Not long after I celebrated my 18th birthday, my dad died of a heart attack. I have probably mentioned it somewhere on these pages before.
That event was 15 years ago now. I am almost at the point in life whereby I have existed longer without my dad than with him.
My parents were separated at the time it happened and had been for half a dozen years by then, so the loss was softened somewhat by the fact that my dad had only been on the periphery of my life as a teen. At least this is what I have come to think, and what I have come to believe.
The fact I don’t remember the exact date of his death perhaps highlights this point. And it certainly represents a different attitude than the one my sister has. She is two years older than me and every year she remembers. Every year there will be a social media post and a message to me.
Of course, I could remember it if I wanted to. All I need to do is ask my sister which exact date in February it was, and then each year, I too could celebrate his life on the day of his passing.
Perhaps this is another layer of my thought. Maybe I don’t want to remember it…
A few of my friends have said previously that a therapist would have a field day with me. There is likely a lot to unpack. I did have therapy once. I think we got to eight or nine sessions before I decided it wasn’t doing anything for me and that it had served its purpose.
My dad, and the relationship I had with him, wasn’t the topic of conversation in many of those sessions. I had other things on my mind at the time, more pressing matters.
But there are times when I do find myself reflecting on my dad and the relationship I had with him.
Andrew Thomas Vipond, let’s name him, shall we.
Most recently, my thoughts have taken me to a few beliefs about fatherhood and what it meant to him, and about life and what it means to each of us.
When I look back at my childhood, the dominant figure in my life is my mum. It was my mum who got us ready for school, who walked us there when we were too young to go alone, and who picked us up at the end of the day.
Of course, my memory could be wrong or mistaken or biased, but I seem to remember it was my mum who always helped me with homework, it was my mum who invested such passion and creativity in school projects, it was my mum who attended parents evenings, and it was my mum who stayed up with me when I couldn’t sleep that time I had chicken pox.
It was my mum who always looked after me when I was sick, it was my mum who took me to the GPs, and it was my mum who read books with me.
Every instance of visiting town (Swansea city centre) that I remember is with my mum, despite the fact she did not have a car. I don’t recall a single time when my dad played the PlayStation with me. From an early age – too young really, there should be age restrictions on these plastic addictions – I was interested in Warhammer. Miniature models you would buy, build, paint, and collect. Set on a dining room table, and with the aid of dice and tape measures, different armies would then battle one another. I only remember one occasion when he sat down with me to paint or game.
Now, some of this was no doubt because of my dad’s heavier paid work commitments – because raising a child is work, it is just unpaid and unrecognised in our society. My dad worked as a social worker, a 9-5 job, a 40-minute drive away, with some evenings needing additional time. But, if I wanted to be critical of him, even when he wasn’t working, the time he gave was often misguided. No doubt it was well-intentioned, but the older we got, the less he seemed to know who we were and what we enjoyed.
As a young boy, he helped me find a way into football and was the manager of the local team for years – a decade or more with the mighty Hendy FC. Football seemed to be one of the few areas of shared interest, or one of the only areas which he could pinpoint as “yes, I can say with certainty that Patrick likes this.” Collecting football stickers is another, but that falls under the “football” label I think.
There was also wrestling. WWF as it was known back then. He did record the PayPerViews on video a few times, which would air at 1am on our TV. And once he took a friend and me to see a local wrestling event that was held in a leisure centre. We would also play cards every so often, with gin rummy being the go-to choice.
But many other activities with him, before my parents were divorced, now just seem confused. Walks into frosty, cold, wet hillsides, games of golf, and snooker – bearing in mind I was short-sighted and just a child, so hardly a worthy opponent. There was a time when we also cycled along main roads for miles to get to the Eden Project from our campsite when we could have just used the car. These were not activities I wanted to do. They seemed to be activities he wanted to do and I was just pulled along for the ride.
Perhaps that is what parenthood is. Or at least, what I would suggest are elements of bad parenthood. The adults continue to do the things they like to do, but with the extra baggage of having children.
It is this thinking, along with a few others, that has set me very firmly in the “I don’t want kids” camp. There are things I want to do with my life, and I know a child would interrupt that. And I think that unless you are willing to make sacrifices for your child, you’re not going to do the best possible job of raising them.
I understand that the “traditional” approach to being a father is to be the stricter, tougher parent. The one who dishes out any punishment, the one who tells their son to stop crying. And maybe there was an element of that to my dad’s parenting at times.
On no fewer than three occasions, he had to be urged to take me to hospital. Twice it was for sports injuries, a fractured finger and a fractured wrist – both of which he tried to play down in severity, and once it was when my sister dropped me on my head on the kitchen floor – thanks Holly! After finally admitting it may be helpful if I saw someone, he didn’t agree an ambulance was necessary, so he drove me himself. I threw up the whole way and he was stopped for speeding by a police car which then proceeded to escort him to the hospital. I spent two nights in there recovering.
