‘Dad was only 62 when he died. My friend’s partner was only 37. Everyone’s only is their own’

He finished his 40 years of work and a year later he was diagnosed with cancer

Ollie Clerkin at work in his garden: ‘I think of him all the time, of how he’d have handled the pandemic, of what he’d have done with lockdown, of what shape the garden would be in.’

Ollie Clerkin at work in his garden: ‘I think of him all the time, of how he’d have handled the pandemic, of what he’d have done with lockdown, of what shape the garden would be in.’

 

My mam is getting a tree cut down out the back of our home. This isn’t just any old tree. It’s there, splat, in the middle of the low end of the garden. It’s a beech, I’m told, and it’s been there since the late 1980s. Basically, for as long as I’ve had to mow that lawn, it’s been there to mow around.

But it has long since outgrown its spot. So much so that it’s starting to encroach on electrical wires and such. Also, she had a fella out to look at it and he said there was black sap rising. Now that all sounded a bit Johnny Cash to my ears, but apparently it means the inside of it is starting to rot and it could give way of its own accord some day soon. So its time is up.

The last photos we have of my dad were taken a couple of days before he died in November 2015. He had been ebbing away for a while and everybody knew there wasn’t long to go. We were at that stage where the only visitors to the house were family and tight friends. Oh, and Seamus, who was putting in sleepers for the raised beds at the top of the garden.

Cancer is such a cavalcade of lasts. His last spicy meal was some time in 2012. His last full round of golf was in 2014

Wilfully ignoring the fact that he wouldn’t be around for the spring in which the raised beds would bloom, Dad wanted to make sure he got one last job done down the garden. So he got Seamus to put in these sleepers and also his older brother Sean to cut back a couple of trees down the left side of the lawn.

The only problem was by that stage he was too weak to stand up and look out of his bedroom window to see their handiwork. So we got a wheelchair out of somewhere, bundled him up in it and rolled him out in the November chill to inspect. That was on Wednesday, he died on Sunday night.

Cancer is such a cavalcade of lasts. His last spicy meal was some time in 2012 – the chemo brought mouth ulcers and that meant anything stronger than a turn of a pepper mill was torture. His last full round of golf was in 2014. His last time driving a car was the summer before he died. His life was deleted, subtraction by subtraction. It was entirely appropriate that the garden was more or less the final one. The next time he left the house, we carried him out.

In a photo taken six years ago, Ollie Clerkin holds his new born grand-daughter Cara, as new dad Malachy watches on
In a photo taken six years ago, Ollie Clerkin holds his new born grand-daughter Cara, as new dad Malachy watches on

It would be wrong to call the garden his life’s work. The man was a psychiatric nurse for 40 years, first in the local mental hospital and then out in the community. Went in at 17, retired at 57. That’s a life’s work.

There’s a great Monaghan word that suits it better. It’s to footer. Or maybe to foother, if you wanted to go heavy on the accent. I guess it must be a Border bastardisation of fooster. Whatever the derivation, it’s something everybody from up around home uses in everyday speech. It means to be at something, often with a purpose that isn’t particularly obvious to the outside world. What’s Dad doing? He’s footering away in the garden.

So maybe let’s call the garden a life’s footer instead. It’s what he did when he could lease a spare 20 minutes from the demands of a family of four kids and a job that either had him working through the night or out of bed at 6.30am. Wellies on, gloves on, boiler suit on, and away he went. Rooting at this, digging at that, footering at the other.

In all honesty, I never really got it when I was a kid. It all looked like a lot of painstaking work for no reward. No immediate reward at any rate. It felt like it too, when he occasionally dragooned me into picking stones and pulling weeds. Why would you choose to be out here in the muck and the cold when you could be, you know, not?

There’s more chance of me growing the AstraZeneca vaccine out the back than bringing onions to proper fruition

As I got older, I could see it a bit better. For one thing, the garden is a marvel. I look at old photos of the site when we moved in 1985 and it feels miraculous to behold what is there now. It was a grey site on the side of a hill with a stream at the bottom of it. Between them, he and Mam turned it into Narnia.

