Hero workshop

Those of us who have a good relationship with our parents can remember the time when we realised our dads were not, after all, heroes. I was around 10 years old. It was night time and we were coming back from an evening out, all four of us. It wasn’t such a huge incident compared with those who’ve been less fortunate: we’d parked and were walking to our apartment block when we saw someone being beaten up. We took him upstairs to our flat and my folks bathed his wounds and called the police. The guy couldn’t stop crying (stark memory of this grown-up young man sobbing) and nothing my parents said could calm him. I remember Dad looking so worried and I suddenly had the realisation that nothing had been able to stop the attack, and nothing would stop another one. The flat didn’t feel safe, and Dad was no longer wearing his pants over his trousers. (Actually, the same event taught me about the kindness of strangers, and another thing too – that if someone is too scared to thank you, it doesn’t mean they’re not grateful.)

Well, there goes my hero just now, packed into a cab after three weeks of top-quality Dad/Daughter time. He’s mid-70s, I’m mid-40s, and we’re neither of us too old to get a bit wet around the eyes on departure. SmallMonkey (reverting to diminutive name forms for sentimental moments) is sobbing in the shower as I write – proper small-boy sobbing – and I’ve had to sit down in a quiet room alone and take a minute or two.

I’ve talked about this business of minding the gap before, each time Dad goes – about how empty things are without him, how I miss his way with nature, his passion for education, the energy and enthusiasm that comes with him into our home and is unpacked all over the spare room, seeping into everything we do with a happy stain, and I realise I might be painting him out to be some kind of idolised Dr Doolittle, but I know he isn’t. He’s a good friend, though, increasingly so.

This parent-child friendship – those of us lucky enough to have it – comes later, doesn’t it, after the anti-hero teen angst has passed (if all is going to plan). By the time I was at college, and people were telling stories about their bonkers parents with cool habits and funny ways, starting sentences with: ‘Oh my folks are just SO HILARIOUS’, or, ‘Oh you know what parents are like!’ – I already had the strong conviction that no-one else’s parents would ever be quite like mine.

He’s not perfect, though, he has faults like everyone (the outdoor table still has a scorch mark from one of his experiments, and I’m happy to see the back of the bathroom bunting of pants, hankies and flannels), but the amazingness doesn’t seem to be fading with age, it just gets stronger. And delightfully, it all gets passed down – most noticeable this trip was the growing friendship between Dad and Grandson: proper chats, proper holiday room sharing, lots of shared schoolwork and the sort of general mellow hanging-out vibe that you see in feelgood films. Nice work, family.

You can’t really ask for more than a Grandpa who borrows your waterpistol to chase away oriole pests threatening the bulbul nest that’s just under your balcony, can you? Who else even notices there’s a bulbul nest under the balcony? We thought it was all just tropical squawking until Grandpa revealed there was a whole bird battle going on in the condo clearing, right under our noses, with bulbuls, starlings, mynahs and orioles battling it out for leadership. Who else has a Grandpa standing by to take a water pop right over the downstairs four-piece table set? I don’t think Jonah’s condo friend, popping round to play last Sunday, is ever going to forget the sight of one pump action Nerf and two smaller waterpistols all set up to go, aimed between the wooden railings at the big palm as the orioles hovered in wait. Yep, he’ll be back again, soon as his mum lets him.

Since we moved here in June, I’ve had no idea that the mad after-dark frog noise outside is a nightjar, and that there’s a dollar bird in the tree at the end of the road. The huge black bird dragging something stringy in its claws hadn’t caught something, it was just a racket-tailed drongo and that’s how they look. Nettles are like tiny glass needles, did you know that? Over at Haw Par Villa, those funny old tortoises in the pond are eating all the fish, so don’t feel sorry for them. And the carp at our own condo, meanwhile, are not sweetly coming up for feeding time, they’re gasping for oxygen, so I’ll need to get onto that.

I’ve talked in other posts – here, here and here – about how time with Dad helps me see things in a different way; how I spend the entire time quietly taking notes. You’re never too old to learn. And you’re never too old to crumple into a heap when your hero has to get in a cab to Changi. Better pull myself together, there’s a nest to look after.

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