Paraic O’Donnell: MS is meticulously destroying me. I am being unmade

Fading blooms. Photographs: Paraic O’Donnell
The Last Garden: On light, beauty, nature – and MS
In this moving essay, the writer charts THE PROGRESSION OF HIS MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS against the changing seasons 

I

Gardens have always been about dying.

Forget the beauty. The beauty is how they get you. Just ask Adam and Eve.

Look at all of this, God told them. Isn’t it beautiful? All these rivers, every kind of tree. You can even eat the fruit. Oh, except that one. The Tree of Knowledge? You eat the fruit from that one, trust me, you’ll know all about it.

Yeah, he was a real character, God. He was all about the laughs.

But Eve already knew a thing or two. First, she knew this was no kind of life. Made from a rib? To be some dork’s helpmeet? Yeah, no. Not feeling it.

And Eve knew something else, deep down. She knew what all gardeners know: that trees bear fruit because fruit carry seeds; that trees bear fruit because they’re dying. She knew that this whole thing was a setup, right from the start.

September, this must have been. That’s when it starts, always. When you first figure it out. It’s when fruit ripens, when all that beauty starts getting its affairs in order. It’s when you realise how this ends.

The calendar of the First Republic was adopted in the autumn of 1793, while the guillotines of the Reign of Terror were still dripping. The first month of the French Republican Calendar would be known as Vendémiaire, named for the grape harvest. Its first day corresponds not to our 1st of January, but to the autumnal equinox, which fell in their estimation between the 22nd and the 24th of September.

September was when it started for me, too. September, seventeen years ago.

I had planted my first rose, in the garden of our first house. Now, this garden was about the size of a Twister mat. It had a north-westerly aspect (not a good thing) and consisted mainly of builder’s rubble and aspirations, but still, I was serious already. I had hauled out the RHS Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and decided on just the right vigorous climbing rose for that position by the terrace. Well, where the terrace would be, eventually.

It had even flowered that first year, in a small way, leaving a meek handful of rosehips to fatten in the late sun. It was even setting fruit.

And then it happened. The inauguration of the revolutionary calendar, the banishment from paradise.

On 23 September 2002, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Vendémiaire, month of harvests. When the blade falls. When everything begins to end.

II

You think you know the moment, but you don’t.

In October, the garden faces up to things.

You think you know it because you’ve seen it in films. The cold open, the inciting event.

The garden stops pretending, in October, gives up the struggle.

Think of a movie scene, then, fading from black. We open on a doctor’s office. The doctor rests a hand on some guy’s shoulder, says something you can’t hear.

This scene works better in silence.

The grass still needs cutting, but not for much longer. It’s probably just as well, in the circumstances.

Maybe the doctor says, That’s fine, you can take a seat now.

But the light. The light is beautiful at this time of year.

So, the guy shuffles off the exam couch, just a little awkwardly. Takes a seat in front of the desk while the doctor makes some notes. It’s kind of sparse, this office. No diplomas on the walls, no executive toys, no oddball tchotchkes from Phoenix or Rhode Island or wherever he interned.

He’s only here one day a week, at Blackrock Clinic. Worth his while, probably. It’s where the money is.

It comes in low, the October light. It’s citric, forensic, revelatory. It shows you things, up close, with anatomical precision.

You see the guy scan the shelves. Gray’s Anatomy, which feels a little central casting, but that detail is right too. It’s all accurate. You see him look out the window.

It’s a nice view, over the playing fields of Blackrock College. He remembers standing there as a kid. On the sidelines always, because he was shit at sports. It never mattered, though, because he was good at everything else. Everything was effortless then. He remembers feeling luminous.

You see everything in that light. The veins of beech leaves, bright filaments of spider silk. An orb of dandelion seeds, gently crowding. The numinous and heartbreaking architecture of it all.

And the doctor is still making fucking notes.

They called this month Brumaire, the revolutionaries. From the word for mist. They were going for an agrarian feel, with the new calendar, for authenticity. But they also had a serious hardon for the Roman Republic, so they had to sound some classical notes too. Seriously, they were running out of baskets for the heads at this point, and this was the shit they were agonising over. Onwards and upwards, I guess they figured.

