‘You only get one dad.’ I don’t know Ricky Ross. But those were his words to me in a Twitter exchange the week after my adoptive dad died last year.
The conversation arose because I had thanked Ricky for his solo concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall a few days earlier.
In particular, I mentioned his song, The Germans Are Out Today, which captures a childhood memory of a moment with his own dad.
‘It’s dark in the car
we're deep in the garden of England
it’s dark in the car
they're all asleep but you and me
there's time to talk
we're only on holiday
and I think you said this to me.
As Ricky told the story behind the song, including sharing it with his dad, tears rolled down my cheeks. It reminded me of a holiday with my adoptive dad, a trip to Scotland in the late 1960s. We had moments in the car after dark too, sleeping side by side in the back of our old Humber estate on the banks of Loch Lomond. I wasn’t always close to him and displays of affection were rare but I’ve always remembered the trip as a kind of unspoken nod to our father son bond and, generously on his part, to my Scottish heritage.
I was full of praise for the song as my partner and I left the concert, but he said he didn’t understand the lyrics. This was curious to me because I think the important thing about the song is that it evokes the sentiment of a relationship. In that sense, the story itself, beautiful though it is, is somehow secondary. And I know my partner’s bond with his own dad, who died many years ago, remains a very strong one.
Ricky’s words in the Twitter exchange touched me for another reason, though. I had two dads.
My first dad was from Ricky’s home city of Dundee. He never saw me before I was adopted at six months and we didn’t meet until I was 44. Trying to establish a relationship with a birth parent you meet for the first time in your 40s is far from straightforward. You both have a lot of baggage, real and imagined. But we had a stab at it in our sometimes different ways, most memorably when my dad, for that's what I called him too, came to stay with my partner and me for Christmas in 2007.
That Christmas meant a lot to me and I know it did to him. And yet we couldn’t quite reach into the space between the words we exchanged about it. I eventually lost touch with him around 2012. He had been ill and I had been working away most of the time. In the end, I thought it best to let go. I think perhaps I had realised that Ricky was right. Despite the obvious contradiction in my story, you do only get one dad. Or rather you only get one chance to make that relationship flourish and I’d already had that.
When I tried to form a relationship with my birth dad, I wasn’t trying to replace the relationship with my adoptive dad. I could undo that no more than the circumstances which had led to the adoption itself. And yet I was trying to find something which had been missing. So when we lost touch I didn’t stop thinking about him and wondering what had happened. Had his illness progressed? Was he still alive?
And then just a couple of months before my adoptive dad died, almost by accident (the perils of late night browsing on an iPad) I discovered my birth dad’s funeral notice in the Dundee Courier. He had died two years earlier and I hadn’t known. That hurt. The sense of loss was compounded by the fact that both events came just a year after the death of my adoptive mum.
My adoptive mum was a complicated character and my relationship with her no less so. It’s fair to say I’m still figuring it out. I had wrongly assumed that my adoptive dad’s passing would be more straightforward. In the event, perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t. He was my dad after all.
After he died one of my oldest friends, who also lost his dad last year, sent me a card in which he wrote, ‘Anchors and moorings’, that’s what worries me. Losing my dad was a tie lost and something that hit hard. I’m sure it will be the same for you.’
I ruminated on my friend’s words after his card arrived. Was it the same for me? Well, my adoptive dad’s passing has left a space in my life. And I’m certainly finding it hard to come to terms with. But in truth, I’m not sure it is the same. I only met my friend’s dad once but I know quite a bit about him and I know how much his passing hurt my friend. In part, that’s because we’ve talked about it a great deal over the 35 years we’ve known each other. I interviewed my friend about his relationship with his father as part of a PhD project which I started and subsequently abandoned more than a decade ago.
I still have the transcript of the interview and I've been reading it in search of an answer to my question. One phrase, especially, stands out: ‘I think my dad has helped to make me the man I am.’ It was both a grand statement and a simple truth. For him at least. But it’s not something I can ever imagine saying.
The interview is full of rich reflection which leaves me in no doubt that the statement holds true. My friend talks about a man of whom he was clearly proud who he also knew was proud of him. Little wonder he feared the loss of an anchor, a sense his own life was no longer moored in quite the safe waters it once had been.
My adoptive dad’s passing hit me hard too, in its own way. But because I know my friend well and have always understood the centrality of his dad’s presence in his life, I know our experiences are also very different.
Having reread the interview, it feels almost confessional to acknowledge that my relationship with my adoptive dad was more ambivalent. In fairness, it had the odds stacked against it, not least because I was adopted. That isn’t to say he and my adoptive mum didn’t handle the adoption well because they did. But in the end, it proved to be a fault line which always tugged at the anchor.
Like my friend’s father, my adoptive dad was a man of his generation. Even in my adulthood, his voting habits were between him and the ballot box and somehow that was emblematic of a degree of discretion which had always kept closeness at bay. Yet he was a largely benign presence in my life and as I struggled to focus during a busy working week after he died, I couldn’t help but remember some of the things he did because, in his own way, he cared a great deal.
After a gruelling cross country race the following weekend, I reflected on the fact that my dad never could understand why I ran and never came to watch me as a boy. But he had kept me supplied with running shoes and would always come and pick me up from the school coach on Saturdays after a race.
Most memorably he always fed me well on Saturday afternoons. My adoptive dad loved food. He was the weekend cook in our house and hearty stews of oxtail or shin of beef were commonplace. He brought me generous portions which made up for missing the big fried breakfast he loved to cook on Saturday mornings. And sometimes during the week, he would make a secret snack in the evening after my mum had gone to bed.
But as I grew older the adoption fault line loomed larger. It led to me tracing my birth mum at 36 and reverting to her maiden name, my birth name. My adoptive parents were divorced by then anyway and my adoptive dad never complained about my choice. And for sure, it hadn’t been intended as a rejection of him, rather a strong acknowledgement that ultimately my roots lay elsewhere. Yet, of course, I’ve wondered if it hurt.
It didn't occur to me to take my birth dad’s name, Kemlo, because the circumstances of my birth were such that I’d never had it. But I’ve quietly claimed it in other ways, using it as an online profile over the years.
Both my dad’s names speak to their rootedness. Kemlo is most likely to be found in north east Scotland whereas Eades, my adoptive dad’s name, is most likely to be found where he came from, the Black Country. It’s taken me until middle age to find that rootedness and I did it without them. In the end, perhaps the relationships I had with them weren’t so much anchors, but just moorings.
At different points in my life, I drifted between the moorings and sometimes the anchor was thrown down by me or one of them, but it never quite took hold. Each relationship was compromised and somehow always contingent.
Both men left their mark on me for sure. But it’s perhaps because I didn’t only get one dad, that I can’t share my friend’s simple truth, however much I’d like to. Instead, I will always be my fathers’ son. And now it’s time to let that be.