Letter to Lily

It is Fathers Day 2012 and I am posting this for Lily Rae Hogg, who will never know her father and who I hope to meet someday.

Dear Lily,

Your father, Andrew, was my best friend for twelve years, and so I feel it is important that you know that he was not responsible for your name. Your mother was quite insistent that Rae was the traditional middle name for women in your maternal family, but pairing it with ‘Lily’ in front and ‘Hogg’ in back has the unfortunate effect of making you sound like a boot scooter. Still, in Townsville that probably isn’t the problem that it would be elsewhere. I hope it hasn’t been a burden to you so far.

You were born on the hottest night of summer and very quickly, urged on by the heat and the need to get outside, where it was cooler and there might be some breeze. At 10pm Andrew and I, sure we would never sleep, were watching the heat lightning out the front door, where our little green tree snake wrapped herself around the stair rail gasping for breath. At 6am he rang me from Townsville hospital to say you had arrived, small, angry and vociferous.

I am assuming that you have already heard the version of the story that places Andrew as a drug addict, an irresponsible father, a standard modern love story where the man is prey to his substance habit and therefore an unfit father, and the mother is a martyred being struggling against circumstance and a malevolent universe. Townsville is a great setting for these stories. In the heat and the humidity there is a reluctance to examine anything less banal and clichéd than the most obvious interpretation of any story, and the weather creates a languor, a disinclination to introspection. The stickiness makes all things move slowly, not least the human mind, and any kind of self-examination or consideration of cause and effect is too much effort for an overheated brain.
One side of your genetic heritage comes from Andrew. One day you will become interested in this small strand of your own history, and biology, and genetics, good and bad. Maybe in your troubled adolescence. At least you won’t have to pretend you were adopted, like the rest of us do at some point.

I knew a different person to the one your mother has told you about, or not told you about, and I knew him in different environments. Here is my pedigree: my friendship with Andrew survived three cars of mine, eight cars of his, five communal households, six companion animals (unfortunately including Chachiwawa the tabby cat who was torn apart by pit-bulls belonging to the bikies next door, and whose pitiful furry remains I had to remove from the scene of the crime before Andrew would go back) and sundry failed relationships, including your mother. He came with the recommendation of two deeply impressive women, Richelle and Penny, my camping companions and playmates at the time, who didn’t suffer foolish men gladly. It was a rich time for friendships in my life.

When he was little, Andrew knew that there was a horse that lived in the wooden box under his parents bed. The horse could fly, and it was bigger when it was outside, then smaller when it went back inside the box. I don’t think he had ever heard of Pegasus – your grandfather was much more enamoured of the real and solid than of the mythological, and made-up stories were not helpful when one grew up – but the winged horse was there for years, long past the point when most children believe that the monster is in the cupboard, that the creatures of imagining are real and tangible. Then one day there was just a box. The flying horse had gone.

Andrew was a reader of the most eclectic range of literature possible. He was the only person I have ever known who read Patrick White for light relief, although he once commented that even though White was a fascinating man, life with him must have been hell for Manoli. Both his love of good books and his equally passionate love for movies that could, at best, be described as B-grade are not dissimilar to the need for chemically altered moods. Both are ways of dismissing reality, or setting it at a different angle. I have never been convinced that reading is not a drug, although my own addiction, to the printed word and the kindle, does not stretch to the world of lesbian vampire zombies in seventies Goth garb, or post-apocalyptic landscapes rendered in papier mache.

Andrew came to information technology late, but quickly outdistanced my vague attempts to make my ancient laptop bend to my will, with the same patience and zeal he brought to the maintenance of old European cars. He persevered with my slow, unreliable country connection for days in bits and pieces, mainly so that we could play with an interactive map of Peter Pinney’s 1950s journey across Europe and the middle east. Peter Pinney was Andrew’s hero – he did minimalism beautifully, travelling with only a shirt and his shaving gear, but he was capable of fixing things and charming people to smooth his way through the world. We read his descriptions of a Calcutta crowd in the build-up to the monsoon out loud as we waited, on a -2 degree morning, for Acrobat to load.

