I was only able to tell Dad I loved him on his deathbed: Because her own was so distant Julie grew up thinking fathers were irrelevent
01:19 GMT, 18 July 2012
The other night, I tucked my son into bed and settled down to read his bedtime story as usual.
But when I opened the book, Alex shook his head and said: ‘Not Mummy — Daddy!’
‘But it’s Mummy’s turn,’ I said. My husband Cornel and I take turns to read the bedtime books. That night it was my turn.
Happy family: Julie Cook in Venice with her husband, Romanian pianist Cornel and their son Alex, 3
But Alex, three, shook his head: ‘No. I want Daddy — I want Mr Tickle. Daddy does Mr Tickle, not Mummy.’
Only Cornel can do the silly voices in Alex’s favourite book; the special way of reading that provokes a peal of giggles. Mr Tickle is very much a father-son book in our household – Mummy is banned.
Relegated, I withdrew and Cornel went in and sat next to Alex’s bed in the half-light. As I stood outside the half-open door watching them, I didn’t feel left out. No, I felt a thrill of pleasure at their close bond — it’s something I never experienced with my own father, you see.
This isn’t a story of paternal neglect – my father Derek was loving and interested in my sister Natalie and me – but one of palpable distance born of his long working hours and perhaps a traditional stiff upper lip.
Dad was not demonstrative nor did he ever utter affectionate words. I’d be just as likely to hear him speaking in Swahili as to hear the words: ‘I love you.’
Of course, as a child, I didn’t know any better. The sad thing is I only realised what I’d been missing out on all those years in my father’s dying hours — when it was too late.
Treasured memory: Julie, aged three, with her father Derek and pet rabbit
I grew up in the Eighties with my mother, father and younger sister Natalie, now 29, but my father was often out working long hours.
He was an electronics engineer while my mother stayed at home to care for us. It was she who was there for story books and playtime; she who taught me how to count and write my name.
/07/18/article-0-13E76C1A000005DC-0_634x475.jpg” width=”634″ height=”475″ alt=”Loving dad: Julie has learned to love the bond between Cornel and Alex” class=”blkBorder” />
Loving dad: Julie has learned to love the bond between Cornel and Alex
But when I spotted him waiting in arrivals, my brave intentions dissipated. Instead of offering a hug, my dad stepped forward and shook my hand. We were like two gentlemen meeting for business, not father and daughter reunited.
I felt a pang of disappointment, but then that was just how it always was. And I, too, could not step forward and embrace him. We were equally remote.
Then, in 2003, my father began getting pains in his jaw. He’d always had a condition called leukoplakia, where white patches developed on his tongue, and for years he’d had invasive treatments to keep it at bay.
But then a trip to the hospital confirmed the worst: the condition had become cancerous.
It was head and neck cancer, one of the most aggressive forms, with a high mortality rate.
My father faced his illness stoically. He was a man of little emotion and, even faced with cancer, he did not show the slightest speck of fear or doubt that he would beat it.
An enormous, pioneering operation followed in which he would have half of his tongue removed. His jawbone, which was riddled with disease, would be removed, to be replaced with one of his fibulas (calf bone).
It was The Bionic Man meets medieval torture.
Finally, just before midnight, came a reply: ‘Love you too, Julie.’ It was the first and only time he had said it and, I believe, he could only have said it via text message – never face to face.
We were told the operation was so dangerous there was a chance he might not make it, but, as my father said in a matter-of-fact way, what else was there to do but to fight
As I said goodbye to my father the night before his operation, I wanted to say what I’d never managed before: ‘I love you.’
Yet even with his life hanging in the balance, when I knew we might lose him on the operating table, I still could not utter the words. They were stuck in my throat, so great was the emotional gulf between us.
So I hugged him, man-style, and clapped him on the back.
‘See you afterwards,’ I said.
It was only later that night, fortified by a glass of wine, that I grabbed my mobile phone and sent a text: ‘I know we don’t say this ever . . . But I do love you, Dad.’
I waited for a reply. None came. I worried that I had made an idiot of myself. After all, we did not speak like this, my father and I.
As strange as it sounds, I even worried I’d offended him. Finally, just before midnight, came a reply: ‘Love you too, Julie.’
It was the first and only time he had said it and, I believe, he could only have said it via text message – never face to face.
My father survived his operation and a gruelling round of radiotherapy followed. He lost stones of weight, could not eat and his face and neck were covered with stitches.
For a year or so, we hoped the invasive operation had caught the cancer. But then he began getting pains again in the other side of his face. A scan confirmed the cancer was back.
Another operation followed — this time a radical neck dissection where they not only removed the tumour from the other side of his neck, but also his jugular vein.
He was given more gruelling radiotherapy, but my father knew he was on borrowed time. He was stick-thin and weak, yet he still worked.
He never once asked ‘Why me’ and never showed a chink in his armour of bravery.
But then came the announcement we’d feared all along: there was nothing more they could do. The cancer was back – it was by his carotid artery, where it would be impossible to operate.
I felt sick, not just because I would be losing my father so young, but because to my horror I suddenly realised there was still so much I didn’t know about him.
In those weeks we tried to cram in as much as possible. We all went away to Lyme Bay in Dorset, my father’s favourite place.
Wedding day: Julie regrets the fact her father never had the chance to meet his son-in-law and grandson
We walked together out on the Cobb – the great stone harbour wall that curves out to the sea – yet I still could not utter those words I’d only been brave enough to text.
I still could not ask him about his upbringing, his life, his hopes and fears.
Instead, we talked about the boats we saw and the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman starring Meryl Streep, which had been filmed on The Cobb.
Even with death looming, we talked about other things, matters of no importance. We could not show our feelings.
My father died just a few weeks later, aged 59.
We were all there with him. Only as he slipped away did I feel my tight throat loosen at last and hear those words come flying out in a sudden torrent; those words I’d kept secret for 27 long years.
‘I love you, Dad,’ I wept.
It was suddenly so easy to say it; so simple. I’d done it at last.
But it was too late.
Since then, I’ve realised I really knew very little about my father. I know he loved Titanic memorabilia, his own grandfather having died on the ship. I know he loved genealogy.
But his hopes, his dreams, his feelings – they will always be a mystery to me.
My father never got to see my husband Cornel nor his grandchild Alex. He never saw my sister leave university with first-class honours and become a successful lawyer. He never saw me leave my job and go freelance – something he’d always urged me to do.
I lament every day that he felt unable to tell me his feelings or hug me, and that I was equally unable to initiate such warmth.
Now when I watch my husband kiss and hug Alex and tell him he loves him with such ease, I am filled with happiness – but also with a spark of envy that I didn’t have a similar relationship with my own father.
Losing him hasn’t just left a gaping hole in my life – it’s also completely changed my views on family life.
It is only now that I realise how fathers can shape us, mould us and offer something very different than our mothers.
For me, seven years on and aged 34, this realisation has come too late, but I am determined that my child won’t miss out on a warm, close relationship with his father.
So when I am next politely told to leave my toddler son’s bedroom because ‘only Daddy can do Mr Tickle’ properly, I’ll smile and agree completely.
Then I’ll hover outside the bedroom door and watch Alex interact with his father over their book; a book Mummy can’t do.
Because I’ve finally learned, too late, that fathers aren’t only necessary; they’re crucial.