Last night I had something of an epiphany.
It was 11.30 p.m. and I was thinking about my mother and father, both deceased for a number of years. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought came into my head: Shouldn't the 10th anniversary of my father's passing be about now? I couldn't have told you the date. Even the idea it was 10 years ago was vague and would have required some checking.
Curiosity took me downstairs to where I keep various files, one on them devoted to Dad. I found the program from the funeral service held in his local Anglican church in Brisbane, Australia. The date was on the cover: Sept, 18, 1998. Here I was just half an hour away from the anniversary date, which had already dawned Down Under. I had been summoned to remember in a wonderfully weird way.
As much as I loved my mother, who had died in 1996, my father was the great influence on my professional life. He had been a journalist and helped me get my first job. He lived just long enough to see me get my own regular column, which began (in the Magazine section) on June 30, 1998.
This accomplishment had made him immensely proud, although he had undoubtedly an inflated idea of its importance. In turn, I felt good because I had given him some cause for pleasure in the twilight of his years. I had written dozens of Saturday Diaries before I was finally given the chance.
Dad was always a funny, jolly man - a student of humor in his own way - and had encouraged all my efforts to write light, humorous pieces, which he thought I had a talent for. (Many critics have since disagreed but for me his opinion still trumps all of them.)
So, called by heaven or fate to remember this date, what can I do to honor him now? The best I can think to do is reprint the column I wrote at the time. It is corny, sentimental and 100 percent sincere. Do not read it if you are looking for a laugh. It tries to be funny - I always try to be funny - but it fails to rise above my then-fresh sorrow.
One PS to the column: My field hockey-playing daughter, Allison, then a student at Sewickley Academy, went on to graduate from Hobart and William Colleges in upstate New York, and went to live in New York City, where she got a master's degree in education at Bank Street college. She now teaches 2nd grade at a private school in Manhattan and still has fond memories of her eccentric grandfather.
THE PRIDE OF FATHERS AND CHILDREN
Date: Tuesday, September 22, 1998
A wise and all-knowing providence gives each of us gifts to enrich our lives. Some of these gifts are big and some are small.
For my part, all that I ever wanted was to be a great athlete. To be able to move with grace and power down the field, with the roar of the crowd in my ears, this was my only ambition.
But instead of becoming an athlete, I proceeded from the earliest age to give new definition to the word uncoordinated. No crowd was ever attracted to see me drop catches and fumble balls. As I stumbled about, only one man could ever be depended upon to come out and see me.
My old man would come. I remember him standing faithfully on a little hill above the field. What a despair I must have been to him.
He had been a great athlete in his own youth, which was spent in China in the grand era of the European concession ports. A fine horseman, swimmer and tennis player, he was particularly proud of having represented Hong Kong at men's field hockey - an impressively esoteric achievement by any measure.
So it was only natural that when I had children, I would inherit the love of going to their games. One always harbors the desperate hope as a parent that your own children will excel in things that you were hopeless at.
And let us be frank: Nothing is more satisfying than watching your offspring outperform other people's.
Now, I fully realize that the purity of children's sports can be ruined by aggressive parents who think they can vicariously make amends for their own pathetic sports failures by yelling "Hey, you guys couldn't go slower if you worked for the government" or "Hey, ref, that kid was so far off-sides he needed a visa to get back into the game."
Not that I would yell such things, of course.
It's not for lack of opportunity. Just as my father did for me, I go to all the games I can. As it happens, my daughter, a high school senior, plays field hockey.
As much as I love to watch her play, I have to say that girls' field hockey is somewhat frustrating. As far as I can tell, it is a whistle-blowing competition among referees. Sheep dog trials have fewer whistles blown in them.
Actually, the referees are not to blame for this. They are fairly enforcing the rules, which, by the way, are generally incomprehensible. The only rule that I know for certain is the one that says, "When exciting, free-flowing action threatens to break out, play must be stopped with a whistle."
It has been my habit to fax the scores of my daughter's games to my father in his nursing home in faraway Australia.
Then, Thursday night, came the after-midnight call that everybody who has an aged parent dreads. It was my brother: Fly home, he is fading fast. Then, four hours later, another call: He is gone.
James Edward Henry, sportsman, father, newspaper man, war correspondent on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters, Reuters chief in the Far East, irrepressibly witty charmer, dead at 96.
At the breakfast table that morning, we struggled to cope. My daughter was very upset and so I struggled to make a joke. As always.
She had a game later that day, so I told her that she had to pull herself together and score for Granddad. This would be the first game he had the opportunity to watch.
"Don't you believe that the dead can see us? I know he'll be watching from a cloud."
To this hopelessly sentimental "win one for the Gipper" remark, she gave an uncertain look as if to say "I'm directly related to an insane person."
How ridiculous and corny. What crazed, grief-stricken sentimentality. Yes, all of that.
But that afternoon, between the whistles blowing like a heavenly chorus, she nevertheless did score a goal for the old man on the distant hill. And in my grief I smiled.