But it was only during last year’s first lockdown that gardening as a pastime started to make sense to me. With nothing else to be doing throughout that sunny April and May, I got out and started making shapes at the patches of dirt out the back of our house. As the days and weeks passed and this square foot of weeds became that drill of sprouting carrot tops, I started to see the attraction.

I am, it should be made clear for the record, a terrible gardener. The one upside of not being able to have Mam up to Dublin this past year is that the state of it can’t be any worse in her imagination than it is in reality. Only last week, she posted up peas, onions and shallots to plant. Already I know there’s more chance of me growing the AstraZeneca vaccine out the back than bringing them to proper fruition.

But I also know that’s not really the point. The point is to go out and kill an afternoon footering away and to come in and gulp down a drink of water and get muck on the kitchen floor and to feel, however fleetingly, like you’ve done a bit. I can look out the kitchen window this morning and see the bobbing yellow heads of about a dozen daffodils. It’s not Ollie Clerkin’s Bloom entry, granted. But it’s not nothing.

I moved home for a few weeks before he died. It was late October and the autumn leaves were down all over the place. “There’s a leaf blower in the garage,” he said to me one morning. “If you’re at nothing, go away down there and gather them up into piles.” I was at nothing. He knew I was, the f**ker.

So I went down and put on his wellies and his boiler suit and took out this leaf blower yoke that nearly took my shoulder off when I pressed the button. Nasa rockets have had less oomph than this thing. But it was kind of fun, actually. That big brute of a beech had shed what felt like a tonne-weight of brown leaves and it was nearly soothing to blow them into some sort of uniformity and to ferry them into his compost heap. “Great to get that job done,” he said happily when I came back up.

A couple of days later, we were looking out his window.

“Ah here,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“The garden’s covered in leaves again.”

My dad liked what I did for a living, right from the start. The first piece I ever got paid for was for In Dublin magazine back in 1998 and it was about the amount of rats in the city. It was absolutely terrible but it had a few piss-take gags in it that my sister saw him laughing at while reading it at the kitchen table. Over the years, I rang him from World Cup finals and the Olympics and All-Ireland finals and all the rest. I never doubted that he got a kick out of it all.

Cancer became his occupation just as he was settling into retired life. All those garden hours were spent instead in oncology wards

But I also know that there, in his bedroom, a few weeks short of his all-too-early demise, he was shaking his head and wondering what sort of gobs**te he had sired at all, at all. The fairly obvious fact that trees don’t stop shedding leaves in October just because you happened to gather up some of their earlier cast-offs had clearly escaped me.

“So,” I said, half-offended by nature’s wiles, “you clear them up and then more leaves fall and then you clear them up again?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s gardening.”

Cancer took him a few weeks later, three-and-a-half years after he was diagnosed. He was only 62. I’ve looked at that “only” for the last 10 minutes wondering whether to leave it in or not. The following summer, one of my best friends lost his partner to cancer and she was only 37. Everybody’s only is their own.

I think I’ll leave it in though. Not because I feel aggrieved at losing him at such a young age, more because it underlines what he was robbed of. He finished his 40 years of work and then a year later he was diagnosed. Cancer became his occupation just as he was settling into retired life. All those garden hours were spent instead in oncology wards and on the road to appointments and in bed recovering. It kept him busy all the way to the end.

I think of him all the time, of course. Of how he’d have handled the pandemic, of what he’d have done with lockdown, of what shape the garden would be in now. I can just hear him getting cranky if I rang home and asked about the tree in the back garden and whether or not he’d be getting a tree surgeon in.

“I don’t need some genius to tell me about black sap rising,” he’d say.

He’d be right too.

Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, March 26th. See cancer.ie/daffodilday to donate, visit the Daffodil Day shop or host a virtual Daffodil Day event. The Irish Cancer Society Support Line is available at freephone: 1800-200-700

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