Dad songs

Sydney writer, producer and director Sunny Grace. Photo: supplied.

Sunny Grace muses on paternal love and loss after a trip to Coffs Harbour for Father’s Day.

I am on a plane to Coffs Harbour during Covid-19 going to visit one of my other fathers. One of the perks of being a hippy kid is having other parents. If one is too high or absent there is usually someone else to take their place. Although I often longed for the attention of the absent – my real father.

It was Father’s Day last week. Always a strange day for me. I loved my Dad despite his absence and lack of paternal instincts. Or maybe that is a paternal instinct – absence. How many people remember their absent fathers; from the war, working fathers to deserting fathers? Every Father’s Day my fingers used to hover on my phone keys – should I call and say Happy Father’s Day, even though he was not really there for me growing up? He often forgot to call me on my birthday, leaving a small hole in my day that grew bigger over the years.

Sitting in my aisle seat with my face mask on, trying to breathe normally, another passenger appears above me. He places a suit bag in the overhead locker before settling into the seat beside me, puts his headphones in his ears and opens a playlist on his phone. It catches my eye and I see the playlist name, Dad’s songs. A Cat Stevens song – Father and Son. It occurs to me, given the suit bag, he may be going home for his father’s funeral. When my Dad died four years ago, I made the same playlist name. I still have it on my iPhone and it has the same Cat Stevens song.

Songs have the power to take you to a person, a place, a memory instantly. When I hear Cat Stevens, Neil Young or Bob Dylan I find myself, age nine, in the back of Dad’s old Peugeot hurtling through the streets of Helen Garner’s Melbourne, the tape player belting out his favourite tunes. Now when I hear a Bob Dylan song anywhere, I miss him. I miss his earthly absence.

Sunny Grace pictured with her dad in the foyer of the Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: supplied.

We take off over the iridescent city of Sydney. I have never lost the wonder of looking down from a plane to see the small world below and today is no exception as I strain to see my little inner-city. The first plane I ever caught was with my real Dad when I was seven. Mum and I had moved to Bellingen, near Coffs Harbour, when I was five and Dad was taking me back to his place in Melbourne. I marvelled at it, flying, all the miniature cars and swimming pools like a toy world.

The flight I am on now reminds me of that very first one. The airport quiet and empty. The same type of small plane – a Fokker Friendship. I’ve always liked that name. The propeller whirs outside my window. It seems antiquated compared to the new big planes we have today. I guess in some ways the world feels like it is going backwards with this pandemic.

My fellow passenger is asleep now, giving me time to suss him out. Linen shirt, comfortably crumpled, t-shirt underneath. Dark navy jeans, brown boots. Nice expensive watch. I make an assumption he may be of Indian heritage. There is a huge Sikh community in the Coffs Harbour area. Did he leave Coffs as a young man in search of a more successful life? Did he leave to escape the legacy of his parents’ lives? I try to get a glimpse of what else is on his playlist but he has turned his phone away from me. I have lost my stealth writer spy tricks during isolation.

The flight attendant comes through offering a snack and tea. Rare on a plane in Covid. I open the plastic bag of plastic cutlery and wish we still had real cutlery, like on that first flight I took with Dad. I wonder if real cutlery wouldn’t be better in this pandemic. Cleaned at high temperatures – not lingering in the world of single-use plastics, distributing germs. Was it because of 9-11 one use plastics were introduced on planes? I wonder what will change for air travel now? Planes aren’t configured for 1.5m spacing yet. It seems odd this is one of the few places I can still be close to a stranger in a pandemic world.

I look out the window to see a section of a rainbow reflecting through the clouds. I know it’s hard to believe and you probably think it’s a literary flourish but it’s not. It’s real. As real as a rainbow can be – all refracted light and water. Then it’s gone and I think it’s a sign. From Dad. So strange how we humans are always looking for signs from the dead.

I walk into the recently renovated Coffs Harbour airport terminal to see my other father waiting for me, a huge grin on his face. It’s hard to explain our relationship. He was with my mum for a short time when I was a kid. We formed a bond. He has always been like a parent for me, teaching me and advising me about the world. He taught me how to fish. It occurs to me I am grateful to the hippies for free love after all.

Across the terminal my fellow passenger is greeted by a small elderly woman and a man wearing a turban, who pull him into a deep embrace. I hope they are able to mourn their loved one well, despite Covid-19. I make a mental note to make sure I ask my other father what his favourite songs are while we celebrate our Other Father’s Day together.

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