All the same
We take our chances
Laughed at by time
Tricked by circumstances
In my apartment taped to the fridge is a photograph I took in the summer of 1989 on the west Coast of Ireland. In it is the form of my father—now more than twenty years gone—middle-aged, stooped, overweight, nearly a shadow, walking away from the camera into the blue-green water, the only human figure on a vast, empty beach. The photograph is slightly blurred and overexposed, the colours not capturing the vividness of the ocean and Irish countryside in summer as I remember them. It’s an amateur photograph captured on throwaway film. But I held onto it for years, stuffed into a box with other photographs. A few years ago, around the anniversary of my father’s death, I stuck it to my fridge, where I stick things that I think illuminate the truth and goodness of my existence—photos, paintings by my brother’s and sister’s kids, auspicious messages from fortune cookies, bits and pieces of a life—like talismans against death, or lack of love, or whatever outrageous fortune the world has in store. I toasted its posting to the fridge with a drink where it stays publicly as a reminder—of what, I’m not sure.
When I look at the photograph it’s not the moment I took it that I think of, although I do remember that: I was on the Dingle peninsula in county Kerry, the geographic beginning of my mother’s family, the O’Sullivan clan. A friend and I had struck out on our own at the tender age of twenty to see the world, and one of the first stops was the country of origin for both our mothers. My parents had planned a vacation in Ireland around the same time I would be there and thought it would be fun to meet up with their son, recently unburdened from the shackles of a too sullen and cynical adolescence. Looking back now I should have come up with some excuse to avoid meeting them on what was supposed to be my grand tour, free of the constraints of familial duty and its accompanying discontents.
No thought was put into framing the subject. It is as though I never took the photo. Consequently, the image on my fridge suggests to me an absence, if not of the photographer, then certainly my father who is caught walking away from the camera, his back to the viewer, preparing to dive into the cold Atlantic, in a way, to efface himself. And then it hits me: my father spent his entire adult life performing a sort of disappearing act in an attempt to hide from or deny the bipolar disorder that ruled his life when I knew him.
Water then, the ocean particularly, held a fascination for my father. In his youth, growing up in Halifax, he had been a competitive swimmer with some talent who could churn through the summer waters of the north arm of Halifax Harbour like a champion. He had the medals to prove it—relics from happier times, reminders that told him he had once been strong. As a middle-aged man, and with the gradual downward progression of his illness, I think he became attracted more to the idea of the ocean in the literary sense—a broad empty swell, submerged with myths of forgetting and forgiveness. When he took to the sea, perhaps he was remembering his youth and ability as a swimmer before his life and its myriad responsibilities began to exact its heavy toll on his too sensitive disposition.
I know that the photograph taped to the fridge captures only a moment in time, but like an icon it has become an object of contemplation, something to bring me back to a point of acknowledgement, an attempt to come to grips with a parent I both resented and feared, whose bipolar disorder I didn’t have the maturity and acceptance to understand until it was too late for it to make a difference in our relationship. And yet, this was a parent I was desperately trying to win the approval of. According to classical psychoanalysis every act of daring and creativity by the male child is an attention-getting scream: “Daddy, look at me!”
Whatever one thinks of Freud I do think he was on to something. I often think of the photo on the fridge in terms of the narrative it conveys, as if the image lives beyond its edges—my father, the absent father, an archetype that has been perpetuated through both literary and actual history: Odysseus lost at sea; the ghost of old Hamlet; Leopold Bloom’s father who committed suicide by drinking prussic acid. Even when he was present, my father wasn’t really there. I remember as a child asking him questions, to which I would receive no answer, as though he were ignoring me. I know now however, that he genuinely did not hear me, for he was somewhere else caught in the cold psychic gauze of his own anxieties and regrets, battling the demons that would in time take him down like a drowning man lured by sirens.
