My Father my Friend
I watched the spider weave a web in the wattle tree. It tested the wind as the web slowly formed into an intricate construction entirely symmetrical and perfect. The sun filtered through the web showing exquisite silvery strands that looked more beautiful than any painting I had ever seen. I imagined the spider was saying, "Ben, watch me, I'll show you how to live your life." The experience made me think of my father.
My father was like the spider. He had to weave a mythical web, probing and testing, to form complex relationships with all family members. He had a different relationship with my mother, younger brother, sister, and me. I only realised this yesterday. I was too wrapped up in my own little world until it threatened to consume me.
Why would I want to watch a spider in my backyard? I just felt like sitting and watching this wonderful thing of nature. I wanted to feel one with the world, to understand the beauty of this earth because I had just experienced the ugliness. I hoped this little spider would drive the evil away.
I remember when my father was my hero. I was five years old and would wait by the window for him to return from work. When his car stopped in the drive, my mother opened the door of our house and I rushed into his arms. He would swing me up in the air and carry me inside while I babbled about my day at kindergarten. It was like Christmas every night when my father came home.
The weekends were the best time; we played football and cricket in the backyard or went on outings to the Zoo or drives and picnics in country parks. The Adelaide Crows was our football team. My dad, my mate Perry and I would watch the games together on television. My father was the fun part of my life; I loved him and wanted to be with him.
I was eleven years old when I discovered that it was not cool to like your father. He became "the old man". It was more important to please my friends than my parents. I also learnt that other kids didn't see their fathers as much as I did because their fathers and mothers were always working. My mother worked part time and was home by four o'clock, my father arrived by five-thirty so we had our evening meal together.
My friends told me that my father couldn't have a good job if he spent so much time at home. I knew he was the Managing Director of a national company and earned a very good salary, but that failed to impress them, so I was soon criticising my father as much as my friends condemned their fathers.
One time my mother took me to my father's shop in a large building in the city. The sales staff were all busy and I wandered around, not wanting to touch the richly gleaming furniture in case I left fingermarks on the polish. My father was like a stranger that day, a different man, pre-occupied and busy, not the pie and footy man who wrestled with me at the park and feigned dropping the ball so I could win a couple of extra runs in the backyard. It was like there were two men, my father the managing director and my father the father.
It was hard to understand the different forces at work, my father the Crows supporter, my father the man who laughed and played with me. I could see that his staff feared him. I had learnt that we must resist what we fear, teachers, bullies, vampires, and now my father.
I put up a barrier between us. I was always careful around him and practised saying only what he wanted to hear. My parents allowed me to go on the Internet, but unlike most of my friends, my father was a better computer operator than I was. I couldn't go into websites without him knowing what I was doing. My friends at school were going into the pornographic sites and looking up how to make bombs and where to buy firearms. Not that I really wanted to know these things, except for the pornographic sites, I was now twelve years old and like all boys my age, I had an enormous curiosity for anything sexual.
My mid-teens arrived and I resisted my father's attempt to communicate with me. I went to my friends for advice. I think deep down I still admired my father but it wasn't cool to admit it, especially to my friends. My mother became my point of contact in the family.
It's funny when I look back that I didn't see the dynamics taking place within my family. My sister had a close and trustworthy relationship with my father. She didn't have the intense peer pressure that I had to deal with. For girls it was trendy to like their fathers. Where I discussed things with my mother, she went to my father. She loved films, literature, the arts and they would discuss them endlessly in a light- hearted easy way that made me envious.
At seventeen, I started to loosen up with my father and our common ground was sport. We discussed the selections each week of the Crows and whether we would have a chance of winning the game. It was the same with the Australian Cricket Team, who was playing well and who wasn't was our communication.
My father seemed to understand that I didn't want the relationship to be closer. We would discuss or argue about anything sporting. As I reached my later teens, we expanded into talking about computers. I often secretly lamented why he was not like other fathers and didn't know as much as their sons.
My friend Perry and I had met when we were at primary school. We were always together. We went out on double dates with girls and did all the stupid things boys do as they grow up. I was better at sport and he would come and watch me play. He was better at the arts and I would watch him when he appeared in the University productions.
Perry said he wanted to be an actor and his father wanted him to be a lawyer. Perry was doing well at law school, so I told him to graduate then become an actor. We were good friends and then everything changed.
What Perry told me made my brain churn around like a merry-go-round; I couldn't get my head around it. Something was wrong with the whole thing and I didn't know why I couldn't let it go.
I drove home from University, parked my car then quietly went in the front door and slipped into my bedroom. I didn't want my mother nagging me because I had to think, my mind was in overdrive; I couldn't stop thinking about Perry and I was lost in a constant turmoil. At first I was feeling anger, then realised I was grieving for Perry. Our friendship would never be the same again.
Mostly Perry and I just joked around like blokes do. Everything changed when he said, "Ben, you do know that I love you?"
At first, I didn't grasp it; I mean it was a shock; what was he saying? Then I thought I wasn't hearing properly. 'Yeah we're good mates,' I said.
"Ben!" The tone of his voice made me look at his dark brooding face. "I love you, I'm gay, I have been for years, I've loved you for years." Tears were forming in his eyes and I realised how hard it was for him to tell me. At first, I was sorry for him then I didn't want to believe it.
