I thought it about time that I gave you some background on myself. An insight into what makes me tick, and maybe a bit of an understanding why not failing as a father means so much to me. You see, I want you to understand what the real driver is behind me wanting to be the best dad I possibly can.
Of course I can’t deny that a large part of me wants to prove a point. To show the haters and the disbelievers out there that we can do it, and do it well. Gays can be good dads. But if I’m honest, I know that this is more for my benefit than theirs. Because come on, lets face it, my children could invent a cure for cancer and the haters are going to find something wrong with that. I also know that, despite how competetive and stubborn I am, doing it for that purpose would be really unhealthy. Still, the desire to do well is there all the same. I’m sure it is in everyone. I do believe that each of us have our own drivers though. Things that have happened or we have experienced which has shaped what pushes us to always do better. Mine is my father.
Yesterday I wrote the poem “I promise you Son” and it got me thinking about my own dad.
My dad, Stephen Alfred Ponder, was the jolliest man you would ever have the pleasure of meeting. He was bright and bubbly and usually the life and soul of the party. He was never without a kind word, or a smile. He was also, and had been for as long as I can remember, an alcoholic.
It’s only as I reflect as an adult (well the nearest I will ever get to one), that I realise what an utter failure my dad must have seemed to those on the outside. I was young at the time and I think that my family shielded me from a lot. Children too have an amazing ability in making the best out of the situations they are in. My dad really wasn’t there much on a practical level. Particularly toward the end when my mum had to leave.
My mum was, is, the strong one. I cannot begin to imagine the torment and anguish she went through effectively raising four children on her own, with a man who was either drunk, absent or comatose for most of the time. Eventually, this took its toll on my Mum’s health. One person cannot be strong forever. My mum had no choice but to move away due to her deteriorating health. So in about 1991 it was just us and dad. Before anyone comments, my mum kept in touch and supported us financially and with visits and the like. I am utterly sure that Mum leaving was the best, in fact the only thing, she could have done. I do not think she would have survived if she had stayed. I have, and always will, admire my mum for her strength and courage in doing what she had to do.
My dad was a talented cook, a skill he had honed in the army. The drink however meant that he couldn’t hold a job down. For the last 6 years or so that I lived with Dad he didn’t work. The money that came into the house would many times be spent on booze before we were fed and clothed properly. The house was often dirty and uncared for. Do you know what though? When I think back to my childhood, the over-riding memory is how happy I was.
Of course, from as young as I can remember I knew that dad drank too much. We all did, my mum was very honest with us but it wasn’t something we spoke about with him. In our house, there was a small toilet and cloakroom downstairs. Dad’s room. I don’t know to this day whether he truly thought we didn’t know what he was doing in there but the chink of the bottles was always a dead give-away. As a kid, I was fascinated with that room. I would sneak in there and ferret through the jackets hanging up. It would always amaze me just how many bottles of vodka I could find stored in the ripped linings. I have found out since that one of my sisters used to do the same – but would go a step further and pour the drink in nearby sink! Go girl! Even at this age though I knew not to say anything to Dad about his drinking. It was an unwritten rule of the house. We spoke to each other about it, but never to Dad. He seemed happier believing that we didn’t have a clue.
From the moment that Mum left, things really began to slide. With no-one at the helm of the boat that was our life, it really started to drift. Now I’m not going to tell my sisters’ stories here, suffice to say I am sure they have many, and all from different perspectives. What I would like to say however is thank you. Thank you sisters for looking after me through those years and shielding me from the worst. The pain that you must have absorbed, in order to keep me happy and carefree, I can never repay. However, reflecting back, there was a limit to what you could do.
You see. I thought that it was normal to wear dirty clothes to school. To never be forced to have a bath or brush your teeth. I thought that all children had neighbours that fed you routinely. That’s just what neighbours do surely? I also thought it was normal for your father to be found comatose on the floor during the day. After all, no matter what happened, life still ticked on. I bless my ignorance and resilience now. For when I let myself recall my childhood, it is one filled with fun, laughter and the best adventures ever. I adored my childhood.
My dad was never violent or angry. In fact quite the opposite. He was jolly and soppy. He would whistle and sing all the time. And he was always there for a hug or a cuddle. You see, my dad might not have been there for me practically. But in terms of love, he overflowed with it. My dad had the biggest heart and the biggest capacity to share it with me. It has made me realise now that love can overcome most things. Love really does shine through the gloom. My dad didn’t mean to be a crap dad. I could clearly see that struggle in him. So my dad did the one thing that he could and just loved me a bit harder.
