Like Father Like Son

30 August 2019 Craig Buchanan

Like Father Like Son

Illustrated by Donough O'Malley

Craig Buchanan gets advice from his father every morning, whether he likes it or not.

My father haunts my shaving mirror.

Not literally, you understand. If there’s a restless soul watching over my morning ablutions, it’s more likely mine than his. On a purely objective level, I know that.

Nor is the haunting something that has been limited to the years since Dad’s death.

I vividly recall waking, hungover and irritable, in the pokey little London bedsit that I’d moved into in my late teens – a move aimed at least partly at putting some distance between us – and seeing his likeness peering back at my half-opened eyes. I immediately decided to grow what was, with hindsight, a quite ludicrous moustache.

It doubtless reminded others of the leather-clad biker from the first Police Academy movie, but served to convince me that I looked less like my father, drastically reducing the amount of time I spent each morning with him looking back at me from my mirror, mocking my avoidance.

That isn’t to say Dad and I didn’t get along. We had our share of clashes, as I suspect most teens and parents do, and we eventually conceded it was difficult to live in close quarters. But that was simply the result of two very similar men trying to share the same space – one older and set in his ways, the other younger and programmed to push boundaries.
Looking back, I think we each saw our flaws reflected in the other and decided distance was the only lens that offered the comfort of distortion.

When I migrated to Australia in the early 2000s, Dad was already in decline. In his late fifties, a combination of debilitating diseases – MS and, as we were later to discover, cancer – were making common cause with the fruits of a series of dubious lifestyle choices to grind him down.

He was a heavy smoker, and only became heavier as his illnesses limited his movement. He had been a drinker since his own teens – beer with a double whisky chaser.

As a result, he visited Australia only  once, and spent most of that holiday in a wheelchair, parked uncomfortably outside one local pub or another, sucking on a coffin-nail, torn between the sun and the shade.

Sitting in the departure lounge, waiting to board his flight home, he insisted he’d enjoyed the trip, especially the summer heat, and was glad to have seen first-hand that I was happy and settled. But, he added swiftly, he wouldn’t be back. The flight was just too much for his old bones.

Dad was 60 that year when he came to visit, and only had another five years with us. What would have been considered a reasonable innings for a man of his grandfather’s generation was a life cut woefully short for a baby boomer. But he was already worn thin, a pale reflection of the proud man who stood ramrod straight in the background of my youth, only to find himself hunched over, waiting for and I suspect fearing the end.

He died just a few days after my wedding, literally hours after Mum had arrived back to the UK and shown him the photos. In my lighter moments, I joke that the shock of my marrying killed him. In my darker moments, I’m glad I was able to tell him that it was okay to let go when we spoke on the phone an hour or two before he did just that.

I flew home to bury him, a modern incarnation of the young emigrant in ‘The Streets of New York’ by The Wolfe Tones. That song could have been written with him and I in mind: “All the bright flowers and brass couldn’t hide the poor wasted face of me father.”
Since then, I’ve seen him almost every morning, staring back at me as I shave.

It’s something in the eyes, and in the half-frown of concentration. In the months immediately after his death, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it frightened me. I think I was more than a little convinced he really was haunting me then. But as the months turned to years, I’ve grown more comfortable with his daily presence. More than once, I’ve given him a grudging nod and a quiet “Morning, Pop” as I reach for my razor.

I’ve come if not exactly to welcome this daily glimpse of our shared traits and mortality, then at least to embrace the silent, sombre reminder that my job is always to improve on his – to live longer, to be happier and perhaps just a tiny bit more tolerant of others as I age.

I’m lucky; I’ve never been a smoker, and while I drink, I’ve avoided the lure of hard spirits. Maybe that is enough to qualify as generational evolution, however marginal. I cling to the hope that, with the undoubted benefits of sunshine, moderate exercise and an early-morning dose of hindsight, I will not only live to what Dad would have considered a ripe old age, but that I’ll also be fit enough, in mind and in body, to enjoy the process.

And that’s my present to Dad (and to myself) each Father’s Day – a nod to the past, with an eye on the future. No gift-wrapping, no card, just shaving foam and a realisation that, as he left the world a better place for his presence in it, I am charged with improving it a little more if I can.

» Craig Buchanan (@CraigBuchananWA) is Perth-based writer.

» This article first appeared in The Big Issue Ed#594.