surprised. After all, my health had steadily deteriorated in the third quarter of my century. Dementia had fucked me good and proper, taken away all that I could see and speak of; I was transfigured into a vegetable, and it felt truly emasculating.
I thought it poetic, that I had become the hereditary ashtray of two family-trees; along with dementia, I had inherited the Smithian curse of Haemophilia. Enfeeblement, and another encouragement to hogtie me in bubble wrap and leave me in the attic. I was beginning to feel less like a man and more like a piece of china.
Without you the years rushed past, I couldn’t see the growth they brought. I could only see myself, deteriorating.
My heart would rise when we got a phone call, and it would sink when I couldn’t recognise voices. Soon I couldn’t recognise people. My house was full of imposters, they weren’t the people I loved.
They said you visited me near the end. I couldn’t tell.
I never wanted to fall apart.
I wanted to explore with you.
* * *
“Mr Martin?” she said.
A stifled groan grows from an Eames chair, beside the window. She strolls across the spartan room, toting a mug. It was stripped of bookshelves five years ago, after the words had lost their meaning.
“There’s someone to visit you,” she says tenderly.
“Visitor?” he mumbles, tightening the grasp on his only book.
“Yes, she says her name is Grace.”
The woman gently places the mug upon the windowsill, it has accumulated a great conglomerate of cup rings, the man drinks a lot of tea. He seems to be building his own little solar system before him, but he cannot recall the planet’s names. Sobriety echoes across her face.
Another lady steps in. ‘Grace’ is much taller than the mug woman, or so he thinks from his low chair. She ambles towards him, tentatively.
She opens her mouth to speak, “Dad, how are you feeling?”
He can’t hear anything she says. It goes in, and then before he can think, it dissolves.
He knows he’s falling apart, and so does she.
An attempt to speak, “You don’t work here… do you? You don’t look like her, you’re not dressed like her.”
“No I don’t work here Dad, I came to visit you, to see you. Mum told me you had gotten worse.”
“Worse at what?” he asked.
‘Grace’ looked under his pale brows, he wasn’t looking back. His eyes were out of focus, like he was squinting into the sun.
She gripped his hand tightly, setting herself down on the footrest of the chair.
“I’ve moved, back to your house, from Germany. Mum said I should be looking over it while you’re here,” she said.
“What’s wrong with here? Don’t you like it? It’s warm in here, cold out there,” he murmured, stirring in his seat.
“No, no, I’m staying here. I said I’d come back to look out for you.”
“Well you’ve found me,” he said, “What’s left of me anyway. Do you know my daughter? She lives in Germany.”
He reaches into his pocket and retrieves a pack of cigarettes. The nurses had told Grace he liked them, but they emptied the packs first. He wouldn’t ask for more anyway.
Resignation spilled through Grace’s eyes. She decided she’d try again tomorrow.
“I do know her Mr Martin, she told me she loves you so much. She’s very proud of you, how brave you are.”
“Aw, she’s a sweet girl, isn’t she? I miss her sometimes, when I read.”
He grips his notebook. It’s open on page two.