Father's Day when your father is no longer there

MY father’s grave is on a hill in a cemetery that overlooks a lake and the ocean.

There was a biting wind on Monday evening when I visited. It whistled through the trees and kicked up whitecaps on the lake. I was glad I’d grabbed a heavy coat before heading out.

Wamberal Cemetery was established in 1881. The Church of England secured the best real estate for their dead at the cemetery’s highest point, with nice views across the lake to the ocean.

Catholics are buried in the lowlands where you can hear the ocean pounding, as it was on Monday, but you can’t see water.

Dad’s grave is in a newer section that overlooks thick bush surrounding the lake. There are no religious divisions there. Just numbers. Dad’s grave is number 36 in a row in the general lawn section.

My mother chose the wording on the shiny grey granite headstone. It says James Joseph McCarthy died on November 27, 2016, and was a “loved husband of Barbara, proud father of eight daughters and three sons, loving poppy of 28 and great granpoppy of one”.

A life in numbers. His 28th grandchild, a sweet little girl, was born a week or so after he died. His first great grandchild, another beautiful baby girl, a few weeks after that.     

I’ve walked around Wamberal Cemetery many times. Since the 1980s, when I first moved to Wamberal, it represented the furthest point I could comfortably walk with young children or my dog. It is where a lot of my relatives are buried.

Grandma’s funeral years ago was interrupted by the sound of my middle son, aged about three, yelling “Superman” as he jumped off one of the raised graves. It didn’t go down well with one or two people.

Dad’s parents, Thomas Daniel and Joan Mary McCarthy, are buried in the Catholic section. You can barely make out the words on my grandmother’s headstone. She died in 1956, before I was born, but I was given a modernised version of her name.

My Dad’s two sisters, Tessie and Millie, are there, along with several baby cousins who died of heart conditions. My Mum’s mother – an aunt who adopted her when she was young – is also there.

Grandma’s funeral years ago was interrupted by the sound of my middle son, aged about three, yelling “Superman” as he jumped off one of the raised graves. It didn’t go down well with one or two people but I didn’t mind. My Mum’s mother was a hard woman to warm to and attending her funeral was a duty, out of respect for our Mum. There are funerals like that.

My father was 86 when he died.

I was having breakfast in a Copenhagen hotel when a friend sat down with his phone and said my eldest son had messaged him on Facebook to say that my Dad had collapsed in Darwin. There was a few seconds of confusion on my part and then a blankness. Without even being conscious of it, you somehow expect that kind of message when your parents are in their 80s. But when it actually happens everything stops.

Then the reality of being on the other side of the world and needing information kicked in. I rang my son. My Dad had collapsed in Darwin while visiting relatives on a train trip with my mother, and it looked like some kind of brain tumour, he said.

One of my sisters told my son I should come home.

Last year was a tough one for my family. Our parents had to sell the home and acreage they’d owned for decades after Dad accepted his virtual blindness and increasing frailty meant it was time to go. That was early in the year.

The packing, discarding and moving was emotionally exhausting and coincided with constant negative publicity about the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse. My parents have always supported my work in that area, despite experiencing some fallout themselves as they remained in the church.

But in the final year or two of Dad’s life the Catholic Church’s teachings, and my parents’ acceptance of them, clashed with my lived experience of what can happen when a powerful organisation demands obedience, suppresses criticism and commits crime on an extraordinary scale.

I walked out one day when talk turned to women priests and my parents invoked the Bible to say that women couldn’t lead.

I asked how I fit into that kind of thinking, a living, breathing woman who’d had leadership foisted on her because of the Catholic Church’s appalling responses to child sexual abuse. I said the notion that women couldn’t lead was offensive from where I was sitting.

It wasn’t an argument. I didn’t yell. Mum and Dad weren’t upset. There was just a gulf between us on that point that we didn’t speak about again. The same occurred on the issue of same sex marriage. The church said no so Mum and Dad said no.

It came up when my middle son married his wife, and their civil ceremony wedding included a statement supporting same sex marriage. 

Our Dad lived for several months after collapsing in Darwin. He was in a hospital room for the final two weeks of his life and his whole family was with him. In moments of clarity as he moved in and out of consciousness he said it was all he wanted, to know he was loved and his family was there.

This Father’s Day will be the first time without Dad. On September 15 we’ll mark his first birthday without him.

In the cemetery on Monday I walked familiar paths between headstones and remembered conversations we’d had over the years. They ranged from the hysterically funny to the profound, the whimsical to the almost silent, where we would sit together in his garden and enjoy the scents of flowers and the shade on a warm day. I would pick the cherry tomatoes he couldn’t see and we’d talk about mulch, or raising children or the meaning of life.

I realised I’m not grieving for my father because we said everything that needed to be said. We left nothing out on the park. I miss him, but he lived the life he wanted to live, as I do mine. What we had was love and, most importantly, respect for each other’s right to do that.

This story A walk with my dad first appeared on Newcastle Herald.