Today I am three score and ten. Not quite ready yet to fly away, but certainly aware that more of my life is now behind me than up ahead
What has life taught me? Three things. There may be more, but three will suffice for now.
The first thing I learned was that Mother knew best. My father knew a thing or two as well but my mother was the one who – consciously or otherwise – pointed me in the right direction.
My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six. She knew nothing about music but she sensed – rightly as it turned out – that I might have some incipient talent worth cultivating when I started rocking in my crib in time to the music on the radio. After I had taken piano lessons for seven years she got me a paid gig as organist for our church. That pointed me in the direction of eventually drawing on music as a secondary source of income. Mother knew best.
My mother taught me to touch-type. How did she know this clerical skill would one day stand me in good stead when I became a journalist? She didn’t, of course. But she probably knew that in the years to come the ability to type a letter without looking at the keys would bring me as much satisfaction as playing the piano without looking at the keys. Mother knew best.
The second thing I learned was to trust my gut.
When I was in my early 20s, I worked for the Irish civil service as a customs and excise regulator. The pay was good and the benefits were generous. But my gut told me the job wasn’t right for me. My gut also told me that Ireland wasn’t right for me. So I quit my job and immigrated to Canada. My friends told me I was crazy but my gut told me I was right. Trust your gut. What did my mother say? She hugged me close and said, “Look after yourself.”
When I got to Canada I had an opportunity to go on the road playing music – singing Irish ballads as one-half of a recording duo named the Dublin Rogues. My practical-minded father thought I should look around for something more stable; something more like the Irish civil service perhaps. But my gut told me I should try making it in the music business, at least for a while. Trust your gut.
I met the woman of my dreams while playing a gig in Halifax. I knew within a short time that I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn’t talk to my parents about this. They probably would have told me to wait until I had a stable job and money in the bank. My gut told me I should get off the road and settle down with this wonderful woman who would soon become my wife. Zelda and I have been married now for 45 years and we have an amazing daughter, Nico, who is the apple of our eye. Trust your gut.
The third thing I learned was to follow my dream. This is a slight variation on trusting your gut.
Life, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the actual show. Find what you love to do and go do it. If you don’t like your job, quit and try something else. If you don’t like the second job, quit and look for a third.
My father was a civil servant. My mother was a civil servant before she married my father. They both believed the civil service was the best employer in Ireland. That’s why I joined the civil service; I was following their dream.
But I wasn’t following my dream. My dream was to play music and write stories. I didn’t know if this dream would butter any parsnips for me in Ireland, so I moved to Canada to pursue it. Within a few weeks of arriving I had a regular piano-playing gig at a pancake house in Burnaby. I spent my first Canadian summer in Dawson City playing nightly at the Palace Grand Theatre. I followed that with a year on the road playing nightclubs from Toronto to Halifax. Follow your dream.
When I quit the road I went to journalism school. That brought me a job at a newspaper, writing stories. That’s all I’ve done ever since: write stories. Today I market them on the Internet, which is the way everyone does business in the 21st century. I still play music from time to time but that’s now mainly for pleasure. Hauling keyboard equipment to the gig is no longer my idea of a good time. My musical friends keep telling me that the manufacturers are coming out with lighter and lighter gear every year. Maybe I’ll get me one of those feather-light keyboards before I give up the business entirely.
So there you have it. Three lessons that life has taught me during my 70 years on this planet.
I don’t like to think about death. But it’s the destiny we all share so I have to think about it sometimes. When I was in my 20s I bought my first life insurance policy. The broker offered me a hypothetical rationale, something along the lines of “How would you look after your family if you were diagnosed tomorrow with a terminal illness or were to get killed in a traffic accident?” Nobody of my generation actually believed that our families would ever have to deal with such a morbid prospect. Now it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. It’s a reality I have to face: My life will end.
I am still blessed with reasonably good health. My mother died of colon cancer when she was 62, and I used to worry the same might happen to me when I reached that age. Now I savour every moment, cherish every hour, enjoy every day. Life is more precious to me than ever so I try to focus on the good things – love, family, friends – and forget about the stuff that ultimately I have little control over anyhow. What the politicians might be doing to the economy or what industry might be doing to the environment is still a concern. But at the end of the day it will have to be somebody else’s concern. I will have done my bit. I cast my ballot and I rode my bike.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of an American aunt and uncle who were good to me when I first came to Canada. She is now in her late 80s; he is in his early 90s. Their oldest children are in their late 50s. At first I didn’t think I would go to the anniversary bash, in Rochester, because of the distance and the cost involved. But now I’m glad I did. Family and friends, more than 80 of them, came from Ireland, Alberta, Ontario, California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some I hadn’t seen in eight years. We shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughs. I came away with one more life’s lesson to add to the three I’ve given you:
Family comes first.
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a few weeks before I went to Rochester. In the first poem of his first published collection he wrote about his father, who dug potatoes, and his grandfather, who cut turf:
I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
In another poem, Heaney wrote about his aunt, describing how she baked bread:
And here is love
Like a tinsmith’s scoop
Sunk past its gleam
In the meal-bin.
He wrote about his mother:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
And, in a poem reprinted by the Irish Times on the day after his death, he wrote about his four-year-old brother, killed in a road accident when Heaney was away at boarding school:
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.
Family comes first.