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I hear echoes of generations of fathers and sons

We recognise that in the midst of celebrations, Father’s Day is a painful day for many. Perhaps you are a son or daughter thinking of a father gone, absent. Peter Atkinson navigates what fatherhood looks like 10 years on from losing a 22-year-old son in a tragic accident. He reflects on what it is like to care for a 96-year-old father slipping into dementia at the same time. We hope his brave story brings some comfort to you and your whānau.

I asked my father again this week, about growing up in Point Chevalier in Auckland during the 1920s and early 30s. His eyes shone. For a few moments the struggle of not being able to fill the void of recent memory, that is now his constant preoccupation, ceased. He talked of catching kahawai from the rocks at the bottom of Harbourview Road and launching the first small boat he built to sail the upper reaches of the harbour where Snapper spawned on the incoming tide.

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The older I get, the more I wonder about this boy who became my father. Gazing at the faded photographs and mementos that travelled with him to the rest home, I search for glimpses of the world that shaped the father that, growing up, I thought I knew. If you ask me what my father taught me about life and how to be a man, I can talk about the way to hold a handsaw, to mow a lawn or bait a hook. I can explain the value of honesty, hard work and the simple courtesy that marks a Kiwi gentleman.

But how does a man carry sorrow? How does he nurture love? How does a man return soul-scarred from war to build a home and family from nothing? Like many returned servicemen, these were things never spoken about. When I ask him about it now, he smiles and shrugs. Deflecting the question he remembers the person who walked beside him through those years. “Oh, your mother,” he says, “She was something special.”

I don’t really know how life sped on so quickly. How one day, still struggling to define myself, I became a father and he, a grandfather. Neither of us had manuals in our hands, but in quick succession four small boys became our teachers. Now fathers themselves, they have their books on fatherhood and parenting – but it is their children who make those pages come alive.

I learned as much about life and how to be a man from my sons as from my father. They taught me how to stand on the sidelines of an icy soccer field, shouting encouragement while watching your son rush out from goal to throw himself at the boots of a charging striker. I discovered patience and trust waiting for the click of the front door late at night. The keenness of their minds, quickness of their wit, laughter and passion shaped our home as much as anything I did.

And then in a moment, one of them was gone. This was a part of being a father I never wanted to know. The rawness of my boys’ grief, their strength and their determination to remember Andrew helped steady me. But who can tell a dad how to grieve his son?

It was in a Father’s Day card that I found the answer to my question. Not just any card, of course. It was the last card on which Andrew wrote simple words of thanks, as sons do each Father’s Day. I had discovered it tucked inside a drawer, sometime in those first few months of desperate searching for traces of my boy – the boy I had loved through years of struggle and chronic illness, willing him to hold on to hope.

Written on the folded scrap of paper (no doubt rifled from a drawer of craft supplies), were heartfelt words from a 22 year old, when life was full of possibilities. In it he had also slipped a voucher for art supplies with a note attached – “Do your art, Dad.”

And so I bought those art supplies and started painting. 10 years and four solo exhibitions later, I have grieved and grown to become the man I am today. Andrew’s last gift to me was a glimpse of his belief in something yet to be fulfilled in me.

This morning I will call in for morning tea with my Dad, before I head to my studio to paint. I have a photograph of him in his army uniform standing beside his father and looking very much like Andrew at the same age. If he is willing and can remember, we might talk about that moment in his life.

Listening to the fragments that remain of stories that have shaped his life, I hear echoes of generations of fathers and sons. As Father’s Day approaches I am thankful for all the fathers and sons who came before me and for those who will remain when I am gone – for all those who in each other see the possibilities of joy, those who hold us in our grief, and those who call from us the best of who we can become.

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    This is so well written, Peter. I read it with tears in my eyes, for all of the men in your family. Thank you for sharing your grief and your hope and your resilience.