Sunshine for rainy days
I’ve been songwriting since I was 15, maybe earlier. My mum used to say I was singing complete songs before my second birthday, before I could structure full sentences! So I rolled out in a pushchair to sing for adults as a novelty act. It’s probably not as rare as it seemed to them. Music touches the depths of us in a special way doesn’t it? I'm sure when our eyes have faded, and our short term memory mists over, it’s music that will provide the trail of breadcrumbs back out of the dark, to the familiarity of home.
I’d always sung at church, school and community events, but didn’t really feel compelled to write songs until we faced a family crisis in our teen years. Both our parents suffered severe brain injury in two car crashes, within 6 months. Here’s the brutal truth, it would’ve been easier in the long run, but more traumatic at the time, if dad died on the road that day. An already difficult and overbearing (but brilliant) father became a caged beast. He became completely dependent, & as someone who had built a firm with 600 staff with no money from scratch, naturally was incensed at needing someone to shower him, drive him, dress him. Mum, ever in the shadows, wore her brain injury like a crown of confused daisies, wandering through imaginary fields of oil paintings, antiques & collectibles, ephemera. Pleasant, sad.
Domestic Violence, lets hear the sermons please
Dad, the fatally wounded business warrior, had lost self control (frontal lobe damage does that), so the anger, Vodka & Gaviscon milkshakes, & the co-codamol & hobnob biscuit addictions, raged on unrestrained. The detail of domestic violence can be a bit boring, but the important thing I want to get across is that it’s all consuming. You don’t feel you can escape it, responding to it largely defines you. Anticipating violence, avoiding it, fearing it, wondering which dad will come down the stairs, is more exhausting than the surreal adrenaline rush of having to respond to a moment of rage. I’ve two standout memories of it, but there are so, so many.
On a holiday in Spain I was 8 & my brother was 4. We were in bed and dad came in drunk. He dragged mum by the hair into the bathroom, and started smashing her head against the toilet. He was very strong. Pete was crying & whimpering beside me. I hugged him, and closed my eyes tight and just kept saying, “it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright”. Mum was screaming & I thought she was going to die. To be scared, but have to be brave for your wee brother is what you do, but its not fair. Mum suffered a burst ear drum & fractured jaw that night. She wore sunglasses and a scarf for the rest of the holiday. It wasn’t the first or last time. It all came to a head a decade later (post brain injury) when he had a couple of shotguns & a Berreta automatic pistol lined up to shoot the three of us. At that point it was time to leave, under police escort.
I have a bizarre side memory from that night, of a police sergeant & future Presbyterian moderator, our friend & pastor Roy Patton, both wrestling with a pump action shotgun in the pouring rain outside the house, trying to remove jammed cartridges. I laughed! It was just weird! It’s what you do sometimes if you’re a bit scared. Still, top notch pastoral care Roy, thank you!
I have to confess, a couple of months before this, I had broken dad’s nose when he tried to throw a pot of boiling water over mum. He was still scarily strong, but his reactions were dead slow. I’m not sorry I stopped him, but I deeply regret how much I enjoyed it. Almost immediately, I realised that he was a wounded animal lashing out, and I wasn’t that far from turning into something similar. I’d just become a Christian, it wasn’t great timing for a first punch up with your father, and I spent a lot of time talking it over with Roy and apologising to dad.
Anyway, after the guns episode, we went to a caravan for a while, got a restraining order, and eventually moved into a wee house a mile away. He used to turn up at the door, shout and try to force his way in…….great way to meet the new neighbours. Thankfully, no, providentially, our next door neighbours turned out to be David & Dorothy McMillan from Newry Baptist church. Their friendship, sympathy, and mentorship was an extra lifeline at just the right time. I think God doesn’t often line stuff up early, He’s pretty good at just in time deliveries!
A song for the Invisible
This song hasn’t been shared publicly before. The perspective of time makes it ok now. Also, I reckon there are a lot of people inside or outside of church who have lived through some sort of family trauma, or witnessed abuse at an early age. I was talking about what we & mum went through with a dear relative recently, she hadn’t realised what was going on. I genuinely couldn’t believe it. I suppose I thought it was obvious just from looking at us, like some sort of gloomy version of the ‘Ready brek glow’ or a sign over our heads. But no, to everyone outside the family ‘Freddie’ was the perfect gentleman, a pillar of the community, that dashing innovator and successful businessman. And of course he was.
No one is ever just a monster. The dad who scared and dominated us all, was also exciting, interesting, fun & generous (on his own terms). We were proud of him, and we hated him in equal measure. All the stats show that although Christian marriages are generally much happier, violence and oppression is still going on in & around church communities. I haven’t heard a sermon on it EVER in 50 years. (dad wasn’t a Christian, but he was a ‘respectable church goer’ with some sort of abstract belief in God, who enjoyed the community side of it).
I couldn’t have believed then, that after my first post-graduate job as youth worker for PCI in the Shankill & New Lodge Estates, I’d end up looking after the family affairs, and dad on the side ~ for 25 years.
That’s the other reason I can share this song now. The story ends well. The man who I genuinely hated and wanted dead, I ended up loving. It wasn’t perfect. I didn’t always handle it well. Sometimes you try, sometimes you pull the pillow over your ears. He was still stinking & inappropriate & struggling with minor addictions, but he died as someone with a more personal than notional faith, who prayed for us every day. The man who smashed my first guitar into bits in the kitchen, eventually prayed for me every day. That’s precious to me. There a little success here surely, two hearts changed for good?
Close friends say there’s a book in it. Maybe, but for now, all I can muster the energy for is this short song – a snapshot from when we moved into that wee ‘safe house’, just after the hammering on the door had stopped.
Laughing & crying
© KDMusic 2019
Laughing and crying,
were two things you were always afraid to do,
so proud to be a self-made man.
To wrap your bleeding heart in paper money
will not ease the pain-ful memories of an empty life.
Helpless and needy were two things
you were always afraid to be
Yet now they dominate your life
For by your fear and violence
You’ve chased away those closest few
Saw love twinkle…..
In your eyes………
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