It has been 10 years. And yes, it is true, time flies, and yes, it is true, time can help and time can heal. But it doesn’t mean I don’t remember. I remember every day.
Ten years ago today my father Jimmy died suddenly while pushing a little boat out onto a lake, surrounded by people who loved him. My mother was at his side, handing out strawberries to a group of kids, fruit which only hours earlier was picked by them in their garden. It was a typical scene: lake, kids, boats, food, friendship.
Jimmy collapsed suddenly. My mum asked if he was ok, and he uttered, ‘Yes’. Friends, one a nurse, rushed to help. They tried to revive him but he was gone from us. Just like that. No fuss. This again was typical- the last thing he would have wanted was a fuss.
Ten years is a long time. And not. I remember so well. I remember at the time of his death how hundreds came, telling us how much he meant to them. I remember how, in particular, the children came- the kids of friends, and friends of friends, standing by his coffin, some holding his hand, some tucking little notes under his corpse, saying that he was like a grandfather to them, and they will not forget. I remember how we stood out on our lawn, a bright July evening, sharing stories, singing and playing music as his body lay in wake. I remember the guard of honour which the kids made with oars when his body was being taken from our home- they understood that this was someone to honour. I remember too the moment I saw his body, laid out, serene, still and cold. This was not my father. I ran out of the house, ran and ran, down to the lakeshore beyond the house, and sat there, just looking at the life around me. It was mid-summer. The lake was alive with life. A heron soared. Dragonflies hovered. Rushes and reeds swayed with the lightness of summer. The water was still and glistening, a silver shimmer appearing every now and then as the breeze released of its gentleness. It was far from cold. There was nothing but life here and in that very alive sense of life, I felt my father.
There was grace in that moment and I think that it was this feeling of aliveness, of abundance, and of the wild, unadorned pageantry of nature, in even its most subdued variations, which brought me to acceptance. Somehow I never struggled with a ravaged grief or an angry grief. Mine has been softer; instead a hushed tone of sadness wrapping the knowing that he will never know his grandchildren, or that he has not been there at my mother’s side. I have missed him, missed him so much, but I have celebrated too that he was released from his body painlessly, quickly, with only his life, and not his decline, to be remembered. For a man who gave so much this, in some respects, was life’s gift to him. He died at one of his favourite places on earth: Acres Lake in Letrim. A seat, erected by friends, now sits there, under some trees and simple reads ‘Jimmy’s Seat. 2004’. No fuss.
So, he is gone, but I ask myself, does he live too?
There is not a day goes by when I do not think about him. I search my brain for more memories, and only good ones come. That is all that is there- at least for me. My father was the closest thing to a gentle giant I have ever met. I have always felt lucky, beyond lucky, to have had him as a father- we had a special thing, me and him, a bond I cherish still. Is that a life, in the memory of him, lived now in how I act out the knowing of him?
Or maybe the life now is in the lives that he saved, or helped or brought into the world? Jimmy was a fireman. He joined Dublin Fire Brigade in 1961, when he was 21, and did 34 years of active service. He saved countless lives and helped many others. He delivered a few babies along the way too. Fire, he knew, could take lives in an instant: young ones, old ones, poor ones, rich ones. Life, for all, was that fragile. All it takes is a spark and the right conditions for the flames to flare. He knew this intimately.
Every person has their dark side, their shadow, and I have no doubt that Jimmy had his too. But somehow, he turned quickly outwards, allowing the light in, so that it could come out again, transformed and more resplendent. His was the light born from the dark; the one that knows the grief, the one that has seen pain and witnessed deep tragedy; the one that appreciates the speed of it all.
In his spare time, Jimmy was, for want of a better word, a hobbyist. He had many hobbies, which over the years included boatbuilding, parachute jumping, canoeing, painting, bee-keeping, stained glass making, photography, sand-castle making, deep sea diving, motorbike racing, swimming, grape growing, wine-making, sailing, picture restoration, koi-keeping, bird watching and gilding. Water fights also featured heavily. And pulling funny faces. And bad jokes. Yes, lots and lots of bad jokes. Jimmy taught me how to cut stained glass and make Tiffany lamps, how to smoke bees from a hive, how to develop a photographic print in a bathroom, how to tie up boat ropes and thread different kinds of knots. He taught me how he mixed his paints, how to spot a zebra finch and a wagtail, how to start an outboard engine, how to gild gold leaf onto an old frame, and, importantly, how to instigate a water fight. He taught me many many things, not least, the most valuable lessons of all: how to be spontaneous; how to have fun and how to love. To him, yes, there was nothing but life.
There were some missing parts to him too- the ends of four of his fingers, which he had had chopped off in two separate accidents. He had also, on one occasion, badly burnt his hands in a fire (when he had given his gloves to another firefighter). His hands were forever being cut and scrapped and were layered with various years of scaring, markings of age and giving things a go. Yet, despite his difficulty with his fingers he still he got on with making things with them, always adapting and finding a way to do what he needed to. His pens, for instance, had a wad of selotape wrapped around them so that he could grip them better. In typical fashion, he also found a way to make a joke out of it all, telling kids that he bit nails too much as a child, and, see look what happens!
I remember the moment I heard the news that my father had died. I was sitting in a park in Dublin, with the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, who were playing at a concert nearby, carried on the wind. As the news came, immediately so did three things, or a knowing or clarity.
I am really lucky to do the work that I do.
I really want to have a family.
Love is the most important thing.
Maybe this was his parting gift to me; an edict to live by and strive for. I have carried these with me ever since.
So, he is gone now but he lives too. He lives in the lamps he made and his paintings on the wall. He lives in DNA of my brothers and I, now and my niece and nephew- his grandchildren, pumping through us with the tales of a life well lived. Somewhere, in the memory of the world, he is there, having played his part, well and with little fuss.
Ten years on, we will gather by the lake where his ashes are scattered. We will gather – me, my mum, my brothers, my niece and nephew, to celebrate again, and mark a moment, a passing, and a life very well lived. I intend too to dive into that lake, between the rushes and the reeds, into the dark undergrowth, and swim in her deep depths for while. I will swim there for a while in the knowing that there will be an upwards breach, into the light, into the fullness of summer and the freshness of air. For that is where life wants to take itself – back onto the lakeshore, to continue, if only to admire it all, for there is so much to admire. And, if I can come even a fraction close to ripple effects of his memory, then, yes, that too may be a life well lived.
Thank you Jimmy. I miss you. I love you. You were the best.