My father was one of three brothers—the middle child. His younger brother, by several years, would often come visit our family. These visits from my uncle carried old and buried family weirdness in his wake, which lead my father to perform strange acts in front of his own family that to this day have warped my perception of the world. My father’s lunacy wasn’t my uncle’s fault, but his presence created in my father a shadow-self, harried by jealousy, self-loathing, and regret. I sometimes wonder if this might have been because my uncle was able to do what my father could not: that is, pursue a career contrary to the one my grandfather had had in mind for him. Apparently it was the scandal of the family and a lot of hard feelings surrounded it. My father was probably envious of his younger brother’s bravery and independence—and this envy would manifest itself in bizarre outbursts of childish and reckless behaviour.
I remember one Christmas when my uncle came to visit, my father, stumbling drunk, decided it would be a good idea to jump into the frigid waters of Deep Cove in his pajamas at 1:00 a.m. When my father got home, dripping in squeaking shoes, my Uncle said, “You need to soak your head.” My father, often witty when manic replied, “I believe I already have.” (Like a lot of people, Christmas for us was regularly marred by family drama: my parents would get into full-blown screaming matches in front of us kids, my father threatening divorce and kicking something over, like the Christmas tree. It turned out my father was just carrying on the family tradition of annually re-staging a tragedy. According to family legend, my great grandfather died on Christmas Eve, and around the anniversary of his death my grandfather would become taciturn and morbidly depressed and lie on the couch on his back, enclosed by the gloom of the past and listen to Wagner’s Parsifal, probably the saddest piece of music ever composed. Predictably, for my father, Christmas was always associated with unhappiness and his father’s sentimental inability to get on with life.
Probably the most reckless act my father ever performed was also the most noble—in an unhinged, selfish, irrational way. No one in my family knows what, but during one of his summer visits my uncle did or said something to set my father off. I wasn’t there for the whole event. My memories of what might be the most significant act my father performed I’ve had to piece together from what I witnessed, and the recollections of my family, which was this: driven to distraction by his younger brother’s presence—the possibility that he might have been smarter and more talented, better looking, in possession of a superior career, who knows—my father decided to go for a swim, a very long swim. In some desperate rage my father stepped into the ocean at Panorama Park in Deep Cove and began swimming to Raccoon Island, a distance of about three kilometers in the cold waters of Indian Arm (even at the height of summer the surface temperature never seems to rise above ten degrees Celsius) in his distinctive breaststroke, his head too far below the waterline, going against proper form—coming up again, his mouth wide open for an intake of air, kicking his long legs like a bullfrog, his arms separating the waters before him like a ridiculous Old Testament patriarch. At the time my father performed this dangerous act he was far past his prime. He was overweight and out of shape. His hairy belly hung over the band of his swimming shorts. But if you could go back in time to that August day as he walked down to the beach, even in his willful middle-aged decline, you could have still seen the remnants of an athlete’s body. In his manic state, perhaps he hallucinated the sheer granite mountains of Indian Arm (this place where it rains too fucking much my father often said) crumbling into the sea, benevolently replaced by the gabled roof and white painted façade of the Waegwoltic Club in Halifax—the place where my father learned to swim as a child, before the mendacity of a handed down life took over.
The entire trip to Raccoon Island took him six hours: two hours there, two hours to warm up on the rocks and contemplate his life, or so I imagine, and two hours to make it back to shore. Why he would pull such a foolish maneuver I can only speculate. Perhaps he was merely riding a wave of mania and the unbidden emotions that accompanied it. (I’ve heard that not even the rush of cocaine compares with the sideways chemistry of a manic-depressive on a high.) Many years later I heard it was his hope that he would simply tire out from swimming, succumb to hypothermia, and sink senseless to the bottom of Indian Arm. I don’t know if it was my father’s intention to commit suicide on the day of his crazy swim, or if by swimming he was trying to make something disappear: the presence of his brother and the memories he evocated, the gnawing void of the past and all his regrets.
On his return swim to Panorama Park, my father was spotted by pleasure boaters who were concerned that a lone swimmer was out in the middle of Indian Arm. They offered to bring him back to shore. I can only imagine my father’s responses to their offers. He would have been affable, charming even as he settled into a short discussion about the nice weather as he hung off the gunwales of the boat, sincere in his appreciation of the blue sky and steep-sided green mountains plunging into the fjord of Indian Arm, taking a breather and spitting out seawater casually as though he were talking to lost friends from another time, but in the end graciously declining help and pushing off into his distinctive breaststroke.
