Lying awake late I wonder why I’m not asleep. The urge to enquire soon passes with the knowledge that chasing sleep succeeds only in pushing it further away. I need music to soothe me and I scroll through the classical playlists on Spotify wishing my father was here so I could ask him what to try.
In my memory, he is sitting on the sofa with the french windows opening into the garden on a summers day. It is dusk and the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine is in the air. Head back and eyes closed he is listening to something by Brahms or Beethoven, Liszt or Sibelius. Occasionally he’d ask me if I knew the music. It was his only real expertise, a positive lesson I might have taken from him.
I spent too much of my life dismissing wisdom. Palming it away, suspicious that it was not my own.
With frailty of self-value, it often felt necessary to add or subtract. I needed to be more this or less that until eventually I wasn’t sure who I was at all. What I needed most of all was honest guidance.
My father was proud of everything I did and that was no guidance at all. Regardless of genuine merit, he would invest me with praise I had not earned and may not ever.
When you tell a child that everything is to be celebrated you may as well celebrate nothing at all. We learn little of value from its indiscriminate award.
I think my father lived vicariously through me. Eternally discontent at his own missed opportunities he perhaps focused instead on mine. If he could celebrate me, his son, perhaps life hadn’t been such a disappointment after all.
When I started my corporate life at the bottom in the post room he would tell me that one day I’d be running the company. There was no need for such hyperbole, just as it became irritating when he would refer, years after it had happened, to an award I won for a part in a play. I could not separate what was given to build me up and what was taken to fill a hole in him.
My children weren’t born until after my father had died but I had subconsciously learned from him an important lesson on the difference between value and achievement.
I tried not to teach them that everything they do is without equal because, apart from its obvious folly, it has nothing to do with how much I love them. If praise is given so indiscriminately or not at all how can we know what is truly precious?
An absence or a surplus of praise creates uncertainty about what we’re worth. In the scramble to work it out, we lose sight of the fact that what we’re worth has nothing to do with what we achieve anyway. They are both important but not connected.
The last sight of my father was on the sofa, lying back mouth open finally asleep. This time there was no music.
I grieved deeply when he died to such an extent that it surprised me. I think I was mourning wisdom that I would not have pushed away, but that he was never able to provide.