It's a strange old sensation watching your retired, ageing parents clearing out their house, painfully filling endless boxes for the charity shop and the local recycling centre with the ever-eclectic mix of objects that have come to define who they are. From childhood stamp collections to career contracts; from the Eagle Annual to degree certificates.
"Do you want these?" My dad asks me.
He points my attention to three shoe boxes of 35mm slides. I want to say yes. But I don't. He breathes out with an air of dejection, as if my no response is the sum total of his life. And that is when it dawns on me: sitting in front of me, surrounded by piles of old books and files and boxes of 'stuff', is a man who is looking back through a life he considers to be distinctly indistinct.
For him, every book is an interest unfulfilled; every folder is a project that never took off the ground. One by one, he uncovers decades of hopes and dreams; the book that never got written, the musical composition that never got recorded, the business idea that no one ever believed in. Indeed, the 35mm slides that never got viewed. For him, everything in his living room represents the life that got away; a personal story of underachievement; the great man who was never recognised in his own time. And now time is slowly slipping away. In the fast-paced modern world of Smart phones and social media, he simply feels he can't keep up.
The saddest part, of course, however, is that whilst he wallows in his life-time of 'failed' attempts, he fails to recognise that he was the best dad in the world. Yes, there were times when he was annoying, and sure, there were times when he was embarrassing (and I'll never forget the time when he banged mine and my brother's heads together, literally), but he did come to all my screechy violin recitals in primary school year in year out, and he did look after me whenever I was sick, and he did listen to me whenever I needed a shoulder, and he did take to me wonderful places around the world and open my eyes to new cultures and different languages, and he did teach me to respect myself and the community in which I live, and he did inspire me to always give my best. And not just me, but my brothers, too. And the hundreds of others he has met across his eventful and varied life in community gardening, street puppetry and water recycling.
In short, there is plenty he did achieve. He has inspired, touched and changed many lives on his journey through. And to all these people, he certainly was a great man. And still is. Only, these achievements he won't find in a lever-arch folder or among a pile of papers. These achievements are not listed on one of his many degree certificates. These achievements do not make an investable business proposition. They are altogether harder to quantify. By their nature, they are more difficult to recognise. Indeed, they are harder to find.
Perhaps it is worth looking at those slides after all. Because they hold the clues. Each one a memory of success and accomplishment to all those he has helped and loved.
"Ok, dad," I say before leaving. "Give me the shoe boxes."
I'll store them in my loft.