Even now the image of my father, a man in the sun with tanned skin, dark features and a hesitancy about the eyes, on the verge of laughing, but not quite letting go, is followed without fail by that of a small unevenly cut piece of cardboard. Turn it over and it reveals itself as once being part of a box of sanitarium weetbix. It was originally intended as part of Dad’s sophisticated accounting system. It should have been one of his ‘chits,’ little pieces of cardboard with the prices of haircuts scrawled on them and deposited into a jar, that stood in front of the mirror reflecting the pallid green walls and the maroon leather barber chair, ready to be added up at the end of the week. But this one was special. It circled around the house throughout my childhood. It lived on the brown painted mantelpiece behind the jaguar when it wasn’t in use and was laid out strategically on the kitchen table, bench, the edge of mum’s armchair or on top of the newspaper when it was.
It announced in letters that were laboriously pressed into the cardboard with the precision of a shaky child. Capitals and lowercase sprouted wherever they chose but it was spelt correctly. The S looked a lot like a capital G but I’m confident it was meant to be an S.
As a child I knew that this note didn’t really mean what it said. It was like a ‘get out of jail’ free card in Monopoly. It was freedom. Dad could be anywhere. Maybe he was at the bowling green, inspecting someone’s garden down the road, at the hardware store, talking to a man about a dog, who really knew. Maybe he had a whole secret life. One in which he pulled back the curtain, used the edge of his palm to wipe away the condensation and peered at the world outside then carefully extracted a lump of tissue from his pocket, unwrapped it and held a shiny, golden key up to the light. He inhaled, stood up straight, walked forthrightly to the door, deftly unlocked it and stepped briskly out into the brightness of the limitless magic of the world outside.
My Dad is dyslexic. Well, that’s what we always said even though he’s never been diagnosed. At the time all that really meant to me was that Dad didn’t finish school and if you needed to spell something you’d better ask Mum, or go and get out the dictionary, which was probably what she was going to tell you anyway. We also liked to laugh when Dad talked in an authoritative tone about things like flight stimulation or the American constipation.
Now, I know that dyslexia is really just a different way of thinking, an alternative form of processing and that there are courses and programs out there that teach children and adults to live with it without limitations.
But for my Dad it meant that all that ‘academic’ stuff like reading and writing wasn’t for him. He determined to do something with his hands and at age 15 went out and got himself a hairdressing apprenticeship and subsequently opened his own business, a barbershop.
It also meant that he has spent his whole life with a massive chip on his shoulder. If he meets someone and it turns out that person is a doctor or a professor it’s a personal insult. That doctor thinks he’s stupid and my Dad had better put him straight quickly before he opens his mouth again.
What I wonder about is the finality and stubbornness of my father’s early decision. He closed off an enormous part of life to himself. He just slammed the door in its face, locked it and forgot that there was ever a key. And anything at all that brought it to his attention was a personal affront.
To this day he’s only been to one movie at the cinema. He loved it and talked about it for months afterward, but will he go again? No. Why? Because those things aren’t for people like him. It’s a waste of time. And it’s not that he’s not interested in a whole array of things. He is. It’s just that the ever pressing threat of not understanding or understanding differently will win every time.
I can’t cure my Dad. At times I can barely even understand him. But I can share this story and my firm belief that there are always other possibilities.