The Year of Three Winters

Author: Declan Ryan

I never saw myself going to a healer. It was too alternative and off the wall for me. But I was becoming aware of a constant tutting and sighing in my life and if it was beginning to annoy me then God knows it was certainly annoying my wife and three children. Anyway, I couldn’t see an improvement in my mood coming about through my job or the everyday routine so I bit the bullet and went for a bit of alternative. It was just about the most open-minded thing I had done in years.

Mary’s house was the kind of home you’d like to have if you could afford to buy all the art, artifacts and funky furniture that ever caught your fancy. There were huge church candles strategically arranged yet somehow random in their setting. Logs were lined up like a bus queue awaiting their fiery fate. Huge cushions begging to be flopped into were scattered on a large sofa under the window. At a right angle to this was another sofa with a large soft pink blanket totally out of character with its surroundings. This was the psychiatrist couch, the ducking chair, and the place where you laid yourself bare. I started talking, trying to justify why I was here by explaining all the little uncertainties in my life, the entire why not’s and if so’s, the constant moan undertone of my consciousness. Mary let me prattle on and eventually I warmed to the task and settled into the situation. She just sat back with a huge pillow in her lap and began to rub her hands together in a circular motion while she asked me about my “chestiness”. I’ve had asthma since I was a kid and was not particularly uncomfortable that day but she picked up on it and then she began to cough. It sounded rough. “This is you” she said. “Wonderful” I thought, “I’m a real wheeze”. She began to whistle, a low almost toneless sound, a semi-hum and then a full on complete hum. She droned on for a while and I expected her to break into a chant. She asked me if I could feel anything in my gut or my solar plexus, any heat or tingling � I knew where my gut was and couldn’t feel a thing, I wasn’t sure about my solar plexus but couldn’t feel anything unusual anywhere. Then I thought I was a bit warm in the pubic area but seeing as I was wrapped in a pink blanket this probably wasn’t unusual. Maybe I didn’t open up enough and the experience didn’t make me feel at one with the universe but it was a relaxing hour and a half and I suppose you could do a lot worse than just lie there talking about your troubles and woes with a total stranger. I’ll go again. Mary will be glad. At 65 a pop, so she should be.

The train home was full. “Maybe someone will get off at the next station and then you could sit beside me,” said the mother to her young boy who was sitting beside me. I offered to swap and she agreed. The boy moved over beside her and proceeded to drink his Coke from the cap, pouring it all over his trousers, as the train rocked along. “That was stupid,” said the mother taking her nail varnish out of her bag. She started to paint her nails. The boy curled up in a ball and stared out of the window, wet with sticky Coke in his lap. Across the aisle a junkie snored loudly as he held a coffee loosely on his opened newspaper. Maybe he wasn’t a junkie. The newspaper didn’t fit the image. But everybody was watching uneasily in case he spilled his coffee as he drifted off into a deeper sleep. Maybe he was just a guy on his way home, like the rest of us, too tired to stay interested in his newspaper. Behind him, a student had been joined at the next station by her friend who was quite chatty. A bit “horsey” compared to her classmate who was more refined in a countryish way, she talked and talked while her friend nodded and smiled. “Not much of a weekend” she said, “unless you count Olive’s 103rd birthday party”. 103. Olive. Born in 1899. Three centuries. As the train pulled in to my stop I remembered my father was due to go in for his biopsy two days later.

A few days earlier I had celebrated the New Year by watching a traditional swim for charity in the company of some good friends, one who was actually mad enough to get into the water. As I watched the mayhem of fancy dress swimmers splashing and even swimming in the mid-winter surf I thought of my father starting the year very ill and I feared for his future. Now as I walked along the canal on my way home I knew we weren’t going to get good news about him and I shivered. As I walked I noticed the bleak bareness of the trees. Winter was in the full of its health. A carrion crow flew low across the water and hopped down from the bank, searching at the waters edge. The bird lingered in its search for food but was not rewarded. I was lightened by its failure. For these birds grow large on death and decay. As I approached the lock, two swans punctured the greyness easily and I was warmed by the thought that they might nest nearby in a month or two.

