It is my father’s birthday today. Unimaginably, he is 76 years old, but like the rest of us, I’m sure there are times when he feels not one iota different from the handsome young man with a shock of black hair, smiling that smile at his beautiful girlfriend ~
I will send his birthday greetings via my mother’s Facebook page. He won’t want to admit that he likes the “new-fangled” social media – but secretly he loves it. After all, he can read his favorite passages from the Bible on my mother’s iPad or Google the answers to questions about the Japanese Maple trees he tends in his garden. Without question, he is one of those rural Derry men. Sure and simple, a craftsman like those who people the poems of Seamus Heaney.
Good with his hands and frugal, da’s artisinal handiwork is the kind that imbues the townlands he crossed on his motorbike. He tells me it began as a matter of economic necessity for them – the farming and the gardening, the turf-cutting and roof-thatching, the baking and dress-making all shaped by and shaping the place where they lived.
Older – and presumably wiser – I have a greater appreciation for their frugality and the way they fixed things. Today, knowing I haven’t fixed the dish-washer or the hole on the patio roof, I wish my da was just down the road. When he reads that I still haven’t done anything about the dishwasher, he’ll wish he was in Phoenix, to fix things for his grand-daughter and me, to paint the laundry room, to wind the Regulator clock, to make the windows sparkle with wads of newspaper and vinegar, mix cement to repair the brick mailbox again, or to show Sophie how to put windshield washer fluid in her car. Naturally, he won’t understand why I don’t understand his sense of urgency over why all these things need fixing. And naturally, I won’t understand why he won’t understand that they don’t.
The truth is that each of us wants to fix the unfixable, to live forever so our children will never experience something as minor as a flat tire or as heart-wrenching as the loss of those we love. We want to stop time, close distance, and find the right words right when we need them.
With so many minutes and miles between da and me, it sometimes breaks my heart to have missed out on everyday conversations and cups of tea, all the bits and pieces of homespun wisdom from the heart of rural Derry, the gardening tips and home improvement projects that would have colored our lives had we lived just up the road. Indeed it is from too far away, relying heavily on photographs and phone calls, brown paper packages and greeting cards, texts and Facebook and Skype, that da has transformed into the grandfather he was so obviously always meant to be, eager for news of his grandchildren’s accomplishments that will be broadcast over hill and dale. Our virtual connection softens the blow of time and distance for him.
He’s sentimental, my da. Seeing the old black and white photos will bring a smile. I can imagine him standing over my mother’s shoulder, reading this with curiosity and anticipation twinkling behind his reading glasses. He will wonder aloud where in the name of God the past seven odd decades have gone and then, under his breath, a “Boys a dear,” before he falls silent, a lump in his throat . . .
Happy Birthday, Da.
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