When I was about six, I asked my best friend’s dad if he could be my dad.
‘Marlee,’ he said to me, 27 years later, ‘it broke my fucking heart.’
I never really feel free to talk about my father. My family doesn’t like it, and I understand that. I think he was a decent dad to my half-siblings, but our relationship was extremely complex, so it’s a rough sea in which to cling to floating detritus. It’s really complex and hard to explain: I had a dad, yes, but I did not know him. I had siblings, yes, but grew up an only child. Even I don’t really know what happened.
It’s done now anyway, my circuits have long been all jumbled up. Let’s not fight about how the milk got spilled. Let’s just cry instead about how we have no milk now that it’s puddling on the floor, and try to mop it up somehow even though we have very little in our arsenal that is absorbent.
It’s a pain in the ass being a fatherless daughter. ‘Daddy issues’ are so often used to blame and deride people—usually women—for something they didn’t do. It gives you a weird relationship to older men. I only dated one, once, seeking… I don’t know, I guess I just wanted someone to take care of me. It was a disaster: turns out the type of grown men who date extremely mentally ill, drug-addicted teenage girls are not always awesome guys. Who knew?
I don’t know how to act around dads, or how they work. Who is this man who lives in your house, and why is he there? None of my mum’s boyfriends were very ‘dadsy’. We were always either buddies or bitter enemies. I felt no ‘dad energy’ from them. Just try and tell me what to do, guy. You’re not my dad.
Instead, I had dad crushes. These were wholesome as, utterly non-sexual. There is no ‘ooh, Daddy’ sexy time banter with me; it makes me feel weird (but you do you, friends!). Instead I focused on completely unattainable men onto whom I could project all my confused feelings about my dad. I could idolise them as a perfect father, whatever that meant, and because they were so far away as to be almost unreal, they could never hurt me. My best friend’s dad seemed like one of those, and so I guess asking him to be my dad too made sense to me as a six-year-old. Fuck, I didn’t know how you got dads. Maybe you had to ask for them?
That didn’t work, because he never became my dad, so as time went on I glommed to father figures the only other way I knew how, the way most people who fall right on the edge of Gen X and elder Millennial would do: through the telly.
Early ideal dads? Roscoe Orman as Gordon from Sesame Street. There was something enticingly fatherly about his moustache. In 1987 a moustache was nice and dadly. Steve Martin seemed fun when I watched him in Parenthood. Dressing up as a cowboy for his kid’s birthday struck me as something a good dad might do. John Goodman as Dan Conner was the kind of dad I could realistically imagine as mine: working class, flawed, but kind overall. He spent a bunch of time on Roseanne fixing his motorcycle and he reminded me of the big-bellied bikers my mum was friends with (the ones who gently placed me on the fuel tanks of their Harleys for thunderous rides around the block, who bought me the full collection of Narnia books for my tenth birthday, and who all were sent to prison later on for cooking meth.) Look at Tom Hanks (beginning around the era of Sleepless in Seattle) and try not to see the good-father vibes rising off him like stink-lines in a poorly drawn cartoon.
I focused on completely unattainable men onto whom I could project all my confused feelings about my dad.
‘Good dad vibe’ is an embodiment that’s hard to describe, but I know it when I feel it. It’s kind but firm, like, I’m not mad, I’m just worried. Silly jokes that make you groan. Letting you sneak out to see friends, even though you’re grounded, saying don’t tell your mother. It is flannos or beige slacks, or dad-jeans with the T-shirt tucked in. It’s getting him a beer from the fridge after a long day at work, and him letting you have a teeny sip, and saying thanks darlin’.
My ultimate dad crush started in the early 90s and is the most enduring and possibly least problematic of the dad-infatuations I’ve had. It started when I saw an interview on the telly somewhere. Maybe he was strumming his guitar with his kids, or just hanging out with them? I remember a well-lit living room, hardwood floors, a shiny Maton acoustic guitar in his hands. My mum had tapes of his band, and the music seemed just good, and kind. Something about him radiated DAD. It vibed off him and through the screen and I was in.
I was in with Neil Finn.
If Neil Finn was my dad, he’d write a song about the day I was born (like ‘Our Day’ by Split Enz.) If he was my dad, he’d hold my grubby, little-kid fingers just so on the huge fretboard of his guitar and teach me how to play G, A and D. Maybe even F (though as an adult I still can’t play F properly—my fingers are too small and weak.) If Neil Finn was my dad, he’d ruffle my hair in the bright kitchen as I ate my lunch at the kitchen island (even though I’m a girl and my always-tangly hair needs no extra ruffling, it’s in all the books as something dads do.) If Neil Finn was my dad, he’d give me a present on my birthday for sure and it would be a good one, and my cake would be really fancy because Neil Finn is a bit rich and it would be nice to be a bit rich.
If Neil Finn was my dad, I guess I wouldn’t be me.
And I have no idea if that’s good or bad.
I’ve had a hard time writing this piece—or anything, really—since the world tipped over. Too busy being giddily manic and trying to recalibrate the future on a weekly basis. A daily basis. It’s easier to live hour to hour.
My dad didn’t live to see the pandemic. He died in 2016. I saw him before he died, but what’s a few hours with a cancer-ravaged skeleton one month before his death to a lifetime of questions? I have no idea what he would have thought about COVID-19. Would he have been a sceptic? Would he have called me to see how I was going in lockdown?
‘Good dad vibe’ is an embodiment that’s hard to describe, but I know it when I feel it.
I haven’t had a lot of dad crushes for the past decade. Maybe I’ve matured? Maybe I just forgot to do it? Maybe I just saw it as an embarrassing relic of my childhood that I’d replaced with better strategies? (I haven’t.) But I’ve been thinking of it again recently: As the flux we’re in drags on, I slip into it as a coping mechanism now and then.
If Neil Finn was my dad he’d send me a dad-funny text (I’ve heard dads have their own crappy sense of humour) in the mornings, months into level-whatever-the-hell we’re on, just to keep my spirits up. Or maybe a picture of the dog (in my perfect family reveries the dog is always a golden retriever) on the deck of the nice house he lives in in a semi-rural area or a blue-sea-sky coastal locale (okay, I have no idea where Neil Finn lives.) That house would be my home, the place I could always go back to (I don’t have that, and it’s something that makes my tether to the earth more tenuous, like the string is fraying one fibre at a time.) My dad Neil Finn would chuck a couple of grand into my bank account when the power bill came in, cause he knows it’s been a struggle since I lost my job. I’d be like, ‘nah dad, nah,’ because I hate accepting money, but he’d be like, ‘take it, it’s okay,’ and I’d cry because I’m scared and he might say nice things to me and tell me that everything will be okay. Neil Finn, my dad, and I would Zoom once a week, on a set day like a Sunday or something. We’d laugh and drink wine together, maybe have lunch or dinner across the wifi (‘cause in this alt universe I didn’t have to quit drinking, I can do moderation like everyone else can.) My awesome father Neil Finn and I would have a weekly Zoom-call singalong, him strumming his Maton and me on my little Lohanu ukulele.
‘Still so young to travel so far/old enough to know who you are/wise enough to carry the scars/without any blame, there’s no one to blame…’
I’d close my eyes and sing and when I’d open them Neil Finn, my dad, would be giving me a look like he’s just so proud, so proud.
I think that’s the kind of thing dads do.