Three weeks ago, after a long illness, my father, Henry Joy McCracken, died. Here are a few words for him:
What was the kind of him? There was the brittle closed man I knew a child, but he was not without affection. I remember playing on his lap in the front room of our house on the Burn road in Cookstown, amazed at his rough callused hands. I thought all grown men had hands like his until I saw the soft hands of my physics teacher.
What was the kind of him? He was always an old man to me. He disliked photographs. But there was one photograph in the family album I remember, two men under the burning sun: one of whom was my father. He seemed impossibly handsome and confident, smiling broadly at the camera. This was his great voyage, India. It was harder to travel then than today: a voyage was a sacrifice. He made himself an indentured man. He left for five years, came back in one: his father died, his plans were changed for him, he returned home. He never told me to come home, never told me that I should stay in Ireland, always said that I should leave, that it was essential to leave. He was proud of what Sinead and myself had done, of how we had left.
What was the kind of him? He was rigorous in his work, exacting. He took pride in the sharp edges and vertical plumb-lines. We left Cookstown to a new house for us he paid for himself with long hours hefting stone and granite under Tyrone’s low clouds. With him, I learned what real work was, passing many hours in damp graveyards. At lunch, we would eat sausage rolls from thermoses my mother had packed for us, sitting high in the lorry cabin as the rain rumbled on the roof. In his work, he was a man of habit: coffee, lunch times were regulated. Later, when we moved out to the country, I would wait uncertainly for the sound of the lorry in the driveway at the end of a sumer day: I would have to help unloading the lorry. Wheelbarrows, picks, buckets, trowels. One day I asked him: “but why doesn’t Sinead ever help?” His response, “Sinead’s a wee girl” didn’t explain anything to me.
What was the kind of him? Taciturn, quiet, but within him were bright fragments of words, there until the end, even when his illness had robbed all things around him of their meaning. Those shards of verse remained. “The moving finger writes” and having writ, it did move on. By the time I had left Ireland, I had heard these words so many times that I knew them too. “Can storied urn”, he said as the warm rain rolled across the fields, “back to its mansion”, as we hefted granite and limestone, “call the fleeting breath?”, stone and dust and gravel and concrete, “can honour's voice” he murmured, “provoke the silent dust?" And there there were songs, too. “I’ll take you home again Kathleen” he would sing as we shifted gravel and white chips. Much later, “How can you get them back on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?” he would ask me, rhetorically, citing an old post-war song. Indeed.
What was the kind of him? The hard edges in him were dulled by illness and time. The last people that met him found him a soft-spoken charming man who liked a drink and liked, at times, to reminisce about his voyage, or the town that he lived in. Near the end, I would say to him, as he lay on his bed almost immobile, ‘It’s Henry Joy’ and his eyebrows would raise and that deep soft voice would repeat “Ah, Henry Joy” and for and instant there would be a tiny, tiny glimmer.
What was the kind of him? That was the kind of him.