I have a very specific memory of my Dad just a few weeks before he died in 2000. He and I were home alone, and he was working in his office. I can easily picture him in that room: surrounded by timber panelling, in a desk he made himself, made out of old doors and supported by filing cabinets. We were chatting, and I remember asking him how he was doing; his response was “Not well.” He then proceeded to be honest with my then 16-year-old self, sharing how he was feeling particularly down of late; symptoms we as a family were eminently familiar with, following the years that Dad navigated Bi-polar depression. The conversation went on for some time, and concluded with us praying together about his health and mental wellbeing. I’ve always treasured that memory: what a moment of sadness (and greatness) for a man to be that vulnerable with his daughter.
Likewise, you can see above the types of cards and letters he used to write to the ladies in his life. Filled with apologies, hopes, frustrations, he was honest to a fault. The card with the bird on it came after a big fight we had when I was around 15: He had been earnestly trying to convey a life lesson that he had learned to an unwilling audience; an angsty teenager. My angry response had been in the vein of “Just let me live my life! Let me make my own mistakes!!”. In the card he had confessed that his frustrations that day had stemmed from a work disappointment and not completely in our conversation; furthermore, he promised to try to step back and give me space as I navigated the season. Again: What a profound thing – to confess his humanity in that moment, to speak beyond platitudes to how he was feeling, and give context to where he was coming from. I treasure his cards – not only for his handwriting, but also for the rich cries of LANCE that the prose within proclaim.
The other day in a moment of frustration my daughter hit me in the face. Mostly with surprise but with also a deal of pain, I started crying. Arcadia was really confused and said But mummy, “grown ups don’t cry like that”. “Yeah honey, they do”, was my response. For it is 20 years today since dad died. 20 years. And as I’ve been remembering him this day, these moments of confession and vulnerability have been really real. I’m grateful for the gift of seeing Dad – Lance – as he was – seeing how lonely and frustrating it was to go through bright and ‘shiny’ periods of mania – filled with ideas and dreams and the energy to pursue them, followed by seasons of sleep, pain, lethargy, isolation, depression and disappointment. It has given me such insight into his story, and likewise mental illness and depression – something I’m really grateful for.
But in the same breath, the gift has also been a burden. It is a scary and dislocating thing to have your parents exposed as ‘humans’ at any age, much more when you’re a teenager. Like an image that has been scratched off with a coin to reveal the ‘true nature’ underneath, I know I still grieve the pedestal and hero that we inevitably hold our parents up on. I have asked myself – and Dad – many times- could you have kept the shiny silver layer for a little while longer? Could you have stayed up there on the stage – for a few more years at least? Now being a parent, perhaps what I’m actually angry about, or truly scared, of is how early I’m going to fall off the pedestal for my kids. How do I navigate that safely? Honesty vs protection; Vulnerability vs stoicism. Anyone got the magic formula?
In the end though, I think I would choose vulnerability every time. Of course there’s an appropriate time, age, and circumstance to be vulnerable. Of course I would have preferred that the mental illness wasn’t present, or that he is – they are – both around to be parent to me now- I don’t care that I’m all grown up- I’ll take whatever form they could have offered. But perhaps the vulnerability that was offered opened the door for me to be vulnerable in turn. Not that it has always been the path I’ve taken. But I like to think that my healthy self knows the good that it can do.
So it does raise a question then. What exactly is parenting?
Is it pedestal perfection? Perhaps not.
Perhaps it is proximity & being present. As myself. Perhaps with some vulnerability-as-courage.
I hope that I can gift some blend of that to my kids as they grow up.
Cos Dad’s still my hero. Depression, faults, weakness, and all.
Love you Lance. Until we meet again x