My dad inspired me. Inspired me to not be like him. I am sure other people had worse dads. Hey, my old man never beat me up or anything like that. But he was a tough old bastard who wasn’t always there for my family – even when he was present.
I remember as a little kid doing Greco-Roman wrestling. Don’t laugh even if you can imagine me in that little 1930s bathing suit and weighing 44.1 pounds – the lightest weight division was 44-49 pounds! My grandad loved the idea that I wrestled. He loved wrestling – he was into professional wrestling. And don’t dare say it wasn’t real. He had ways to convince you even at the age of 80. He didn’t need much to convince people of his views – at nearly 7 foot and 270 pounds. But he was my mom’s dad and I was close to him. He came to every wrestling match he could attend. Or rather when my dad was willing to take him. He was poor and old and couldn’t do it by himself and had to rely on my dad to bring him.
I made it through to the regional championships in my first year – I was six years old. I was too light by less than a pound, but they felt sorry for me (being the youngest there) and allowed me to go through and wrestle. And surprise, surprise, surprise – I won. And there was no one there to watch me. My dad had a game of cards he said he had to go to. So no one came. When the bus dropped me off I ran over to the house where he was playing cards – ready to show him the trophy I won. I ran in beaming and shouted, ‘look dad!’ He just looked at me and said, ‘well done’. And then returned to play his hand.
I can remember the number of times he attended my events – sport or whatever. It was less than a handful of times. He always had something to do at the office or out in the field. See, he was high up in the prison service in Apartheid South Africa. In fact, he was head of political prisoners for many years at Pollsmoor where many of the political prisoners were held. And he was a bastard at work as well. People used to get paid to hand out lashings and other corporal punishment to prisoners. And he made more money doing this than from his weekly wages when he was young. And he was always right at work. No one dared to question him. It was his way or the highway.
And this was where our differences really came to light. His political views and mine. His approach and mine. He supported Apartheid South Africa and I supported the struggle against Apartheid. I was open to change and he fought change everyday. And it all exploded in the late 80s and early 90s when it became clear that Apartheid was going down faster than the Titanic. He couldn’t stand the fact that his world was falling apart. And he couldn’t stand it that he was wrong. And he couldn’t stand it that I was on the side that was fighting his believes.
I hoped that it would all become a bit better – at least once Apartheidi fell. His world view was proven wrong and it was time to look ahead now. He was retired and well off. He had everything in place to just enjoy the rest of his life. But no. He had to continue to make it his job to wind me up whenever we saw each other. To always say something racist about the new government, my job, and especially my hero Nelson Mandela.
But I could handle that. I just switched off and concentrated on giving my mother all my attention. She suffered on her own when I moved out so it was only fair that I gave her all the attention when I visited – she didn’t get it from him when at home. But then we had our first baby – a little girl called Emma. And things changed completely. I did not want her to be exposed to any racism and expecially not to my dad’s racist comments. So I made a rule – no one was allowed to make any racist remarks when visiting my house. Respect my space and family and I will respect you. But he couldn’t. He continued to make his remarks. And so we just stopped seeing him and banned him from our house.
I saw my mother once in a while, but I went to see him and my mother together as little as possible. I would rather meet her on her own at the movies or a restaurant. I just couldn’t face him anymore. He was everything I didn’t want to be. And just seeing him made me become more like him. Full of hatred and distaste. And I didn’t want to be like that.
Then I got a call in the middle of the night. It was my sister crying her heart out. My mother just died. My sister was visiting my folks and she woke up from a loud bang. My mother just shot herself. Fucking guns. I hate them. Even when they are locked up in a safe – just like my dad did. I raced through to my parents house and from then on had to sort out everything. The funeral, identifying her body, police investigation, picking up her stuff at the shops, keeping everyone from cracking, speaking at her funeral. I hated it. I felt it was wrong – I was the youngest of four kids so why did I have to do it? I didn’t want to do it, but I did. Because someone had to do it. My dad wasn’t going to do much. He was to distraught. And thinking of himself and how he feels.
But now I had only one parent left. I tried to talk to him. Say that we only had each other left now. That we should be the family my mother would like us to be. That we should leave all our shit behind and look ahead. That we should just focus on each other and the good things we saw in our family. Be what we would like to be for each other. Stop the shit and look at the good. And he agreed. We cried a little and looked ahead.
But it didn’t last. He went back to the woman he was with when he cheated on my mom. Not thinking for a minute that it was going to drive my sisters crazy. They believed that my mom shot herself because my dad cheated on her. Me? I just don’t know. She never left a note and I want to remember the good years we had – not a few crazy minutes. But my sisters took it hard. Blamed themselves for not taking her away from him. And when he went back to this woman. Well, I had to choose and I chose my sisters.
I went to talk to him. I told him that this wasn’t going to work if he brings her into the family. That he should do what he feels is right, but he should never bring her into contact with me, and especially not my sisters. And he ignored me. It exploded the day before we left South Africa.
He phoned my older sister to say that he was going to marry this woman. And my sister cracked. Again. And I had to take it up with him. No one else was going to do it. So I phoned him and told him to stop the crap. To please just think for a minute about my sisters. And think about his responsibility as a dad. I can’t even remember what he said. I really can’t. I have been trying to figure it out for years now. But I just can’t remember. But whatever he said made me explode. I have never been that pissed off with anyone. I shouted at him and told him to leave me and my sisters alone. That we are done. No more chances. And that I will personally come to beat him to a pulp if he doesn’t leave my sisters alone. If he can’t look after them then I will. And I will come back to South Africa at a drop of a hat if he ever, ever messed with them. And then I threw down the phone.
That was 2002. I saw him once in 2004 for about 30 minutes at a family gathering. And made sure that he wasn’t at the next one. And I spoke to him once in 2005. But it was civil. As if I was talking to an aunt many times removed. he meant nothing to me and I was just being polite to him. Trying to not actually engage with him. Not calling him dad or anything for that matter.
And then I spoke to him in 2007. Less than 24 hours before he died. They phoned me to say that he had only a few days left – if that. They were keeping him alive. He has been suffering from his terminal case of leukemia for a few years. And it has now caught up. There is nothing more to do. Everything was failing. And so was he. And they told me he was waiting for my call. He just wanted that before he died.
So I phoned him. He answered, but I could hardly hear his voice. He was going and so was his voice. I kept quiet for a little while. Thinking what to say. I knew he was waiting for this call. But what was I going to say? What do you say to someone that never inspired you? To someone who was never there? But I also knew that I was like him – stubborn like hell. And I knew I owed him everything. I am who I am because of who he wasn’t. He inspired me to become who I am. The anti him.
I took a deep breath and whispered slowly, ‘It’s okay dad. It’s okay. Just take it easy. Don’t worry. It’s okay. Just let it go. We’re okay’. I could hear the barely audible whisper back, ‘thank you’. I said good bye and told him I will phone him again the next day. But there was no next day. He took himself off the machines and medicine – just after I phoned. And he died a few hours later on the same day.
It’s okay though. It’s okay.