I first saw my dad cry when his father died.
Pop spent his last days in Coburg Hospital, Melbourne. Dad got the train down from Cobram in country Victoria to say a final goodbye. Each of his siblings had their time, then in we went.
Pop was unconscious and pasty-faced, thick tubes hanging from his mouth. We hovered over the bed and dad gazed down at his father. He held his hand tightly, gently rubbing thumb over knuckle. I noticed, for the first time, that they had the same hands: large, rough and deeply palm-lined.
“You’re a tough old bastard,” he said.
I felt uncomfortable as dad gripped Pop’s hand even more firmly. Minutes went by and nothing was said.
Then, as if out of the blue: ‘I’ll never see him again…”
The old man was choking up. Tears welled in my eyes as I wrapped an arm around him. “It will be alright,” I said.
It was weird to see dad vulnerable; an unfamiliar raw nerve had been exposed. Dad had always provided and protected and stayed strong. The spectre of death had penetrated his leathery veneer.
I found myself focusing on those hands, still clutching his dying dad’s.
On my shoulder as I entered another new classroom, the result of another bank transfer.
Reaching into his jacket pocket as he walked in from work and producing a new set of footy cards.
Guiding my first attempt to reel in a redfin from the Murray River.
Steering our car, full of scab-kneed boys, to little athletics, junior cricket and junior football.
Placing a wad of beer tickets into my palm as a pimply 17-year-old at the footy club. “Don’t go overboard,” he’d said.
Back in the hospital, we held the moment a while longer before leaving Pop for eternity. Three generations, a love that carried through the ages, but never outwardly shown. What was that Mike and the Mechanics song again?
Afterwards, I drove dad back to Cobram. He had a few beers and became chirpy again, reeling off stories about his father that I’d ever heard before. Several times he thanked me for driving him home. I shook my head and told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was the least I could do. I could have done it a thousand times over and still felt indebted to him.
Fast forward a few days and we were hauling Pop’s weight out of the church and into the back of the hearse. There were six of us: four of my cousins and my father and I. We were up front, straining with the emotion and the weight.
At the gravesite, the bugle man played “The Last Post”. I had my arm around Nan. She rested her tired, sad head on my shoulder.
Being a pallbearer was one my proudest moments: being shoulder to shoulder with my dad and playing an important part in my grandfather’s farewell.
The experience stayed with me, strongly, until the circle closed and I became a dad for the first time.
My first daughter Edie didn’t have to wait long to see me cry, however; I was in bits the moment I laid eyes on her. But don’t lose hope, dearest forefathers: I managed to fight back the tears the first time I handed her over to dad for a nurse.