Cool Hand Luke is one of my Dad’s favourite movies. My Mum may have taught me how to read when I was a toddler, but I loved watching Saturday matinee movies with my Dad when I was a kid. That and being allowed to stay up for the Hawaii Five-O credits, and putting David Carradine Kung Fu-style moves on my Dad & brother while my Mum was studying at night. My Dad didn’t have many opportunities as a child, & while we were far from spoilt, if there was a way for our lives to be better – whether it was as exchange students, going to university, beach holidays – my Dad worked hard, bloody hard, to ensure his four children had every door opened to them. All we had to do was walk through & succeed.
I just found out my Dad is in hospital again. I’m scared, but not surprised. On a recent visit home. I found my 65 year-old Dad – for so long a larger than life character, 6’2″ tall, athletic, teller-of-tall-tales & tamer of tigers, diminished by the heart operation he had in February; his spirit as wasted as his body. He shuffles around the house in slippers & forgets to take his medication unless my Mum reminds him. It’s as though something from above swooped down on him after the angiogram revealed a heart valve leaking in several places & took 20 years from his life. The worst part of watching this unfold is that he knows it’s happening. My memory is shot, he told me, flatly, as he set off for his hour-long walk on Wednesday morning. I told him he was pushing himself too hard; he’s not putting on any weight by exercising so much. It seemed to be his way of fighting back, & I couldn’t bring myself to argue with him.
My Dad and I have never had the easiest relationship; from the baby he nicknamed the ‘Pride of the Pacific’, time & trauma have seen years pass with a fierce love that neither of us seems able to put into words or express physically. My brother can at least shake his hand. I think the last time my father & I hugged was a decade ago. ‘Thanks, Kimberley’, he said, eyes looking down when I gave him his Father’s Day present. When he set it aside on the kitchen dresser. I walked away, gutted. He couldn’t even open a card from me; a card where the words flowed so easily, the card which told this man who gave me life how much I loved him, how lucky I am that he is my Dad.
How similar we are, Dad. My memories of you standing in the doorway of your parents’ home, unable to talk to your own father’; forever the little boy who followed him everywhere until, when you were five, he stopped being your best mate and started belting you instead. You, the one who stayed with him as death refused to take him quickly or mercifully. I want to be with you, Pete, I want to be by your side & tell you it’s going to be all right. I want to hold your hand & question your doctors & fight this infection for you. I know you won’t die, Dad; I just want you to look at me again & see a woman with a heart as big & brave as yours – not a damaged, fearful child.
Back to Cool Hand Luke and the two variations of its most famous line. I saw it again a few months ago, and the delivery of those lines sits sharp in my mind this evening. Firstly, The Captain, who utters a warning to the entire chain gang after striking Luke, Paul Newman’s defiant inmate:
What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.
Finally, Luke takes the words and owns them. Sheltering and shouting, making his final stand but not before railing at whatever it was that made him what he is:
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
Tonight, I feel part the character of the Captain, partly Luke. I want to scream at my Dad, I don’t want him to be someone who stays out of reach; & like Luke, I want to rant at the ghosts of our past for making us the people we are. Two mighty hearts, unable and unwilling to yield.