June 2017, Brisbane, Australia
An old folk saying has it that when a father dies it feels as though half the sky has fallen. This speaks the truth of it.
Our father was the sheltering sky, the wide vessel of our universe.
Beneath his mild firmament no storm ever raged, no hard rain fell. His nature was as gentle as the fallen world is harsh.
All our lives he was both counterpoint and bastion against the trespasses of ill fate and the predations of the ill-intended.
Dad was a gentleman in the literal sense of the word. A gentle man. I don’t recall him ever raising his voice, let alone a hand against anyone. And I am sure we gave him ample reason.
I know the world did.
I have two memories, separated by ten years, but bound together by my father’s hand.
As a boy of five I am walking home from school attended by the grey phantoms of misery and fear. I know that up ahead a bully waits in ambush, as he has waited for me every day, to drink deeply from the intoxicating well of the terror he inspires.
This day is no different, until it is, for when my tormentor suddenly appears, so too does dad, unbidden, unexpected and unhoped for in my abject woe. He made things right. Where before I had slunk along beneath lowering clouds, I could now unfold myself, stand up and fear no more. For there he was, like the sky, gentle blue and mild and infinite, forever watching over me.
Ten years later and I am running home from school. I am covered in bruises and welts, given me by a poor excuse for a man, a Christian brother, whose own poor excuses and wretched justifications for his behaviour will not spare him the prison cell he will soon occupy for much graver wrongs than he ever did me.
Soon. But not soon enough for dad.
While I do not ever recall him raising a fist in anger, I do believe he would have done so that day had circumstance placed him in the path of this bloke. He knew how to raise a fist. He was a boxer in his younger days. But he unmade his fists when he married and raised children. He effected my rescue, again, as he effected all things in his life. Quietly, simply and with a faith in the rightness of what he must do.
He was a man of strong faith, but gentle nature, and he could no more betray his faith or nature than the sky itself could fall.
It is only now he is gone, that we look up and find half the sky gone with him.
It is customary upon days such as this that we take the measure of a man by recounting his works and listing his victories, public and private, great and small. Dad had all of these, but what he did counts for so much less than who he was. Husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.
To everyone he loved, he was the sheltering sky.
You were safe beneath his gentle light and warmth. It feels as though half the sky has fallen, but that cannot be. If you look up it is there. It is always there. Like dad.
Related content: John Birmingham wrote an amazing obituary for his father in the days after his death, published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
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