When Andrew decided himself that altered consciousness was, in fact, a bad thing, he stopped using heroin in the shortest time I had ever seen anyone manage. Our minds were clearer, sharper in the cold. It seemed easier to make the possibility of change real. None of the normal reasons for attempting to stop using heroin seemed to apply – he wasn’t stealing, he hadn’t overdosed, no one had intervened, or threatened to break his kneecaps if he didn’t pay back money, he had just decided it was the right time. I wish now that I had asked more about the decisions he made- asked if maybe he wanted to be able to see you without difficulty in the future, if that was part of his reasoning. I think that he realised that any chance he had of further contact, not only with you but with his older daughter too, was dependent on him ceasing to use heroin.

There is a certain regret about giving up a drug. Cocteau said it best when he remarked ‘the dead drug leaves a ghost behind…at certain hours it haunts the house’ (1958:60). All the articles I religiously pored over through this period were not optimistic. Recidivism rates were high, long term abstinence was unlikely. I kept our more experimental friends away. Apparently the presence of social norms ‘defining use as desirable or appropriate’ (Siegal, 2005: 298) is disastrous. Although Siegal also said that the social environment of overcrowded slum areas is where one finds ‘a cultural atmosphere conducive to and tolerant of a range of deviant behaviours’. Perhaps there was a reason why medical journal articles were proving less helpful than Cocteau and de Quincy.

I wonder what he said to himself. I imagine him, as I so often saw him, a multi-meter in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, except instead of advancing the timing of a 1961 Peugeot 403 or repairing the carburettor of a Lancia Beta, he is making minute adjustments to his psyche. He was the only person I know to have performed his own intervention. We were amazed, disbelieving, and, when it became apparent that this strange approach to self-hypnosis has worked, deeply impressed. I never asked him if he used a feeler gauge to re-set the gaps in his heart that heroin had filled. I wish I had, now.

The last time I spoke to Andrew he said he’d text me his new Brisbane address so I couldn’t forget it . We were both capable of confusing or reversing the most basic of travel directions, becoming lost in a dazed inability to tell our right from our left even in familiar territory. We both said we were looking forward to the weekend. We intended to eat as much Indian food as humanly possible at a thali house which fascinated him because it was oddly located in a run-down shopping mall in Annerley.

Your paternal grandfather and I find each other unbearable. His dogmatic voice on the other end of the phone line had plagued me for years, always critical, always lodging a complaint. I was so busy trying to tune out most of what he was saying that the news he was trying to relay this time filtered through very slowly. It is strange that I spent years worrying about Andrew. Worrying about him dying of a drug overdose; in a car accident brought about by un-roadworthy mechanical part whose existence I was unaware of; in a ferry accident off Goa; in a fall from a motorbike ridden along the sliding red clay heights and the cumbrous underbrush of the CREB track, in some kind of dramatic way, some way that really was untimely. In the end it was not anything dramatic, not anything to do with far places, or vehicles, or the hazy realm beyond immediacy where drugs take you. It was nothing indicative of the way he had lived his life. The dying was separate from the living – a blood clot in the lung. At the florist, making my request for a wreath of orange gerberas, the florist told me she had made wreaths for two people dead from blood clots in the past week alone. No one had bought them orange gerberas, though.

So here is your father. He loved animals, and distrusted men who disliked cats, because ‘men that hate cats are control freaks – a dog will do what it’s told, but a cat never will’. He had no hidden agenda, no manipulative urge, no ego-driven narrative. He would do things for people because these things were easy for him, and made a difference in someone else’s life – fix their cars, look after their animals, cook for them or give them books. He reacted to the dogmatic gloom of your paternal grandfather by always seeing both sides of any argument, by refusing to acknowledge any gender divide and by rejecting any form of materialism. He maintained that real men wore pink shirts, and that you could always find out how to fix or build anything by asking someone.

My garden and my life are full of things that Andrew fixed and built, because mending and creating was what he did best, and the recycled hinges on my gate are still painted a glossy, vivid scarlet.
Love, Franki

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2 comments on “Letter to Lily

  1. What a tribute to a wonderful man. I cried as I read, and remembered my own Andrew – with a torch and a hairdryer on a cold winter Liston night, fixing my headlight after an encounter with a kangaroo; dancing with absolute grace as he cooked a curry for dinner; spinning a tale about ear-wax wallahs which I thought was pure Andrew fiction, until I read “Shantaram”. Thank you Andrew for enriching my life, as well as quollgirl’s.

  2. gridsta says:

    This is an amazing piece of writing! I too cried….xo

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