Victor Rodger is a playwright, scriptwriter and journalist who has often written about aspects of the difficult relationship he had with his father. Here now he looks back on it all.
He comes to see you when you’re a baby.
Your grandfather’s made him sign something to say he won’t come anywhere near you or your mother but your mother lets him see you when your grandparents are out.
What does he think when he first sees you? This newborn son he has fathered with your mother six months after fathering another son with a different woman?
By the time you think to ask him, it’s too late: he’s dead.
Your first clear memory of him is when you are three, maybe four.
You’re in Christchurch. It’s the early ‘70s.
You live in a house on Kerrs Road in Wainoni with your mother and your grandparents. For a time you are told that your mother is your sister and your grandparents are your parents.
Life is good at Kerrs Road. You like collecting bottle tops, and listening to the soundtracks that your grandparents play. And you long to own a Barbie Doll with legs that bend.
Kerrs Road is comfortable. Familiar.
By the time you start school you know the story: your mother was only 15 when she had you. Your grandparents adopted you to get Social Welfare off your mother’s back. Your grandparents are your parents by law. Your father is married to another woman.
You tell the other kids at school that you have two sets of parents. You say this means that you get twice as many Christmas presents.
This isn’t entirely true: your father never sends you a Christmas present. Not that you really ever think about this. Your mother makes sure you never have to. She showers you in Scholastic books. Movie magazines. Love.
One night you watch your mother standing in front of the fireplace with a faraway look in her eye. It’s dark and it’s winter. The only light in the room comes from the fire and the television that you’ve stopped watching because you are looking at your mother instead. Somehow you know that she is thinking about your father who is visiting from Samoa. Somehow you know that your father has made her sad.
At intermediate you are told to write down your family tree. You have only heard your father’s surname pronounced as Fart-are-pee so under FATHER you write Nick F. A. R. T/ A. R. P. E. It’s not until you have left high school that you learn to say and spell your father’s surname correctly: Fa’ata’ape. You discover it means to break apart.
You are almost 12. Your mother takes you to Samoa so that you can see where your father comes from.
Your father lives there with his wife, their three children, and a nephew and niece they have adopted from his sister.
Your mother doesn’t want to cause any trouble so she decides she will wait until your last night in Apia to tell your father that you are here.
Your Pālagi mother is too naive to understand how island life works. Almost immediately someone recognises your mother wandering around Apia and word quickly gets back to your father.
You wake up one night in the Tusitala hotel where you are staying and hear your mother talking to a man. Your father.
You keep your eyes shut and pretend to still be asleep. You don’t want to talk to him. You just want him out of there. You kick the sheets in frustration. Kicking the sheets is your way of trying to kick him out of the room.
He says to your mother: Boy, what a restless sleeper.
Your father drives you and your mother to a huge waterfall one afternoon. You swim by yourself leaving your parents to talk by the water’s edge. Later you get changed out of your togs in a small changing room. When you drop your white Fruit of the Loom underpants on the filthy floor you let out a girly high-pitched squeal.
Your father asks your mother: Is that boy playing rugby?
You leave Samoa. You feel no connection to the place. You are not a son for the return home.
By the time you are 18, you barely think about your father until one day you get a call out of the blue from the one Samoan aunty you knew growing up.
She claims your father is dying.
You decide to go and see your father. Just in case this is the last time you see him.
You take particular care with how you look. You want your father to be impressed that you are a young cadet reporter on a daily newspaper. You want him to know that your success is because of your mother and has nothing to do with him. You want him to know you don’t care what he thinks about you.
But then the strangest thing: your father turns out to be charming. And charismatic. He makes you laugh. He makes you feel connected. He makes you want a connection. You use the word Dad for the first time in your life. But you’re conflicted: this is still the same man who hurt your mother.
He tells you he has had a blood clot as the result of a blood-clotting disorder. The clot can’t be drained so he only has 25 per cent lung capacity. He could die today. He could die in 20 years.
You tell him only the good die young. He smiles.
You see a photo for the first time of your half-siblings. You are secretly thrilled that you all seem to share your father’s eyes and eyebrows.
