My Father: like some sort of unsung hero…



I only ever saw my Father cry once. And that was when his own father died and the word came through with a messenger from the local newsagent, the only ones in the area with a phone in those days. And he sat down at the top of the stairs, his face still half-caked in shaving cream, and bawled his eyes out.
I was seven at the time and the sight of my Dad, a big, grown man weeping, unnerved me and puzzled me as to what was this thing called Death that could reduce this man to such babbling behaviour.
Dads in those days were strong and self-assured, went out to work — clean-shaven and on a bicycle — and came back at the end of the day with the bread and bacon and were never given to whimpering, or wailing like my aunts who gathered in my house upon news of my grandfather’s death.
Such attributes were the remit of women, looking after the sick and dressing the dead and even bringing life into the world, for when my Father was goaded by his brother into telling my grandmother of my expected arrival into this world, the eldest of three, he returned from the scullery, where she was elbow-deep in white flower, his face glowing with embarrassment.
“Well,’’ inquired my Uncle Paddy. “Did you tell her the good news?’’
“I did,’’ said my Father.
“And …?’’ said my uncle.
“And nothing,’’ said my Father. “She said, ‘Kevin Hopkins, that has nothing to do with you …’.’’
I reckon my Father there and then must have resigned himself to being stoic and upstanding thereafter. For it was only many years later that I saw another side to him.
It was a brief glance, but exquisite. It was the Millennium year, about a week before he died — 21 years ago this month — and he in his 80th year and convalescing with me after his second heart attack. We sat on an old bench, badly in need of a paint job, looking out to the distant mountains. It was, perhaps, a chance to mend bridges but, in truth, there were few, if there were ever any, to mend.
There was an eerie but acceptable silence between us for words now offered little consolation for what we both now knew, and doctors concurred, were his last days among us.
And then he turned to me, his eyes still baby-blue in the puckered and pale parchment of his face, and said, matter-of-factly: “You know son, I’ve always loved you. And I’m proud of you.’’
“I know,’’ I said, “me too …’’
And we embraced briefly and moved away to avoid the awkward moment.
It was the one and only time I can remember my Father telling me he loved me, let alone that he was proud of me. But sure, that didn’t matter for I had always known that he did. After all, had he not gone out to work and brought home the bacon, bought me my first watch and my first guitar and introduced me to Dylan and Yeats and Shakespeare and Dickens. Not bad for a guy who left school at 14, as was typical then. He also taught me to shave and had sung Panis Angelicas so beautifully on the day I wed. That and the myriad other things that dads do daily for their children that often go unacknowledged, like some sort of unsung hero.
Love, as he might have said himself, didn’t come into it. It was a deeper thing than that.
And, so after I wed, I went on to have my own three children. And I the different boyo, the New Man. At all the births, always tactile with them, taking them more places and doing more things with them than my Old Man had done with me, seeing as he had been busy bringing home the bacon and being stoic.
And, grown-up and all as they are now, I still give them bear hugs, pandemic permitting, and never lose an opportunity to tell them I love them. I see a lot of my Dad in my youngest son. The gene is assured. I like to think too that I have passed on the two best lessons my Father taught me — respect yourself and respect others, and never be afraid to seek a helping hand in standing like a man.

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