I know all my dad's mates. They are the youthful men of my childhood; their now middle-aged children were my playmates. Funerals are some of the only times I see them. We turn up knowing the formula: the apologies among the living for not catching up more often, the sea of dark clothes that ripples as the attendees move and join in the rituals of goodbye. The inevitable question: how to sum up a life in a few minute's eulogy?
Dad's hands shake as he holds the service booklet. His friend's face smiles from the cover. On the back, his friend is pictured as a sombre young man. The few sheets of paper in between try to hold together the story of the years that connect the two images.
Dad leans to me. "I saw him a little while ago. He didn’t look well.' His voice cracks as he goes on. 'He said to me, Friend, I think they're coming for me.' He turned away, gulping back tears.
We don't always know when death will come but at Dad's age, it's closer than most. I have no idea of what it feels like for him to attend a funeral. I can only imagine the thoughts and emotions that engulf him. Overly protective, I flounder trying to work out how to ease his distress. All I can do is rest a hand on his shoulder. It feels inadequate.
In the seat ahead of us, a young mother wrangles a toddler. He looks to be about 13-months-old and he's just found his feet. He explores the world, gurgling happily, while those around him mourn. Suddenly he notices Dad and stretches his arms towards him.
Dad reaches to pick him up.
The bub's mother whispers, 'He's too heavy.'
Dad shakes his head and mouths it's okay then collects him in his arms.
The toddler explores my father's face with his hands, trying to lift off Dad's glasses, using a language all of his own. Dad offers the child his thumb, which the toddler readily grabs and they press their cheeks together, pretending to dance. The toddler laughs. Dad's face glows as he smiles.
Just as suddenly, the bub turns back his mum and leans toward her. As his mother cuddles him, he smiles broadly and watches Dad over her shoulder.
In that small space of time, Dad's tears ease.
It reminded me of something a friend told me years ago—that babies bring their own love to the world. I wonder if that bub sensed a need in Dad, who was a stranger to him.
I'd like to think that my friend's theory about babies' love was right; that somehow the love had stretched across the nearly ninety years between this baby and my father, and given Dad a few moments' comfort.
As the mourners surged out of the church, the toddler and his mum were swallowed into the crowd. We didn't see them again.
Maybe we'll see them at the next funeral.
I hope he and Dad will dance.