"I'm not afraid of dying; I just don't want to be there when it happens," is a Woody Allen quote I recall hearing someone use in a matric oral exam. It must have resonated, because I've always remembered it and I finished high school in 1990. I can't say that as an adult I have an altogether healthy acceptance of the fact that we are going to die, so I'd like to be as old as possible when it happens; and if sooner I hope it's quick, painless and not too dramatic. Although, since I've never shied away from a little drama, maybe something not-too-ordinary, so that it's not just sad and rather tragic.
But this post isn't about me dying, or my fear of the inevitable. It's about my father's death, and what that's been about for me over the last couple of months. This piece of writing is about the complexity of relationships, and acceptance of the unexpected turns that life takes. It's about finding peace in turmoil, and moving on after being dealt a final blow from the afterlife.
My father and I were never really close. Let's say we had a complicated relationship, which pretty much sums up my father's connections and relationships to all women in his life imho. Shortly before his death in September, I was trying to connect with a new therapist around some personal trauma I was working through, and to my horror, many of her questions were about my relationship with my father. She did ask if I'd ever considered that he was a narcissist, mainly doing whatever he did so that people saw him as the good guy, but this happening at the cost of his family. I've encountered more than my fair share of narcissistic behaviour working in the world of substance use, behavioural addiction and mental health disorders, but had not for one moment ever considered that my father fell into this category.
That wasn't the first therapy session where I'd looked at my relationship with David Usher Brierley. I was hoping that work was more-or-less done, as I felt like I had reached something of an acceptance, compassion, and understanding that we simply weren't going to have a strong bond, and that was lot to do with his inability to look inwards and take ownership of his part of the relationship that needed to be looked at. He simply didn't seem to have that inclination (or emotional intelligence), and I was going to have to accept that there was only so much I could do.
It always fascinates me in the work I do, that people feel that they "have to" have relationships with family, often to their own detriment. It's been many years since I felt that way, and so I would show up for casual social engagements like breakfasts and braais, trying not to expect too much from my dad. It'd still hurt when he made snide comments or underhanded remarks, that seemed harmless to others, but would feel like a kick in the gut because of our history. I'd often leave these events in tears, trying to make sense of why he couldn't just be nice to me, even though I was past wanting a deep, meaningful relationship with him. We'd chat on the phone or have the occasional call, and he'd tell me he loved me. So I believed that although my father might not like me that much, at least he loved me. I was after all his oldest child.
I was there for him when his wife died early 2020, sitting with him at the memorial service, taking his calls, sharing the occasional meal, and being supportive of his loss. I felt needed and thought maybe things were changing. But I guess that's what I wanted to believe, because suddenly he disconnected and was getting ready to move to KZN, his words being "there's nothing and no one left for me in Johannesburg." Another of those unconscious, hurtful comments. There was of course, a woman involved. By this point he'd been married three times, and had left my mom in the early 90s for another woman who he was engaged to, but never married. My parents were actually better off without one another, and my mother thrived outside of the marriage, after an initial period of adjustment.
Although my brother, his wife, and close friends knew about and had met the new woman, my father never mentioned her to me. I wasn't too surprised and chose to wish him well, and tell him that I was happy for him and his upcoming move. Impossible to be by himself, and actually process the emotions of loss, he was simply distracting himself with the next shiny thing.
He never knew how to be with emotions; I don't think he ever learned. At boarding school from an early age, with two very distant and uninvolved parents, I just don't believe that he ever acquired the ability to be emotionally uncomfortable. It's not a judgement, just an observation. When things got tough he checked out (normally with another woman), drank, shouted, threatened, then made up with money and gifts. I don't recall him ever saying sorry or taking responsibility for his behaviour; it was always someone else's fault that he acted the way he did. Maybes that therapist was right!
I can't say he wasn't materially generous. He gave us all the things we needed. We went to decent schools, had expensive hobbies (horse riding and rowing), went on trips and holidays, studied at university, and were given our first couple of cars. But he was never really present. I did think that because he cried when we did well he had the ability to show emotion, just never give voice to it. I thought I was learning to be at peace with that.
