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Our Art, Which Fathered Heaven
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force/ Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse/ She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote/ She’d gone with the man in the long black coat – Bob DylanON SUNDAY – or Monday, if you use the calendar date to mark the anniversary, but, in either case, at 5.05pm – it will be 23 years ago my father died, the same day (and a couple hours short of the same time, to the minute) as Martin Luther King: my father would have been as pleased as a person could be about dying if he knew he checked out on the 25th anniversary of the death of one of his own heroes (4th April, 1968, 6.05pm, US Central Time).
My father was a decent man and a top-notch breadwinner, but, on an emotional level, he was never going to make the short list for International Father of the Year; or, indeed, the long list for TT Father of the Year; in fact, he often struggled to get the nod for his own children’s Father of the Year. Unlike my siblings, and my mother, who have deified him after death, I humanized him while he lived; and I remember how difficult it could be to live with him. Though, like me and my siblings, he rarely lacked material comforts as a child, he had an austere emotional life, and at a time when real men were expected to be repressed in childhood and to drink in adulthood; my father did that very well.
All his professional life, my father repeatedly overcame material challenges that would have shattered other, lesser men. At a time when Trinidadian banks opened their vaults only to those with French names or English accents, my father created a business that could sustain, not just his widow and two of his sons, but the whole clan of offspring and in-laws that followed in his path; and he gave all four of his children a start in life most people would have been thrilled to end with.
In his personal life, though, the poor sap was hamstrung in the starting blocks. Again perhaps unlike my siblings, and for good reasons I wouldn’t share, I remain unsure whether or not my father loved me. He certainly never told me he did, in the 35 years we had together. (One time, he managed to squeeze out, “You are my son and I must love you”.) I think he quite liked me, at times, perhaps even often, and I know he admired me, and that does help; and it’s true that, if I have been at all a good father to my own children, it’s because of what I learned at his hands; but I would have preferred to have learnt it at his feet; there are dead cats I remember today who loved me with more certainty than my old man.
It’s odd, how easily we forget, while we live, the only things that will truly matter, when we die. Today, flush from a flurry of public holidays, few Trinis will consider matters more important than the bag of ice for the beach lime; intellectualism will peak at remembering the Panadol. We choose artifice ahead of art.
But let shots ring out around the Port of Spain Gaol and everybody jumps instantly to what really matters: better Crix and salt butter in a tent on the beach in Toco, with your whole family alive and well, than the finest funeral brunch Joe Brown can throw down at Jaffa.
If my father were on his couch in front his big screen TV in St Ann’s today, I’d take away the Time magazine, the current affairs he always buried his head and heart in, and hand him, instead, something timely and timeless: Mercy Ward, the 1998 collection of poetry by his old compatriot, the great Ian McDonald. And tell him to turn to page 59 (or, coincidentally, to the same page in 2008’s Selected Poems).
And I’d hope he’d get it.
But he’d probably steups, if only to deflect the possibility of tears, and turn back to CNN to see what new firetruckeries Donald Trump was bringing to the US presidential election.
by Ian McDonald
Rich, debonair and completely with it
Young Whittaker, the lawyer,
He got cancer, and would die.
They made no bones about it,
Opened him and shut him up again,
Told him he had three months, no more.
He took it well, you never know who will:
Straightened all his business with his wife,
Set up a Trust for John Whittaker, his son,
Drank the best malt whisky while he could
Played the hero part to absolute perfection.
The sun will boil the earth in any case.
Then he seemed to go a little mad:
He checked himself in here, in Mercy Ward.
Understand, this is for the poorest of the poor
And Whittaker was on his way to being very rich.
He came in alone, not even with his wife,
Signed the forms and settled in his bed:
Visitors who came were most embarrassed.
No plea could budge him; his end came here.
I never found the reason out for sure
(Whoever finds a reason that is sure?)
Turning up the records when he died
I found another Whittaker, named John
Died in Mercy, seven years before.
I puzzled at it, not for long:
Why dig for agonies that are gone?
It lies too near the desperate human heart
To tell for sure how sons and fathers part.
BC Pires is listening to Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy album and thinking of the Man in the Long Black Coat