This essay is the first chapter of a four-part series on failure. The next two instalments will be detailed investigations of some of Adelaide’s most talked-about public failures, and the final portion will deal with the tragedy of spilt milk.
I don’t remember much from before I was about 14 – glimpses here and there, but rarely whole scenes.
One thing I remember with alarming clarity is my original failure, the one which created a soft pocket within me that will never harden or heal.
A space from which insecurities bubble, and into which they refuse to be returned.
Saying I remember it is generous.
I don’t really remember the trappings – the year, the place, the time of day. I just remember looking out through my eye sockets, and forming words with my mouth. The looking was acceptable, the words were the problem.
I think I was about seven years old, but that assumption is based solely on some crude mathematics done in service of this essay.
My father, who has not once, even jokingly, been referred to as Father of the Year (he’s not even been given one of those #1 Dad mugs), was – in a rare event – looking after my brother and I.
That was because it was our weekend with our dad. Usually, on these fortnightly weekends, our step mum looked after us, and Dad did whatever it was that Dad did (I’m pretty sure he went to the pub).
This weekend, though, was special. Our step mum had just given birth. Dad was stuck with us. She wasn’t out of hospital yet.
I know that Dad was not present for my brother’s birth. Nor was he there for mine. I’m not sure if he attended this particular birth either – that of his first child with his second wife.
But, I do know that he visited Step Mum and the new baby soon after the birth. And he took my brother and I with him.
When we arrived at the hospital, Dad stopped us before going in.
“Don’t mention Bodhi.”
It’s a simple instruction. Upon meeting your fresh-born half-sister for the first time, you can talk about anything except your half-brother who is the product of yet another extra-marital affair.
Even as a seven-year-old, I’m pretty sure I had more emotional intelligence than my full-grown father. I hardly intended to confront my hormone-ridden, post-partem step mum (who is a kind and fiercely intelligent woman) with reminders of her husband’s / my dad’s affairs. I understood barely any of the workings of the situation, but I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. For anyone.
It was only about three minutes later that I was arguing I should be allowed to hold the new baby. That was when I had my first out of body experience.
“It’s not like she’s as heavy as Bodhi.”
I wasn’t even sure I’d said it. Although I had watched my mouth form the words from my curious, new, third-person perspective.
When I returned to my small frame, I found I was crying. So was my step mum – quietly, almost silently, sobbing. Like a human who has been broken.
My brother was looking at me as if he’d never seen me before. I didn’t raise my eyes to see my dad’s face.
The memory pretty much stops there, except for one last blurry snippet. I think we’re out of the hospital room, sitting by a vending machine.
My Dad is not angry. He’s just talking, resigned. That’s unusual – he was an angry man. He used to hit his wives. Maybe his calm should have been, or was meant to be, reassuring. But it was so out of character that all it achieved was to reinforce how momentous my fuck up had been.
That failure is the moment the well was dug. And from the depths of it, I pull a never-ending variety of possibilities.
Perhaps I am wantonly cruel – driven by some hidden desire to inflict pain, a desire so sub-conscious and rapid fire I have never been able to catch it in action. Or maybe I am completely socially inept – incapable of knowing what is and isn’t appropriate, even when I’ve been told.
It’s possible, I think, often, that I am actually very difficult to love and respect because I am incapable of loving and respecting others, even in the most necessary of circumstances. Even when they have just brought a new human into the world.
Mostly, these are things I know not to be true. But when I am feeling unmoored, the possibility that I am destined to repeat this original failure in new guises over and over again drip, drip, drips into my ear.
I am a failure. I have been for more than 20 years. I will be for the rest of my life. Because my history is inescapable and things that have happened cannot be erased.
I am many other things besides, but failure belongs in my biography as much as anything else. Saying that is really only to say that I am human, but everyone’s failure is different and it poisons or improves their lives accordingly – crippling your confidence so you can no longer try, pushing you to be better.
Mine – 23 years (or so) after it happened – has done both. But it also remains unfathomable. It was so surprising to me and everyone around me that I still live in fear of myself.
Even after two decades of consistent, reliable behaviour, the stain of that third person moment remains.