When he made it back to shore, miraculously, he was as blue as Shiva, the Hindu god who can withstand all the poison the world can distill. He stumbled up the beach, supported by a lifeguard, draped in blankets like an ascetic, attracting a crowd.
Given the crushing reality of my father’s illness, it seems that life didn’t give him much of a chance; however, I’m not convinced the world is that short of benevolence—it just has an oversupply of shitty parents. Despite his illness, my father was one of life’s winners: educated, a doctor with a family, homes in several well-to-do neighbourhoods—a pillar of the community. By all standards of western society he should have been happy, right? To understand my father I need to take a step further back and recall his father before him. Even as a child, I remember my grandfather as a controlling, overbearing, and sullen man. The way that he treated his sons, the way he gave them very limited opportunities to find a measure of satisfaction in life, suggested a man who was more concerned with status and the maintenance of the good family name than with the individual happiness and contentment of his children—no son of his would be anything less than a doctor or a lawyer. My grandfather was also almost certainly a depressive and most definitely an alcoholic who kept hidden from the world his wife’s own struggles with bipolar disorder at a time when mental illness was seen as a personal failing and not a treatable health issue. I remember my father saying, after he had returned home from an extended stay at the UBC psychiatric hospital, that he had taken a general aptitude test and had discovered that he had a facility for working with his hands and might have made a good mechanic or plumber. He became wistful as he noted the irony that he might have been happier had he gone against the wishes of his father and chosen a profession in the lowly trades. My father didn’t have the temperament to be a doctor, certainly not the ego; at the same time he was an empathetic person and could detect bullshit a mile away. I remember him telling stories at the dining room table of patients complaining of pains, a ruse to get high, only seeking to get a prescription for codeine or valium, and him telling them to take an aspirin and call him in the morning—his subtle way of telling his patients to fuck off. The central tragedy of my father’s life, more than his illness, was the fact that he did not choose his own life. His father chose it for him and my father didn’t rebel. I want to believe that, given a different set of circumstances and the opportunity to find his own way in the world, perhaps having a father who wasn’t so circumscribed and conservative, that even with his bipolar disorder, my father would still be alive and maybe even coming close to something resembling happiness.
My father had one foot squarely and willfully planted in the darkness of his life. I sometimes think he was in love with his own suffering, a perverse narcissism, that he somehow saw it as honourable, like some romantic hero battling dragons. Only he kept his dragons very close, like the broken toys of a petulant child, more relics, refusing or unable to let them go for reasons I’ll never understand. At the same time, that he struggled back to shore that long ago summer day makes me think that he was more drawn to the light—albeit like a moth to a flame, both fearful and attracted, expecting to get burned—than to the darkness in which he was so hopelessly lost.
When I look back on my father’s life it is through my memories of childhood and adolescence, periods in my life when I couldn’t possibly have understood my father’s bipolar disorder. To this day it’s still furtively referred to as the family illness, like a homeless person asking for change at the kitchen door who goes ignored. I remember hating him for his sullen silence, for the walls he constructed around himself to shut out a world that didn’t suit him, for his binge drinking, for his self-medicating, for going off his meds, for his psychotic rages, for his inability to nurture his children and to teach his sons how to be men, for his inability to see the love that surrounded him—that surrounds all of us. Some part of me, some small part, curses him still. But it is too small a part to be beyond the grace of understanding.
When I look at the photograph on my fridge it is mostly with sadness, but it is with a sense of forgiveness and acceptance also: my father was a victim of a terrible disease that society is only now getting a grasp on, the reality of which is being spoken openly between family members and friends, indeed that is emerging from the darkness where it has been relegated for too long. Even though he didn’t have the strength and endurance to fight his demons, I can’t blame him nor cling to my resentments—it’s just too exhausting, like being in a race one has no hope of winning. »From issue #62