When he looks at pictures of himself, from back then. Jesus, he sometimes thinks, he was actually beautiful. Not beautiful beautiful, just beautiful the way kids are. Graceful and inviolate.

Brumaire, the month of mists. That’s the thing about revolutionaries. They’ll take your head off as soon as look at you, but deep down they’re sentimental as fuck.

The doctor looks up.

You think you know this moment, but you don’t. The soundtrack is silent still. It’s a cheap trick, sure, but it works. Basic cinematic grammar. It unsettles the viewer, excludes them.

Something is happening, it says. Something beyond words.

He’s going to buy a rose plant on the way home. It’s the right time of year, he knows, for getting them established. He’s been keeping up his reading.

Then the last shot, from outside the office, through the glass. You see the guy shift a little in his seat. But he doesn’t slump, doesn’t hold his head in his hands. Not yet.

He’s chosen the variety already. Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’, a vigorous white climber. It’ll be just the thing for the trellis by their little terrace. When they have a terrace.

What he does instead, he leans back and takes out his pen. He’s got that day’s Irish Times with him, and he’s been working on the cryptic crossword. The thing about the guy is, he’s kind of a dick.

They’ll sit out there on summer evenings, with glasses of Chablis. They’ll murmur to each other. Fluent and intimate, like in films. None of this will be happening.

So, he takes out his pen and he fills in a clue he’s just worked out. He feels good about this, the stylishness of the move. Because again, kind of a dick. And because again, he’s twenty-nine years old and everything is ending.

He won’t remember the clue afterwards, but he remembers the word even now. Sees the pen strokes. These details are accurate.

Decadence. I swear to God.

Decadence.

You think you know the moment, but you don’t.

Because it’s not a moment at all. Moments are ending in there. That’s how it works. Time and space have collapsed, are reconfiguring. There are new dimensions now, unfolding from this dark and pristine singularity.

He sees himself again, as a child. Sees himself running. Through deep grass and hazed air, towards the bend of a river. It’s June and a blush suffuses everything, a gentle heat.

Running without even thinking.

You think you know the moment, but you don’t.

Everything tender and infinite.

Because the moment isn’t a moment at all.

So long ago now.

The moment is now. And the moment is forever.

III

Nothing much happens in the garden in November. Which again, it was probably just as well.

I didn’t get around to planting that rose, not right away. I dug the hole, though. When you’re planting a rose, you want a hole about twice the size of the root ball. It’s a good idea to dust it with fertiliser. Fish, blood and bone, ideally. Again, gardening is mainly about death.

So, that’s what I did. I dug a big hole in the ground. Which felt about right.

But the rest of the month was a write-off, if I’m honest. I kept it together for a week or so. I showed up for work, agonised over wine choices. I went for long walks, or long limps, as I’d taken to calling them. It’s important to maintain a sense of humour at times like these, even if it’s strictly performative. Even if no one is laughing. Even if it isn’t humour at all, more a stylised form of existential rage. Whatever, it’s important to maintain something.

Then one night I agonised over too much wine, and when I woke up I’d pissed the bed.

I’d done the reading, so I knew it could happen. Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system, which means that pretty much anything awful can happen. It’s like a horror lottery; a scratch card, but for nightmares.

All Trash. EuroMisery. Fuck-You Streak.

Knowing these things doesn’t help much, though. Because straight-up pissing the bed, when you’re twenty-nine years old? You can’t train for that. Then lying in it, to hide it from your wife. All casual, like there’s no rush. Yeah, that takes it out of you.

And then, when S. had left, I couldn’t see straight to strip the bed, to bundle the sheets into the wash. Because the crying had started.

I hadn’t even noticed, but when I did I couldn’t stop. And this crying, it was not fucking around. It wasn’t the decorous glistening you see in films. No, it was epic, this performance, it was unrestrained and operatic. This was crying in the high style, the heroic mode. This was a balls-out Wagnerian tempest of sorrowing that suspended all other functions and went on for a week.

