The Call that Changed My Life

The Writing Cabin  > Bec Fordyce, Grief >  The Call that Changed My Life

By: Bec Fordyce

Image: Kristina Tripkovic, Unsplash

I always thought that the phone call that would change my life would be my agent telling me that I booked a lead in an HBO series. It hasn’t happened yet. I got a different kind of life changing call in early August of 2016.

I woke up that morning reeling from a hangover. I actually remembered how I got home last night – a rarity for me that year.  

I rolled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen. 

While I was making my coffee, I noticed a Skype call from my sister who lives in Norway. This was highly unusual. My sister and I rarely spoke at the best of times. 

Growing up in Sydney, we were never really close. The only thing we had in common was that we both left home at an early age and moved to countries far, far away.

I take the call. My sister is crying. She tells me that Dad has gone missing. Surely this is a bit dramatic? Mind you, she’s the voice of reason in the family, so I hear her out.

Dad just left his office without telling anyone where he was going. Nobody has heard from him since. Mother was gravely concerned. It’s coming up on eight hours since anyone has seen him.

Hundreds of thoughts raced through my mind. 

Had Dad been kidnapped?

Was he having an affair?

Heart attack?

Does he owe money? 

Maybe he just wants to be left alone?

Maybe Mum pissed him off?

My sister said that Mum had already checked with the local hospitals. Nothing. 

I assured myself that it was probably Dad having a little temper tantrum. Mum can get a little intense at times. I told my sister to keep me updated.

I call Mum to check in with her. Her thoughts were on a similar trajectory. 

Do you think he’s having an affair?

Did I do something wrong?

I reassured Mum that Dad was probably just having a tantrum and wanted to be left alone. It was nothing to worry about. He’d be back soon. Just let him cool off.

Twelve hours passed by. Mum filed a missing persons report. My uncle (her brother) and aunt arrived to help with the search.

The police took the matter very seriously. My father does not drink, use drugs or gamble – so any possibility of a bender had been ruled out. Mum also let them know that it would be his birthday in two days.

My sister’s husband suggested Mum should log in to ‘Find My iPhone’ to see Dad’s last location, since they share a computer and have a common login. They managed to track it down to the Sydney Hilton.

The police told Mum to stay at home; they would go and investigate. Updates would relay from the police, to my Mum, to my uncle, to my sister, and finally to me. 

There’s a tremendous sense of helplessness when you’re in another country and your family has an emergency. Communication in three different time zones was a challenge. The only thing I could say to feel useful was “keep me posted”. It really did sound kind of feeble, though.

About an hour had passed. The police had found Dad at the Hilton. The latest update was that he’d been badly injured and was being admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital.

What the fuck happened to him?

Then, my sister made the dreaded call. 

Dad’s wounds were self-inflicted.

I’ll never forget speaking to Dad very shortly after he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at St Vincent’s. I was expecting to hear a man crying and fragile with emotion.  Instead, I heard a man coldly and methodically break down how he tried to commit suicide. It was unbelievably graphic.

My blood ran cold.

He had researched which arteries he needed to slice. He went for the wrists and jugular – but didn’t bleed out fast enough. He gave up and resorted to stabbing himself repeatedly in the abdomen. He figured he’d eventually die of renal failure. He was angry that he didn’t cover his tracks well enough and that we were able to track him down.

What breaks my heart the most is that he wasn’t even going to leave a note.

I had to know why.

Then he said the words where he admitted utter defeat. 

Just like at everything I have done in life – I failed at my own suicide attempt.

He acted as if he had done this heroic thing. He said he did this so that we’d get 4 million dollars from his life insurance policy. (No, the policy wasn’t void. Dad was a very prominent Sydney lawyer. He did his research. If he had the policy for a year, even suicide would mean a payout.) He really believed that this would be the way to make my mother happy.

I was overwhelmed by so many emotions. I was shocked, horrified, heartbroken, and really fucking angry. What kind of morals did he think we had? I don’t know of anyone that would be happy to receive millions of dollars that way.

Dad had always been very cold hearted towards me growing up. He was not your typical doting father. He was an incredibly cold and emotionally distant person.

My earliest memory of him was that he was an ultimate disciplinarian. I was an extremely difficult child and a nightmare of a teenager. He was the brute force that would step in when Mum couldn’t handle me. He was always cold and terrifying, and he always knew how to cut right to the core of you. I thought, maybe this time, I might be able to extend the olive branch.

Who was I kidding?

Dad was placed on suicide watch. He had a nurse around the clock, sitting on the end of his bed. The only utensil he could eat with was a plastic spoon. A team of psychiatrists worked with my father and mother. How long he would be there was anybody’s guess.

Many calls took place between my sister and I. The original plan was for us to space our visits home.  She’d recently given birth to her first child, so I would leave first. She would fly out a few weeks after.

I stayed up all night talking to the few people back in Australia that knew what had happened. Mum wasn’t easy to contact. She was constantly in meetings with psychiatrists determining what needs to happen with Dad.

I was a drunk and rambling mess. I needed to digest with the people that knew him best.

