Warning – not a barrowload of laughs in this one. Look away now. It’s an itch , something I need to say.
I want to see my life as Christ sees it; to understand as He understands, to weep for what makes Him weep, to have His tender heart. I don’t have His tender heart, of course not, but I am beginning to see what makes Him weep and just beginning to understand the nature of His love, unlike any human love. This blog is about my earthly father. When I think of my dad, and remember that Jesus died for him, I see the tragedy of a life lived without God. I see our need and God’s goodness, and I feel maybe some of the pity and tenderness of Jesus. Maybe. And I look at the people all around me who don’t know Him, and I see why Jesus wept as He looked at Jerusalem. A city full people like my dad. If we had the heart and eyes of Jesus, we would care about people like my dad. But do we? Do I? Really?
It was called The Black Doctor and it hung on the back door, or by the sink, somewhere in the kitchen anyway, whatever house we lived in, wherever the army posted us. It was about 10 inches long, and 3 wide, a thick black leather strop from the barber’s. It had a ring at one end, by which it was hung. My brothers felt the thwack of the black doctor more than I did, and I think that this was when I first learned about a tender heart; Whichever one had been in trouble, the other two would be quiet for him (or more rarely, her) would move aside, trying to look the other way and yet somehow show … I don’t know, what? Empathy? Understanding? I remember one time when Peter was lathered (he took these things hard. Martin and me, we’d recover quickly, but Peter suffered deeper and longer). I have such a clear memory of him now, sitting on his bed, snotty and angry, nursing his sore legs (legs, arms and back were the targets) and Martin, standing in the doorway, offering, wordlessly, a small pile of comics. Comics were my brothers’ currency and this was a compelling sign of pity. I don’t remember if he took them, or if Martin put them on the bed, if there were any words. Probably not. When the black doctor came out the house grew quiet as we, all three of us, learned compassion.
It’s not an unusual tale – it was a childhood like many others in the 50’s and life then was very different. My dad’s life was a hard one. He’d been brought up in a cold stone seminary in Wales, by people who didn’t speak his language, and from the age of 7 he saw his mother just once a year. He was fed the doctrine of the Catholic Church, learned Latin both church and classical, excelled at higher maths, and he was a rising star. Top pupil. Sainted already. But then he fell from grace and more or less ran away to join the Army. He survived Dunkirk, served in Africa during the Mau-mau risings, then in Cyprus during the Eoka troubles, Egypt for the Suez crisis…. he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major, and then his wife died, leaving him with a 16 year old, an 11 year old and a 6 year old.
When did the black doctor make his appearance the most often? It was in Egypt, when my mum was going blind, and in Omagh when she was dying, when dad was helpless. I look back on those years and I have such terrible, heart-break pity for my dad. My angry dad, beating and shouting his way through all that pain and grief.
I wish he was here now for me to tell him that I understand.
Men often don’t stay single for long. He married a woman he loved passionately till the day he died and all should have been wonderful. They moved Peter and me in with them. Within a year they had a son, a beautiful delicate baby, but he died when he was six weeks old. By then Peter had been sent away to the Navy as a boy sailor and Martin was in the Army but the newly weds were still saddled with me. My stepmother couldn’t bear that I was alive when her porcelain perfect baby was in the ground. Her grief was a visible, physical thing. It consumed her. It filled our lives, permeating every room and every minute.
Dad was unable to cope with the conflicts as she struggled to even tolerate me being in the same room and I understand his confusion. He wanted his wife. The world is full of weak men who placate stronger women. My dad was just one of them. For strong women, weak men give up careers, ambitions, interests. Dad gave up his children.
There was no black doctor in the new regime, instead there were closed doors, and a strict routine to keep me out of their way. It wasn’t all my step-mum’s doing either, because dad was a clever man and I was not a clever child. To have this stupid slow child was a final insult. More than he could bear. When the teachers sent a note that I needed help to pass my 11plus maths, he decided to teach me. The tension would rise from the very first turning of the very first page. His voice, sharp, interrogating. Insistent. He would repeat the problem. Tension rising. The answer… the answer… but the figures danced, they made no sense…. I could see the equal sign… hear the deepening of his breath as he waited…. what to say? What to say? It was like looking at Arabic, meaningless. And then, shockingly, blindingly, a slam of bone against bone, a crack, the room spinning, balance lost, fear and confusion, “Bloody hell, Norah, is she an eedjit?” and my stepmother would hurry in, pulling him away, consoling him.
