Being this time of year and all, one particular email, though somewhat expected, still came as a delight to receive amidst the helter-skelter of a season that, for many, particularly reminds us of those we’ve lost. It matters not if you’ve buried someone this year, 10 years or 30 years ago: that particular space at the table on Christmas Day is never truly re-occupied once the light of an integral family figure forever fades. Time dims the memory, perhaps, but it never heals.
In the two and two third years since my father Johnny died, whenever I’m at home, walking his two Labradors, Jake and Dizzy, I can’t help thinking that Dad should still be here, taking his two most loyal of friends into his beloved Curraghmore for a ramble.
But I have to admit, leaving both of the labs out for a ramble, using the leads my Dad used and filling the food dishes my Dad filled, keeps me connected to him. It keeps him squarely to the forefront of my thoughts. There are times when he feels very, very close to me, and I am glad of that.
For a person who grapples with his faith, something particularly tested by the nature of my trade, I’ve found circulating the trails Dad made his own over a lifetime a source of comfort. Yet it still jars when I take off my ‘work shoes’ at home and walk into the kitchen, enquiring if anyone would “like a cup”, and knowing there’s one less teabag to drop into a mug. Nothing adequately prepares you for the shuddering loss of a parent. Absolutely nothing.
Anyway, back to my recently received email, in which a good family friend recalled the works of Patrick Kavanagh, whom, I was told “wrote often and beautifully, about the meaning of Christmas and the presence of God in our lives”.
In an alternate timeline, for ‘Raglan Road’ alone, as sung by Luke Kelly, my Dad would have sternly and warmly shook the hand of Kavanagh. Dad often questioned the relevancy of poetry, yet he loved that lyric, just one of many contradictions which made my Dad the man he was.
“He didn’t fear a judging God,” my friend wrote of Kavanagh. “For him, the Maker of an astonishing creation, could only be a beautiful and loving God, a tender Mother who ‘caresses the daily and nightly earth.’ The miracle of continuing Creation, of the renewal of the world each day and each season, filled him with a child’s wonder. ‘And in the green meadows,’ he wrote ‘the maiden of spring is with child through the Holy Ghost.’”
To celebrate life, to celebrate living, is probably something we are all guilty of not doing enough of. For me, the pews of our churches would be altogether more populated than they are nowadays if it was a place we associated with belly-laughs. Indeed, the chances are that, in the majority of instances, the most raucous rib ticklers we’ve experienced inside a church have been reserved for funerals. That may well be a time when we need them most, but funerals should not be the sole reserves of church-based ‘jollity’, however temporary it proves at time of peak grief. Most of us sit in church with poker faces. This unwritten rule needs undoing.
As my friend reminded me, Kavanagh’s most quoted lines are: “God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday: A kiss here, a laugh again, and sometimes tears.” So if we could all do one more thing in 2019, might I suggest laughing more. Save the stony face for test results.
With a so-called landmark birthday on the way, it has occurred to me that I must continue to rally against institutionalisation (as I approach my 20th year writing for this august tome) and kidding myself that everything was better “in my day”. The 1980s featured a lot of brown jumpers, duffle coats and Darrer’s bags. Sure, it was far from Frank McCourt territory and I never grew up thinking I’d somehow missed out on something, but there was a certain level of grimness associated with growing up in the Ireland of CJ, Garrett and bombs every other day in Northern Ireland. I happily grew up with an acute appreciation of the countryside, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to my Dad and his father Jimmy, whose 30th anniversary we’ll mark on Christmas Day.
As my friend’s email reminded me: “Kavanagh invites us to look at the world and to see beauty, in the things we take for granted. But he does more than that: he goes beneath the beauty and shows us, the inner meaning, ‘Until one day, we will recognise the face of our incarnate God of surprises and disguises everywhere.’”
I’ve been walking dogs for as long as I was allowed to walk down the road from home on my own. For a time, particularly during my teens, it was a chore, something we had to do. But nowadays, and with a small one of my own for company, I revel in what is a stunningly ordinary act. I’m retracing steps that my Dad walked with me, that his Dad walked with him and in so doing keep the generational binds taught and relevant. And to me, that’s a gift that keeps on giving.
My friend’s email concludes with a reminder offered by Kavanagh, in his poem ‘Advent’ “that when the Christmas carols are over, the incarnate melody of the daily psalms begins – the music of life continues to touch our souls every day, if we are attuned to the beats.”
So laugh more, embrace the ordinary and honour those we’ve lost but still love by putting value into every day we’re given. And to all, a good night…