This piece was the winning entry in the 2017 Feminartsy Memoir Prize.
My father and I went to see our therapist again the other day. Not together, but one after the other, we sit through back-to-back appointments until we share one main and one entrée at the Thai restaurant nearby.
I watch my father losing faith in our psychologist.
Or perhaps it is the practice of psychology he is losing faith in. When we first ate Thai food after back-to-back appointments, he was impressed. She hadn’t said the one sentence that would have made him stand and leave in the middle of the session.
Oh, that’s awful. I’ve never met anyone who’s been through something so terrible.
My appointment was before his that first week. I had almost wanted to tell her: whatever you do, do not say that one sentence to him.
But I did not need to, because she did not say it and this led him to conclude at the end of his first session that perhaps she was all right after all.
But, four or five sessions later, while sharing our post-therapy Thai, it feels like we are back to square one.
When I ask him if she’s helping him let go of the guilt, he says: ‘There’s a difference between people who don’t want to let go of guilt and people who can’t let go of guilt.’
I don’t understand the distinction, nor which category he thinks he falls into, but I nod and keep listening.
A few years ago, when people were still in hyper-help mode, someone wanted to put Dad in touch with a man who’d lost a daughter in a car accident. They thought it might help Dad to speak to someone suffering a similar kind of grief.
‘There’s no point talking to him. He only lost one daughter, and he wasn’t driving. It’s not the same thing,’ was Dad’s reason for declining.
One day, I tell Mum I want to go skiing again with Dad.
She shakes her head, ‘No, he won’t. Don’t bring it up.’
He doesn’t dance anymore either. He used to dance in the kitchen when mum was making poached eggs and singing that song about it being a beautiful morning. But now he won’t even dance at weddings.
‘He doesn’t think he deserves to have fun,’ my mother explains.
Once, a year or two ago, he danced one song with me. It was a father-daughter dance at a high-school friend’s wedding and I had to physically drag him to the dance floor. I was surprised he allowed me to. We danced, he cried, I tried not to, and then he returned to his table at the end of the song.
There are things we cannot say:
I love you,
Please stop telling people that you killed your daughters.
But neither of us can say these things so he refuses to dance and I drag him onto the dance floor and then he never lets me do it again.
We drive to Mudgee one year, and I bring a friend with me. She begins telling a story, a long joke that depends on an in-depth set-up for the punch line to pay off. She starts describing the characters, gives them both names. The first she calls James, the second she calls Lisa. The car goes quiet. She looks at me and realises it’s too late to back-paddle. I watch her eyes asking me:
Would it be awkward if I said No, wait, I didn’t mean Lisa, I got confused. The character’s name was Liana?
That name—Lisa—hangs in the air, filling up the four-wheel-drive cabin, sucking the breath out of my father’s chest.
My friend stops talking, my mother reaches forward in her seat, turns the radio on, starts singing along, out of tune, to a Beatles song.
I’m sitting behind the front passenger seat, my father in the driver’s seat. I can see the side profile of his face. I watch him do that thing he does with his lip when he’s trying not to cry.
This is what grief looks like: Trying not to cry when someone uses the wrong name in a joke.
My father’s favourite entrée at the Thai restaurant is satay chicken skewers. He orders a serving and then says: ‘Do you understand what that means?’
I shake my head, no. ‘I’m confused.’
He lost me somewhere around the bit where one of the girls had carbon monoxide in their blood and the other did not and Mitsubishi asked the coroner to say they weren’t wearing their seatbelts and as a result the coroner explicitly stated in his report: All passengers were wearing seatbelts.
‘It means Carlie was already dead when we hit the other car,’ he says.
‘And Lisa was not?’
‘And Lisa was not,’ he answers.
I try to keep my question in my head, but it comes out. ‘I thought they were both already gone before the car burst into flames?’
‘No,’ he says.
I do not want to think about what this means. Lisa was alive when the car burst into flames? I think about the little white-gift-wrapped packages their bodies were, sitting small in the centre of each of their open caskets in the church before the funeral. There was so little of them left that their remains were scooped up and held together with bandages and white sheets.
The satay chicken skewers arrive.
Who scooped them up? Was there anything actually inside those bandages that day at the church?
‘But there was only a small amount of carbon monoxide in her blood,’ Dad says.
He has not touched his satay chicken skewers. At the table next to us, a lady stands and advises her friends loudly of where she is going: ‘I am filled to my eyeballs with urine.’
‘OK,’ I say.
‘So she was alive for less than a minute after we hit the other car.’
‘OK,’ I say. Because what else is there to say?
I am trying to teach myself to cry at the appropriate times. In the evenings, I drink and smoke and read and do not cry. During the day, I stand to do a presentation on a Japanese novelist, and begin crying. Someone shouts at me for being late, and my response is to cry. Sometimes, when I am alone and driving and the sun is shining and something good has just happened, I look up and say Thanks God, and I begin to cry. That is the closest I ever come to crying at an appropriate time.
My father cries all of the time. When the ship sinks in Titanic, when someone asks him how he is and one of the girls’ birthdays are less than a month away, when our neighbour’s kid gets an award at school.
My mother doesn’t cry much. But when she does, she lets the tears hang there on her cheeks until they run down to her lip and she has to snuffle loudly to stop any snot coming out.
She does this only when I have said or done something she doesn’t believe is a good idea, and she needs me to know she disapproves. I try not to encourage this behaviour, so I mostly pretend I don’t notice. It hurts too much to hug her, anyway. She was the one holding us together for so long. I tell her I think she should see a psychologist and she texts back:
‘What for? I have friends.’
‘It’s not the same,’ I reply.
‘It is for me,’ she says.
And then she goes back to ignoring me or speaking in monosyllables because I told her I need to spend this Christmas alone.
I’m sorry Mum.
I do not know when exactly it happened, but my father has stopped telling me the truth.
When I was younger, I would save up my father’s opinion for special times, as if his thoughts were a finite resource that I did not want to exhaust. Only when I wanted an opinion on something serious or scary or important would I go to him.
‘What do you think, Dad?’ I would ask.
And he would tell me the things I didn’t want to hear.
But these days, he only tells me what he thinks I do want to hear.
These days, I open our conversations with the line: ‘Tell me the truth Dad. Tell me what you really think.’
I never say it, but sometimes I think it: Sparing my feelings now won’t change how much it hurt when I saw you covered in white sheets and hospital tubes and we had to break the news to you, They didn’t make it Dad, and you howled like a wild animal.
This is what grief looks like: A father lying to his daughter because he is afraid to lose her too.
Image: Vincent Guth
Chloe Higgins is the founder of Wollongong Writers Festival, and recently stepped down as Director to focus on her Creative Writing PhD. She was the 2016 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre Emerging Writer-in-Residence and the Ray Koppe Young Writers’ Resident at Varuna. Her work has appeared in Suburban Review, Prowlings, Lip mag, Tertangala, ZPlatt, Feminartsy and Kindling. In May 2017, she was named the winner of the inaugural Feminartsy Memoir Prize. Chloe is currently writing a memoir of losing her two sisters in a car accident in 2005.