It is coming up to a year since my grandfather's passing away. He was 93, and my sister was with him faithfully during his last night as many before, when, his mind wandering, his soul took anchorage in possibly the first thing he had learned to recite as a child at Ballygilbert Presbyterian Church near Helen's Bay, County Down: the Lord's Prayer. My aunt is collecting reminiscences from family and friends to put together, and when I thought of writing something, there was one incident that stood out for me above all others.
Some very early childhood memories are vivid but very much separate and distinct, and without a sense of chronology. One remembers a mild summer's day and playing with a kitten in the orchard on a blue tartan rug; or crying for the loss of a cork from one's popgun at the end of the garden. One does not, however, remember any preceding or following events. The memory is like a miniature picture in bright colour, sharply and finely detailed but distant. Such a memory is mine, a memory of "Nanda" as his grandchildren called him, paying a visit one evening to our home unexpectedly, arriving on foot. His house was about a mile's walk distant over barley fields and pasture land, but there was no direct path. There would have been a few ditches to jump and fences to climb, some made of barbed wire strung along wooden posts to pen in the sheep where the hedgerows had thinned and could not be trusted to stop them from straying. As we were still living at the cottage at Hillhead, it was certainly before 1987 and I was less than six years old. Something tells me that I was a lot younger. It must have been an evening between late autumn and early spring, for it was already dark outside and I was not yet sent to bed. The fire was lit in the sitting room.
When he came in, his hands were red with blood, and amid the excitement of my elder sisters' talk I gathered that in his walk he had come upon a sheep tangled in barbed wire and had freed it. He must have washed his hands by the time I saw him sitting on the settee beside my sisters, his face as always like the youthful David's "ruddy, and of a fair countenance", his hair snow-white, and his smile... but to describe his smile would be to give a definition of the man and that is an impossible thing. At the time, in my child's mind I did not quite grasp that the blood fresh on his hands was the animal's: I think that I thought it to be his.
There was something about the moment that gave the child a kind of holy awe, something of what I imagine a boy of Greece would have felt if the figure of ancient Nestor had darkened the hall, a man who had known the demi-god Hercules, had seen the siege of Troy and was living still. But there was more than pagan awe of the man half-hero, half-legend in that feeling. Crossing that low hill, those dark, long and lonesome fields already seemed a journey of epic; and then to free and save the life of a struggling lamb, shedding his own blood in unhesitating compassion, made my grandfather in my eyes to be a living image of the Good Shepherd. At that moment, his white hair, weather-red face and smile were transfigured, and I saw the One who "giveth his life for the sheep".
I do not think this vision ever quite left the form of my grandfather, even when the moment was forgotten, and shortly before he died the memory arose again, clear, whole and blessed.