My poor dad. Poor me too, yes, of course. And poor Norah with her baby dead. Poor all of us in that egg-shell thin, splintered house. But dad was the one who suffered most. However bad it was for me, I never had bitter fury writhing and seething under my skin. Who gave him that? How did he become so angry, so disappointed with his life? Was it at school? But our childhood was as bad, Martin, Peter and me. Was it when his wife died? My husband died and it didn’t bring anger into my life. When was it then? Why was it? Where did his anger come from? It’s puzzled me all my life.
Fifteen years ago I learned that my dad had known that Peter and I were being abused in the years following our mother’s death. He had known and chosen to do nothing about it.
The day I found out that he had chosen to let us suffer, I experienced some sort of brain damage. I can’t describe it any other way. I think something physical broke in my brain, burst, shifted. From that day on I’ve experienced blind panic every time I see numbers, a resurrection of that childhood fear and bewilderment, or it returns when a room must be entered, or a conversation broken into. Sideswiped by fear. The realisation that I was worth less than a rescued dog, took away my humanity. That day, I’m sure, I had some sort of brain event, because I lost a part of me. Never got it back.
But now, sitting here, I finally understand where my dad’s rage came from, and where his cowardice stemmed; When Peter and I were reunited with him, he saw, for the first time, what those years of abuse had done to us. Peter could barely speak, he stuttered so badly. At fifteen he would occasionally be physically sick if he had to speak. I was a mess, educationally subnormal and physically damaged. He had left us in hell because he was too exhausted to do anything else and when he saw what the years of abuse had done to us, it was more than he could bear. The sight of us gnawed at him.
Peter died years later in a house fire, a hopeless alcoholic, asleep in front of the fire. Martin died alone too, never having had a long term relationship. Both of them stuttered badly, and found it hard to express themselves, both struggled. I married the first man who would have me – the only men I had ever known were violent so yes, at 19 years old I chose a violent man. It was the only way of life I knew. That’s what masculinity was to me.
But I was the lucky one. Or the blessed one. I think that I’ve always been, somewhere in my heart, a happy camper. And I’m not as stupid as my dad thought I was – after three years I divorced the violent Rob and met George. And then I met God.
God is good. I was born again. New start. New me. New George. New.
Dad lived into his 90’s and shrank to become a sweet old man who was amazed that I, this eedjit girl, could go on to earn a living, marry a good kind man, have a beautiful child.
When he saw our daughter for the first time, he took her in his arms ( she was a lovely lovely baby) lost in awe. My dad – tender! It really thrilled me to see that. He turned to my stepmother “Who would have thought that Lucy would have a child like this?”
It hurt me then, and it’s stayed with me all these years to hurt me now (I will never lie to you). I wonder if this is a sign that I haven’t quite fully forgiven him? Should I still be hurt? I don’t think so. Maybe, like my eardrum, there’s a tiny hole in my forgiveness that needs to close over.
I wish I could talk honestly with him and say “Hey, Dad, I’m whole and mended, and what happened to me hasn’t diminished me and it never did, because it wasn’t my sin…. forgive yourself because when you looked away God watched over me and all is well. God brought me through.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad, in the shadow of a dream. I’ve been thinking that there are millions like him, millions who struggle with emotions and want to be better than they are, want to be noble and kind. But they’re just human and deeply damaged by the lives they’ve led. Human and broken, trying to battle on alone. Millions who are lost without the love of Jesus. I wonder if anyone ever said to my dad “You are loved. God loves you, Gerard Anthony Gannon. You are loved.”
I’m one of the blessed ones. In South Africa, many years ago, someone told me that I was loved. And when I was too deaf to listen and too busy to remember, someone else said it here in Wales, and said it again, and said it again, until I accepted it. I have a Father who loves me. I do. I always did. He didn’t give up on me. He did care.
“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
The crawling locust,
The consuming locust,
And the chewing locust,”
I think that covers the black doctor, the uncles, the blows and the closed doors. And even the dad who didn’t care. Restored.
I hope I’ve shown you a man who shouldn’t be judged. Once my dad was 7 years old, and frightened and alone. So alone. Once my dad needed love and didn’t receive it. He never knew what it was to have a father. To be protected. How could he be a father to us? How could he protect us? And in his long long life he never knew the love of God. When he was old, I could have told him but I didn’t. That’s down to me.
I regret that. So very much. I regret that I never told my step-mother that she was loved.
My church is all for the young, and I’m glad of that, but we should remember that the old are nearest to the exit door. And God loves them as He loves a newborn child. We may love a fresh faced sweet little thing more than we love a wrinkled old grouch… but God loves them both the same. Died for them both the same.
Time to think about the old as much as we think about the young. They have complicated lives and may bear deep scars, bleeding wounds. They may feel alone, while God waits.
I don’t want anyone to go to their grave not hearing that their God loves them.
That’s what they need to know.