I fell through myself, under myself. All the way down.

My fucking life. This was all I could say, between bouts of snivelling and shuddering. My fucking life is fucking over.

And it was, more or less. We’ll come back to this, because it’s a complicated point, but for most purposes it was true.

November. Frimaire, the month of frost.

And my fucking life was fucking over.

Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands.
Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands.

IV

The winter solstice. The nadir of daylight. The deep cusp of the dying year.

We’ve always known how dark it gets, but we’ve never quite settled on the best way to get through it. For Neolithic peoples, it was a time to make sacrifices, to venerate your dead. If in doubt, the reasoning went, you threw blood at the problem.

The Germanic pagans called it Yule, and they rigged up a whole rotating cast of gods to make the thing look respectable. Even Odin’s name was attached to the project, at one point. It was big box office. But Yule, when it came down to it, was always about the drinking and the feasting and the fucking. It was about making it bearable and waiting it out.

Because the solar year is the true year, beyond the jurisdiction of our calendars. The pagans understood this. Even our stone age ancestors, who’d only recently acquired pots to piss in, they got this particular memo.

The solar year begins and ends when astrophysics gives the word. It’s over when the sun says it’s over. Our calendar tries to approximate it, sure, nudged into closer alignment with rickety contrivances like leap days and leap seconds, but the solstices still wander from their notional dates.

Because the solar year is an ancient twelve-bar blues, and the solstices are caesurae, natural breath pauses. Fuck your metronome, the solar year says. That shit don’t swing.

Still, we know what the solstices portend, even if we can’t get a fix on them. We’ve known it for millions of years. It’s in our bones.

Gardening is about dying—have I mentioned that? And like all death cults it has its sacred rituals. Sure, you have to learn about things like pruning techniques and pH levels and NPK balance, but none of that rises to the level of doctrine. No, what marks out the hardcore gardener, the true believer, is a deep preoccupation with the cycle of the seasons, a level of obsessiveness that even a hard-bitten Celtic druid would look askance at.

It’s straight-up fanaticism, is what it is. No two ways about it. But there’s no reasoning with us on this point. Because like all fundamentalists, we believe ourselves to possess a sacred knowledge, to be admitted to a higher truth.

And we are, is the thing. It’s the highest truth of all.

Gardening is about dying because dying is about light. Dying is what happens when the light goes.

All plant life – and by extension, all life on earth – is sustained by sunlight. One day, billions of years from now, that light will vanish forever. In the meantime, to keep us on our toes, the solar system conducts an annual dress rehearsal. Every year, at midsummer, it starts turning down the dial.

It's sadistic, this carry-on, and it hits gardeners pretty hard. By September, we’re already getting edgy, exhibiting certain behaviours. By December we’re seriously strung out. We’re in bad fucking shape.

Because forget about the herbaceous borders here. You want to know what gardeners really are? We’re solar cultists, hierophants of Amon-Ra. We’re curators of sunlight, and as such we’re devoutly attentive to its availability. So, yeah, the winter solstice is kind of a big deal for us. We go a bit overboard, maybe.

Because it’s the endpoint and the origin, the alpha and the omega. It’s the singularity.

The winter solstice, then. December. Nivôse, the month of snow and ice.

Everything was over, and everything was beginning.

V

By January, I was already invincible.

I went to see my neurologist, for the first time since the diagnosis. He told me I’d need a cane within five to eight years. A wheelchair within ten, give or take.

You think you know the moment, but you don’t.

Okay, I said. Okay, sure. He’d shown me the printouts from my MRI scan, and at this point I was getting into armchair neurophysiology in a big way. These are periventricular lesions, right? But what’s this structure here?

The guy, remember, is kind of a dick. But maybe cut him some slack. He’s not even heartbroken, is the thing. What’s broken is beyond that.

