Death is not something you know until you know. I’ve chosen to start this with a pointless sentence, one that seems so obvious that it’s absurd. I’ve chosen to start this with his death, rather than his life, because that’s how it works in my mind. I don’t first think of his smile, his soft voice, his gentle nature and his unwavering love for me. Instead, when my mind tries to wander to him, his death confronts me, like a bang, like a slap, like a wall that blocks me from him. But two years have passed, and now I gently try to tap along that wall as I search for the soft brick that will give way. The one, that if I patiently bear the pain and tears, will allow me access to him as he lived. That will give way and reveal the way he wiped his glasses multiple times a day and would do mine whenever he found their smudged state. The way he loved to make huge mugs of tea that he would forget and abandon in the most odd places. The way he would remember everything you mentioned liking, whether it was food or a bottle of wine, and have it stocked ready for the next time you came. The way he read books, glasses sliding down his nose, and losing all of his pain as he existed only in those pages.
My father was a reader. By his bed were a stack of novels to be enjoyed, and I’d often trail my fingers along his well-thumbed bookshelves, marvelling at the bright and bold covers. They looked so different to the pastel Jacqueline Wilson’s that decorated my own, and resembled more closely the Harry Potter novels I held in a place of glory. I’d sneak one off the shelf and remark at the covers and blurbs, dotted with action, violence, heroes and adventure. I didn’t feel the urge to read them, preferring my safe worlds, but I would always turn to the final page, just to glimpse the end that was coming. I’d spy him reading one of them and satisfyingly know what was to come better than he did. But as his life progressed, and his aches increased, he lost that love for reading. Or rather, he lost the drive and patience to put it into a habit. He still bought the latest Dan Brown, but its tight and squares pages were almost tainted guilty. When he passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away that final book, the one we had bought for his last birthday, the one that sat there waiting for him and not knowing that he would never be there to open it.
Harry Potter is what I remember, but it must’ve started before that. I’m an unreliable narrator, picking to begin at Harry Potter when I learned to read long before that. But it was a road trip from the Netherlands to the south of France, a long dreary road trip that we undertook many summers. Then my grandfather passed away, and instead, entire summers were spent in the Netherlands, and suddenly I needed far more books to pass the time.
The youngest child of three sits in the middle of the backseat, as the older two are more deserving of the legroom. It’s a dreaded spot for car rides, as you can’t lean your head against the door and nap. It’s only made more infuriating when those older sisters, the ones that could nap against the door, instead choose to sleep on your shoulder or lap. When both sisters are doing exactly that, despite your face scrunched in anger, and you’ve finished the short children’s book that you brought, you begin to fidget and whine. But then your father tells you to read the book that your sister brought. It’s the first Harry Potter, as she’s a slow reader, and your other sister finished it long ago. It doesn’t look interesting yet, it’s the early 2000s, and the first two films haven’t blown up as they would. Or maybe you’re too young to know that they had. But you listen to his advice, you open the book, and you’re lost in the Wizarding World, never quite to return.
Soon after, Harry Potter becomes the book that he reads to me each evening in bed. His Dutch accent was only aggravated by the uncomfortable names and spells they cast, but he loved it too. We were together on the trip through this magical realm, both holding out for our hero and hoping that it would all turn out for the best. Harry Potter was the first stone in the pond, as I suddenly grew an insatiable appetite for books. I devoured them, book after book. Everything I could find in my home, even ones that were far from appropriate for my age and led to some uncomfortable conversations. I read my way through the library until I was on a first-name basis with the librarians, and they asked my suggestions for new books to purchase. My mother was tired of overflowing bookshelves and placed a ban on new books in the house, lifted only for birthdays and Christmas. But my father loved it and kept fueling my bookish flames. When he travelled for work, he would dutifully note down the latest book I wanted and relentlessly search through the airport bookstore. When I got chickenpox at the age of ten and spent two weeks at home, the first thing he did was write down exactly which books I wanted. Whenever we’d pass a bookstore, and I’d widen my eyes the way only a daughter knows, he would fake a sigh and rush me in, always with the promise that I would hide the book from my mother.
As I grew up, many things changed. I won’t say that I became mentally ill, as I probably always had that within me, growing steadily in the embers of my parents’ failing marriage and the loneliness I carried. My father worked more and more, to avoid the reality of it, and to know that he provided for us if nothing else. But I remained a reader, and I sometimes wonder if this was the way he still recognised me throughout it all. When conversation dwindled with too many things unsaid, books were our language, and he knew that he could always ask what I was reading, and the answer would have changed since last time.
In his final weeks, it was I who read to him. He didn’t grasp the story, and I’m not even sure he tried to, but he let me go on and fill the silence with it; he gave that to me. It was the only thing I could do, as hospital wires surrounded us and doctors flitted in and out, first with good news and then with bad and so forth. He let me pretend I had a resemblance of control as I turned those pages.
When he discovered that I was a writer, something I hadn’t yet been able to believe myself, he was proud of me. Because despite all of his doubt, it confirmed that he had contributed to my success in some way. As a reader, he knew nothing better than a writer. He didn’t get to read my work, as I never gave him that chance, not knowing one day it wouldn’t be an option at all. But he believed in my work without ever seeing it, as only a father foolishly could. I have so many regrets, not only of our past, but many of our future, or rather the lack of it. But if I had to choose one, it would be one that surprises many. It hurts to know that I’ll walk down an aisle alone. It hurts to know that he will never meet my future partner, my children or anyone else that comes into my life. It hurts to know that they will never meet him, never have a face or a voice to my stories, never recognise the hole that he has left in my life and this world. But what hurts the most is that he will never read my writing or even know of it. I want him to know that I am shaping other people into readers, that one day I might create the story that tugs someone deep into the pages of a book. I want him to know that it is all because of him, that he made me a reader simply by being one, in the way that every little girl looks up to her Daddy. He ignited the fire of creativity in me, and it refuses to be extinguished.
But then again, knowing what a reader it is, I wouldn’t be surprised that he’s here at this very word, smiling and pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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