Some years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our first boy, I found myself reading a story by a woman who was describing the strained relationship she had with her dad. They had always clashed and then, fairly recently, he had died. Going through his stuff, she had found a letter he had written to her as a five year old. In it, he described the joy they had together, as well as the many hopes and fears he held for their future.
Although their story had clearly gone awry, this heartfelt letter had given her a clear picture of a man who was someone altogether different to who she remembered. Whatever had happened between them afterwards, they had shared some golden days together.
My own dad died over twenty years ago. Coincidentally, it happened while I was travelling overseas. Coming from a very low tech family, the only contact we had was by paper mail. Given that I kept on moving, it always took quite some time for any message to reach me. He had been buried for a month before I even knew he was dead.
Stoically pragmatic to the end, he had left a message for me not to hurry back. I would never get the opportunity to travel like that again, he said, and even if I arrived in time, there would be nothing I could do to help. One thing I have always been grateful for is that it was my dad who dropped me off at the bus stop the day I left. We got to say a very clear and final goodbye.
I often wonder if he suspected then that we would never see each other again. There are many unknowns. As time goes on, I can feel my recollections of him drifting. Some aspects of his character seem much larger than they surely were in reality. Other aspects, which I would not have seen or understood at the time, appear very minor, even though they must surely have been driving factors behind who he was. In the final analysis, I can no longer be sure how much of what I remember about my dad is real.
With these thoughts in mind, my response to this woman’s story was to write a letter of my own to my unborn son. I wrote to him as an adult, figuring that he would be one when the message mattered. In it, I tried to explain my thoughts on the situation. A year later, on his first birthday, I wrote him another one, because things change.
When my second boy was born, I started doing the same for him too. Every year on their birthdays, I write my boys a letter, outlining how things have been between us for the last twelve months. My youngest boy is turning four, so I have just added another to the pile. I guess I will keep doing this until they become independent. It is something of a shock to realise that my oldest boy is a third of the way there already.
I like to think that in the future, regardless of how our lives unfold, my boys will be able to look back and hear the distant voices. The plan is that they will remember who I am, and the times we shared together.