He ran through my sensory exam, conducting a methodical series of pin prick tests from above my knees to the soles of my feet. The worry here is that you’ll lose your sensitivity to pain. Now, that mightn’t sound so bad, but the problem with hypoesthesia is that you can flay your shins off with a strimmer and not even notice until you’re putting it back in the shed. Then you glance down at your pins and it’s like someone’s gone to town on the KFC bucket. Not a good look. Not what you want to see at all.

But no, I was still feeling everything, even the faintest stroke of his fingertip. I was feeling things like a champion. I was at the top of my game, stimulus-wise. Still am, for what it’s worth. Small mercies.

What I’d lost, though, was my sensitivity to misfortune.

The thing about cataclysmic life events, you see, is that they ruin normal disasters for you. I’d lost my job since the diagnosis, which you’d think would concentrate the mind a bit, but in fact I’d hardly noticed. A good friend of mine threw me some work maintaining websites, but I repaid his kindness with an almost Zen-like renunciation of personal responsibility.

I wafted around Temple Bar for three months, listening to Arvo Pärt on my Discman. I drank wine at lunchtime, because it seemed barbaric not to, with focaccia. Oh, and I was taking quite a lot of Valium. Like, teaspoonfuls instead of milligrams, that kind of territory. Getting fairly stuck in to the bennies, right enough.

At one point, having sashayed into the office to tinker with some JavaScript, I accidentally uploaded a three-year-old press release to the homepage of the Department of Finance, inciting a minor wave of panic selling. Not ideal, I was given to understand. The optics here were not the Mae West.

In response, I asked for my wages in cash and announced that, since it was a Friday, I was knocking off early.

It was late January and, like I said, I was invincible.

Also, I had a whole new side hustle going on. Since December, I’d been checking sunset times on timeanddate.com, a compulsion that persists to this day. I’d realised that we’d gained nine whole minutes of daylight just since Monday. If I left early, I’d be able to walk to the Dart station before dark. Well, limp to the Dart station, but you get the idea.

The point is, I wanted that. I wanted that, suddenly, more than anything in the world.

Because I had plans for it, all that daylight. That blessed ichor, that sweet sweet sugar. I was saving it up, preparatory to a full-bore blowout. I was hoarding that shit like a motherfucking dragon.

In January, the garden starts to remember itself. Just fragments, at first. Intimations of colour.

A few days earlier, leaving the house, I had caught sight of a single fragile iris rising from a drift of dead leaves. I had crouched before it in a remorseful attitude, freeing it gently from the surrounding detritus.

He sees himself again, as a child.

I’m sorry, I said. Not actually crying, because for some reason I couldn’t any more. That mechanism was gone. I’m so very sorry.

The petals of Iris reticulata are delicate but intensely coloured, rising from a deep indigo at the base to a shimmering cobalt, to a truly miraculous blue. On its sepals, to tempt pollinators, are lavish streaks of saffron yellow. They’re extraordinarily brilliant, these markings, like stigmata inflicted by the sunlight itself.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes that ‘the healthiest way of being ill…is the one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking’. It’s a view I share, and I remain implacably contemptuous both of the traditional valorisation of the ill (with its cant about bravery and battling) and of the more recent fad for redemption porn, in which catastrophic diagnoses (along with trips to India, say, or taking up beekeeping) are reduced to ‘life experiences’ and mined for fatuous koans of acceptance and serenity.

Fuck that shit. Absolutely and for all time, fuck all of that shit.

And look, my thinking at this time was by no means lucid, but it was at least free of those taints. Things would surface sometimes, would crystallise.

I thought about my immune system, spooked by some unfathomable false alarm, and now diligently devouring the myelin that insulated my nerve cells. For most purposes, clearly, this was not a good thing.

But the light. The iris, with its filament of incandescence.

All of this, I thought. What was wrong with me and what was left of me. All of it had been nourished and sustained by same processes. There was an overarching etiology here, a hyperpathology. Our cells – mine and the blue flower’s – were hopped up on the same mitochondria, were on the same photosynthetic payroll, and that fucking meant something.

The same sun. The same star.

It was a perfectly literal truth, even if it did sound like the worst kind of drug talk. It wasn’t comforting, exactly, but it wasn’t short of exhilarating grandeur.

