Recognising that being a Dad is a gift
The airport was all too familiar but something seemed different at the end of a long, draining day in the air.
I didn't realise it until I reached them, but the automatic doors, through which arriving passengers emerged into South Africa, seemed to be in a different place. A new addition to the international arrivals hall must have been completed since I'd last landed in Johannesburg.
Not that I could see much of it. As the doors slid open, a row of bright lights had me squinting.
I could just make out a curved railing a few metres away, but the people standing behind it were mere outlines.
* Empathy is key to a functional society
* How is the world back at this point?
* Let's rediscover strength and richness together
* What kind of society do we want to be?
* We need a more empathetic system
* Communities of kindness popping up
* Kindness the very best way to be
Then, as I briefly hesitated over which way to turn to enter the waiting fray, I heard it, from my left:
Turning, I saw my older daughter, a couple of months shy of 4, running towards me, barefoot, in her favourite pink dress. Barriers are no impediment at that age. As I bent to scoop her up, my heart was full, soaring.
I hugged her tightly, all thought of directions forgotten for a moment, as a couple of appreciative murmurs emanated from the gallery of silhouettes.
There were to be more such emotional moments in the year ahead: me turning to step through customs into an unknown future the following April as she cried "No, I don't want my Daddy to go to New Zealand!" And, less than three months later, watching her run towards me across the arrivals hall at Wellington Airport. Between those, the late night phone conversation with her and her sister on the latter's third birthday stands out.
But it's that moment in Johannesburg, arriving home from a frenetic, sleep-deprived work trip to the Olympic Games, that I've replayed most often.
It's so clear, and still strikes such a familiar chord each time I recall it. At times it has inspired me, and at others it has been a comfort. One of those rare, beautiful moments when I knew how privileged I was to be a Dad, how nothing else could possibly be more important. Without my own Dad's example of acceptance, compassion and wisdom, I may not have recognised that.
I know I'm not every Dad, far from it. I'm a softy, and I embrace that, my father's son. I know there are countless dysfunctional relationships between fathers and children and I acknowledge that and recognise that my daughters and I are incredibly lucky.
There are plenty of people who will read this who'll be from a range of totally different parenting perspectives. They may equally draw on techniques handed down through generations and I'm certainly not about to judge them. There's no single right way to love our kids.
I'm not here to judge anyone's parenting. We're all flawed in different ways, and I'm sure a lot of people could pick holes in mine. It's a deeply personal experience.
But as we contemplate Father's Day on Sunday, I hope you share with me, if you're a Dad, or hope to be, the sense that being a father is a privilege – a massive responsibility, yes, but far more than that, a gift.
We naturally had our moments, my Dad and I. I'm still embarrassed to think now of one of the few times I truly made him lose his rag.
In my first year at uni, I was doing the 1000km trip home for the month-long mid-year break with two friends, sharing the driving with one, who was clearly struggling to stay awake.
Just after I took over for my second two-hour stint behind the wheel, with both my friends asleep, I nodded off too and, to cut a long story short, the car finished up upright, in a field of maize, having rolled a couple of times.
Thankfully we were all okay, but the upshot was that, while we kicked our heels in the tiny Free State town of Springfontein, having called our respective homes from the local police station, Dad left his office to drive more than 500 kilometres to fetch us.
I remember tearing up as I showed him the wreck of the little Mazda that had once been Mum's, before we set off for the return trip. He could probably have done with some help with the driving, but none of us were really in any fit state.
The next night, a freezing June evening, as we took refuge in our heated lounge, Dad asked for some help with the dishes.
It wasn't a big job, but thoughtlessly I answered from my position near the cranking oil heater: "I'm not moving from here."
What an idiot!
He returned to the kitchen, my incredible selfishness not dawning on me until, the dishes done, he walked back in and angrily reminded me of what he'd done for me just the day before.
Then he pointed out that the next day was Father's Day – it's a different day in the Republic – and told my brother and me not to bother marking it, given our earlier attitude.
I sat dumbstruck at my own stupidity for quite some time, before finally getting up and heading down to my parents' room at the far end of our long, narrow house.
He was reading, and as I sat down on the edge of the bed I told him: "I don't really know what to say … I'm sorry, Dad."
His response was instantaneousness, and it made tears well up for the second time in 36 hours. He put an arm around my shoulders and hugged me. Then he said: "Thanks for coming in. It's made all the difference." Not the recriminations I deserved, just reconciliation.
I don't know if Dad did, but I've never told anyone about that encounter before.
I've never forgotten it, though. So slow to get angry, even when it was entirely justified, so quick to forgive. An example to remember.
I am a fortunate son.