And then he died! Rather unexpectedly on 4th September this year, and we always joked that he'd outlive the lot of us. Almost immediately I felt released from a very complex and emotionally draining earthly relationship. I don't think this was our first time around (depending on what you believe), and feel like we've been doing this dance for eons. I was also extremely sad! We hadn't spoken too much since he left Johannesburg in February to move to the coast. And I was a little angry and resentful with him for simply forgetting my last birthday. I wanted to confront him about it, but was finally convinced it was simply a mistake and it was unnecessary to make a big deal about it. I wish I had lent into my core values of courage and authenticity and had that conversation. But of course you know what they say about hindsight.
I spoke to his fiancé (for the first time) who seemed devastated. There were comments about morphine, severe illness, and unabated drinking (he said he was not drinking much at all the last time I spoke to him). It didn't make much sense, it didn't make much sense at the time, but grief is confusing. I knew what was coming (theoretically), and I leaned into it.
I cried, and I raged, and I stayed up late at night listening to his favourite music and going through family photo albums. And I knew even if we hadn't really gotten each other as adults (especially after I quit drinking in 2008) that he really had loved me. Listening to Elvis in the early morning hours, with tears streaming down my face, I mourned my dad.
In the coming days I received some disturbing messages about his death, his current relationship, and the changing of his will. We were advised to have an autopsy done and delay his cremation, but making decisions like this during an emotional time were difficult. My brother had recently immigrated to the UK, and we decided that we'd go ahead with the cremation as planned. I wanted to support my brother's wishes not to leave our dad lying in a morgue awaiting the medical examiner, and all the stories seemed a bit outlandish anyway. Even our mom assured us that our father was an "honourable man", and we shouldn't worry.
My father's ashes arrived in Johannesburg a week later under the care of my best friend. And my father's fiancé sent us some of his personal effects. This was a huge red flag for me! Two old, dirty shopping bags containing some work photo albums (of zero personal relevance), two paintings I'd never laid eyes on, and a broken clock (of no value) were the bulk of the contents. We'd been told we couldn't have his phone which seemed odd as we wanted to contact friends and family. And we were assured that his fiancé had no idea where the will was. The personal items she sent offended me...WTF? A broken, wood clock that my father was given as a corporate gift in the 90s!? But everyone seemed to believe her, and I hadn't met her. Initially I was happy that my dad had company in his last weeks, but it seems as though prior to dying he thought she was cheating on him, and she was apparently in the Western Cape with an ex-boyfriend.
And then the Financial Advisor shared the will with us. In the eight weeks after he met her he chose to disinherit my brother and me. It felt like everything I ever thought about my father was true! He was selfish and unconscious, only interested in what was going on right in front of him. It was hard to understand that if he loved us, was proud of us, and adored his two grandsons, why this had happened!? The only way my father had ever been able to "show love" was materially, and right at the end had basically taken that with him. I was furious that he'd shown brother how cruel he could be. Everything that he could he left to someone he'd known for two months, and six months after that even cut out a bequest for his long-time domestic worker.
Of course we looked at contesting the will but that's a helluva thing, and as a forensic investigator told us, "the dead can't speak", so all the hearsay about disloyalty, foul play, cheating, manipulation, and illness were moot in the face of hard evidence.
Not once had this really been about the money. It's about the last wishes of my father, who choose an almost complete stranger, over the 45-plus year relationships with my brother and me.
Other than some cousins, and maybe some childhood friends, we thought we mattered more than some woman who'd appeared at the 11th hour. It's not about the money, it's about the legacy. It's about the choice he made for his final message to be one of disregard and hurt. It's about him not thinking about the impact of his actions and how unconscious he was of the pain he would cause. It's not about the money, it's about him shattering the relationship with my brother without any explanation. If he'd cut me out, I would have been less surprised, but his choice to disinherit my brother has been astounding for me.
And I've raged! I've cried! I've spoken to pillows and mirrors in my trauma counsellor's consulting room in systemic constellations. I've let it go some days and hung onto it others. I've made war and I've made peace. Some days I can comprehend and some days I can't. And it's not about the money. It's about the question of whether my father ever really loved me once I was old enough to stand up to him?
It's about whether there was ever really any love? And if him supporting us at sports was all about him looking like the good guy? Were the braais and the rugby days just a chance for him to be seen as the fun and cool father, because no one got to see the raging, mean, emotionally abusive man he could be behind closed doors. Did anyone else get to experience his insecurities of not having loving parents, and a healthy sense of self besides us?
