Sleepless in San Francisco

“Are you okay, dad?”

It was 7am and I found him hunched over the table in the kitchen with papers scattered all over the place. His hair was frazzled and his neck was red. I guess he had been up writing all night, scribbling frantically with that bulky fountain pen of his.

I don’t think he heard me, so I asked again: “Are you okay, dad?”

We were on vacation in a holiday home in the mountain ranges of northern Spain and, even though it was in the early morning, the kitchen was buzzing with the relentless summer heat. I had no idea how hot hot could get until that trip, where it feels inescapable—the sun finds you no matter where you try to hide—and my dad was never a summer guy so it felt like an odd trip for us to take. He’d always been happiest standing on a moor in a gale with a long jacket on, so I also assumed that this frantic writing was just his way of getting the heat out of his system. Or his way of dealing with something painful and unfamiliar.

I can’t remember anything else after that image of him frantically writing at the kitchen table. I don’t know if he heard me and got us both breakfast or whether he just took me back to bed. I don’t think he ever explained what mad scheme he had come up with next, what brilliant manifesto he had written that would take over the world. The last thing I remember though is super clear, even now: the sharp smell of the room, the empty cans of mosquito spray scattered along the kitchen table that he’d been using all night long.

(We later found out that my dad had suffered a stroke at some point in the evening. It could’ve been the spray or the heat or a million other things, but we wouldn’t learn this until many months later.)

Now, skip forward twenty years, and I’m doing my version of that frantic writing. It’s 3am and I can’t sleep. There’s no can of mosquito spray next to me and I’m not cursed by that mean Spanish star but my mind is sizzling with ideas and opportunities and feelings of guilt and loss and unbearable shame. Total and absolute frazzle-dazzle.

I wonder if I get this from my dad? As if it’s genetic, just part of my inheritance somehow. Like I’m never really here, I’m always somewhere else. There is some argument to be had, some deadline looming. Some stupid design to be figured out. Some manager to argue with. Some book to be less than half written. Someone out there left to disappoint in some new, small way.

He never really slept either. Throughout my childhood I just assumed that all men were anxious, all men stressed. Men simply do not sleep, I thought. Adulthood was this terrifying thing for me because of my dad. I saw what it was doing to him, it was wrecking his body, and I immediately knew that it wasn’t for me. No thanks! Who wants to be so stressed about the world when the alternative was so much more pleasant? I remember watching Hook as a kid and being terrified of Robin Williams’s character. He had failed! He had grown up! He had become stress, destroyer of worlds. And if Robin Williams with all his charm and charisma can’t avoid adulthood, then what chance do I have?

He always had a frantic energy to him. My dad, I mean. There was always something rattling around in the back of his head, something taking him somewhere else. He’d never be with you in the room, not really, as some great big money problem he never told us about was looming above like the great, inescapable clouds haunting the skies of England. Total eclipse. Nothing in the world mattered besides the next scheme, the next client, the next something or other that was right around the corner—and it was vital, vital, to catapult our family through this cloud and into the next one.

It makes me so very sad for him now, thinking that he never really made it out. He was a bit older than me now when he was sat at that kitchen table, worried so much about the world and how he might scribble his way out of it. So I wish I could close my eyes now and walk back into that kitchen and tell him that I love him and that everything will be ok but also it will be terrible but in an okay sort of way and I’m ever so sorry and I miss him so very much. But most of all, I want to say this: dad, seriously, what the fuck was up with the mosquito spray?