The sun set at 17.06, that Friday, as I crossed O’Connell Bridge towards Tara Street station. It clutched us feebly still, my iris and me, but it knew us for its own.

January. Pluviôse, month of weak light and rain.

And I was star-born, anointed, exalted. I was invincible.

VI

By spring, ten years later, I was planting my last garden.

It would be my last, I knew, because my strength was failing faster now. In the medical literature, the onset of progressive forms of multiple sclerosis is said to be insidious. Early symptoms can be slight, or go unnoticed altogether. The toll of damage mounts slowly, often over many years.

It’s a good word for it, insidious. All cool sibilants and Latinate hauteur. They even used it for a horror movie franchise, which seems about right.

The first faint intimations came back in 1999, three years before my diagnosis. I was driving to Cork, for a funeral I think, and after an hour or two I noticed something strange. I was having trouble transferring my right foot to the brake, which isn’t ideal when you’re thundering into Fermoy behind a greasy eighteen-wheeler. I could do it, sure, but it was weirdly effortful, like labouring through some dense syrup.

Later, it got to be a thing when I was walking. I’d go a mile or two, all brisk pace and cardio virtue, then the wheels would start to come off. It was the same deal as before, but the whole leg was involved now. It had some kind of agenda, this leg. Doubts were emerging about its true loyalties.

Again, I could perform the required actions, but they required constant tiny adjustments and compensations. Deliberation, the neurologists call it. Movements that had been unconscious since childhood were suddenly laborious. Walking wasn’t just walking any more. It was a whole production now.

When we say that something is wrong, that something isn’t doing much work. It’s the wrong that does the heavy lifting. There’s a lot of nuance in there, a whole spectrum. And beyond the visible range – familiar aches, homely traumas – it turns out there’s a whole other domain.

It turns out something can be infra-wrong, the wrong kind of wrong. When something is infra-wrong, your body becomes strange to itself, its extremities navigating some shadowy and viscous dimension of their own. And you know, at that point. It’s unrecognisable, but it’s unmistakeable.

Infra-wrong. The wrong kind of wrong.

You’ll make the call soon, make the appointment.

You think you know the moment.

But that was then. The thing about insidious disease progression is that it deceives you for just long enough. When you watch a car crash in slow motion, it looks gentle, like some exotic act of intimacy. It’s a filmic illusion, exploiting our aesthetic predilection for grace and benevolence. But time isn’t like that, isn’t infinitesimally tender.

The car is just as crashed, in the end. The damage still gets done.

The moment is forever.

I could still do things, mind you. That’s the thing with this disease. It doesn’t say, Yeah, you can’t do that any more. Not at first, anyway.

It says, Sure, do your garden stuff. Let me know how that works out for you.

And how it works out is, you weed the vegetable bed (or thin out the plums, or turn the compost heap, or just mow the fucking lawn), then you stagger to the nearest piece of garden furniture and don’t so much sit on it as dump yourself all over it like a lorryload of condemned pork products. If there isn’t any garden furniture within range, you just collapse elaborately onto the grass.

In software engineering, there’s a concept called graceful degradation. That’s where, if something unexpected happens, the system doesn’t just silently lose its shit. It issues a brief statement and tries to get its affairs in order. Having performed these final acts of heroism, it can go tits up with a clear conscience. That’s graceful degradation. It’s an elegant term, I’ve always thought.

Anyway, with multiple sclerosis, graceful degradation is very much not a thing. It’s the opposite kind of deal, in fact. When you’re exhausted, which is most of the time, what happens instead is graceless degradation. There’s just no kind of showmanship or dignity to the proceedings. You’d see better performances, in the collapsing line, from a fucked deckchair or a condemned block of flats.

It’s a shitshow, seriously. You hurt yourself, sometimes, just trying to sit down. Actually injure yourself. It’s a fucking fiasco, is what it is.

And you feel, after exertion, like a crash test dummy. You feel like a shit zombie, like a tortured golem. You can’t cry any more – this is still a thing, for some reason – and you’re getting resentful about that, because sometimes you desperately want to.