I thought that maybe at the end he'd leave us with the message that although his life was marred by demons of having distant, detached parents who measured love by the metrics of success, he'd find a way to let us know that he really did love us. Had it been worth putting up with the way he spoke to our mother, and how he talked down to people based simply on their race, culture, and home language? After all, what is the price of a difficult relationship?
Some days are easy and some days are hard as I wrangle with these questions. What I thought was going to simply be a grieving process around losing my dad, has become so much more. Where I felt I had been released from the difficulties of the relationship in this dimension, has become so much more layered and nuanced because I can't talk to him about this and will never fully understand. If I thought on that day on 4th September that I was going to be able to find closure, I didn't see this coming.
In the name of full disclosure, I was looking forward to the financial relief that would have come with an inheritance, my father was a fiscally responsible guy. Yet somehow I would have preferred it if he'd simply said something, anything, about how he felt about my brother and me. A letter, a phone call, an email...anything besides this feeling of never having been truly loved by my father. The feeling of just not good enough. It's not about the money, but when the only way you've ever been shown love is through money, taking it away at the end and giving it to someone I had never even laid eyes on feels like a big "fuck you!"
I wouldn't know what the woman who he chose at the end was if I bumped into her in a supermarket. I wish she hadn't lied about having the will - she did. We asked if she'd have a discussion with us about what happened - she wouldn't.
I choose to let it go with regards to trying to fight for something he didn't want to give us. I don't want to argue over money anyway, it's not who I am or how I want to be. In the end we got a small amount from a living annuity that he was unable to cash out or sign over, and for that I am grateful. It's made a huge difference in my life because the last 5 years have been financially challenging and I didn't want this to be a woo-poor-me piece. It's just me trying to process my emotions out loud, and I promise you that it's raw and uncomfortable. I'm simply trying to bring my authentic self and share my experience.
We're not the first to be cut out and we won't be the last. It's just hard to reconcile the 48 years of feelings around whether or not my father ever really loved me. It was easier when I was drinking, there was more "connection", but he never understood my recovery choice to be abstinent even though one of his wives battled with substance use and mental health. And because my father was a successful businessman, doesn't mean he didn't have an abusive relationship with alcohol. There are other consequences to substance use that aren't purely financial.
I've sent him a couple of WhatsApps since he died, just to say I loved him and miss him, even though I am confused about what that means. It's probably a bit weird, but I don't know how to completely untwist myself from this. Some of the messages went through, but after I addressed one of them to his fiancé (she blocked me on her phone after I sent her a message explaining how devastated we were) they haven't gone through again. I wish that I did know how my father felt about me and whether he was proud of me. Not because someone else said it, but because he had.
It sucks having a difficult relationship with a parent, partner, sibling, child, or other, and I wish he'd been open to us having the courageous conversations I tried to have with him. But it's the coulda, woulda, shoulda...didn't situation.
I'm sitting here finishing this off after a really challenging, emotional weekend. I finally got to see my brother for the first time on Friday since our dad died, and was going to spend some time with him and my mom this coming weekend before they left for the UK. That ended abruptly when the UK shut down SA flights, my brother had to leave suddenly, and our mom is unable to fly over there for Christmas with him and the grandkids. It's been a hard year, and I haven't had the full space I need to process all this.
My dad's ashes are still in my house...I don't know what to do with them. I guess part of my healing is figuring that out. I don't want to drop them into the Pickitup bin, and I don't want to memorialise him right now either; I am too confused and angry one moment, resolved and accepting the next. Hopefully I'll figure it out through therapy and personal work I'm doing.
I am sitting here feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, emotionally exposed and like I'm getting my butt kicked in the arena of life at the moment. I know that it's because I've decided to write this that I am feeling this way right now...I was feeling courageous when I made up my mind to share this and now I am just exhausted.
I'm just a few sentences from what I imagine to be the end of this post, and I really hope that I have the strength and heart to reread, edit and post.
If you're reading this last line I've dug deep into my values of courage and authenticity, something I was not always able to do when it came to my relationship with my father while he was alive.