I sometimes wonder whether the pain we inflict on our parents, and them on us, is as much a sign of our affection towards them, and their affection towards us, as the opposite. One would surely need to be very close to argue as my father and I did. But is that closeness love, and even if it is, is it a depth of feeling that can't actually be shared, can't occupy a given space?
According to the many friends who attended my father's funeral in the Outer Hebrides, he was about the best friend anybody could hope for, and my sister, my brother and I must have seemed churlish in our inability to praise our father with equal enthusiasm.
Some might say it is obvious that a decent friend needn't make a good father, but he wasn't necessarily a bad parent, it was just that most familial demands seemed too deeply obligatory; that they didn't offer the chosen possibilities of friendship, the way that 'superficial' friendships leave room for freedom the way family life left, he seemed to believe, only absolutes.
And it was at my father's funeral that I seemed to realize two things. One was that as his friends talked about his life, I knew I shouldn't offer contrary tales, but nod in agreement to theirs. Secondly, that my father's will should be respected - he wanted the inheritance split three ways, between his children.
I had said frequently that the money should go to my brother and my sister. My sister had always been his favourite, and reciprocated with regular phone calls and daily visits whenever he was ill in hospital on the mainland where she lived. My brother, meanwhile, had returned to the island several years ago to start a business. I hadn't returned to the island in nine years, and hadn't, apart from a brief visit as he lay dying in a coma, seen my father in three. Surely, I thought, they should be the beneficiaries of the will.
After all not only had I fallen out with my father, but we'd had a particularly awful argument the last time we had spoken to each other. Why should I share in the inheritance?
But then it occurred to me that if my father's friendships were based on choosing your friends but not your family, that the superficial lay in the non-biological, then the family was a profound connection that transcends the very disputes, the day to day tensions, which would have broken many a friendship.
Is this simply an easy way of allowing my conscience to accept the inheritance without feeling any guilt about seeing my father only a few times over the last five years of his life? During this period he would not have been a well man, and yet I rarely phoned, and even in the decade before the dispute that took place three years before his death I would only occasionally see him.
This may have been the only way we could retain our respect for each other, because the space we occupied together was always tense, and I noticed at the funeral how so few friends seemed given to creating this tension, though my father nevertheless fell out with a number of them even in the months leading up to his death. I felt that there was no space where I could have fallen out with them. Was this because I was less troublesome, that there was no familial connection, or that my father premised all relationships on a level of animosity most people don't feel the need to generate?
My father was what many would call mischievous. One of the cards of commiseration may have said "Peter was a man who would give it to you straight", but I sometimes think his frequent bluntness was more mischief-making than straight-talking - he said what he said not always because he believed it, but because he wanted to know what somebody else believed in their irate reaction.
This need for provocation, then, was one of his areas of mischievousness. Another would be the way he would offer a casual, barbed comment. I recall once, when he was recovering from a triple by-pass operation five years ago, that even as he was lying in hospital he would say to my sister that her shadow wasn't getting any smaller and that my brother's ears didn't look so big as before: his nose must be getting larger. Now I think these insults were an attempt at being caricaturally larger than life; that he wanted a response forceful enough so that he would exist in the eyes of others.
Through the provocation and the barb he could exist in two ways. He could exist because people's inflammatory response would generate an even stronger response from him - he would become rabidly right-wing, verbally aggressive and emotionally manipulative. He would dismiss asylum seekers as scroungers, would harangue his opponents by telling them if they didn't like his views they could bugger off, and would often say that they were willing to accept his hospitality - often the disputes took place over a bottle of single malt at my father's house - but they didn't want to listen to an opposing point of view.
I suppose in such instances my father didn't find out what he thought in thought, but found what he believed in emotion, in a kind of emotional caricature of himself. He didn't develop thought, didn't often probe deeper into his prejudices against asylum seekers, say; he just looked for different people to provoke less the beliefs than the feelings he possessed.
As for the barbed comments, I sometimes think he offered them so that people would respond in kind with equal cruelty. He was attractive as a young man, even classically tall, dark and handsome. But over the final twenty years of his life, before his early death at fifty seven, and between the age of thirty five and his late fifties, he'd moved from thirteen to seventeen stone, lost most of his hair and would, I guess, have been unrecognizable to those who hadn't seen him for twenty five years.
It would be too much to say he liked the comments he received - baldy, fatty, old fart amongst them - but they helped to define him, made him conscious of himself through the consciousness of others. He reminds me in some ways of burns victims, of people scarred by a car crash who go on TV because they feel their disfigurement can help define them if they allow themselves to be defined by it. I think my father decided he would be fat, so instead of applying his will to losing weight, it is as though he applied it through his criticism of others, so that any weight issue was about his accepting the digs, even playing up his size.