You see a small ornamental tree which has six branches on it. On five of the branches hangs a photo of each of your father’s children. One branch remains empty. You hope that one day your photo will hang from the empty branch.
At the end of your meeting you try to get a firm date from your father as to when he will tell his other kids about you. He remains non-committal.
You’re disappointed. But you find out where your older half-brother works as a travel agent. You take the lift up to his office. You pretend you are interested in booking a fare somewhere. Maybe Paris. He explains your options but you’re not really listening. Your heart is pounding. You wish that he was telepathic so that he could hear you yelling in your head: “You’re my brother!”
Your mother is horrified when she learns you’ve gone to see your brother. She can see this has the potential to backfire.
You are 18. You won’t be told.
You continue to meet your father, like a secret agent, when none of his other kids are home.
He continues to be evasive when you try to pin him down to a firm date when he’ll tell the others about you.
You never had a problem when you hated him, but now, as soon as you’ve let your guard down, he’s hurt you, like he hurt your mother.
You become sullen. Ask tough questions. Demand answers.
You don’t understand that in Samoan culture, fathers demand respect, full stop. Even if they left a 15-year-old girl to raise a baby by herself.
You bristle at the way he preaches the word of God while keeping you a secret.
Your father contacts your mother and explains that he wouldn’t allow his other children to speak to him the way you are speaking to him.
You’re unrepentant. You’re not like his other children. How could you be?
Eventually your siblings find out the truth, but not from your father.
Drama ensues in your family and your father’s family. You try to justify your actions by pointing out that none of this would be happening if your father and his wife had been honest about your existence from the start. It sounds hollow even as you say it.
When the dust settles you visit your father again. Neither of you mentions what has happened.
He calls out your half-sister’s name abruptly. She comes into the lounge.
He raises a finger from the edge of the couch and points at you.
“This is your brother.”
You both stare at each other awkwardly. Unsure what to say.
The empty branch on the family tree of photos remains empty.
You turn that painful and confusing period of your life into your first play called Sons.
After the first rehearsed reading of the play at the Maidment Theatre you step into the men’s bathroom and you cry like you’ve never cried before.
You thought you’d dealt with those events but you eventually realise you only dealt with them intellectually. Grappling with them emotionally is another country.
The following year, you get a pain in your leg. You think it’s cramp. When the pain gets tighter you suspect something that the doctors will eventually confirm: you have the same blood clotting disorder as your father.
Your mother is furious that of all his children you are the only one to inherit this condition. You joke that you can no longer say your father never gave you anything.
Your mother and your stepfather have two children. When you are a writer for Shortland Street you take them to the Gold Coast. Your father learns you are there and drives down with his wife from Brisbane where they now live. She looks like she doesn’t want to be there. She’s not the only one.
He jokes that you should pay for dinner because you work in TV. You don’t laugh. He’d like to meet your siblings. You don’t think he deserves to.
Later you settle into an awkward ritual of sorts every time you stay with your younger half-brother in Brisbane. You never tell your father that you are there. But he always finds out and comes to see you. He also makes a point of bringing his wife along. It prevents the two of you from ever really getting down to business.
One night you have a dream about you and your father. When you wake up you can’t really remember the dream. All you remember is the feeling: the warmth you felt between you and your father. You’ve never had a dream like this about your father before.
You interpret this as a sign. You buy a ticket to Brisbane. You go and stay with your brother.
Like usual, your father comes round to see you.
But this time he is by himself.
And so you sit with him in the kitchen of the granny flat that is attached to your brother’s house.
Unprompted you start having The Talk.
This is The Talk you used to fantasise about. The one where your father apologises for not being there for you or for your mum. Where he acknowledges it must have been difficult. The one where he says everything you could have ever wanted him to say to you.
It’s almost like you could have written his dialogue.
You have to bite your tongue during parts of The Talk, like when he says being gay is a choice.
A voice inside you tells you to keep your mouth shut. And the voice is right.
Because during The Talk you feel all the anger and the hurt and the resentment you used to feel towards your father leave you, like steam rising off your skin on a cold night at the gym.
Two, maybe three hours later, The Talk is over.
You both stand. Your father is only 5’8 to your 6’2.
You hug each other.