The day came and I left work early to make my way to the hospital. The train was packed with people. Mashed into the carriages. Christmas was over and the dreariness of January’s return to work was apparent. I got to share a part of the pole with the largest woman on the train. I studied her. Close up. She did herself no favours by wearing a scarf bunched down her back so that she appeared to be hunched. I looked away. Crammed against the window was a prematurely bald student who chatted up a milky white blonde with a tedious commentary that obviously appealed to his own, and no one else’s, hilarity. I was already miserable as I approached the hospital entrance.

It’s always Sunday in my memory when I remember my father in my childhood. He used to polish all the shoes in the house on a Sunday morning. Shoes were a big part of my life as a child. He was a shoemaker and the smell of polish and leather was always around. Sunday morning has a special smell, even still. When I was small we’d pass by countless Sunday dinners wafting from the houses on the way to my Gran’s. You could almost tell what was on the menu in each house. Probably beef, perhaps chicken, maybe pork. But definitely gravy, it’s creamy sheen ready for pouring on to buttery mashed potatoes. Sunday afternoons smelt of newsprint from the papers that I read back page first � sport still comes before politics for me, achievement before failure.

And sport was the communication of choice when it came to having conversations with my father. “Beckham wasn’t too hot last night, I’ll tell you that,” he said as I walked into the ward. Bit quick with the Big Match I thought. “What “s the Story Da?” I thought, “Cancer” he said, reading my mind. “Prostate. Advanced. Probably secondary”. Me Da never went easy. “How about that?” he asked. I could tell by the lie of him in the bed that he was scared. Any son who sees his father in a sick bed knows that��.knows the reality, the inevitability of demise. In birth and childhood the only thing in life is your mother. In death and life experience the only thing in life is your father. When I left the hospital two jets, their vapor trails pink in the evening sunlight, seemed to be on a collision course. The irony wasn’t lost on me. It was a question of time.

Back at the station people were running for their connecting train, palpably desperate for a seat. I looked down at the platform floor. I had developed a siege mentality. My father’s illness, trouble at work and burglary (we had been visited on Christmas Eve while at the childrens mass), had heightened the sense that I was under fire and cornered. I looked up at a woman. A loud rat-a tat laugh accompanied her as she talked about long standing relationships finally tying the knot�” must be at least fifteen years” she chuckled. I was consumed. The loss of youth � the seemingly endless impression of having to deal with the ageing and demise of your parents and the concern and responsibility of bringing up your own children “in this day and age” and the dangers that have been added on since you, yourself, found a way through it. The search for something new to give you a shot of how good life can be � the perils of marriage and career and how they equally trap and enthrall you. The ordinary things in the everyday that can be somehow be your salvation. I looked across at my fellow commuter. She was young with gleaming white tips to her fingernails. Shining and too well cared for. She wore a white nurses top under her coat�I took her be a beautician�the last career of the 20th century. I looked closer. She had a four-inch scar exactly in the centre of her throat. It was ridged and pink. Not old. It was either the result of an emergency surgical procedure that was not finished well, or she was a very lucky young woman. An older woman sat next to me. In contrast, she had remarkably bad fingernails, the one on her right thumb was yellow and cracked, more like an old man’s toenail, and she kept it hidden under the page of the book that she read. I looked out at the rooftops of Dublin as the train pulled into the station. I decided to go for a pint. It occurred to me that living in and around Dublin had become an uncertain existence for those of us in early mid-life. The famous laid back “craic” that we all enjoyed in our early twenties before Ireland bridged the Euro Gap, had been packaged in the nineties and hyped out of proportion. In less than ten years time Dublin will belong to the older citizen who will watch bemused as the daily commuter rush empties the city of it’s soul. And what of those of us in the middle? Those of us who bought cheap and stayed close? We will sell our parents homes and talk at our dinner parties about being the last link with a culture we tasted briefly in our youth before it was whipped away.


