There are some stories that feel like they’re too painful to tell – that if you were to open your mouth and give them life, they would cut you in two.
I think I’ve always known that.
Yet as painful as it can be, there’s a great relief that comes from giving those stories air – like a fever breaking, or when the darkest of dark clouds finally releases the downpour of rain.
I know this because of the story work I do with people. But also because at this time of year, I come face to face with one of those stories of my own.
18 years ago this week, my father died. He had been healthy (in the Scottish sense of the word) for most of his life, apart from always having to have a pack of antacids with him because of indigestion.
In August 2005 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The Doctors told us there was nothing they could do. It was too late. It was inevitable. And on 30th January 2006 he died.
Growing up, we were not an emotional household. Laughter and shouting – totally yes, but smushiness or wallowing in self-pity was never in vogue.
My Dad loved a good story, especially a spy novel or anything with James Bond. He had clear blue eyes, and hair like a brush that even three doses of chemotherapy could not budge. He was 6 ft 2 but was terrified of snakes, even if they were just on the TV.
He loved dancing, and parties. He thought that nobody in their right mind would eat macaroni cheese (because every decent meal would include potatoes). He liked crosswords, and bowling, and had very odd theories about men who dye their hair.
And he absolutely loved his garden – though for my Dad a garden really just meant the lawn and some shrubs, all trimmed so precisely that it looked like the horticultural definition of a crew cut.
He was a man of a few words, preferring to come up with a brilliant one-liner, rather than wax lyrical. Although he had some favorite catchlines, like “Aye, you’re a Ferguson,” to people that he liked, and “Ask your mother,” for anything he couldn’t be bothered answering. And when I phoned home on a Sunday, we would both have a race to see who could say, “I love you to bits,” first.
In the months between August and January, Mark, Fergus – who was just a toddler – and I would travel from where we lived in London, to see my Mum and Dad in Scotland as often as we could.
In October 2005, I stood alone in my parent’s kitchen, washing up lunch dishes, looking out of the window onto my Dad’s precious lawn. My Dad appeared and put his cup down at the sink, and we both just stood and looked out at the garden.
He had never been great with small talk at the best of times. Then after cancer treatments on his esophagus, any kind of talking was difficult.
So we both just stood there, looking out. Both of us saying nothing.
The weather was a combination of bright-and-wet-and-cold-and-sunny all at the same time, as only Scotland can be. I noticed that the lawn wasn’t as tidy as my Dad usually liked it, and that some of the shrubs were looking a little unruly.
Maybe, because of the weather. Maybe, because I was tired from traveling. Maybe, because I was suddenly aware that the garden would never look like the horticultural definition of a crew cut again: because the grass would grow. And the shrubs would spread. And there would never be anyone here again who could take proper care of it.
A bubble of raw emotion caught me by surprise, and I blurted out, “Dad I don’t want you to die,” and started to sob.
And my Dad, saying nothing, put his arms around me and let me cry it out.
After a minute or so, I wiped my eyes and picked up the cup to clean it. And both of us stood and looked out of the window at the garden again. Then my Dad whispered, “Love you to bits. I said it first.”
It took me the longest time to be able to think of that story without my insides curdling with shame. I kept it hidden as further evidence of ‘My Inability To Cope” or in the category of, “I'm so self-indulgent.” I felt in my heart that it stank of my own selfishness.
But I know that a story is just really a sequence of events with no particular currency. What gives a story tone, is each individual person’s perspective of that sequence of events. Perspective gives each story color.
But perspective is sluggish. It often stays fixed to one moment on the timeline - the moment of powerlessness. And there it stays, representing ‘an absolute truth’ frozen in guilt or shame.
As a result, people I’ve worked with who have faced a terrifying event, generally first tell their story as evidence of how cowardly they are.
People who have been abandoned, mostly first tell theirs as evidence as to how they are unlovable.
People who have been successful in the past, generally start off by explaining how they used to be much more impressive than they are now.
But after the story has been released, the truth appears:
Having faced and survived something terrifying, demonstrates the presence of deep courage.
Having survived being abandoned, demonstrates the presence of strength.
Having been successful in the past, shows an enviable ability to navigate change.
We humans are sensitive creatures, each of us taunted by our own personal demons. Yet, writing these notes every week, my perspective has had no choice but to shift.
Today I look back at the story of me and my Dad in the kitchen differently. I still recall the pain of noticing the change in the garden, and the panic at not being able to hold my feelings back. But I also remember what it felt like when my Dad put his arms round me to let me cry it out. The truth of that story, is I remember how much I was loved.
Till next week xo
The Audiobook version is also available on Apple Books and Audible.
Learn more about Lynn’s Story work at YouTellYours.com