"Nar, you're joking. I've seen you shaggin' sheilas. You're not gay, you can't be."
"I haven't done that for years. I'm gay and I love you, I've been building up to tell you for a long time. I've been dreaming of you and me becoming lovers. There was no chance of that unless I told you."
"I'm straight Perry, there's no way I could do that."
"I think you would like it."
"No way. I'm not gay, when I think of sex all I ever think about are girls."
Perry rose from the seat under the shady tree where we were sitting. "Ben, I'm sorry this is such a shock to you. I thought you might have known, I put out signals but obviously you didn't have your antenna up."
"I had no idea."
"You need time to take all this in," said Perry. "I'll leave you to think about it. I have some thinking, too, now I know there is no chance that you could love me." Perry turned and walked back along the campus. His shoulders were slumped as I watched him. I felt a sadness descend that I couldn't shake off. I left the University and came home. Somehow, I had to make sense of what Perry had told me.
I was so sad for him that I wondered whether I did love him. As I lay on my bed, I finally realised that in way I did. I loved him as a friend but not as a lover. I knew what I had to tell him would not make him happy but I know that's all I could do. I could only tell him how I felt.
I was angry with myself. I thought of the terrible anguish I caused Perry because I was too thick to pick up his subtle signals. Why is it that the only message I understand is when I'm beaten over the head with it? I lamented my insensitivity and felt I had to apologise for it.
I rose from the bed and looked in the mirror. Tears were running down my cheeks.
I knocked on his door and his mother said he was in the garage. I opened the garage door and felt a shadow pass over me that filled me with dread. Perry formed the shadow as he swung from a cross-member in the roof with a noose around his neck. He was dead. I watched in stunned silence as his words screamed in my head, "I'll leave you to think about it. I have some thinking too, now I know there is no chance that you could love me." Was he trying to tell me he would kill himself when he said that?
The next two hours were a blur of ambulances, police, and people milling about, shouting and arguing. I wanted to get out of there but the police said they might have a few more questions.
I sat with the bedlam around me and I let disgust overwhelm me. How could I say I was Perry's best friend if I didn't know he was gay and then not know he wanted to commit suicide? In a way my disgust was like a comforting cloak that allowed me to draw into myself and shut the world out. I wanted the rest of world out of my life so I could try to understand Perry. I thought of joining him in death. How could I have let my best friend get so lonely and despairing that he would take his life.
Then anger joined the disgust. I was angry with Perry and in my mind I shouted at him to tell me why. Why didn't he talk to me about it like we had talked about things in the past? I knew why, I wasn't listening, I was off in my own world and I didn't hear his cries for help. The shock returned as the tears streamed down my face.
Into this sorry scene strode my father, he came to me and put his arm around my shoulders and said quietly, "Come on son. I'm taking you home."
A police officer said, "He can't go yet."
My father said angrily, "I'm taking my son home. He needs his family. Ask your questions later." I was glad my father knew how to use his authority.
He drove me home and walked with me to my bedroom. "Son, we need to talk." I nodded my head.
"What are you feeling now?" he enquired.
"I'm angry Dad; I can't believe that Perry would do that. I can't believe he would feel like killing himself and I wouldn't know."
"Why should you know how he felt?"
"We were close. I feel like I've let him down. I feel like I should have stopped him."
"How could you have stopped him?"
"I don't know. There were signals. He was fighting with his father and struggling with being gay. He wanted to be an actor; his father wanted him to practise law. I should have listened to him instead of being angry, I should have known."
"He was gay?"
"Yes, I only found out two days ago."
"How did you feel about that?" said my father. I realised he wanted me to say I was straight.
"I felt sorry for him. I don't understand gay people. They are a mystery to me."
My father expressed a sigh of relief. "Did he tell you he wanted to kill himself?"
"No, not in so many words, there were hints, oblique statements, if I was listening I would have picked them up."
My father moved closer and put his arm around my shoulders; I felt comforted. "There was nothing you could have done. How could you have known?"
"I should have known."
My father told me how no one knows another person because we only present to others what we want them to see. I looked at a photo on my dressing table of a cricket team of young boys. Perry and I were together; we were smiling at the camera. The happy image made me burst into tears as I realised I would never see him again. I wanted my father to tell me why it happened but he couldn't, no one could.
"What do I do Dad?"
"You have to deal with your loss. I think a part of that is to honour Perry's decision and accept it. Don't try to understand it, just accept it was Perry's choice. Don't blame yourself."
I wanted Perry alive. I was to blame, but how could I have known if Perry didn't want to tell me? We think we know our friends but we don't. We are like ships on the sea; self-contained with a fašade we show the world but deep down in the bilge there are unreachable places that no one really knows about.
My father's love reached out to me and I felt relieved, I knew his love was unconditional and given no matter how I had treated him. I was pleased that I was sensitive enough to realise it and I knew I had to reach out and show him how much I loved him.
A fly became entangled in the web; the spider rushed and caught the insect and carried it away. My thing of beauty became ugly. Why must beauty become ugly? Then I knew what the spider was trying to tell me. From the ugliness of Perry's death came the beauty of my relationship with my father. My father, my friend.