So it is as if he neither found his beliefs in thought nor his physique in will, but that each was somehow external to his own body, reliant on the comments and the observations of others.
It is maybe this twin escape from himself - in this curiously excavated identity - that his friends were so much more agreeable to be in the company of than his family. Yes, they would disagree with his politics, make digs about his weight, but the arguments and the barbed comments, because they were offered by people at one remove from his family history, seemed almost to add to his sense of self. The arguments I would have with my father appeared instead to detract, even extract, something fundamental.
And so I return to the aforementioned argument, and to try to see a common link between a fight I'd had with my father at sixteen and that led to me leaving home, and this argument several years ago: a fight at my sister's flat that led me never to speak to my father again. In each instance I now think that I was to blame not for the arguments in themselves - for my father was well capable of starting disputations as readily with others as with me - but for the depth charge that turned the disagreements into fundamental battles of will and memory.
During that first fall-out I'd called him a bastard - a casual insult perhaps coming from a friend, but coming from his own son, from someone who knew he was fatherless, it inevitably carried greater weight. As we grappled in the living room, with his anger a rage and yet where he was obviously refusing to hit me, was I forcing out of him a feeling that was consistent and yet in some ways the opposite of that which his friends generated? Was this violence that he was constraining, rather than deliberately unleashing, another type of anger altogether? Maybe it would be too much to call it primal, but perhaps it got as close to the truth of whoever he was - the anger generated seemed so brutal, so lacking in usefulness to the self he perceived himself to be - that it appeared to represent some sort of truth.
Next to this type of anger, the beseeching tone he would sometimes offer after moments of familial tension came across as slightly false: the hugs and comments about the family being a family, lacked the rabid, almost unconscious force apparent in his rage. In his contriteness I felt a coolness that was morally rationalizing, contextualizing his role in our parents' divorce, his failed re-marriage shortly afterwards, and the relationship with his kids. These latter comments were offered after that second argument, after we had yelled insults at each other as I defended the wife who left him - namely my mother - and he attacked her for betraying the family. She left for the mainland, having, she once told me, enough of the seclusion of the island and the oppression of my father. Maybe his second wife would have said the same: she returned to Glasgow after only nine months of marriage. I sometimes wonder if the women in his life ever engaged him quite as forcefully as I so often would. Both my mother and his second wife were passive women; they left without combativeness; quietly, exhausted.
Perhaps I give myself too much credence here, while offering moral rationalisations of my own, but did I engage with my father on a level more real than anyone else?
He often said of his friends that better they annoyed him than that they bored him. I'm not sure whether I can extend that to his family, because it would have to be replaced by being better to disturb than to bore, which would be more problematic. After all, how many of his arguments with his friends left him crumpled, sitting with his head in his hands?
Yet it is this notion of being and arguing that seems central to my dilemma over the inheritance. Shortly before he passed away, before he had slipped into a coma, he'd written that the inheritance should be divided equally. And yet I don't doubt that central to this was the idea of blood, but wasn't what my father and I had between us 'bad blood'? Did he just accept that whether the blood was good or bad, the point was that I was his son?
It is from this perspective that I have a problem with the whole idea of the inheritance - I don't want it simply because I exist and have my father to thank for that existence, but within that existence I existed. Out of these tense exchanges - not only the two monumental ones, but also numerous others that would often never quite surface - he existed in a way that he might not otherwise have done so, and I existed in a way I might not otherwise have done so either.
If my brother and sister often ribbed him about his weight and his hair loss - digs for some reason I never offered - and his friends would argue with him bickeringly about anything from the benefits of soft-drugs to the inadequacies of the Conservative Party, then I would push harder into areas of who he was and what he believed, hoping that I could also find out who I was and what I believed. It is this existence - his existence to me and my existence to him - that I need to assume was in some manner recognized.
If not, I feel it would be as well to divide my share amongst his many friends - perhaps an aptly dispersive act to counter the lump sum of pain I may have caused him. But if the lump sum was as vividly real as he ever became, then perhaps I've perversely earned my share, but with an equal lump sum of pain of my own in deciding whether, now that he is no longer here, I have been fair to a man who fed, clothed and sheltered me from the day I was born till the day I was eighteen, and now may feed, clothe and shelter me after he has gone also. Can I now love him so much more in his unequivocal absence, as if this is the only space in which we could tolerate each other, or rather where I could tolerate him? He may still if I accept the modest inheritance be offering me financially food, clothing and shelter, yet perhaps this very short piece can in turn somehow accommodate him too.
© Tony McKibbin