REFLECT: Father's Day, in the absence of my father

Visiting bookstores is a favourite pastime, but these days, I rarely venture over to the non-fiction section – I’m a fiction girl, through and through. But there was a time, before Dad’s death, when I’d scan the non-fiction shelves, searching for the perfect gift: an autobiography by the latest sporting hero. It was a winning formula, and one that I repeated for him every birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day. The first book I ever bought Dad, with my pocket money, was a biography about 1980s cricketing great, Dennis Lillee.  And from then on, there was never any shortage of possibilities – Greg Norman, Greg Chappell, Kevin Sheedy or James Hird, to name a few favourites. (To his relief, I'm sure, Dad never witnessed the recent demise of the Bombers – I know he would’ve remained loyal to his beloved red and blacks, but in his understated manner, he would’ve been “very disappointed”).  

Also, to go with the book, there was always the gift of honeycomb chocolate, Dad’s firm favourite. Growing up, I always bought the distinctive purple and gold Violet Crumble bars from the supermarket – but in my adult years, I switched to Haigh's honeycomb chocolate. When it came to chocolate, Dad and I shared a weakness. Throughout my uni years, he'd often deliver blocks of Cadbury Top Deck – my favourite back then – straight to my desk, to get me through another night of swot vac. Of course, he’d help me eat it.

And so, each year in the lead-up to Father’s Day, I’d shop at Haigh's and nearby Readings, safe in the knowledge that my gifts would be much appreciated by Dad. It was part of my Father’s Day ritual, and I enjoyed it.

The first year after Dad died, I experienced such a sense of loss as Father’s Day approached, and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I felt like a boat, adrift on the sea, being pummelled by the waves. I remember walking past Haigh's, and thinking, perhaps if I buy the choc honeycomb, it’ll provide a small anchor, a tiny semblance of normality. So I went in, and made my purchase – and even accepted the offer of a gift bag. I was surprised at the level of comfort this provided, just knowing that I had one part of my Father’s Day ritual that could still exist. Five years on, it’s still providing some comfort. It’s as though Dad and I can still share this one little thing, our love of chocolate – even though he’s not here to help me eat it.

This year marks my fifth Father’s Day without Dad. It does get easier with each passing year, but I still experience the same conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it’s a day that I just want to ‘get through’, to hurry up and be over with. It's hard seeing family groups out celebrating, especially the proud grandfathers doting on their grandchildren. On the other hand, though, this day is also a celebration of my husband, and his role as a fantastic father to our three children. The kids love the excitement of Father’s Day, and I don’t want my own grief to detract from that – after all, they’re building precious memories too. So despite my own sense of sadness, it’s a day when I muster my strength and soldier on – as the handmade pre-school gifts are proudly presented (another soap-on-a-rope to hang in the shower!) and cold toast is served up for breakfast in bed.

All in all, it's a mixed-up day of highs and lows, of celebrations and moments of quiet reflection. Actually, it’s similar to the night Dad died – which was Easter Saturday.  Dad took his last breaths at Caritas Christi, a wonderful palliative care unit – and although it holds such sad memories for me, I have nothing but praise for the staff and the facility. After a long and emotional day, I returned home late at night, ready to crawl into bed. But thankfully, amidst the grief, we remembered the significance of the night: our kids would be expecting Easter eggs in their little bedside baskets, when they woke bright and early. I’ll never forget that strange feeling. It seemed so frivolous to be playing Easter Bunny, when we'd just lost Dad. But I felt the children shouldn't lose both their precious Poppa, and the magic of Easter, in one fell swoop. So the next morning, over the excitement of Easter Eggs, I broke the news about Dad. 

At Caritas Christi, there’s a comforting tradition – optional, but recommended – of creating a ‘butterfly tile’ as a tribute to your loved one. The nurse took Dad’s fingerprints not long after he died, and together with Mum’s fingerprints, they formed the butterfly’s wings.  My brother put the finishing touches on the butterfly, and I wrote Dad’s name on the bottom of the tile. It was fired and glazed, and in time, mounted on the Butterfly Wall. Surprisingly, this creative process was very cathartic, even though it seemed an unusual thing to be doing in the hour after Dad’s death. But in hindsight, it was far more productive and therapeutic than waiting around for the funeral directors to arrive, to complete the formalities. 

A section of the Butterfly Wall, Caritas Christi

A section of the Butterfly Wall, Caritas Christi

That night, after leaving Caritas for the final time, I doubted that I’d ever return. But in time, I did. Actually, I’ve been a few times since – and as it happens, I went this morning. Along with the honeycomb chocolate, a visit to the Butterfly Wall now forms part of my new Father’s Day ritual. Driving into the car park brought back vivid memories, but most of all, I felt a sadness for the owners of the cars there today, knowing they were visiting a loved one whose days were numbered. The nurses were just as sensitive and reassuring as I remembered, and welcomed me back to the Butterfly Wall. In a quiet, sunny courtyard, there’s a wooden bench under a leafy tree. Opposite the bench is the Butterfly Wall, a colourful memorial to many people – some old, others not so old – who have passed away at Caritas. I found Dad’s tile there, amongst the other beautiful butterflies. For me, just sitting in this space brought back the same sense of calm that I experienced when we created the tile, the night he died. It really felt like there was a piece of him still there, in that courtyard. In time, I’d like to think I could bring my family with me when I visit – but for now, I appreciate the solitude.

Recently, I popped into Readings to buy a copy of Black Rock White City for a friend, and I found myself walking slowly past the non-fiction new release shelves. Mentally, I picked out what should have been my 2016 gift for Dad – Bomber: The Whole Story, by Mark Thompson. He would’ve loved it. Sadly, I won’t be making a non-fiction purchase this year. However, for many years to come, Haigh's can rely on me to boost their sales of honeycomb chocolate over the Father’s Day weekend. Perhaps next year I’ll take my chocolate to that quiet, sunny courtyard at Caritas Christi, bringing together the two fragments of my new ritual. You see, in the absence of my father, I’ve slowly found my own way of acknowledging Father’s Day.


Written by Carmen