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We knew love. It wasn’t a matter of declaring it. It was proven.

~ Seamus Heaney


I am part of a tableau of ordinariness in which a cold beer sweats on the kitchen table, and an artichoke simmers on the stove. A man who makes me smile checks for doneness. Again. It is not quite ready, so his daughter adds more water. Laughing and lovely and impatient to eat, she spies an apple and asks her daddy to slice it.  A pause and then a familiar tune – the honing – and I am lifted out of the ordinary. Unbeknownst to them, I have left the scene. I am adolescent and annoyed, stirring to the high-pitched scrape of steel on steel in our house on the Dublin Road, the long metallic strokes on each side of the knife ensuring an edge sharp enough to carve the Sunday roast or a Christmas turkey. Like changing a tire or wiring a plug, this is something my father thinks I should know how to do. It is a simple task, he explains, requiring me only to exert equal pressure on each side of the blade and then ever so carefully to test its sharpness on the inside of my thumb. Over the years, I have tried – driven more by nostalgia than necessity – but I cannot get the sound right.

My father is a maker of things with the “Midas touch” of Heaney’s thatcher and the grasp of the diviner. Once, I observed, awestruck, as Da “witched” water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the wishbone-shaped stick in his hands, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting/ Through a green hazel its secret stations.” Frugal and a fixer, da’s is the artisanal handiwork that imbues the Derry townlands he crossed on his motorbike as a young man in the early 1960s. Ever the pragmatist, he makes no bones about telling me that this began as a matter of economic necessity – the potato-digging, the turf-cutting and roof-thatching, his craft and carpentry all shaped by and shaping the place that produced him.

These days, I appreciate his frugality and the way he crafted a thing to last. In my mind’s eye, he is doing the mental arithmetic, forever sizing up the situation, and cutting no corners. If you’re going to do it, do it right. He wishes he lived just down the road, to make things and make things right again for his grand-daughter and me. He could create the curved mantlepiece I’ve wanted since 1993, or paint the laundry room, fix the hole in the patio roof. I exasperate him more often than not. I don’t remember to wind the Regulator clock he bought me four Christmases ago, and I cannot ever be bothered to make our windows sparkle with wads of newspaper and vinegar. It would be no bother for him to mix cement to repair the red brick mailbox yet again, or to show Sophie how to put windshield washer fluid in her car. He obsesses about such things, and I understand now his sense of urgency over why all these things need fixing.

I understand now because the truth – I think – is that each of us wants to fix the unfixable, to live forever so our children will never experience the pain of loss. We want to stop time, close distance, and find the right words right when we need them. But sometimes we are no match for the thing that cannot be fixed. My father knows this now. 

Two days after receiving the news from Arizona that my husband lay dead in our Phoenix home, I began to pack clothes. An automaton, I filled suitcases with things I didn’t need, things I would carry from Belfast to Dublin and on to chilly Chicago and then to a house full of sadness and inappropriate desert sunshine. Surreal and sedated, I noticed mud caked on my favorite leather boots, presumably from a walk at dusk through the wet leaves and muck of Seamus Heaney’s Broagh. I remember handing them to daddy, asking if he would he take them outside to shake off the dirt. As I did, I knew instinctively – and I was ashamed – that when those boots were back in my hands, they would be polished to a high shine.

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?

What did I know? 

There sat my father, once strong as an ox and stoic – invincible – head in his hands. Overwhelmed by unfair feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, he cried out to God or something bigger and better than he thought he was, 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.

What did I know? 

This. I know this. I love my father and have almost told him as much. Almost, because, as Seamus Heaney explained so well to Dennis O’Driscoll, “That kind of language would have been much suspect. We knew love. It wasn’t a matter of declaring it. It was proven.”  It was, and it is. It is a gift to know this, and for that I am indebted to the teacher who introduced me to the poetry in which I discovered my father, the man – a man who can make things and find magic in the making of them, a man who understands that poetry belongs to all of us and can speak on our behalf. When the right words evade us.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy understands this too, responding here to the devastation of the Haiti earthquake as it unfolded on television:

We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives . . . when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.

Or when a middle-aged woman wants to say thank you to her father for sharpening knives and polishing shoes and digging potato-drills and making sure there is enough air in the tires.

I nearly said I love you, daddy. Happy Father’s Day.

“A Call” by Seamus Heaney

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”

So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . .

Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .

And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

From: The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney.

Appears in the Irish Times Culture section along with two beautiful tributes to fathers.