I discovered early on in life that my father hated being called ‘Dave.’ As a proud David, my Dad has always felt that the somewhat more informal ‘Dave’ is an assault on his dignity. Unfortunately for him, there was a man at Warragul Church of Christ who insisted on called him ‘Dave.’ It really cheesed him off, although he stayed silent about it in order to keep the peace. Nevertheless, it was a most tragic injustice.
Coinciding with discovering my Dad’s loathing for the casual rendering of his name, I too was learning something about myself: I had a bratty side that loved to annoy the hell out of people for my own amusement. This is a trait that lingers, although I have learned to tame it and use it sparingly. Even on those occasions in which I deliberately provoke, I tend only to target the thoroughly deserving. The responsible usage of one’s gifts has come about only through the passing of time, and in my youth I had no such concern for the psychological wellbeing of anyone who happened to be my victim. This included my Dad, who I started calling ‘Dave’ whenever I wanted to rile him up. Dad’s reaction to hearing his son call him ‘Dave’ was such that it might be compared to the frustration one experiences stuck in traffic: the longer it continues, the more angry one gets. In order to gain maximum impact, the trick was to call him ‘Dave’ several times in one conversation. An example of a typical transaction between us is as follows:
Me: ‘Hey Dave, how’s things.’
Dad: ‘You call me Dad, not Dave. Got it?’
Me: ‘OK Dave, I’ll remember for next time.’
Dad: ‘Don’t get smart with me, I said its Dad not Dave!’
Me: ‘Sorry about that Dave. Promise it won’t happen again.’
Dad: (enraged) ‘Right, one more Dave from you and you are grounded. Get it through your thick head. IT’S DAD NOT DAVE!!!!’
Now of course, the trick of being a provocateur is to know when you have pushed someone to their limit. At this point in an exchange with my Dad, my own childish ignorance contained just enough wisdom to know that enough was enough. To proceed further was to risk all out war. On such occasions I would retreated to my room, leaving Dad (or Dave) red faced and ropable.
As the years rolled by Dad’s patience with me was further put to the test, albeit in more significant ways. I remember going dressed as Satan for my year 12 muck-up day. As a local Minister in Echuca, Dad found this embarrassing and disappointing. That same year I had discovered alcohol, and had embarked on a somewhat intimate relationship with the substance. Life was quickly pulling me further and further away from the stuffy confines of a Christian home. This fall from grace proved a challenge for Dad, who at one point entertained the idea that he and I would one day be partners in a Church ministry. On another occasion I told my Dad that the Bible was essentially boring and useless. This was interpreted as heresy, and I was subjected to a lecture about how exciting scripture actually is. From memory, Dad chose to have me read the book of Judges as evidence that the Bible has as much sex, violence and death as any Hollywood movie.
An expected change happened when the family moved to Melbourne after I graduated high school in 1999. For all his years of frustration and insistence that his sons follow the straight and narrow, Dad seemed to resign himself to the fact that we each had to follow our own path. I am sure this is an inevitable realisation for a parent, but it strangely saddened me. Don’t get me wrong, I indulged my new found freedom in a big city with as much abandon as I could. My mates at music college had introduced me to a whole new world-previously unknown to a country boy- one of nightclubs, parties and the rock and roll lifestyle. Many is the occasion I would come home drunk at 4am to find Dad quietly reading. He wouldn’t say anything other than good night, which was a new experience. I had naturally expected that this level of insubordination would launch a verbal tirade. Instead, I was met with silence and relatively passive acceptance.
You’d think I would have enjoyed this carefree liberty, yet I somehow missed the feeling of being reprimanded by my father for some minor infringement of divine policy. In a weird way, I longed to provoke my Dad to such an extent that he would yell and scream. I guess I wanted to know that I wasn’t a lost cause, and his anger would show me that he believed my life still had purpose and that I was destined for something good. In the absence of such correctives, I felt an inner emptiness that took the shine off the experience of being a kid in a big new city.
The decade following my 2004 move to Sydney were to prove some of the darkest and most challenging years of my life. Failed relationships, addiction, anxiety and depression, borderline poverty and homelessness- it all read like a script from some sort of dodgy Hollywood movie. I can barely make sense of (or indeed remember) much of that time when I look back now, but I do know that these experiences have left their mark on my psyche. My internal dialogue told me that I should be ashamed, and this deep sense of shame is something I had carried with me until recently.