The day after was incredibly eerie and surreal. It was Dad’s 66th birthday. Considering he’d very violently attempted suicide the day before – was it appropriate to call him? Wishing him a “happy birthday” seemed completely tone deaf.

Mum convinced me to call. I mustered up the courage to phone Dad at the hospital. It was such an awkward call. Weirdly enough, he was very happy I called. He said that he would make the most of the time that he was in the hospital. When I asked Dad how long he thought he would be in there for he responded with, “I know exactly what I need to say to get me out of here as quickly as possible.”

Chills went down my spine. That sounded like something a sociopath would say.

Mum and I spoke a lot. She gave me updates from the hospital. I told her about the comment Dad made. She mentioned that the psychiatrists said that Dad was a very, very sick man. I started to learn some very hard realities about my father.

Mum went in to damage control at Dad’s law firm. She’s always been good with that sort of thing. I think the story she went with was that he had a stomach infection. We were told under no circumstance to mention this to anybody. This would ruin Dad’s professional reputation.

Mum used to always allude that she harbored a very big secret for Dad while I was growing up. I often wondered what it was. Financial problems were sometimes a reality. Dad had been known to go to great lengths to keep it a secret. It was apparent we were in a lot of financial trouble.

Dad had mounting debt. A client of his did not pay him for one year’s worth of work. He also had a lawsuit from a prominent video hosting platform for using music without a license. He kept all of this a secret from us.

Dad tried to make his money back by hosting an international conference in Hawaii. He had a big, and very delusional, vision for it. He wanted to bring in a celebrity as a draw card. He’d seen that Hillsong had adopted a similar business model and had great success.

Dad became relentless in his pursuit. In those weeks, I remember getting pushy emails around the clock. Frankly, it was a pain in the ass. I exhausted every possible avenue to no avail. Failure was not an option for him.

I had to keep all of this celebrity business a secret from Mum. It seemed a bit weird, but I knew Mum could be hard on Dad. She was a big naysayer to a lot of his “ideas” he has had over the years.

Eventually, I had to call in some favors from a man I had recently cut ties with. I was not comfortable with any of it. I did it because I knew he could link me up with the right people. It also meant I could get Dad off of my back.

We managed to find an appropriate celebrity. All that we needed was a non-refundable booking fee to the tune of a couple of hundred thousand dollars. And guess who started getting harassing phone calls demanding their money?

I had no idea how to handle the call. The conference was clearly not happening. The woman from the booking company was very aggressive about getting the booking fee – despite the fact the conference was no longer taking place. Dad had all of his electronic devices confiscated by the hospital staff and locked away.

I was put in a really compromising position. I could not keep this information a secret from Mum at this critical time. Dad’s professional reputation needed to be protected.

All of a sudden, I was being made accountable for the non-refundable booking fee. There was no way in hell I could ever come up with that kind of money. I decided to bite the bullet. I told the woman what Dad had done.

She had very little sympathy.

I had no choice but to tell Mum about Dad’s crazy scheme. 

This was the final straw for her. 

Mum decided it was time to reveal the big secret about Dad that she had promised to take to the grave. Nothing could prepare me for the bombshell she dropped. I did not see this one coming at all. 

My father secretly cross-dresses. Mum was far from ok with this, and she has known since 1986. This was a huge point of shame and embarrassment for both of them. The act in itself is no big deal to me. I don’t care. It’s just a fucking dress. I was more surprised by the incredibly rigid and conservative man with a disdain for the LGBTQ community who got up to this.

Then again, why should I be? There are classic examples of this in our society.

I was also upset that my mother decided to remain in the marriage if she wasn’t ok with this. I know she had some very valid reasons for staying, but she honestly should have left him instead of playing out this charade for a couple of decades.

Shockingly, this changed the context of my childhood. I noticed that my father was very different to the other dads growing up. Something always seemed a little off at home when I was growing up. I never could put my finger on it. I just instinctively knew there was something not right at home.

Now I knew what was bubbling under the surface for all these years.

Mum felt so guilty and ashamed when she confessed this to me. She wanted to keep this a secret from my sister. I reassured her that it was 2016, and we don’t really give a shit if he does that sort of thing. This was a huge thing for her to put on the table, and I really believe she felt as though she betrayed Dad.

Mum had to go through more damage control. The hospital gave Dad access to his laptop. While it was far from the norm to allow a patient on suicide watch to do this – this was a situation that needed to be addressed urgently. Fortunately, he was able to get the booking agents to lay off of me.

What an unusual mental image – a man conducting business in the pysch ward.

Four days after the suicide attempt, it was clear that Mum was on the verge of a breakdown. The stress was too much for her. She had not eaten or slept since Dad had gone missing.  She could barely keep down a cup of tea. She warned us that it was very likely she would have a breakdown.

The text messages she sent resembled the dribble I would send out on a typical Saturday night. It was incoherent and riddled with nonsensical words. My mother doesn’t drink or abuse substances, so it was all the more worrying.

