As we start into a fresh and challenging decade I am tempted to look back at the last ten years of my life. But even a cursory glance back is enough for me to realise that a great number of chapters were added to my life over the decade – some delightful and others less so – to pore over the details here. (The truth is that right now I have neither the mental energy to relive and reflect on a full decade nor the physical time to document my meditations.) Instead, maybe I can take a peek back at 2009 just to see if it will reveals whether it was, as it sometimes feels now, a year of heavy lifting, or just another typical year in the middle of life.
On the whole 2009 was stressful. I have had to work harder, by an order of magnitude, than ever before. I now work in a small firm whose very survival depends on the next generation of its product which is a couple of years behind the ideal market window. The team is small – about ten – and we have had to work about an extra day each week for far too many months. Perhaps an extra day a week doesn't sound like much, but there was on top the incessant intensity of the work. This is not the place to go into the details of that story, but I think the burden has begun to take its toll on my mental state and even perhaps on my physical health: I have gone down with a number of severe cold/flus over the last month. This might be pure bad luck with what has been a bad winter for bugs, with swine flu and so on, but I feel that I have succumbed more readily this year than before. Just today our boss has impressed upon us the importance of, to use his words, “keeping our foot on the pedal” until the end of January. The trouble is, that was the message for November and none of us believe there is less than another two or three months of heavy hours ahead.
But the main story on the work front in 2009 was that I had some! In the autumn of the year before I was laid off and was very fortunate to start a new job in January '09. To start a new job in in 2009 and still be in it at the end was, given the wretched economic climate in Ireland, a considerable achievement.
But January of 09 brought a more sobering experience too. I visited a friend of mine, I'll call him John, who was severly ill with lung cancer. He had been ill for about a year. I hadn't seen him since about the time he was diagnosed (he was abroad for a good part of the time). His wife let me in and I passed in to the living room where John was sitting with a blanket over his knees. A warm but emaciated smile greeted me. I found it hard to conceal my shock at the feeble, emaciated figure before me. From one angle John seemed to have aged by about twenty years.
Outwardly at least he was in good spirits, and spoke as loquaciously and intelligently as ever. But I wasn't close enough to him to learn the of what must have been his inner horror. His wife showed as much a sign of the strain as he did: she seemed worn and embattled, and it was clearly a big job to manage John's illness both physically and mentally.
John's two teenage children returned for lunch from school. I didn't know them that well, but at least to my eye they hadn't yet realised how gravely ill their father was.
I thought I detected a distance in his eyes when John said that he was now beginning a six month schedule of chemotherapy, and then that “after that we'll see”. (his cancer had already spread and this was his second series of chemo).
Eventually I had to leave to catch a train and at the same time John's wife was reminding him that he was already late for a hospital appointment and that they had to leave immediately. So we left together and I walked them to their car. I said good bye as normal, but it wasn't a normal good bye. I think both of us knew. After I had walked off I turned to look back, and John was slowly bending to climb into the car. That would be the last time I would see him.
I don't know whether John's death caused my perspective on life to shift or whether it merely accelerated a change that was already under way, but over the last year I have been engaged more than ever by nagging questions concerning the direction of my life, my priorities, and what shape real tragedy takes. I have become a bit more anxious, more pressed to realise approximations of happiness, more worried about trying to weave all the ungovernable strands of a modern life into a some kind of reassuring fabric. Probably the biggest change over the last year is a realisation that old recurring dreams should be shelved in favour of more modest, but more achievable destinations. Yet when I do this exercise – banish the romantic to make way for the pragmatic – all I'm really doing is learning to grow old.
But the two greatest things in my life, bean Thomaltaigh, and my son, mac Thomaltaigh, help make growing old a pleasure in itself. They both made 2009, despite all its shadows, a very rewarding place to be alive. Bean Thomaltaigh, possessed of that silent, inner strength, that voracious instinct for life that only women have, was a support without which I could scarcely have faced 2009 let alone survived it. Bean Thomaltaigh is loved and lovable and capable of sustained generosity. And mac Thomaltaigh, now two, is at the right age to be a perfect antidote to self-doubt, age, and existential uncertainty. I see in him the mad, carefree, and relentless hunger for life that is possible only in youth. His disarming innocence, his tumbling and frolicking, all have made our living room a surer and more fun place to be.
[ There was loads more of course, and I hope to come back to this and add a little more later]
When I look at it in the round I see in 2009 a plodding, difficult year. But in the grand scheme of life, it was a year that gave as much as it took. During the year I think I've grown (as well as grown older!). In some ways it was a year I set out to survive, a holding period, a place to seek refuge in a storm, but it gave its joys as well, and even getting to its end, intact, if a little battered, gives a sense of achievement. It taught me (again and more deeply) that this is life – vagarious, relentless, rewarding, punctuated with great joys and wrenching pain, bearable, unyielding, in short, very livable.