You can feel something has shifted between the two of you. Something big. You’re certain he can feel it too.
You only see him once or twice after The Talk. The last time in 2012.
Two years later your brother tells you that your father has developed an aggressive form of dementia. He doesn’t know what soap or shampoo is for when he goes to have a shower.
You feel like you and your father sorted everything out the night of The Talk. That you kind of reached the end of the road with each other. You don’t feel the need to see him again. As far as you’re concerned, you’re done.
Halloween, 2015. You are at Carl's Jr. on Queen St with your cousin and her young daughter. You are waiting for someone to bring you your burgers.
Your phone rings. It’s your cousin Lui in Australia.
He has bad news: your father is ill. He isn’t going to make it through the night.
Lui hangs up.
Your mushroom burger arrives.
Moments later, Lui calls back.
He’s sorry to have to tell you: your father is dead.
You had imagined this moment. You didn’t think you would feel anything. You thought because you got it all out on the table with your father during The Talk you guys were sorted.
You have clearly forgotten that lesson you learned after the first public reading of Sons.
And so here you are, with your cousin on one side and her daughter on the other as you cry in the middle of Carl’s Jr.
You check into a flight to Brisbane. Your voice catches when you explain you are going to your father’s funeral and would like to sit by yourself.
On the flight over you never think about all the things he did that hurt you or your mother. You just keep circling back to that one good thing he did for you: The Talk.
Your youngest half-brother picks you up from the airport and takes you back to his place. You meet a bunch of relations for the first time – some of whom knew of your existence, but many more who did not. One uncle is so taken aback to find out about you that he asks you again and again: “You’re his son?” Almost as if you may have somehow been mistaken all these years.
You go to the final viewing of your father’s body at your brother’s house.
You meet a woman through your sister-in-law. She’s afakasi: half Pālagi and half Samoan like you. She didn’t have a strong relationship with her own father, like you. She gets where you’re at. But she tells you that your father was the most wonderful father figure to her in ways that her own father never was.
The irony isn’t lost on either of you.
At the funeral you notice that your name is not on the programme underneath the list of your father’s children. You didn’t expect it to be.
But during your closest brother’s eulogy, he mentions that your father had fathered four children. You’re momentarily puzzled: who is the fourth child? It takes a moment for you to realise that the fourth child is you.
You’re bemused by a lot of the funeral. This God-fearing man, this loving father, this wonderful husband, this beloved grandfather: you don’t know this man.
You chuckle internally when the grandchildren sing How Deep is Your Love and wander off key.
But then there is a video of your father, towards the end, frail and silver-haired, trying to sing his favourite hymn at church while he is supported by one of his grandsons. Your father was always a solid man, but this man you are watching is skeletal. His sweatshirt hangs off him. The grandson who is trying to hold your father upright as he sings in his breathless voice keeps wiping the tears from his eyes.
Soon, you wipe away your own tears.
You arrive at the grave.
There is talk. There is song.
And then, in the unforgiving Brisbane heat, the men, young and old, begin to dig your father’s grave in. Sons. Grandsons. Brothers. Nephews.
One of your brothers comes up and asks if you want to help. You are self-conscious. You decline.
Another brother comes up and asks if you want to dig. Again, you decline. He looks frustrated.
The woman you met at the final viewing of your father’s body, the one who considered your father as a father figure, happens to be right beside you at that moment.
“Don’t regret it,” she whispers in your ear. “I’ll come up with you.”
And so, with her by your side, you head to the grave where one of the grandsons – a nephew you have never met – is digging.
Your brother looks quietly pleased you have changed your mind. He instructs this nephew you have never met to give you the shovel.
You take the shovel from your nephew and you feel all eyes upon you. Your father’s wife. Your older brother who hasn’t spoken a word to you during the entire funeral. Nephews and nieces who have no idea who you are. All watching you now.
You take the shovel and you wonder what your father would have thought about this moment. Could he ever have foreseen this moment? You certainly never did.
You take the shovel and you realise that having The Talk wasn’t The End. This moment is The End. This is what closure feels like.
You take the shovel.
You begin to dig.
This is an edited version of a piece delivered at the Samesame but Different LGBTQI Writers Festival in Auckland last month.