At the risk of this sounding like child abuse – it really wasn’t – there was also a time when I had developed a rash from the laundry detergent we were using and bizarrely, my dad thought the cure for it would be to run me an ice cold bath and dip me in it at midnight. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
In the narrative I currently hold, after the divorce, his knowledge of who his children were went even further wide of the mark. He was absent from my life, both physically and emotionally. A Christmas present one year was an almanac of Barclays Premier League data and stats, whilst my R&B-loving teen sister got a DVD of a gangster movie. A birthday present another year was a pair of tickets to see Chelsea v Tottenham, which is a great game to see, but I have been a Liverpool fan my entire life.
He had no knowledge or interest in my music tastes. As far as I can remember, he had no knowledge or interest in my education or in any thoughts of what I was going to do in the future. Did he help with my studying? Did we have a conversation about what courses I would take in college? I don’t remember any.
I do remember that on a handful of occasions, he would take me to a nearby fitness centre/health spa and we would play tennis. And much like the snooker years before, it made no sense. I wasn’t wearing contact lenses at that age, so could hardly see, was beaten easily every time, and I had no interest in the sport.
I can only remember two occasions in my entire life when he bought me clothes or took me out to buy clothes. The hoody he bought that day was not anything special, a run-of-the-mill No Fear zip-up from a high street sports store, but I treasured it, purely because it was from him.
All these thoughts and memories, this seeming lack of time for me, this apparent confusion about who I am and what I enjoyed, have left me feeling that he didn’t want to be a dad. Or perhaps he did, but he wasn’t willing or able to commit to being the best one he could be.
As I said, maybe I am being harsh on him here. There is no way he can reply. And maybe I am angry and bitter at the loss of him from my life. Which in fact seems to have happened twice, once when he left the house because of the divorce and once when he died.
Growing up, we were very much a working-class family with aspirations of being comfortably middle-class. Neither of my parents had attended university, we were behind most of the neighbours in getting Sky TV and even then it was the basic package. Our bicycles were second hand, my school shoes and football boots were always as cheap as possible. Of the holidays we had abroad, the majority were spent in a trailer tent or at a campsite. When I was in secondary school, after my parents had divorced, I was having tokens for free school meals.
Maybe the reason I saw very little of him or remember very little of what he did was precisely because he was busy providing for the family, working hard to earn the money that paid the mortgage and covered most of our holidays. Maybe I am not appreciating the sacrifices he made and being grateful for what I did have.
Over and over again, down the years, we would hear about his dream to go to India. Throughout the year, he would save pennies and loose change in a giant bottle – The India Jar, in the hope that it would give him enough at the end of the year to help pay for a visit.
Of course, it never did. Other priorities got in the way. Other things needed paying for. The car, the house, the children…
My dad died before ever reaching India. It’s why I included an outline of the country on the tattoo I have dedicated to him on my leg and it is also why his bitch of a new wife took his ashes there and scattered them without my sister and I knowing about it.
But to return to my dad. What did it mean to him to never achieve his life’s ambition? What does it mean to me now to feel that we just weren’t such an important part of his life?
The February 11th before he died I turned 18. He did not buy me a drink in the pub, and I did not buy him one. In fact, we didn’t see one another. He never knew I had skydived out of a plane to celebrate this milestone. My birthday came at a time when we had gone months without speaking, and the best part of a year or more without spending quality time with one another.
The only thing I had from him was a letter. I still have it somewhere, tucked away safe. And every now and then I will get it out and read it. It was the last communication we ever had.
I never responded to it.
You see, life is too short. And none of us knows what the future may bring. I am angry at my dad for how neglected he made me feel. I regret not attempting to build bridges when we had the chance. It saddens me to think that he had hopes and dreams of his own which went unrealised, and that is a major motivation for me attempting to do everything I can whilst I still have the chance.
One day this will all end. I don’t want to go out like my dad. I don’t want children who see me once every two or three months, children who never hear the words “I love you”, children who spend their Christmas with me sat on opposite sides of a fucking Harvester pub table exchanging gifts that have no relevance or interest to the recipient.
No doubt my sister has a very different interpretation of events and different feelings on the matter. She has a son of her own now and has done a phenomenal job of raising him. Perhaps she learned from the mistakes or flaws in her own upbringing. But now I am just speculating…
What a curious man my dad was. What was he so busy doing all the time? Why did he not appear to know his own children? What feelings did he hold that he never expressed? Aside from the obvious thoughts of intense pain and fear, what was going through his head that morning on that hill when the heart attack struck? Was it thoughts of me and my sister?
I forgot what his voice sounds like a long time ago. I love you dad. I’m sorry.