THIS ( FATHERING) LIFE
WALKING with my eldest son down the backstreets of inner- city Sydney, building workers give us a particular stare that in Aussie body language means:
Well, so what are ya?’’ It is a warm spring day and my son is wearing a large woollen jumper and an unusual woollen hat. Both items are distinctive handknits.
My son has hold of my arm so we are walking as a pair. He is 28 and I am 30 years older. We certainly look out of place.
But just what is it about us that troubles these men? Their first response, to their own uncertainty, seems to be to treat us as a homosexual couple, which, in plain terms, two men, we are. And yes, we are obviously intimate. But why the handknits on this sunny day?
Already the gang has started to fragment. Each man hesitantly moves towards his mates, to confirm their disquiet, and yet they rebuff each other and move away. They feel a separating sympathy. They don’t know why.
As we draw alongside it becomes obvious to these strangers that my son is unwell and that he is in need of my companionship and assistance. The group suddenly consists of a half- dozen men, all of whom are fathers, all of whom are sons. Together, we say: G’day.’’
And if it were possible, we might stop and talk about what had just taken place. But we don’t. We shuffle past. We contain our feelings and wonder why this is best. We are not ashamed, yet there is shame. We could look each other in the eye, but what might we see? Enough, perhaps.
My son is tired and sore. This is his first day in the outside world since he had surgery to remove a testicular cancer. He stops, props, and puts real weight on my arm.
I am suddenly a protective father and rehearse again the vulnerability of love and the awe of knowing my son’s nakedness, feeling my son’s fear. Briefly we re- enter the dark and silent spaces opened up by my knowing that he knows that I know he has become an acquaintance of death.
The knits are his own work, something he recently took up to fill hours of dread and hours of pondering. He has become very good, very quickly. In hospital, waiting for surgery, he was able to find himself a secure place in the cold anonymity of drab chairs and quiet apprehension. Soon he was known as the young man knitting. It gave people a way to approach.
Even the nurses, normally politely professional, found the knitting allowed them to engage the patient as a young man. There was much talk of needles and stitches and free forms and wool types and what grandmothers used to do.
There was much sharing of the care we find it so hard to ask for and provide outside our ever- reducing circles of intimacy. Around his bed, a community was formed through talk of skeins and scarfs and the secrets of the craft of interlocking.
He has made for himself a way to be and display his circumstances, not ideally, not with the sureness of a sign that says: ‘‘ I am ailing.’’ But, rather, his jumper and hat announce his transition, his progress and his achievement in making a thing, a fabric, a soft covering for his sometime despair.
As we turn from the lane into the main road, the future opens up. He has made his way back into the everyday world. I too, have a sense of arrival. If he could, I’m sure he would skip.