observations and opinion
It wasn’t hard to understand his suffering: the youngest of many children in brutal poverty, the death of his mother on the day he turned 9 years old, every birthday thereafter a reminder of the loss. Hunger gnawed at him – a baker’s bag of broken biscuits was his richest, softest childhood memory. He quit school as a lad and went down into the dark pits of a Yorkshire coal mine. He carved black out of the world. An axe fell and bit his arm open, coal dust leaving a blue stain the rest of his days. They carried him out and when he healed, he went back down.
Talent was swimming in his veins like snakes, but not a soul could see him for who he was. He raged inside his skin, this complicated and lost man, trapped inside himself. His was a heart bursting with love, unwanted. He drank, he dreamed, he dimmed the lights, he ached. He learned to be unhappy and to fail, and applied his considerable powers to that work.
I was born forgiving him and will die the same. But for a time between, I did not forgive. Their marriage, in memory, was a spray of flying lamps and empty bottles. She was blind to what it meant for me, but he was not. Drunk and unsteady, he would wake me in the night and plead his case – explain his losses, his calamities , his side of the story. By the time I was eight years old, he knew I wasn’t listening anymore. He lost the argument and I sided with mum. We left him then, on a hot and scary night and for a time I lived in a fearful dread of seeing him. Slowly, by accretions, he came back into our lives. His neediness and yearning made me cruel and contemptuous. He was so damned incompetent, so furious and hopeless, so well-intentioned but hopelessly self-absorbed. His insecurity made him a giant hole that the world fell into. I spooned out tolerance to him like milk to a sick kitten. But I had little to give.
He took us to England when I was 17, He poured what he had into it, a grand trip, high living in luxurious London hotels with kippers and eggs delivered to the room under silver platters. Our camper van excursion circled the country, a kind of “Withnail and I” high comedy of minor accidents and raging arguments. Eventually we reached Yorkshire, where he was the great Sam, richer than the rest, returning home to buy everyone a pint. They loved him, and they liked the pints too. Their houses were tiny, so Dad and I would sleep out in the camper van on the curb. One night, both of us infused from too many dark glasses of English beer, came his voice in the dark: “Do you see how much they like me?” he asked. A long, starched silence. “Yes I do” I muttered darkly, “but I don’t understand it.”
Could I have been more cruel to anyone more vulnerable, anyone more in need of my approval? Probably not. But I was the sonofabitch he deserved. I wanted him to know how angry I was, for what he had done and failed to do. How angry I was that he a was witness to it, mute and stupid and useless. He wanted my love? What the fuck was love, exactly? Buying beers? I had survived them both, transcended them both, and I didn’t mind letting them know it. I didn’t mind being smarter than all of them, I didn’t mind being the only one who seemed to get things right – hell, I liked it – but that didn’t mean I had to forgive them, did it? Back then, I didn’t even know how a family worked. I just knew, somewhere inside, what they put us through was wrong. Kids know that instinctively – happiness is coiled around their DNA and when they’re deprived of it, they can go sour.
And so it might have remained – me angry, him serving a life sentence outside my heart, but it did not. When I was a young man he told me that he understood what it was like for me, and by then of course, I had a pretty good idea what it was like for him. No, I wasn’t going to forget his failures, but I forgave them. His own awareness of it was what made that possible. He just couldn’t do anything about who he was then, he was helpless. My anger melted into pity, without the spite.
He was, I think, caught between the magnetic pull of competing agonies: the self-hatred born of drunken failure and the gnawing pain of his unquenchable loneliness. That loneliness was so raw and real it made self-destruction worth it, for almost his whole time on earth. When he finally stopped drinking, he was without his best and most true friend: booze. The lights were still as bright yet somehow he didn’t have to dull his senses before facing them. Some mysterious chemistry worked in him in the last years of his life. Was the love of two sons enough to fill the terrible void? Or did he find something else, something unexpressed, to pour into the emptiness that a hard boyhood and a hopeless manhood had carved in him?
When I think of that trip to England, the seaside, the British Museum, the pubs crowded with cousins, the long damp drive to Scotland and back again, when my mind flits back to that month, I am in one place. There is his sad voice in the dark and my reply, like the flash of a knife. I wince in shame. How brave he was to ask to be loved, how goddamned brave. How unkind was I and how brutal was the hurt, to hear my response? He gambled everything and lost. No wonder I’ve spent so many years since, only betting on sure things.
Part of me hopes he forgot my cruelty – that no wound was inflicted. But I doubt it. More likely that cut could not be forgotten. He must have made the memory into something good, by using it as something to forgive. And that was the lesson he had to learn: to forgive the past, to forgive others and most of all, to forgive himself. He kept his wit, he kept his tender heart, he kept his rueful eye on the world, but if his spirit was crushed, somehow he still rose up. Alone, without his “best friend”, without what he had dreamed of and never had. That was how Sam found the great man trapped inside himself: he learned to forgive. Only then could he walk through this world. Alone, yes, but not lost.
He sang this the whole time.