Father’s Day grief
I drove Mum to the Field of Mars cemetery in Ryde, Sydney, so we could pay our respects together. It was a gloomy morning. We barely spoke on the way, save for a pit stop at a flower stall. I parked near where Dad was buried and watched as Mum got out of the car and walked to his gravestone. She knelt at the site and wept, confiding her love and sorrow for him in Arabic. I don’t remember what she said. I was too focused on my own pain, on trying to hold things together.
She stared into space on the way home, Kleenex crumpled in her fist. We were both quiet. I tried to ignore the knot tightening in the pit of my stomach but couldn’t. I pulled over, yanked the handbrake and started to bawl into my palms. Mum watched on, shocked. Tenderly, she placed her hand on my shoulder. I have no idea how long it took me to compose myself. Grief makes you do strange things.
It had been about seven months since my dad died from kidney failure. His name was Faris George Jahshan. Faris means “knight” in Arabic. I was 23 when we lost him; I’m 33 now.
The year surrounding his death was the worst of my life. I battled through the final semester of university. The only child in my immediate family to study past high school, I knew it was a big deal for my immigrant parents. I withdrew from friends, family and work while I watched him on his deathbed; the depression only deepened after he passed. The most petty, trivial things would flood me with anger. I remember locking myself in a toilet cubicle once at work, punching the wall, bursting into tears over nothing.
At home, as the youngest of four and the only child still living at home with Mum, there were many nights I found myself holding her hand at the dinner table as tears silently rolled down her cheeks. The room felt so empty. It’s still bittersweet, remembering the love he had for her, the love she holds on to for him.
The first Father’s Day without him was the hardest. Of course, then there was the first Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday – but Father’s Day, in particular, has remained a stark reminder that he is not here. Traditionally, my family celebrates the day by gathering over a long lunch in our dining room, where a portrait of my dad hangs in the corner. That first year, I remember by mum turning to the picture during a lull in conversation during lunch – unheard of before his death – and wishing it “happy Father’s Day”. Grief makes you do strange things.
In the end, he missed my university graduation by just three months. After the ceremony, I visited the cemetery in Ryde. I brought my newly acquired degrees and showed them to his gravestone. My aunt, standing beside me with my mum, wailed, “Irr-fa’ rrahsak, akhouy! ” – “Raise your head, brother!” – an Arabic phrase used when you want someone to take notice.
I know Dad would’ve taken notice, though; I know he was proud of me. I remember when I landed a casual job as an editorial assistant during my last year of university, he went around telling anyone who would listen that I was a journalist, in this way that made it sound like a feat no one else had ever achieved.
I was close to my dad – in looks, mannerisms and personality. We had the same sense of humour. A desire for social justice was ingrained in his psyche. He was Palestinian, born less than a decade before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, an event that turned his life upside down. He was 70 when he died, having lived in Australia for more than 40 years. In all this time, he’d never revisited his hometown of Jaffa, not since he was displaced in 1948. In his final months, I promised him I’d “go back” on his behalf.
Mum and I made a holiday of it, starting in her home country of Lebanon, before visiting my dad’s cousins in Amman and Jerusalem. I was 26 at the time, the same age he was in 1964 when he left Amman – where his family ended up after 1948. His cousins kept telling me that I looked so much like him. Some of them never saw him again after he left for Sydney. In their memories, he is an eternal 26-year-old.
In Jaffa, I imagined a younger version of him wandering the streets he grew up in. I saw the church where the last photo of his family was taken on Palm Sunday 1948. I found a cleared block of land which, according to a map I was given by a relative in Amman, was likely to have been where my dad’s childhood home stood by the beach. His presence was everywhere.
On Father’s Day, I often think about this trip, how it changed me. I can’t help but imagine how proud Dad would’ve been to show me around his hometown. I’m also reminded on this day of how I never came out to him before he died. At the time, I was still early in my journey as an openly gay man. I was crippled by fear about how he would’ve reacted if he knew. There were moments when my dad mocked gay men. He once responded to a question of mine with a cold stare, declaring I would no longer be his son if he found out I was gay.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely his fault. He was of a different generation, where the cultural stigma around homosexuality in Arab culture was even deeper than it is now. But I like to imagine the conversations we would’ve had that would have changed his views, even if it took a while. Liberal and progressive on a range of issues, he was the kind of man who spoke fondly of Gough Whitlam’s visionary leadership. The kind of man who supported equal rights for women. The kind of man who always used to tell me to “make friends, not war”.
I have long forgiven him.
Dad could command a room. He was a great orator and storyteller. There would be an instinctive hush as he took the stage to toast a cousin on their 21st or one of my siblings on their wedding. He never had notes, speaking from the heart. He was never afraid to be sentimental, cherishing his role as a doting grandfather to all six of his grandchildren. He never shied away from showing how much he appreciated and loved my mum. I remember him struggling not to hug me in front of my peers when he came to watch me take part in a public speaking competition in high school for the first time. “I’m so proud of you,” he said afterwards. “The talent comes from you,” I responded.
It brought my dad joy to make others happy. He was known for making everyone feel welcome under his roof. He would make jokes, collapsing into long fits of wheezing laughter – we called it his “Muttley laugh” in reference to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character – before he could even reach the punchline.
I’m often reminded of his love for music. After he died, I started listening to his favourite singer, Om Kalthoum, the legendary Egyptian performer known for her poetic, emotional live shows. Her song “Enta Omri”, which translates as “You Are My Life”, stirs memories of him humming along while it played on a laptop beside his sickbed, of my mum kissing him on the forehead.
Last year, I found myself in London around Father’s Day – crying into my partner’s shoulder, trying to explain my emotional reaction to Elvis Presley’s song “The Wonder of You”. It was one of my dad’s favourites. The memories of my parents slow-dancing together to it at weddings are vivid still. It had been almost a decade since he passed. But grief makes you do strange things.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Father’s day". Subscribe here.