Less than Awesome
There's never any point in being less than awesome.
That's something my father said to me once. I don't even remember the context - what petty failing, or what small, child-sized success brought it up. I remember the look on his face, how serious, how unexpectedly sincere he looked and sounded. I remember realising that this was more than just something said by grown-ups to children. This was something meant for keeps.
And so I've kept it.
It's something I thought about, standing in the rain, with the trees dripping over my umbrella, and my shoes in the mud.
And this: this a story about the time my father faked his own death.
I remember his funeral with yesterday-clarity. It's one of those things, I suppose. One of those huge, shaping events that life doesn't make you ready for. That life can't.
It was a wet day, light drizzle deepening into actual rain, settling back into drizzle again, but never quite stopping. The ground sodden. The trees laden with excess water. The sky was dark, and it cast that darkness down to earth. A metallic, shadowy world. Murky. Dim. Well, it seemed fitting at least.
I mourned. I'd loved my father. But beyond my own mourning was my concern for the rest of my family. Mum especially. This had hit her seriously hard. “Danny,” she kept saying, “Danny, how could they take him away from me like this?” As if aliens had come and lifted him up and carried him off in their spaceship.
I stood beside her, tilting my umbrella to cover her head. There were no right words for this, so I made do with the wrong ones. “It'll be all right,” I promised her, knowing full well that it wouldn't.
And Simone, standing beside me. Copying me, like she had when we were children. Copying me in the way she held in her grief, the way she presented a smooth, calm, stoic visage to the world. The way she stood on Mum's other side, ready to help her with anything, already thinking about how things would have to be now that this had happened.
We'd talked about it. The two of us. Late at night, in her kitchen, over waffles, with a bad lightbulb flickering over our heads. What would be best for Mum, how we were going to help her, but not – and we stressed this – not manage her? Mum isn't stupid, she isn't old, senile, helpless. We wouldn't run her life. But she'd need us. We'd be there. Hovering little angels on the sidelines, ready to swoop in the moment we sensed a need a for us.
And there, in the rain, beside an open grave: “Oh Danny, what am I going to do without him?”
“It just takes time,” I said.
“The world doesn't have enough time.”
“Yes it does. You're tough, Mum. You'll find your feet.”
“I don't want to. I want to sleep. I want to hide away and shrivel up.”
Simone said: “Do that. You deserve your grief your own way. We'll drag you out into the light when you're done.”
All of us hugging. All of us there for each other, devastated for ourselves and for the others. I looked over at the wet trees, at the slate sky. I hoped that my father would have been proud of me; and worried that he wouldn't. Would he look down from heaven – I was believing in that today – and smile? Or would that frown be there, that serious look? Never be anything less than awesome. And so how was this life of nine to five, no family, no wife, no art, no passion – how was that life a life of awesomeness?
I remember – bitterly now – how I looked at the sky and thought to my father: Sorry. And I promised in my heart: I'll try to do better.
So you can imagine my surprise when a week later he called me.
I was shaking. Really shaking.
“It's me Danny. Your father.”
“Yes. But... But...”
“I owe you an apology.”
“Yes... But... How...?”
“Look, son. This is going to be a bit hard for you to take in. It's going to take some moments. What I've done, I've had to do.”
Just to be sure. Just to be absolutely clear. “You're not dead.”
“No. I'm not.”
“Then why... why have we had this funeral charade, and all this misery... and..?”
“I'm sorry about that.”
“Look. I got myself into a little bit of trouble. It's nothing you need to worry about. I got myself out of it. But I had to take some steps.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“I stole some money from the company.”
“You... stole money?”
“I was in debt. To the wrong kind of people. It had to be done. But it would only have been a matter of time before I was discovered, before... So, I had to take action.”
Sooner leave his family grieving for him, than face up to the consequences of his actions. My father: never less than awesome.
“Danny. You okay, son?”
“I am sorry.”
“Uh-huh.” I shoud be grateful. I should be ecstatic. What I had instead was a cold, iron anger. A how-could-he? What was wrong with one or both of us?
“So what now?”
“I'm going away.”
“There was money left over...”
“You funeral cost us $5000!”
“Listen Danny, you can't tell your mother or sister about this.”
“It's better they don't know.”
“I can't come back. So it's better for both of them that they'd able to move on.”
“You called me.”
“You're the man of the family now. I was hoping we could keep in touch.”
“Hope away.” And I slammed the phone down.
And yet we did keep in touch. I'm not sure I know exactly why. My feelings have been so ambivalent over the years that they've left me in knots. I was traumatised, I'm pretty sure. The secret gnawed at my insides. And yet: Mum had taken up painting, she'd learnt to smile again. What would the truth do to her and Simone?
