In a text, one’s existence can be affirmed or denied. The arrival of a message serves as a resolute confirmation of the sender’s being, while the void left by its absence implies their potential non-existence. My father never harboured a strong inclination to text me. Rather, he favoured the mode of Gmail to send short YouTube videos of 18-month-old babies with addictions to smoking and recent natural disasters. Neither the communicative medium nor the subject being conducive to maintaining consistent correspondence. This was not indicative of a deficiency in love or care but rather stemmed from a sense of a dearth in conversational topics that would captivate his 20-year-old daughter, whose interests had perhaps ventured far beyond smoking toddlers and calamitous events.
The usual silence in our text conversation took on a deeper resonance, now palpable and reverberating, when my mum told me that he was in the hospital receiving treatment for a herniated bowel. What I had previously chosen to overlook, or perhaps buried deep within the recesses of my consciousness, the lack of our iMessage conversation, now took on an entirely new significance. Desperately, I combed through the labyrinthine expanse of the internet, grasping at fragments of information, all while a shadowy desire within me sought out the worst-case scenario: a cancer mistaken as an innocuous hernia. In my self-imposed panic, a message from my Aunt Liz arrived, its arrival unexpected yet bearing the unmistakable veneer of her characteristic superficiality; never speaking sincerely but attempting to express empathy toward the recipient.
Just to let you know we’re thinking and praying for you all at this time.
We are so sorry for this loss
Passing on all our love and thoughts and prayers
All our love ❤️ ????????????
Amidst my overwhelming uncertainty, I perceived the message as a condolence, albeit a callous one. It marked the beginning of a series of hollow “thoughts and prayers” I would soon be inundated with, all in response to the news of my now, presumably dead, father. Her artistic use of emojis, especially the red lip print, kindly extended its tender touch to alleviate the onslaught as I launched into a state of confusion and grieving.
I had travelled from Sydney to Canberra, a seemingly inconsequential voyage to visit my sister and cousin. While the physical span between the two cities is not substantial, in the midst of an atmosphere tinged with the spectre of mortality, every foreign landmark and storefront seemed as dim and strange as the bottom of the sea. Shortly after my aunties message, my mother assured me that dad was not dead- a surprising revelation considering her vaguely concerned message, which seemed to allude rather directly to matters of mortality. Despite the absence of any immediate threat of death—perhaps my penchant for theatricality had exaggerated the situation—I couldn’t escape the idea that my time with my father was finite. Our sparse exchanges, both online and face-to-face, were starkly illuminated, and the weight of guilt, regret, and an unrelenting sense of urgency accompanied me throughout the entirety of my journey.
I returned to my family home following my Canberra trip. There, my father stood; his robust and upright posture defied the macabre images that had plagued my imagination—those grotesque visions of his fragmented form, lying prone and limbless on the floor. Despite his visible health, an impulse apprehended me to hold him closer and longer than usual. This was no act of self-indulgence, no desperate ploy to cling to the remnants of what remained. Rather, it bore the weight of unspoken sentiment, a tactile language conveying a message too profound for words alone. It whispered a wordless truth: that his very presence, despite the vast gulfs of communication and emotional detachment that fate had forged between us, held a significance that defied all boundaries. Then, in the subtlest of gestures, he leaned away. His hands, moving in tandem, gently patted my shoulders; a gesture that seemed to say “you can release your grip now”.
It was during the years spent in my dead grandmother’s home that my father’s presence resonated most profoundly. The lengthy journey from St Ives to my primary school in the Northern Beaches became an opportunity for him to impart the wisdom of times tables upon me, simultaneously teaching himself along the way. I was 7 or 8- definitely not a boy, but not a woman yet either- unburdened by judgment as I beheld my father, a shape-shifting figure whose existence complemented my mother’s, an accomplice in our shared quests for TV dinners and indulgent takeaway pizza. His authority, formidable and undeniable, revealed itself with conspicuous force when we moved into our new house. Like a gathering thundercloud, anger surged within him, brewing a tempestuous storm that threatened to burst forth. His words, dripping with the petulance of a begrudged 14-year-old boy, spilled out in a torrent. In response to her sour mood, he lashed out, branding her with the searing epithet of “Cow.” The reaction it elicited from her was immediate, a wounded cry. My mother, her disapproval muted but unmistakable, indicated to me that this was a very bad thing to call someone.
While my mother shouldered the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning, my father’s occupation remained ambiguous to me, it’s magnitude only realised when he sold his business to an American company. His triumph, however, came at the cost of his sanity. Stress turned him into a hypersensitive, reactive figure. One night he had made a lemon cake- the first and only cake I have witnessed him make in my life time. After dinner I was tasked with cutting the cake. I used the sharp edge of the cake server to quarter, and then eighth the cake, serving two slices onto plates for both parents. Regrettably, these slices failed to meet his exacting standards of cake-cutting precision. His voice erupted in a torrent of fury, berating me for my alleged inadequacy.
“This is a sloppy job! You must do things properly!”
His criticisms became an unrelenting barrage.
“You never think things through! Look at the messy edges! It’s all haphazard!”
As we ate the cake in silence, my attention diverted from the television screen. The lemon flavour was insipid. My mother pointed to the crumbs that had accumulated on the floor, remarking on my alleged negligence. The unbearable sensation of their words picking at me like a persistent itch propelled me to my feet, making a swift exit the only viable option. Hours later, when I reappeared, my face sticky and red, I was greeted by a resounding silence. Time had a way of smoothing over the rough edges, and eventually, the event itself faded from memory. Yet, within the familiar contours of my relationship with my father, there lingered an everlasting silence—a mute reminder of an apology left unsaid, forever suspended in the unspoken spaces between us.
Our conversations, so often veiled in half-truths and guarded sentiments, leave ample space for interpretation. We speak in a language unspoken, the words unuttered but vibrating with an energy that only those attuned to our frequency can perceive. We walk alongside each other, father and child, like two parallel lines, ever close yet never fully intersecting. Our connection exists in the silence between words, the pauses pregnant with meaning, and the unspoken agreements that silently shape our narrative. To the casual observer, we may appear distant, estranged even, our interactions lacking the conventional markers of warmth and familiarity. But beneath the surface, hidden in the crevices of our shared experiences, there resides a silent bond, steadfast and unyielding. It is an unspoken pact, understood rather than articulated, a language exclusive to us, composed of glances, gestures, and the occasional half-smile that speaks volumes.