As this chaos was unfolding in my own life, something remarkable was happening to my Dad. As a minister, he had not had it easy time of it. Small Churches can be nasty, gossipy places, and Dad seemed to have a unwanted knack for picking out the worst of them. The experience of trauma within the ministry had taken its toll, and Dad had developed a deep awareness of the frailty and insecurity of the human condition. While he might have become bitter and resentful, he had in fact found a sort of inner peace with his own past and with the Church. He had learned to let go of the frustration and simply let things go the way they were destined to. This all meant that Dad was able to receive and offer forgiveness more fully. He had mellowed and relaxed with age. His motto in life had become ‘it is what it is;’ a sentiment reflecting the letting go on control and expectation over both himself and others.
The change in Dad was fortuitous, as I was continuing to test his patience. My employment in Sydney had been unstable, and I never quite knew how much money I was going to get from week to week. I began to really struggle both financially as well as with my purpose in life: what, exactly, was I to do? The sense of aimlessness I felt in life translated into feelings of deep depression, and I abandoned myself to a life of partying and distraction. I truly lived in a state of Kierkegaardian despair. I also started to immerse myself in relationships with women as a way of avoiding confronting myself and emotionally becoming self-reliant. To tell this story, however, would require another blog entry.
Throughout these years I would regularly call or email my Dad asking for money to help, full-well knowing that he didn’t have it do give. For my part, I had every intention of paying it back, but knew that I wouldn’t be able to in the short term. On each occasion I asked my parents for money it would be given without really asking why I needed it, even though to do so would mean they had to go without. As of the time of this writing, I probably owe them many thousands of dollars. It must have been so hard for my parents to have their son living interstate and lost in a world of meaninglessness and anxiety. I suspected it also angered them on some level.
In March of 2015 a tragic experience marked an official break with my past and a chance for me to seek a form of reconciliation with my Dad after years of waywardness. I had lost my job working as a so-called ‘leader’ within a ‘non-for-profit’ organisation (both terms used extremely loosely). I had also lost all sense of purpose and self-esteem, and I very nearly contemplated suicide. Also, I had again reverted back to a place of financial ruin, and had to give up the apartment I so loved. In order to barely get by I had to take up a telesales role. It was hell, and I had reached a personal low.
Yet I had the listening ear of my family and the loving support of some close friends. The following year was a difficult one, but slowly some hope started to return. Although he probably isn’t aware of it, my Dad had was a main source of this hope. A year in the wilderness allowed me to reflect on my time in Sydney. It was sobering, and in the silence and I could see that my problems had all found their origin in both my own spiritual homelessness and intrinsic selflessness.
In August of 2015 I attended my Mum’s 60th birthday celebration in Melbourne. Seeing the extended family was hard, and I had felt so ashamed of the shambles my life had become. As I was leaving to catch a taxi to the airport, my uncle Danny handed me a $50 note. He wanted to help me out. It was too much. I couldn’t stop the tears. Dad put his arm around me and asked me to consider moving back home. He had tears in his eyes too. In the ensuing months I was able to put some distance between the crisis of losing my job and where I was in life in the present moment. I had found my way back to God. It felt good. Slowly becoming free from the haze of self-loathing, I could see more clearly the sadness and anxiety I had put my parents through.
I was able to visit Melbourne again in late 2016. I arrived at the family home but both my parents were out. However, there was a letter from Dad on my bed. Without even unpacking, I tore it open, sat down on the edge of the bed and read. For some reason I was extremely nervous. My heart was racing. My life, Dad said, had some distinct parallels to the biblical narrative of the prodigal Son. He had seen me venture off into the world and make plenty of bad decisions that had caused he and Mum to worry about be constantly. However, he also said that none of that mattered now. All that concerned him was ensuring that I knew he loved me unconditionally. He also considered that the financial debt I owed them was paid in full by the mere fact that I had said (and he believed) I was sorry. Because of my Dad’s willingness to forgive my past wrongs, the slate had now been wiped clean. I felt I could truly begin life again.