And so I kept my silence.
And if I've lived a less than awesome life, then I think he can cut me some slack. I've stood by my mother and sister; I'm at dinner every Sunday; I've help Simone set up her business; I've even had words with that ex-boyfriend who came around... Father stuff. But there's been no father to do those things. So: I'm no movie star, but I'm here. That's more awesome than you, Dad.
And then one day he rang me. He said: “I'm in town, I'd like to meet.”
“What? Are you crazy? What if Mum or Simone ran into you...?”
“I'm careful. But listen. There's somebody I want to tell you about...”
“She's wonderful. You're going to like her. Her name is Annaliese.”
“You've got a girlfriend?”
“Well... yes. Well, yes.”
“And a wife.”
“Well, in some ways a widow.”
“Yes, I know. Listen Danny, it's been five years. I know I've put you in a difficult position...”
“And hurt your wife and daughter, caused them to grieve for nothing-”
“Left them without someone they loved so much that-”
“Yes. All right.” His tone hit a note somewhere between guilt-ridden and aggrieved. A reminder that he'd suffered too.
Of your own making, was what I thought.
“I do want to see you. I want you to meet her. We're engaged...”
“You're already married...”
“Not widowed. Not really.”
“Danny. Will you come?”
That was the bottom line wasn't it? Would I come? I was surprised when the answer that came out of my mouth was 'yes'.
And I've no idea why I did this. But I brought Mum along.
It was a fine day, and we were meeting at a nice restaurant. I noted dispassionately the deep purple, plush wallpaper – actually velvetted – and the low-hanging, pink tinged lights. My heart was hammering and I was full of second guesses for myself. What did I think I was doing?
Well, his face was priceless. There's no getting around it. In a movie this would have had the audience rolling in laughter. Would definitely have made the trailer. His smile of pleasure when he saw me walk in, and the way it just slid down off his face when he saw my mother walk in next to me. The woman sitting at the table with him was pretty, she was maybe mid-forties, dark, with her hair in old-style curls, and a shiny white dress settled over an impressive figure. Trying to be objective: I could see why he'd fallen for her.
Right now my father was dropping his fork, trying to look where he could run.
And my mother had stopped dead in the middle of the restaurant. “Albert?”
It took a long time. He looked as if he was trying to come up with any other way to handle this than to face up to it. He was looking at me with vitriol, but the look he gave me was one I knew better deserved by his mirror. Eventually he said, “Denise.”
She said, “I don't understand.”
He said, “I'm sorry.”
“But we... we had everything.”
“I made mistakes to get us that. I had to pay for them. I had to protect you all.”
Oh, don't go making yourself the hero in this.
And luckily Mum, not a fool, said, “Who's this?”
Poor Annaliese. Dumped so profoundly in the middle of this. But she stood up as graciosly as she could, she offered my mother her hand. “I'm sorry we had to meet. I'm sorry it had to be like this. You've been so badly mistreated.”
Did he hang his head. Did he get it?
And the conversation over dinner was as awkward as it gets. Stilted, punctuated with silences. The question of marriage coming up at last.
“You see, by law, before the world, I am free. Legally I'm not married...”
“Legally!” I scoffed.
“In the eyes of the world.”
Mum looked right past him at Annaliese. “You still want to marry this guy?”
She seemed embarrassed. “Yes.”
“You're welcome to him.”
“You've been very kind.”
“He probably duped you too to begin with.”
I went and found Mum, sitting on a hillside overlooking the city lights. I saw her before she saw me, and I saw that look of distilled peace that'd come over her face. Relief hollowed me out. I had done the right thing, after all. I hadn't been sure. I'd spent the whole drive over to the restaurant repeating in my head: what-am-I-doing? what-am-I-doing? what-am-I-doing?
I sat down beside her and I confessed: “I've known almost the whole time.”
“Vile man. Making you keep a secret like that.”
“I'm an adult. I had a choice.”
She reached to touch my hand. “It's all right, Danny. I love you. We'll have to find a way to tell Simone that won't crush her.”
“I'll help with that.”
“It should come from both of us.”
I said: “You could put a stop to it all. Call him out.”
She shook her head.
“It's bigamy, after all.”
“He'd go to prison. He might lose her.”
“He deserves it.”
“Maybe he does. But I still don't want it. Danny, do you think he was always like this? From the first? Willing to drop me when things got hard? Always out for himself?”
I shrugged. “He says he was trying to protect us.”
“Maybe he was. But it wasn't just that, was it?”
“No, it wasn't.” I put my arm around her. We might not have him anymore, but we had each other. We were one piece short, but we were a strong family unit.
She rested her head on my shoulder. “It's beautiful out here, isn't it?”