From fun-filled days of childhood, to helping her through dark days of anorexia, Louise O’Neill writes how her father has been such an inspirational figure in her life
When I was a child, people (often adults, inappropriately enough) would remark how ‘stern’ my father seemed. It confused me as stern was the last word I would have used to describe him.
The father I knew was funny, making up silly songs to amuse me and my sister, sometimes narrating an entire day in verse. He read stories to us at bedtime, he designed elaborate games of hide and seek for our birthdays, and spent hours hand-making our Halloween costumes, taking an almost child-like delight in crafting angel wings or skeleton suits, in painting our faces with ghoulish grey paint.
He was also one of the most inherently decent people I knew. There was a man in our small town who would dress up in women’s clothing and when I was 8, I witnessed a group of boys taunting him, calling him vile names. When I told my father about this, he said something to me that I have held close to my heart ever since. He told me this man was an inspiration because he lived his life in the way he felt was best, regardless of what anyone else thought of him. My father said this man was brave in a way that I would do well to emulate.
I wonder did my father see something in me that concerned him. Did he see a need to please others, a need to seek approval from those around me? Did he foresee how that would come to impact upon my life?
When I came back from a summer spent in India and Nepal in 2006, my father was waiting at the airport, holding up a banner with my name on it. I could see his face pale when he spotted me, wearing a pair of jeans meant for a 12-year-old, the bones of my jaw jutting forward. I began to cry and he rushed to grab hold of me, as if afraid I would run away. “You’ll be fine now,” he said, “You’re home. We’ll take care of you.”
A few weeks later, I was admitted to St John of Gods hospital. I stayed there for three months and my father came to visit me every Sunday (his only day off). He would lie on the floor of my bedroom and we would talk about books and psychology and a thousand random, inconsequential other things. When he left every Sunday evening, I would express my worry about him travelling home, tired, alone; he would insist he’d have travelled hundreds of miles more just to see me. He never stopped hoping for my recovery, no matter how many times I felt like giving up, when I just wanted to lie down and die.
When I had a major relapse with anorexia while living in New York in 2010 and my weight plummeted yet again, he emailed me every morning without fail for five months with a food chart that I had to fill in and send back to him, and an inspirational quote that he hoped I would take solace in.
It has been a lifetime of small kindnesses; of a car tank surreptitiously filled with petrol before a long journey, driving to Dublin at 2am to collect me when my flight was diverted, helping me plan trips to Asia and South America with as much relish as if he was going himself, a smiling face waiting at the door when I come back from a book event, wanting to hear every detail. Beyond that, he has taught me so much. Eleven years ago, he made me come for a walk in the sand dunes with him and when I whined about a fight I was having with a friend, he told me very nicely that I should be quiet. “You’re talking too much, Lou, and you’re thinking too much as well,” he waved an expansive hand at the beauty of Inchydoney Beach, “which means you’re missing all of this”. He showed me how to be present, to allow nature to be my healer. He was advocating mindfulness before it was cool.
He’s been there through heartbreak (“Everyone has to take risks in relationships but I want to see you take risks for people who are worth taking risks for”); dealing with online trolls (“Those people are sad individuals, and, and, and, at least you’re getting PAID for your opinions”); appalling full-page photos in national newspapers (“I love that photo! I love that photo so much I’m going to cut it out and put it in my wallet!”); and a general sense of emotional burnout when yet another story of misogyny explodes over the internet (“Someone has to stand up for what’s right and I’m so proud that my daughter is one of them”).
He has instilled in me an acute sense of fairness and intolerance for injustice. He raised me to be a warrior, not a princess, and for that, I am forever grateful.
It can be difficult existing in this world as a woman. When the patriarchy is constantly telling you that your worth is only tantamount to your sexual attractiveness or your ability to procreate, there is something incredibly empowering about your literal patriarch standing behind you, one hand on your shoulder, an ever steady presence. My father told me he believed in me. He told me I was capable, that I was strong and could do anything I wanted as long as I worked hard and had faith in myself. He told me he would always love me, no matter what happened. He made me believe I was worthy of that.
So here’s to you, Michael O’ Neill. Happy Father’s Day. You are the best man I have ever met, have ever known, and have ever loved. I am so lucky to call you my dad.
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