Gallant, caring, stoic and so kind: my hero, my dad
I miss my Dad. Every day. And certain times of the year make it a little more acute. The anniversary of his death. Christmas, obviously. And Father's Day this Sunday, even though he was never a man for presents or making a fuss.
He'd only half open gifts, tearing the wrapping paper out of courtesy, peeking inside at the shirt or tie, saying thanks and leaving it to one side for my mother to put away.
Apart from the Christmas we got him the rechargeable torch. He loved that. Got it up and running straight away. Round the garden he went every night, its big beam lighting up paths, greenhouse and rabbit hutches, picking out the route he took over the fields with the dog.
I've never met a man since who'd willingly maintain such a menagerie of pets for me. But he did it with such care. "If you ever keep a pet, keep it right," he'd tell us, as he set off to round up the rabbits after one of their regular runs about the garden. "Broadens their wee world," he'd say, as the dog looked on, appalled and broken with jealousy.
I can see him yet, tending to the injured wildlife that came his way ... hedgehogs, birds, a dormouse, in they all went to "intensive care", otherwise known as the greenhouse, to be nursed back to health. He couldn't kill anything, not even a snail, which would have posed a problem for most gardeners. He found a way round it though. "His house on his back, everything thought of, isn't nature amazing" he'd marvel, as he smuggled another one through the hedge into a neighbour's garden. (Sorry Mervyn).
He was gentle, infinitely kind, maybe a touch sentimental, but he wasn't in any way a weak man.
He'd grown up in the shadow of the war and it informed so much of what he believed in, like doing the right thing, having courage, being tested in the line of fire and not found wanting. He was all that, too.
When he'd had a near call and, still very ill, was recovering in hospital, there wasn't a flicker of self-pity, just reassurance for others. "I think we're over the hump," he cheerily told my brother and I, even though he plainly wasn't.
And when I think of him now I'm often struck by the extraordinary time he lived in, so much of his life taken over by the Troubles.
How terrifying it must have been to bring up children then: warnings to keyholders on the TV, checkpoints, neighbours on their hands and knees checking under their cars. He must have hated that all around us. Maybe that's why he took us out to the Lagan to fish on Saturdays or off to the seaside at every chance.
Maybe, too, it's why he made a point of being so utterly non-sectarian, welcoming everyone to our home; if anything the greeting was all the warmer to "the other side" because it was particularly important they felt welcome, that the gesture was made.
Dads today all seem to be about work/life balance, fretting over their role in their children's lives, threatening to crowd them. My Dad was just there.
He built us go-karts, using wheels from our old prams. He fixed burst tyres on bikes. He taught me how to place a bet and cover my losses. He let me have my first drink from his glass of stout.
He did a great version of Are You Lonesome Tonight? On a wild night, with the wind and rain howling about the place, he'd ask if my car was in. When I said no, he'd call to my brother: "Hey boy" and hand him the keys. Gallant, decent, traditional.
Father's Day gifts? No. He wouldn't want any of this modern stuff, like three quarter length trousers - God forbid! - or serums. Lifebuoy soap, TCP, a shaving stick and a blade kept him immaculately groomed.
After he died my brother told me how my Dad, as a little boy, had been trying to save the runt of a litter of pigs but to no avail. He was sent outside to bury it. Later, it was discovered he'd left its snout poking out of the ground.
Just in case.
Aye, that was my Dad. I miss him.