You feel, sometimes, like a motherless child.

These, then, were the prevailing conditions in the spring of 2013. This was what I was up against. And faced with odds like these, I did what anyone would do. I bought a colossal number of plants, took a boatload of drugs and embarked on a massive construction project.

Let’s get specific about the numbers here. In the space of a few days, I bought over 500 box plants, north of 200 lavenders, probably a hundred or so assorted Mediterranean herbs, maybe 75 alliums, a few dozen Japanese anemones, fifty or so hellebores, twenty-odd foxgloves, because they’ll self-seed anyway, nineteen peonies (I have no idea why I went with nineteen, but it still feels right) and a respectable copse of trees.

And that’s not counting the roses (maybe fifty-odd specimens, comprising at least fifteen cultivars), because the roses go without saying. White roses are kind of a thing with me, as I’m fairly sure I mentioned, but I will countenance certain pinks. Muted pinks, to be clear, not something that looks like a leotard off a workout video. Maybe a very pale primrose yellow, if you catch me in a moment of capricious levity. But yes, roses. A lot of roses.

And I’m obviously not including the bulbs, because they’re just bulbs. I don’t know how many bulbs there were. I want to say, like, two thousand? That kind of territory, anyway.

What I do know is that all of this stuff arrived in three vertiginous truckloads over the course of a week, and that, confronted with the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, the flat-out Herzogian lunacy of it, even I experienced a tremor of doubt, a faltering of resolve.

By the end of the week, the whole consignment was on site, where it covered the entire driveway. It’s biggish, this driveway. You’d get a commuter turboprop in there, or a bijou farmer’s market. And it was covered, the whole thing. It looked like an al fresco dope farm out there. It looked like the Hundred-Acre fucking Wood.

S. came home one day to find me surveying this plainly ludicrous scene. I remember straightening my bathrobe, affecting a degree of nonchalance. She found somewhere to park, then picked her way slowly through this newly installed undergrowth.

Seriously? She took her sunglasses off at this point. No, seriously. What the fuck are you even doing?

It was a reasonable question. What the fuck was I doing?

And I don’t know, to be honest. The drugs I was taking were mainly legal, but still, my thinking probably wasn’t entirely lucid. I was in some kind of fugue state, maybe.

I do know that I worked myself into the ground, in the weeks that followed. That’s not a figure of speech, by the way. I had to dig a lot of trenches – a form of physical labour for which I was manifestly no longer equipped – and sometimes I would have to lie down in them, to avoid falling over. Other times, I would fail to avoid falling over. I would go ahead and pass out.

It’s not a genteel undertaking, laying out a garden. You have to literally make the earth move. That shit is heavy going, even for a healthy person, but for me it was a staggering folie de grandeur, like trying to pebble-dash the moon. For me it was a near-death experience.

And it was madness, obviously. I could have just paid someone to do all this, as indeed I was frantically urged to do. The whole thing was a pitiful bourgeois hero quest, a futile paroxysm of denial.

But you know what, Beowulf could have paid someone too. He could have called up a couple of pipe-hitting thains, made a quick speech and got stuck into the mead again. The dragon would still have come for him, eventually.

Besides, it wasn’t just that. It was never just that.

To care for a garden, you have to know it deeply. You have to know it carnally. You have to touch it intimately, get under its skin. You have to go down on it, taste its undermurk, get as filthy as it wants, let it claw you, mark you, draw blood. You have to ache from it, stink of it, reel from it

Because that’s how you remind yourself, how you know. Because when you stagger inside, fouled and lacerated, you glimpse something of what you were, something original and uncorrupted. It’s everywhere on your skin, in the muck savour and the lush reek of chlorophyll. It’s in your blood, when you taste it from your torn wrists.

You’re wasted, undone, as good as dead. But you know this much. You can just about sound out the words.

They’re singing in you, sweet and ragged under everything.

This is what I belong to. This is what I am for.

VII

It’s not that you surrender, in the end. Even surrender takes effort, and you just don’t have the energy.

