"Next time you come there'll be two of them!"
- me telling my father he has another grandchild to look forward to.
As we breezed towards Aran's second Christmas, he was becoming more and more mobile, and more and more frustrated at not being able to get out of the house everyday. He trapped his finger in a
folding door, and crushed the tip of it, which meant that he had to wear a bandage on his hand for a couple of weeks. This made it even more difficult for him to play freely, and as we felt a
little sorry for him, weekends were devoted to his enjoyment, with visits to parks and playgrounds, and many rides on the trains he enjoyed so much. On Labour Thanksgiving day we took him to the
ShinrinKoen state park, a massive public park in the middle of Saitama, with a long bike path and a big lake. He had a ball, running around and playing, and it was good to see him enjoying
himself. I was more than a little amused to see a tiny little sign at the car park we left the car in that said it was off limits to Christians. I am still not sure if it was serious or a joke. I
decided that if asked I would claim to be an atheist.
My sister had made plans to take my father to Paris for his seventieth birthday. Ever since my mother died I had been wondering what I would do if I were called upon to eulogise my father. I read a comment somewhere that eulogies are things we should say to people before they die, rather than about them after they die, so I started putting together a few thoughts about what my father meant to me, now that I was a parent myself. I collected these into a letter which I sent to my sister so that she could present it to him on his birthday. I rang her mobile as they waited at the airport for their flight to Paris on the morning of his birthday, and gave him the good news about his upcoming second grandchild as an extra birthday present. He read the letter on the plane, and rang me the next day to thank me for a wonderful compliment. The text is included below.
On the occasion of your seventieth birthday:
Washing Aran's baby bottle one day, I suddenly recalled the brown wiry brush that Mum used in Blackrock for the same purpose. Since it must have been for Helen's milk bottles, I cannot have been more than three of four years old at the time that bottle was in the house, but now I remember it as clearly as if I were looking at it in my hand. This was just the first of many recollections and flashbacks I have had of my own childhood since Aran was born. It is mostly little things, details that one would naturally forget, but experiencing them again with Aran has rekindled the memories. When Aran grabs, pulls, pushes and presses my face, fascinated by the stubble on it, I remember the feeling of coarseness on your face when you hadn't shaved for a day or so. As he squirms in my arms, I recall the ticklish hair on your arms against my legs and arms as you carried me around on summer holidays when I had got too tired to walk. Now that I am seeing the experience of fatherhood from the father's side, I realise that there is a multitude of things I should thank you for, which I have not. To mark the occasion of your seventieth birthday, I would like to revisit a few of the highlights with you.
The joy of fishing:
While the sudden rush of adrenalin one feels when the rod in your hand suddenly jumps in response to the bite of a fish, and the mayhem of hitting a shoal of mackerel, are both thrilling, I prefer to recall the fresh feeling of the wind in my hair, as the boat bobbed over the waves out to our chosen point of anchor. Or the tranquillity of drifting on a glassy smooth sea as the sun burned our necks and the tidal drift brought us up or down the coast, depending on the day. I once saw a cartoon strip where a father (or was it an uncle?) was teaching his son (or nephew) how to fish, and he said the secret to a truly relaxing day's fishing was to not bring any bait. I will never forget one day off Greystones when after several hours of no activity you declared "There's no fish!". Looking back now I think this was a declaration of victory; we had achieved a perfect, uninterrupted day, free from the hassle and tension of everyday life, and you were claiming it as ours.
The joy of music:
Once when I was very young, you were sorting through some records you had in the sitting room, and you showed me one, the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you played it, the opening track, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, was spine tingling. Years later, when the Soviet Symphony Orchestra were performing at the National Concert Hall in the early eighties, you were at the concert and you asked me to watch over the tape deck as you recorded it off the radio. I was standing in front of the stereo rack, listening on the headphones for the end of the concert so I could shut off the tape. They finished their encore with the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin, and I gradually raised the volume as I listened. “So this is what rock music sounded like 200 years ago!” I thought to myself. Another moment I will never forget is during one of the Music Appreciation classes you ran at the Community Centre in Dun Leary (or was it at the Pueri Cantores?) when you got Tommy Doorley to sing the Ave Maria, and he did it just about perfectly. I found myself crying at the sheer beauty of it. I don't doubt that left to my own devices I would have come across this music anyway, but without the influence of the environment I grew up in, where that music was prevalent, I would not have come to appreciate it, or indeed music in general, as much as I do today.
The joy of friendship:
I cannot count the number of times I stood beside you as you tinkered with whatever car you owned; it was a seemingly endless task. Whenever you decided there was nothing that needed fixing, it was time to add a set of fog lamps, or speakers, or a tow bar. And I was always there, watching in fascination as you performed your surgery, asking questions, handing you tools, and holding the torch if the work went on past sunset. ("Keep the spot on where I'm working!" was the cry, as my arms would get tired or my concentration would drift, causing the spotlight of the torch to droop and leave your work in half-light.) Years later, you would court my companionship on a Friday night when there was no-one interesting on the Late Late Show, and we would walk up to the Galloping Green for a pint or two, (and a whiskey to finish in the winter, to warm us up for the walk home). You told me once that some of the regulars up there praised you for being able to take your son out for a drink, as many of their sons had no time for them. It was a source of satisfaction for me too, that we could sit in silence and sip our pints just as comfortably as we could discuss whatever was important back then, as many of my college friends lamented their inability to talk to their fathers freely. (Sure why wouldn't I join you, I had no money, and you would always buy the drink!) Also, I will always be proud that you were the only father who came to celebrate with his son in the Junction pub the night that my final year exam results came out.