Mum’s breakdown was equally harrowing. My sister witnessed the beginning of her psychotic breakdown via Skype. Fortunately, my uncle and aunt had been staying with her, and they were able to contact the paramedics.

When the paramedics showed up, Mum became uncharacteristically violent. She started attacking the paramedics and they had to restrain her. (Mum has never done any real physical activity since I have been alive. She’s got the physical strength of Mr. Burns, normally.) That night, she fought two paramedics off of her and kicked a hole through the wall. The police had to be called in. She had to be sedated like a wild animal and sent off to the psychiatric ward at St Vincent’s Hospital.

This is when things got really bad. 

Original travel plans were thrown out the window. My sister decided to drop everything and leave her husband and infant son in order to take the next available flight to Sydney.

We had no idea how long either of our parents would be committed, and we were faced with a horrifying prospect of becoming their legal guardians.

To me, this would mean that my dreams of working as an actress in the United States would come to a complete halt.  I worked through so much to get my residency. I wasn’t willing to let go of something that I fought so damned hard for.

The really scary part for my sister and I was taking the flight. Our flights were a minimum of 20 hours. What if there was more bad news, and we weren’t contactable?

By the time I landed in Sydney, it had been a full week since Dad had been committed. Mum was released 72 hours after she had been committed. They rehydrated her and got her back into a stable condition.

A friend of the family picked me up from the airport. I learned that Dad was being released that day. I was astounded. Maybe he had manipulated the medical staff to get out as quickly as possible? He’s slick like that.

I came home to an empty house. It looked like home, but it had an eerie vibe about it. There was still a hole in the wall that Mum had kicked in. I covered it up with a folding chair, because it gave me the creeps looking at it. Mum had always taken immense pride in keeping the house immaculate.

Finally, my parents and sister got home. Dad had a discharge plan in place that was worked out with the team of psychiatrists. We had to sell off our assets to pay off Dad’s debt. My parents were advised to get both individual and couples therapy.

The first night I was back home, Mum and Dad behaved as if nothing had happened. I remember they went about their usual evening routine with our pets.

They fed the cat and dog. 

They got their pet Galahs (pink and grey cockatoos) out and played with the swearing punching bag they loved so much. 

It was so creepy how normal everything was.

During the two weeks that I was back, we started preparing the family home to be put on the market. I was told that the Manhattan apartment I lived in would also be sold. Every foundation was ripped away from under me, very abruptly.

Dad and I had some lunches together where he shared his secret with me. I actually believed it would be an opportunity for the two of us to start connecting. I told him I didn’t care. I told him that I’d let him dress up as a woman, and we could go out together. I could do his makeup for him.

I wanted to let him know that he wasn’t alone.

I tried to see the light in the darkness while I was back home, but it was hard. Dad had stitches in his neck and wrists. He had to make visits to the doctor to have his stab wounds on his abdomen dressed. To this day, I don’t know if I could look at Dad in a bathing suit. It would be too distressing to see the scars. I know Mum refused to look at him without a shirt for a long time after.

On top of everything that was happening, Mum’s mother died.  While it came as no surprise – she’d been in terrible health for nearly 20 years and spent all that time in a nursing home.

This was one more thing that we didn’t need to deal with.

My grandmother’s funeral brought out my extremely ugly side. I knew I only had a few days left before I had to return to New York.

I was flying back to nothing and no one.

The thought of going through all of this without any family or a partner was incredibly painful. I resented my sister – the golden child, the favorite – she got to at least go home to a husband and a baby.

I ripped into her. I told her I never, ever wanted to speak to her again. She felt the same.

Returning to New York was awful and hard. Living alone sucked. I drank very heavily. I engaged in a lot of risky and reckless behaviors. I lost a lot of work opportunities. A lot of friends walked away from me. I struggled for a good six months before I hit rock bottom.

I never got another opportunity to connect with Dad and see the other side of him. I never got an apology, nor did my family. He supported Trump. He became a born again Christian. I think he maybe did a session or two with a therapist. This was all hard for me to accept.

In the meantime, I saw a therapist for nearly a year. By no means was I magically cured overnight. Healing is a non-linear process. There were moments where I would make great strides, and then there were plenty of times where I ended back at square one.

I started the journey of repairing my relationship with my parents in early 2018. It was the first extended period of time with them that didn’t end up in a screaming match. It was a huge surprise to them. Their relationship was (and is) still a mess, but I was able to be civil with them for a change.

My sister and I are probably the closest we have ever been to each other. This has been a huge blessing. I felt that our parents pitted us against each other when we were growing up. I was the problem child and she was the favorite. A lot of friends of the family had also commented on this. It felt good to put those differences aside after all of these years.

I still grapple with the fact that Dad never apologized to us. He probably never will.

Maybe the reason he won’t apologize to us is because it would be insincere? 

I am still learning how to manage my expectations on this. I need to learn that closure doesn’t always come in the package you want.

The only thing in life that is guaranteed is change. I would have preferred for things to play out differently, but that is out of my control. Instead, I am hoping that this experience makes me stronger and more resilient. And I am hoping that one day, I will find the humility to forgive my father.