Thursday 27 October 2016

Billy Keane: Strange how you can find a great peace in the loneliest of places

Published 29/10/2012 | 17:00

THERE are times when I feel the presence of ghosts. In my head. I've never actually seen one, but I go to the graves of my friends and family and I talk to them.

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There has never been a Lazarus moment. My dad didn't exactly pop up in front of me and say "Cheer up Bill" or recite the first poem he ever taught us:

Jack and his mother went under a bush

Jack made a fart and his mother said hush.

But I could feel his humour coming through and into me, there by his grave on a nice October day when impetuous summer blooms were fooled into thinking it was waking up time by the late autumn sun. I'm still not 100pc certain whether it was him talking to me or me talking to me.

The very presence at the grave focuses your reasoning. It's not a place where you lie to yourself. In some way it purifies the process. Brings you back to the days when right was so easy to distinguish from wrong. To the simplicity of the child's way of thinking.

The child's decision-making process is the only reliable measure of truth. And you get that from your parents. So it is that they live on in you and yours.

Ah, but if I only had known that years ago, I would have spared myself so much pain and hurt. Others too.

But all journeys lead to the graveyard. Maybe that's why it's so quiet there. Or as one man who owned a site in his family plot and hadn't visited for years said: "Sure, we'll be there long enough."

I find solace in cemeteries. An inner peace. There was a terrible day, when my dad was still alive, and I went to my grandparents' grave. At the time I was on the edge of a cliff, wearing oven gloves for grip.

Somehow I got this feeling they were on my side. Their little baby, Joseph, was in the grave with them. I was given Joseph as my middle name. He died from pneumonia.

The knowledge that my ancestors battled through made sense of what seemed like a hopeless situation. I imagined granddad, who I only barely remembered, had his arm around my shoulder as I walked away.

Granddad was no saint, and neither was my old man, but very often they did saintly things. There was a few quid for someone down on their luck. Given secretly without any hope or expectation of repayment. More important was a kind word. My dad was the man who saw too much. He spotted pain and sadness, no matter how well camouflaged. You remember these qualities at the graveside, but then you think of his human frailties.

When you're a small boy your father is a mix of Superman and God. I remember telling my kids the reason I never took on the Superman job was because there wouldn't be room for the two of us to tog out in the phone box and I didn't like wearing tights.

The problem is that we hold on to this image well into adulthood and even to the grave.

I was recently watching a football match under lights and the referee was giving us a hard time.

My father is buried over on the other side of the wall.

The wide arc of the floodlights bathed my dad's grave in a faint half-twilight. It was as if the lighting director from one of his plays shone a spot on his place of rest. If he was ever to come out from six feet under, it would have been then -- to attack the ref. But he didn't. Of course, you might say, but somehow the remains of the small boy in me was still sort of half-expecting him to lose his temper.

He had a fair old temper, even if it only usually erupted after an intervention not of his making. It would have you on edge, though.

We, meaning me and you, expect far too much from our ghosts. We place the impossible burden of perfection on parents and loved ones, dead and alive.

There's a lot to be said for a trip to the cemetery. Tell the dead you forgive them, if there's anything to forgive. And that you are sorry for asking for and expecting so much perfection. You know now it ain't easy. Every parent lives and dies with the inherent fault lines that crack us all from time to time.

I can't remember if I've told you this little story before. Put it down to forgetfulness or the rattling off of 100 columns a year or more. Anyway, here goes.

MY DAD was on his last legs. He insisted on going to the burial of another John Keane, a neighbour and friend. Here he was at what was a dress rehearsal for his own funeral. In the same graveyard. Even the name was the same.

He was on my arm as we walked out the uneven pig's back path. The old man was as unsure of his thin legs as a newborn foal.

"Do you know, Bill," he said, "it's hardly worth my while going home."

We had a good laugh at that.

Thinking back on it now, it was his way of saying there's nothing to be afraid of here in Necropolis Street, where old ghosts meet, and the neighbours never change address.

We are in the Halloween days now, at the gates of November, the month of the dead. The weather is still kind, but crisper. There's no better time to go easy on old ghosts.

Irish Independent

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