The Best Christmas Gift

In Austria there are a lots of castles and forts upon the prominences, hills and cliffs. History tells us that this was to protect them from attack, provide good overviews of the countryside and assert the higher status of the occupants to the commoners living and working below. Yet castles often struggled to dig wells deep enough to provide water and could often be held to siege with no prospect for escape.

The relationships we have with our loved ones are like castles sometimes. After the unconditional love of early childhood we start to erect moats, walls and fortifications in our teen years. We learn that those we worshipped as children have their own weaknesses, and it can be easy for resentment and anger to push us to built our fortresses on lofty hills, and those walls insulate us from mistakes, but separate us from true understanding and love.

The fortress wall hindering my journey with Dad was something so remote, I had forgotten it almost entirely. It was Christmas Day in Australia, and thus the night before where he was in Austria, about 4 years ago. He called and after the usual greetings reminded me of my first day in senior high school in Australia.

I had with my usual start of year optimism, determined to do really well in school this time. I had found that in Maths, I could perform really well in German, because I gave up trying to understand why I was doing this formula, or moving that set of variables. I just learnt to recognise the look of a problem, and mechanically apply the correct formula and process. I went from the bottom of my Maths groups in Australia to one of the top 3 students in my class under the more demanding Austrian curriculum. So on returning to Australia my hopes were high. I came home and quite eagerly told Dad about the maths topics I was enrolled in and my aspirations.

As it turned out, he had been drinking quite heavily on that day. Returning to Australia had brought a huge range of financial strains upon him, and compounding this was his estrangement from his brother before we had left Austria. That afternoon for whatever reason, he started asking me questions about the maths curriculum that I couldn’t answer. My ebullience turned to a hot sick swoop of anxiety and within a minute we were fighting and I was crying. I remember I was trying to make him understand that I didn’t know everything about the course work yet. I had merely wanted to impart my sense of optimism, and in my upset state of mind I clearly recall saying “Why are you being so stupid about this?” Dad pushed me in the chest, raised his fist to my face and told me if I said that again he would ‘knock my block off.’ My mum took me out of the house. And after a few days the incident was no longer mention, forgotten- or so I thought.

So on Christmas morning 2012, Dad reminded me of that incident, and he began crying, over the phone. “I’m so sorry for that,” he kept saying. “Can you forgive me?” I had not really thought much about it until that moment, and I kept saying to him, “Of course I forgive you.”That moment of reconciliation was the best gift I was ever given for Christmas.

A year later the story of his childhood and the abuses he suffered was published and the healing continued. I read it on Christmas day, and wept for the the man I loved, and the bravery he was demonstrating. Finally his illness got to the point where those castle walls were only ruins of stone, surmounted by the urgency of mortality. And we spoke about many of the things we needed to resolve yet for Dad that one incident was always emblematic of his regrets as a father to me. It seemed my assurances were never quite enough to assuage his guilt.

As I grow older, I begin to see so many others passing away around me. Some are old and the sadness of their passing is tinged with acceptance of a natural order. Some have seemed unfair, a colleague leaving two young children behind after a sudden heart attack. Some deaths have shook me nearly as much as the loss of my father. The death of three of my students, 2 to substance abuse at a very young age, another to leukaemia. I tried to ensure that my experiences with my loss informed the way I interacted with everyone, and that those final times with those friends was as it should have been. And though there are no formulae I can blindly apply with success, the fundamentals remain the same; celebrate your love and friendship and the happy times, address the bad times and offer forgiveness, visit often and stay as long as you can. And always say ‘I love you’ when saying goodbye.

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