This winter Sunday, I woke to the high-pitched scrape of steel on steel, my da sharpening the dull bread knife because “it wouldn’t cut butter.” The long metallic strokes on each side of the knife instantly transported me to our house on the Dublin Road a lifetime ago, my father making sure the knife was sharp enough to carve a Sunday roast or a Christmas turkey. Like changing a tire or wiring a plug, it is something he thinks I should know how to do.
Regarding the bread-knife, he says I need only exert the same pressure on each side of it and then ever so carefully test its sharpness on the inside of my thumb. I have tried – admittedly driven more by nostalgia than necessity – but I just can’t get the sound right. My mother can’t do it either, nor has she ever tried. Without my father, I suspect the knives would quickly dull.
Packing clothes to prepare for the journey from Belfast to Dublin and on to chilly Chicago and then to a sad little house full of Arizona sunshine, I noticed mud caked on my boots, presumably from a walk at dusk through wet leaves and muck in Heaney’s Broagh. I handed my boots to my father and asked if he would take them outside to shake off the dirt. In that minute, I knew instinctively – and I was ashamed – that when those boots were back in my hands, they would be polished to a high shine.
Twenty-five days later, it is an indelible image in my mind – my father, strong as an ox and stoic, his head in his hands, alone and crying, overwhelmed by unfair feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, that all he could do in that spot of time was polish my shoes, the way he had done so many times when I was a child. My heart broke for him.
Sitting on the stairs in my parent’s house in Castledawson, the boots gleaming in my hands, lines long memorized from Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” filled my head:
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. ... Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?
In these early days of whatever stage of grief I’m supposed to be in, I hope I am not speaking indifferently – as I have done in the past – to loving parents who are searching for the right way to comfort their widowed daughter, who are wondering with me how they can make their only granddaughter’s 16th birthday impossibly less sad as another “first” milestone without her dad. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with Christmas and New Year’s Eve. How can it be just over a year since we set off fireworks at the end of our street, giddy and full of good cheer for 2013?
Today, I feel like a barn sparrow in a nest and in spite of years of practice and watching others do it so effortlessly, I cannot remember how to fly. The timing’s off. Twenty-five days ago, the clocks all stopped. Of those days, there were some when I could not speak. It was easier to set the words down on a page even though none of them was right. I would type a word or a phrase. And then delete. Delete. Of all the millions of words we have, there is not one that can do the job properly.
For my birthday several years ago, my husband bought a beautiful fountain pen. I had told him I wanted to resume the practice of writing in my diary each evening, and I wanted a good pen that was up to the task. With a nod to my teachers at Antrim Grammar School who only accepted work written in ink, I would use a fountain pen. I remember he looked at me over the tops of his glasses and asked me if I thought I was Bridget Jones. Oh, Ken, you would love the irony. Mark Darcy is dead, and Bridget is a widow. And, she’s 51. Seriously.
While I did not use the pen as much as I had hoped, it is always within reach. When the cancer barged in two Novembers ago, along with it came a compulsion to write. But not with the pen. Thanks to a night class taken at Antrim Tech in 1980, I am a very good typist. Ken loved that I was writing again, even though it meant I retreated into myself for hours at a time and half the time, I never found the right words anyway. I suppose I was trying to do what Seamus Heaney talks about in “Personal Helicon” – trying to “see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” To see myself; to turn inward and then outward again as a woman changed again.
If we knew when these changes were coming – the sad milestones in the middle of lives being lived – would we do things differently to help soften the blow? Would we remember to say thank you to a father for sharpening knives or polishing shoes or making sure there was enough air in the tires? To a husband for making sure his wife takes her cancer medicine at the same time every night? I don’t know.
I am the family photographer, the historian, the collector and curator of the documentation of our lives – love notes, scrapbooks, concert tickets, handmade birthday cards, photographs; letters to and from Zoe, a Tooth Fairy that lived in the mesquite tree in our back yard along with her pixie pals, “good” lists from Santa Claus, cards from the Easter Bunny, and other figures that feature prominently in a little girl’s life; postcards from far away places, my mother’s recipes, newspaper clippings about people we know in Antrim or Derry, and handwritten airmail letters from home.
In 2011, my daughter and I made a Father’s Day scrapbook for my husband. I chose the photographs, and she wrote the text that included thirteen things she loved about him, one of which was this:
“Every year of my life, your steady hand has lit the candles on my birthday cake. Thirteen wishes … shhh.”
With his steady hand, he would light the candles on only two more birthday cakes. And our steady smiling girl, just fifteen Christmases of age, would make reasonable wishes.
It never occurred to me that anyone else would light the candles on her birthday cake, or teach her to drive, or pick her up after school the way he did every single day for ten years, or hold her hand when she got cold in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, or tell her to bring the stale bread to the park so they could feed the ducks and incur the ire of two angry geese they had christened “Fight and Bite.”
The empty chair at the table, the first Christmas card to my husband and me from someone who doesn’t know yet that he died, the first tree ornament we bought in 1990. Sorting through stuff in recent days, I noticed that when I was away, he made sure to fill the prescription for my cancer medication so I wouldn’t have to miss a day, he recorded The Daily Show for me, and he had a note to remind the landscaper to plant the annuals.
Oh, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?