It’s easy to reflect back and think that he should have been able to get better. I mean, why not if he loved us that much? But it was never going to happen and I made my peace with that a long time ago. I will always be grateful to my dad for the love that he showed me. I only hope that my children feel the love that I have for them half as much. The lesson that I have learnt from dad however, is that love isn’t purely about the hugs and the kisses – as important as they are – it’s also about the everyday things. The things that matter on a practical level. The things that are easy to miss, but truly show how deeply you love someone. This is where I hope that I do things differently. I want to love my children emotionally like my dad did me. Along with this I want to love them enough to offer them the best home that they could possibly want or need. If I can achieve that then my job as a dad is complete. So far, I think that we are doing OK.
Dad died in 2005 aged 60 years old. I still think of him often and nearly always shed a tear when I do.
He was ill in hospital for a few weeks before he died – complete organ failure in the end due to the drink – no surprise. We all got to make our peace with Dad when he was in hospital. I am so happy that I had those final few weeks with him to tell him how I feel. I think that when Dad died, he was truly ready to go. The demons would no longer haunt him. He was at peace.
The night he died, myself and two of my sisters were called to the hospital. When we arrived, they told us the news that dad had died. We didn’t know what to do next. It was late, but none of us wanted to just go home. Rather ironically we took a trip to the local off licence. We picked up a truck load of booze and then headed to my Dad’s flat. We drank and remembered Dad, then drank and remembered him more. Strangely, it wasn’t a sombre occasion. Quite the opposite. We were happy in our memories and our sharing of them. At one point I remember we toasted Dad by sploshing alcohol all around his flat. Everything becomes a bit of a blur after that….
I do remember a few days later opening a letter that had come for Dad. It was a complaint from the council. Neighbours had complained that on the night Dad died, that he was doing his washing way into the small hours! I would love to have seen the council workers’ faces when they opened my mum’s reply. In it she detailed that she was the widow of Stephen Ponder, who had died the night in question. She went on to request that, if there was a ghost going around doing peoples laundry, could they please send them her way!
I am going to leave you with the eulogy I wrote, and read, at my Dads funeral. I hope it goes some way to helping you see why I still feel I had the best Dad ever; but can still want a whole lot more for my children.
Stephen Alfred Ponder (18-05-1945 to 28-11-2005)
I don’t want to stand up here and paint my Father out to be a saint, many of you know that he wasn’t and he wouldn’t want to be remembered like that either. I will always remember him as a good man however, a good man that had a horrible illness that caused him to make some bad decisions.
Sometimes it was hard to see Dad for the man that he really was – so often my vision of him was blurred from the alcohol he drank – that quite often it was difficult to believe that he really cared. Having been sorting through his belongings recently however, I have been touched to find so many memories of myself and the rest of the family. He had photos of everyone tucked away in all manner of places, as though always to hand. He had cards and letters sent to him going back years. He had his place settings from his daughters’ weddings and many more memories of his many friends and the large family that he had.
The last 6 weeks that I spent with my dad, and I know that I speak for my sisters here as well, have made me realise that none of the bad decisions Dad made are any longer significant, and that’s not just a grand gesture – it’s the facts. When I reflect back on the 25 years that I have known Dad not one of the memories that I have is a bad one;
I remember Dad as always being jolly – someone that was always ready with a smile, a hug and a good word. The Dad I remember taught me to fish – be it not very well, but he taught me to all the same.
I remember sitting on Dad’s knee and watching TV. I remember Dad singing and whistling – all the time – something that I’ve inherited. I remember Dad cooking, Dad was a great cook. Another legacy he left me is the ability to cook a fantastic spaghetti bolognaise. I remember walks down the river and drinking shandy sitting in the sun. I remember being loved.
These are just some of hundreds of memories that I have of Dad – memories that I didn’t even realise I had, until I started looking for them. It’s not only me however that remembers my Dad as a good person – I have spoken to various people that have known Dad for short or long periods of time of the 60 short years that he spent on this earth and the unwavering opinion is, what a lovely man.
My father also left his mark through the businesses that he ran. More than once Dad turned a wilting business into a thriving trade with places such as The Captains Table and The Wellington – places that are going strong to this day as a reminder of his success and hard work. More than once as a teenager, I remember walking past the Captains Table and saying to my friends – my dad ran that place. I was so proud of him. I wish that I had told him.
I would like to finish by thanking my dad . Thanking him for always being there, even when I thought he wasn’t. I would also like to thank him for the challenges that he threw our way throughout our lives, challenges that have made myself and my sisters far stronger and far more accepting people. Lastly I would like to thank my father for loving me.
Goodbye Dad. Love you. Rest in Peace.