My father was a man who was afraid. Having grown up the ninth child of twelve to his mother and one of countless to his father, he was the child who always fell through the cracks. The way I have heard it told, a lot of his childhood care came from his older siblings. By the time he managed to get himself to university, he had endured a variety of humiliations at life’s hands through people he considered to be family. To get himself through university, he traded foodstuff during vacations for tuition and relied on the kindness of his best friend with whom he was lodging for food. His first job after university was obtained with the help of his wife’s mother, and for the first few months of their marriage, the family was supported by his wife’s meager income as a secretary for a governmental agency.
While this background may seem winding, it provides a backdrop for the person my father became. By the time he had any money of his own, he had watched many of the peers he grew up with who were brought up with financial security and an inheritance “not amount to much.” While he, who had (in his mind) picked himself up by his bootstraps, went on to become somewhat successful. This, and his upbringing, shaped his worldview in many ways. For instance, in our house, it was my father who owned several pairs of shoes. While the rest of us, including my mother, could count how many shoes we had on one hand, my father had an entire cabinet devoted to his numerous shoes. Each morning, he required that his shoe for the day be polished by one of us, and shoe polish was a thing never lacking in our house.
More importantly, this background shaped how comfortable he thought we should be as his children. Requests for textbooks from my sister were met with the response, “what are poor people’s children doing?” This was a frequent refrain for him. When asked for money to purchase special toothpaste which I required due to teeth sensitivity, his concern was that needing special toothpaste was against living within my means. What would happen when I finished university and had a job that did not pay so well? The same sort of concern reared its head when my mother and I broached the idea of a car when I was 19. “What will the lecturers think? How can you, at age 19, say this is my car?” When I got into university but had to be fee-paying for the program I wanted, his response was that I stay at home for a year and re-write the exam. After all, what were poor people’s children doing? Ever my champion, my mother ignored these questions and fought to get me into my chosen program on her own, although she was earning considerably less than he was at the time.
Another of my father’s big fears was related to being neglected by his children in old age. A lot of the investments he made and his wanting to shore money away resulted from the fear that like his father and other fathers he knew, his children might abandon him in his old age and he would have to fend for himself. It never seemed to occur to him that the reason those fathers were abandoned was because they never built a relationship with their own children. Perhaps this fear, or some others I am unaware of, resulted in him arriving at home at very odd hours, and barely spending any time at home on the weekends, as he was busy making sure all of his businesses were in order. To keep his businesses viable, he borrowed huge sums that he could not always pay. Too often, creditors would show up at our house often unexpectedly and rain curses on whoever was unfortunate enough to open the gate. My father’s lifestyle meant that we hardly ever saw him during the week. By the time he arrived at home, most of us had already gone to bed. It also meant promises for outings together usually ended in frustration and/or tears because he would arrive so late the outing became a non-starter, or we were too frustrated to truly enjoy the trip.
The irony here is that my father died at age 52. Despite his great care to put money away for his old age to ensure he was taken care of, he died before that money could ever be of benefit to him. An even bigger irony is that none of us were there when he died, a self-fulfilling prophecy. This ending too, started with fear. Raised Anglican, by the time he was in his forties, he had a tenuous relationship with the church, choosing to prioritize his businesses during weekends. He maintained a relationship with the priest from our childhood, and the priest and his wife were often visitors in our home. Yet, in his mid-forties, he made a visit to what I can only loosely reference as a “church”. Thanks to an invitation by a childhood friend, this visit began a series of unfortunate events that contributed to his eventual decline. Despite his faults, my father was a generous man outside our home. The priest who frequented our home, for instance, benefitted from having the roofing of his entire new home freely financed by my father. Having discovered his generosity with money, this new “church” did what shrewd people do when they discover a way to get free access to money; they latched on. Soon, my father was living with a different kind of fear. This new group, now on his payroll, would frequently call him about some misfortune that was imminent, and whatever he was doing at the time would be halted for intensive in-the-moment prayers. Having no background in theology, my father was ordained by this group as a pastor, a fact my mother only discovered after seeing a picture of him in a collar, surrounded by a group of strangers.
Thus began the end, with my mother eventually discovering he had become convinced about a spiritual plot for his death. Discovering this in the midst of caring for him through a serious ailment, she agreed for him to live with a relative, for fear of being accused of being the cause if he died. By the time of his death, we had not seen my father in several months. Convinced our absence meant we did not care, we were not informed of his death until we saw the announcement in a newspaper, prompted by a friend. As a child, I resented all the times when he showed up too late, after promising to take us one place or the other. I also resented all the arguments I had to make about why I needed money. I now realize my father was simply a man who was afraid. That the fear became all-consuming is maybe where the problem lies. Years after his death, I am still struggling to balance my image of him as the man who took us on beach trips and to fancy restaurants, with the image of the man who was so afraid to lose the money he spent years trying to accrue. As an adult, I now frequently contend with the question: how do we balance the rightful fears developed from our lived experience with the life we envision for ourselves and those we hold dear?