You’re not equal to it, can’t make the numbers work. Too much has been subtracted.

They say that drowning is peaceful, once you stop struggling. But you stop struggling because drowning makes struggling impossible. It’s not that you surrender.

There’s nothing left to surrender.

It was beautiful for a while, the last garden. The parterre is on an incline, which has always killed me, but I stand over the sheer Bourbon opulence of the thing, the vaulting excess. On summer evenings, when the lavender was still young, you’d wander past and it would stop your heart sometimes.

The bees dazed in the apricot light, the butterflies carefully flinching. That’s what I’ll remember, when the time comes.

The scientific literature is accurate, as far it goes. Multiple sclerosis results in progressive disability (there are scales for measuring this) or loss of function (you don’t need scales for this). But science is empirical, confined to the observable sphere. Science doesn’t know what anything feels like, the nature of anything.

And the nature of this thing is simple. It is meticulously destroying me. I am being unmade. The nature of this thing is loss.

It exists still, the last garden. As I write this, the philadelphus is in extravagant blossom, the cistus too. The showy bed that faces the road is at its best just now, dizzy with catmint and purple sage, and the roses—everywhere in the adoring sunlight there are roses.

It’s beautiful still, I suppose.

But it’s no longer mine. I admitted defeat about five years ago and agreed to start hiring some help. I’ve been through a few gardeners since then – I won’t say there haven’t been some scenes, some artistic differences – but I like the woman who comes now. I see her pausing now and then, considering things. What to keep, what not to touch.

And me? Am I a gardener still?

Well, I play one on the internet. I give people advice and post artfully cropped photographs. And it’s not as if I’m faking. I really do know how to overwinter dahlias, how to establish a fig tree or whatever. It’s just that I’m lapsed now, no longer practising.

Back in the day, I used to buy plants pretty much every time I went to the shops. Seriously, I’d come home with three new wallflower varieties and find that I’d forgotten the milk. It’s been a while, though. It’s been longer than I want to admit.

It never really leaves you, though. You know how you can tell? Because spring and summer are unbearable still. I told you about this, the thing with the seasons. You’d think it would get easier with age, but no. If anything, it gets worse.

Late spring, especially, the shimmering rapture of April and May. Everything is perfect in late spring. The swallows come, then the swifts. You could watch them forever, in flight. All dart and ligature, stitching the spilled air to itself. The ecstasy of it.

And the avid greens, the immaculate tissues of blossom. With more to come still. More life, more light.

Until there isn’t.

It’s unbearable because that’s who I am still. It’s almost midsummer as I write this. By the time you read it, it will be midwinter or thereabouts. In the interim, I’ll have kept my vigil, same as always. I’ll have made my daily observations, as the light goes, marked every measure of the slow diminuendo.

Because gardening is about death, it’s true, but what the fuck do I care? I’ve mourned everything already, even myself.

He sees himself as a child. In the deep grass, running without thinking.

I’m over all that now.

There were curious oversights, too, in the progress of this disease. It missed things, made mistakes. Like manual dexterity, for instance. I can still play one or two of the easy Bach preludes, still type forty-five words a minute. My eyesight is weirdly perfect for my age, and unlike most men I can actually see colours.

I can still see beauty, in other words. And I can write it all down.

I was wrong before, about the nature of this thing. It isn’t simple at all. Because it doesn’t exist, as a thing apart. Neither do I, come to that. Neither does anything, here in the last garden. There is only the light and its artefacts. All the imperfect glories.

The nature of this thing is the nature of everything.

So, yeah, I’m a gardener still, in my way. They never really leave you, the rituals. The chanting fades, but not the reverence.

I’m a custodian still, and I know my duty. I’ll see out my time, tend to my instruments. Maybe there are other gardens, other uses for all this radiance.

I’ll find them, if I can. Maybe even make something of them, if the light holds.

This essay was first published in Winter Papers, the annual Irish arts anthology edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands. The latter was published in 2018 by W&N and is to be published next year in the US by Tin House