THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY
MY DAUGHTER’s middle name is Lee, spelled like the original English version of the old Chinese surname, not the fashionable modern Li or the more “Hollywood” Leigh. She was named after the most contented man I’ve ever met.
I wasn’t 19 years old yet and was about to start my LLB. I was doing the unpaid minor labour at a solicitor’s office that’s called “interning” now but was even less rewarded then: I had to buy my own Cokes. The lawyer, “Uncle Lutch,” my father’s friend, realised his conveyancing practice – he made a fair bit of money out of very many very small land deals – wouldn’t hold my attention for a whole long vacation and took me over to a barrister friend’s chambers and kind of left me there for the summer.
The most remarkable thing about Lee was not his lightning-quick mind, his ability to invent a formidable legal defence or his easy concentration for exhaustingly long periods; it was his relationship with his son. The bonds between fathers and sons usually become strained at adolescence. Up to then, your son wants nothing more than to be a smaller version of you; and you know in your heart that you were primarily responsible for his life. When he’s 13, though, if you buy a Kendrick Lamar CD, your son will put on a Katy Perry T-shirt.
And, for the first time, you realise that the real connection between the two of you is not so much that you think you created his space for him as that he’ll certainly take your place.
People write poetry about it.
“Strange case/ Rich, debonair. Young Whittaker, the lawyer/ He got cancer, and would die… 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/… 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/ …He came in alone, not even with his wife/ Signed the forms and settled in his bed/ …No plea could budge him; his end came here/ …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.” (Ian McDonald, The Cancer, from the collection Mercy Ward.)
It lies even nearer the desperate human heart how fathers and sons stay together.
“Below the picnic plaid/ of Scarborough is spread/ To a blue, perfect sky/ Dome of our hedonist philosophy…I labour at my art/ My father, God, is dead/ Past thirty now I know/ To love the self is dread/ Of being swallowed by the blue/ Of heaven overhead or rougher blue below.” (Derek Walcott, Crusoe’s Island.)
The day I met Lee, more than 40 years ago now, I also met his teenage son. Lee was holding forth, over lunch at a conference room table that sat a dozen, all listening raptly as Lee told hilarious stories – and, all the while, his son stood at his side, absent-mindedly stroking Lee’s bald head.
I searched in my own head for a friend who would pat his old man’s head; I couldn’t even come up with one who didn’t sneer at his dad behind his back. I admired my own father at the time but it was more likely I’d give the Pope a ha----- than pat his head. Or even touch him at all.
You can’t hold your place in the chain of life if you don’t intuit when you yourself become the weak link. You should never go gently into that good night – but you have to stop raging at the dying of your might. Your departure is the final recognition of your child’s arrival.
Last week, my own grown son came back from London – to see his girl, not me – but, serendipitously, the trip accommodated my birthday and Father’s Day.
He’s not yet 19 himself.
He slept late the first morning and didn’t emerge until after the second half of the UEFA Nations League England v Switzerland third-place playoff I was watching, alone on the couch.
He stood behind me and asked about the final between Portugal and the Netherlands.
As he talked, he absentmindedly stroked the head I’d just shaved clean as a whistle.
My daughter was named after Lee, the most content man I’ve ever met; my son came after her and is named after my father, who I could never be sure ever found genuine contentment.
On the screen, Dele Alli leapt at a Raheem Sterling cross and the crossbar shuddered.
“What do you want for Father’s Day?” asked my son.
I angled my head to look up at him.
“I’ve got it already,” I said.
BC Pires is in the shelter of a Lee shore. Happy Father’s Day to all on Sunday a la Derek Walcott. Read a longer version of this column on Saturday at www.BCPires.com