This Man's Life: Caution will not help - only chance will save you from the cruel scythe
A terrible thing came to pass last Monday. (It wasn't that Donald Trump reached a new low on the stage at Hofstra University - and showed himself to be the champion w***er of the 21st Century.) I turned 49. It wasn't a significant birthday like 50. Maybe it felt worse almost for that reason, its ordinariness. Suddenly, I felt really old. Or really not young. Not morbidly so, but you do start to feel that you have reached an age where things don't occur, they re-occur.
I was in London for the millionth time for work and, millionth time or not, I was lost in the Tube station. And lost in my head. Mind the gap. Mind the gaping human void, more like.
Later that night, when I got to Heathrow to catch my flight home, the absurdities of existence in Terminal 2 made my spirit falter further: you need to show your boarding card to the fuss-bucket in the shop to buy a packet of crisps. Whatever about healthy snack options, patience was never my strong suit.
You hope to work out the angst with age. But, like a lot of things in life, it doesn't quite work out like that. You hope you won't get cancer. Crisps apart, you try to eat stuff that will lessen the chances of you getting cancer and dying. It all seems down to very cruel chance. Only chance can save you.
This I say because I found my dad's copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam's autobiography the other night in our attic, aka my man-cave in Portobello. In Hope Abandoned, she wrote about Stalin's Gulags: "We all belonged to the same category marked down for absolute destruction. The astonishing thing is not that so many of us went to concentration camps or died there, but that some of us survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you."
That's pretty much how I feel about cancer.
Then there's the creeping sense of failure within you as the years tick grimly past, bringing with it all these realisations of defeat. Of disappointment. You are not a man of substance, giant wealth and immense moral courage.
When I enter the room, the temperature doesn't change, nor does the traffic stop when I appear on the street. I am not in possession of that magic stuff. People don't pay rapt attention to everything I say.
Of course, I'm exaggerating a bit here but a certain numb feeling does wash over me at these moments. Until my baby shuffles into the room, ranting incoherently, like Donald Trump, about her Peppa Pig books.
Until Emilia arrived, I felt a bit lost and without a proper function in life. Now that she is here, I am hugely happy, for the most part, but on occasion you feel a dreadful sense of your own mortality and the horrors of ageing; all because of her, this chirping, smiling, laughing, pooping bundle of absolute, undiluted joy.
I was feeding her the other night before bed and she gave me the biggest smile in the history of baby smiles. There I was - like knight Antonius playing chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal - trying to work it all out in my head. . .
When she's 30, I'll be clinging on to this mortal coil by my fingernails at the not-so-tender age of 78.
And it will be some stretch of the imagination, some leap into the dark, for her dear daddy to attend her 40th birthday party.
So, when the blessed baba finished her bottle, and I her changed her nappy before putting her in her cot, Emilia kicked me in the face. So that was probably a message from the universe for her daddy: cop the feck on, dad. She is too young for an explanation of existentialism. Not that I could give her a decent one, to be fair. I would prefer her to see life as a triumph of optimism over cynicism.
At the moment - 19 months old - she doesn't possess a single cynical bone in her body. I worry that when she reaches an age that she will require some more-than-adequate advice on life and how to live, I mightn't be the one to provide it. I won't have the magic stuff. What do I know that she needs to know? What if I tell her the wrong stuff? But there is no wrong advice in life because everything we are experiencing is a learning curve.
Even at her gentle age, Emilia brings her own brand of individuality to the world - which is saying something in a society where the knuckle-draggers seem to be doing their best to remove all individuality.
It is my adorable niece Skye's sixth birthday today. I remember my own mother holding Skye in her arms in Mount Carmel on the day she was born - and three days later, my mother dying. It was like she waited for Skye to be born, so she could die in some sort of peace. Though ending up on a trolley in a corridor in St Vincent's Hospital at 80 years of age isn't quite the definition of peaceful she envisioned, pondering the twist of fate that led her there, chaos all around in a hospital.
So I try to remember her in her prime instead.
In my eye's eye, she was a personification of radiance, glittering under summer suns; doling out cream buns and ham sandwiches on picnic blankets in fields, or on cold, stony beaches handing out 99s with chocolate Flakes stuffed in them like the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Or rubbing lotion on my nine-year-old sunburnt back on the seafront in Bray, or picking me up from school in her yellow Mini with the leather roof and my school pals slagging me that my mother looked like Elvis Costello in her sunglasses.
I can't stand up for falling down.