After my younger sister passed away, my father shut himself off from us. As my mother, my sister and I huddled together to weather the storm of grief, he sat alone in his big leather armchair in the living room, staring straight ahead saying nothing; doing nothing; showing no emotion.
I can’t remember how long this went on for. To my nine year old memory it seemed like weeks.
But I do remember trying to cheer him up, to elicit some kind of emotion or reaction, by dressing up in a pair of cowboy boots and hat that belonged to him. I tripped up the stairs giggling to myself, and went into the room where he sat, exclaiming,
He turned to look at me, took in the silly, nine year old girl before him and shouted,
“What are you doing? Take those off!!”
I felt those words like a slap across the face.
Despite the fact that I am now an adult and I can understand my father was grieving deeply for his lost child, that memory still stings.
The other day, I was grappling with my two year old, trying to clean her dirty bum and deal with the present she had left me in the potty. I asked my eldest to go and fetch me a clean pull-up for her sister. She came back in wearing the pull-up over her leggings and a huge grin as the giggles started to bubble from her mouth.
I looked at her with an arched eyebrow that said, “Are ya kidding me?!”
She giggled back, “Isn’t that so funny, Mum?”
In a flash I saw myself standing there, nine years old and waiting for the reaction, the approval.
I smiled at her and said, “Very funny. Now take off the damn nappy, you daftie!”
My father came out of that room eventually, but remained closed off from us where my beautiful sister was concerned. Many of us carry heavy memories from our past, but we take very deliberate steps to protect our children from that weight.
To me, that’s what parents should do.
It’s such a silly, small thing but I have always sworn I will never give out to my girls for playing with my shoes or hats or clothes. As much as it killed me when my youngest appeared wearing my Karen Millen wedding shoes, scraping those beautiful heels across my wooden floors. I just smiled through gritted teeth and chided myself for not putting them up higher.
They are only having fun. They are only children.
I was only a child, and my father’s grief wasn’t mine to carry.