The nurse was dutiful. Busy with task and diligence. Her features were pinched at the eyes – an impossibly narrow bridge at her nose heightened the effect � yet, as her face widened, she had full lips, almost pouting which gave her a curious attractiveness. I watched my father move uneasily around the cancer ward. Move uneasily. Two words put together that I’d never associate with my father. He took the chemo well. It tired him but allowed him dignity. Without dignity we have nothing. I was thankful that evening and went for a walk. It was a balmy end to a day in the middle of April, still and warm. The many strollers and power walkers moved along the promenade as the rowers called out their stroke. At the harbour the bats were out early, dipping and lurching in their crazy flight. The swans rolled out their long necks and bowed to each other in ritual. It was a near perfect ending to an imperfect day. Somehow there was promise in the air and the calm descended.

I dreamt hard. It seems a man must take a journey at a stage in his life when he is between the past (his parent aging), and the future (his children growing). Some journeys last 40 days and 40 nights. Some journeys involve resistance and temptation. Some are filled with irony and “crisis”. Others can be taken on a Harley across Route 66 with your angst-ridden buddies. Or a journey of learning. Some can be put off until you’re 50 when you decide to finally play guitar, for Christ’s sake! But the real journey to take is a dawning of wisdom. Acceptance that you cannot be young again. All you can do is be older. Children are born to you. Parents will die from you. In the middle of life there are many problems � your own, work, your partner’s, health, your children, and a world that changes most of its environments on an almost monthly basis. I decided to view this journey as a long goodbye, which despite the impact, might just be a blessing.

My father neared the end of his treatment and winter came back like a drunken beggar. The balmy evenings had arrived too soon and the promise of leisurely evenings faded in the gloom. I have taken to wearing my overcoat again because the rain is incessant and arrives on a spiteful wind. The evenings are nearing their longest but a certain melancholy prevails. The flowers that should be pomp in their new growth look battered and tired. Whenever a few minutes present themselves to venture into the garden I see jobs put off again by unappealing greyness and bluster. A longing for summer is apparent � the few degrees extra that present a feeling of well being. The sound of children playing long into the day, their hair glistening and wet on their foreheads. You can touch a day like that in summer.


I’m on the train again. My father is positive and living with his cancer. His life has changed forever. He is older before his time but he has lived well and stays lucky despite. An American gets on. He is short and his hair is wiry and grey and in need of a cut. He stands slouched in the aisle of the carriage with a hold all bag drooping at his knee. He has a glint in his eye and the devilment in him is manifest in his bright yellow shirt and brown and white large polka dot tie. The seat beside me becomes vacant and he is offered it by a tall professional 15 years his junior. “You can tell your mother the boarding school fees paid off,” he said, in acceptance of the offer. A few of us in the carriage smiled. Immediately he took up a conversation with the woman opposite who asked him if he was on holiday. “No I’m not “he said, “I’ve lived here for thirty years. Never lost the accent. Haven’t been back since 76” The woman asked him why he had stayed. “Because this place is people orientated,” he replied. “For how long?” I wondered to myself. Later on, after another stop or two, the woman got off and the tall professional took her seat. The American engaged both of us quickly. “In five years time, you two guys won’t give a shit about anything” he declared. We smiled knowingly – some things in life are obvious. He continued to opinionate and was entertaining in his take on life. As we approached his stop he announced that he was about to present the tall professional with a parting gift. I wasn’t to get one having been the only one to have had a seat throughout. He reached into his jacket and removed a hard boiled sweet. He handed it over. “I hope it’s not a laxative” said the tall professional. Everybody laughed.
I got off the train and took a walk on the strand. I was soon deep in thought. Again. The ease of my step on the wet compacted sand contrasted sharply with my unsteady stride in the pebbly shale. I looked across the length of the waters edge. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled up my trousers. As I paddled I noticed the easiness of the sand being washed by the foam over my feet. I wiggled my toes. As I stood and watched the endless shifting of the tide I thought back to Mary the healer’s house and remembered the moods that brought me to her. I thought of my father and realized there are no moods when something is really wrong.