Each year for my father’s birthday, we usually bunch up and get him something nice. It’s partly so we can avoid doubles – I think his current record is receiving four copies of one album by Northern Irish folk singer Cara Dillon in one year – and partly because if we join forces, the 11 of us can get him something nicer than the sum of our parts. I suppose it’s the best thing about having 11 children. Frankly, I would argue it must be the only good thing.
It certainly marks an improvement on the policy which existed when we were kids, and Daddy had to personally hand us the money we needed to buy him his presents each year. Even at the time, this seemed flamboyantly misjudged. Few financial investments could be as maddeningly obtuse as taking money from your own pocket, handing it to 11 thick but well-meaning children, and expecting them to return with something that you would ever conceivably prefer to the money itself. Giving money to me at age six would have made about as much sense as lending a kebab to your dog; I simply couldn’t be trusted with it, and you’d almost certainly have to disinfect whatever I came back with when I was done.
We’ve gotten much better at gift-giving in our advanced age – this is coming out two days after the event, so I think it’s OK for me to say he’ll love the 18 copies of my book I’ve convinced my siblings to go in on with me – but my dad’s birthday has become fraught for other reasons. I don’t mean in existential terms about his ageing, since he long ago promised us he’ll live forever. I mean how much more I appreciate his labours as I get older.
On Father’s Day, my fond words are interspersed with moments in which we shoot the breeze about parenting, dad to dad, in some pathetic facsimile of fatherly equals. Birthday calls with my dad, on the other hand, usually spiral into long, gibbering thank yous for everything he did to bring us up even remotely sane. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate him before I had a child of my own, it’s just that I was unable to really get under the skin of his achievements until I’d stared directly into the burning fire of parenthood.
This is not unique to me. I believe each of his sarcastic, mocking children have at one time or another stepped on a yoghurt or pulled a small shoe out of the toilet, and felt the need to call him to apologise for… everything. For breaking windows and blocking toilets. For buying him Pokémon cards one birthday because “I was sure you said you loved these”. Forever being children in the first place and, most especially, for all being children at the same time, which does seem highly unreasonable of us.
Realising just how difficult, terrifying, and boring parenting can be, is enough to make us spend the rest of our lives affording him some form of compensation for the job he did. For that he deserves to be thanked, applauded, and showered with every present there is. And so long as at least one is a Cara Dillon album, he’ll be delighted.
Séamas O’Reilly’s childhood memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? – which is funnier than that title makes it sound – is published by Fleet on 22 July, and available for pre-order now at mammybook.com
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats