My dad would have been 81 today but he died a few years shy of seeing another decade. It’s long enough ago for me to reflect peacefully, to cradle his absence from a place of stillness. Not that opening packages of memory comes without emotion, but now any pain I feel has a soft give, like falling on moss.
‘He has left a gap, a hole, shoes that will never be filled.’ Those are the sort of things we say in the maelstrom of grief. They are true and remain true until the wind drops and the tumultuous weather of loss subsides, giving way to gentler, hushed breeze. Which is where I am now, neither battered nor blown. Some of my grieving, I did for him before he died. The shameful silver lining of a terminal illness is that you get a warning, a countdown, you’re put in training in advance so that when the moment comes you’re game fit. Disagree with me by all means, everyone’s different, but I think I was well into mile 22 of the grief marathon by the time he died. I railed and cried and roared and howled in fear and disbelief of the inevitable truth. And then, after his death, I performed the magic trick of pulling the tablecloth from beneath the setting and leaving all of the delft and cutlery in place so I could begin a fresh, new grief for another – but that is a different story. There was something in and of my father, something he gave me, that enabled me to perform that conjuring: a strength he passed to me in his fading, a dignity he showed me as he vanished.
Above all, he planted seeds that showed me how to live. He talked to strangers and befriended the lonely on trains. He laughed until he cried at things that made him happy – playing the drum on his four-year old grandson’s back, catching Bass at a secret spot in Kerry in September. He loved a good sunset, and swimming in the sea. I mightn’t love Casablanca and Rear Window and Bringing up Baby and The Philadelphia Story were it not for him. He had a deep-rooted love for teaching, for his beloved Dominican, to which he dedicated most of his life, and had an indefatigable interest in past pupils whose names he rarely forgot. He loved food and drink and parties (as I do) and was an artistic scientist (as I’m not). I would run for the hills when he pushed me to watch the Faraday Christmas lectures on television, but I would happily listen to him quoting lines of poetry that have now seeped into my soul. He was first on the dance floor at weddings, and loved all music, from Bruch to Bowie to the Beatles. He never quite got over the demise of Crosaire – the Irish Times crossword setter – whose heir, in his opinion, never came close. When we watched box sets of Northern Exposure together, he’d express a fondness for Maggie and I’d tell him that I’d have married Chris-in-the-Morning in a different life. ‘He would be hard work,’ he told me, ‘And Maggie wouldn’t?’ I told him. He was a great dresser, tanned easily, suited colour (that purple shirt). He taught me how to cast a fishing rod and identify birds. He was allergic to cockles, and tested his allergy every decade to dire consequences. Last month Monty Don told us it was time to scarify the lawn and I remembered the contraption Dad hired to churn up the grass one year. Was it the same year he de-rusted the apple tree he had grown by seed and declared war on flatworms? He had a notebook, dates and records in pencil, of what was planted where and when so he could rotate next year’s crops. And another smaller notebook, beside his TV chair, of scribbled recipes. He would joke about the ancient Confucian ideal of filial piety, but he didn’t need to, he had it without asking.
There comes a time when it’s no longer about absence but about legacy. My father had six children, three girls and three boys, and our memories are both shared and unique. He left us glued together, not a hard set, immobile, cracking glue, but something soft and malleable and giving. Today, on his birthday, I don’t feel any hole, I just see how whole he left us.
Memory of My Father, by Patrick Kavanagh (excerpt)
Every old man I see
In October-coloured weather
Seems to say to me
“I was once your father.”
His Stillness, by Sharon Olds (excerpt)
My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.