The responsibility of parenthood:
As I went through college, I was well aware that having three of us in higher level education would be a financial burden for you. One day I presented you with a list of books I needed, many of which cost twenty or thirty pounds each, and I apologised for the high cost I was imposing on you. You responded by telling me not to worry; that while you might not lift a finger to get me what I want, you would bust a gut to get me what I need. Those words shook me. Not only had you explained clearly and succinctly what it is to be a father, you had also confirmed in my mind that as fathers go, you were as good as they get. Years later, on the last night before I left for Japan, you expressed the hope that you had lived up to my expectations of you as a father. I replied then, and I reaffirm it now, that you went far beyond any expectations I had or could have. As I told you when you were leaving Japan after visiting us this year, I will be a good father to Aran because I have your example to follow.
The responsibility of childhood:
But that responsibility is a two way street. I think I first realised this when you dropped me off at Clonkeen College for their entrance exam. As I got out of the car you wished me luck, and I suddenly realised that you had expectations of me that I had to fulfil. I think this was the first time when the direction of my future was completely in my own hands, (or at least it was the first time I realised as much), and for just a moment I felt scared. From that day on, even though you were still close by if I needed you, I realised that I had to stand on my own two feet, with only myself to blame if I took a wrong turn. I felt the responsibility of living up to the hopes you had for me, and it helped me to push myself to realise them. The same applied when I got into, and graduated from, Kevin Street. The fact that you rang Dave Spring to get the results as early as possible made it clear that you were rooting for me, and I didn't want to let you down. But perhaps the most profound moment was in the midst of those final exams, when I got the job in Microsol for the summer. You came home from work and asked me how that day's exam had gone. I reported that it was fine, and as an afterthought mentioned the job I had got. Without saying a word, you extended your hand to shake mine. I realised that I was beginning to live up to your expectations too.
The joy of pride:
There are thousands of others memories that have blended into the crowd or faded over time, but they all contribute to the rich tapestry that was my childhood. And it was made richer by the fact that I had a father I could be proud of: A father who would step in to help a young boy who had been kicked in the stomach by another boy on Killiney beach one summer Sunday (do you remember that?); A father who could lead a choir of hundreds through the Peloquin mass, or a cast of dozens through "Oklahoma", who could lead half the choirs of Dublin through the rehearsals for the papal mass, or who could lead a couple of dozen diehard old women through the Sunday mass every week with the same dedication; A father whose impression on people was so strong that he was remembered by ex - students from thirty years previously, whom he happened to stand next to in a bar; A father who was known to people I have met in Tokyo and Paris (where your name was proffered to me as if it was perfectly natural that anyone would know who you were, before it was known that I was related to you.) I have always been surprised by the number and breadth of people who know you, but never surprised by the way they respect you.
And finally, the joy of fatherhood:
When Aran was still in the womb, we were told that he would probably be a breach birth, with his backside coming out first. Because of this, the doctors recommended a caesarean. In the end, Aran turned around at the last minute and a natural birth was possible. But while there was that risk, I felt totally useless because there was nothing I could do to help him other than hope everything went well. As the doctors explained the dangers involved, I promised him that if he just got out of there in one piece, I would do whatever it takes to protect him thereafter. Since his birth I have bathed him, fed him, changed him, clothed him, played with him and rocked him to sleep. He is a delight to be with and watch, and there is nothing, nothing at all, that comes close to the feeling I get when he finally feels comfortable and safe enough to fall asleep in my arms. For that one brief moment I feel like the most powerful man on earth. When I think that you must have gone through feelings like this with us, I realise what you meant when you said that being a father was the most fulfilling thing you could do. I am looking forward to the years to come.
In all, I have deeply enjoyed having you as a father, and look forward to many more years of your company. I regret that we cannot be with you today, but we send you every good wish we can think of. I also regret that you cannot play with your grandson every day like Naoko's parents can, but the circumstances are as they are. We look forward to seeing you again someday soon, either here or there. We wish you a great day, a well pulled pint, and a long, easy going life, as you sit back and rest on your laurels, well deserved as they are.
Best wishes and love, today and everyday.
Early in the New Year, my brother had his third seizure, by coincidence, (or maybe not) on the anniversary of our mother's death. It apparently was related to his heavy drinking and stress, and he was warned to stay off alcohol for a while. I was not sure how serious these seizures were, and how worried to be about it. My sister and father both took it badly, and seemed very concerned, but my brother brushed it off as insignificant, mentioning it only in passing in an email he sent me. Helen was a bit worried that he was drinking too much, usually two bottles of wine a night. His behaviour, treating it like it was nothing, along with his usual reticence and unwillingness to discuss his circumstances, did not contradict this, and this angered me. I had lent him some money when he bought his house some years before, and after he lost his job to restructuring I was reluctant to pressure him into paying it back until he was on a more secure financial footing, but it was impossible to judge this on the minimal information he always disclosed about himself. This most recent incident made it even more difficult to broach the subject, even though he obviously had enough money to be spending on alcohol. The sudden death of a friend here in Japan from a brain clot also made me think about mortality on a more immediate level, and the New Year, as it usually is for some reason, was a maudlin time for me.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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