Believe in love, and don't let anyone set the odds for you
Belfast Telegraph commentator Alex Kane turns 60 this week. As he looks back on a life that includes adoption at age six and battles with depression, the self-styled 'world's happiest pessimist' finds himself revelling in being an older dad.
About now, in 1955, a woman was getting ready for the birth of her child. Maybe she'd already packed a little bag for her few days in hospital.
Maybe she went up there with her husband, or mother, or sister. Maybe she was very happy: or sad, or even terrified. I've no idea.
She gave birth to me on August 13. I lived with her for almost four years. I have no memory of her. I remember nothing about her, or the house, or anyone else who must surely have been in and around the place. Nothing remains from those first four years of my life; not even a vaguely remembered sound, or smell, or toy, or garden, or shop, or face. Not even her face. Nothing.
In or around my fourth birthday I arrived at an orphanage - and stayed there for two years. I have no memories from there, either, even though I must have been surrounded by other children and staff for most of the time. I must have played with someone. Or, at the very least, have interacted with someone. But nothing of that time remains. It's like a memory chip was removed and I never really existed for those first six years.
Yet something from that time remains with me. At least once a week - and sometimes more - my dreams take me to a place where no sunshine or moonlight can penetrate. No sound can get through. Just me. Utterly, utterly alone. Petrified.
Willing myself to wake and thinking I won't wake. Shouting. Screaming. Whimpering. Rolled up in a foetal ball and soaked with sweat. Sometimes Kerri wakes me with a hug and a reassuring rubbing of my back. Other times I just wake and I think I'm lying in a bed in the orphanage; still alone, still unwanted and still unloved.
I've written before about my adoption in 1961. I was extraordinarily lucky to be found by two people - Adelaide and Sam - who were willing to take responsibility for a seriously mixed-up, socially and psychologically dysfunctional boy and allow him to repair and reinvent himself.
Everything I became I owe entirely to them. For years I remained in a world of darkness (I'm still prone to depression), yet, bit by bit, day by day, they ensured that pinpricks of light, hope, happiness and laughter began to shred that darkness. They gave me the most important things any parent can give a child - love, confidence and security. They certainly gave me a life I wouldn't have had under any other circumstances. And it has been a good life; not without its upheavals and setbacks, but certainly an interesting life. I've come close to death on a number of occasions: two near drownings, a burst ulcer when I was 13 (I threw up so much blood that the school matron fainted) and flying head first through a car window.
At six I couldn't speak - and barely spoke for the first three years after I was adopted - yet now I earn my living as a professional commentator. The report that accompanied me from the orphanage suggested I was almost certainly "educationally subnormal", but I graduated from Queen's in 1978 and now write for a number of newspapers and magazines. If I could sum up the last 60 years I would say it's been mostly about defying odds and expectations.
I've worked in a bookshop and a morgue. I've been election agent and constituency organiser for Enoch Powell. I've been a teacher. I've been deputy officer-in-charge of a Salvation Army hostel. I've run supermarkets and garages.
I've worked in the Assembly for more than a decade. I've been a speechwriter. I've shaken hands with Presidents and Prime Ministers. I've twice had a gun held to my head. I've written millions of words about politics in particular and life in general. I've done some spectacularly stupid things. And I've done other things of which I'm enormously proud.
By the time I reached my mid-40s I had reconciled myself to being alone. I didn't fear loneliness. I had enough to keep me occupied. Indeed, I imagined that I would spend my latter years pottering around the house, adding to my Sherlock Holmes collection and falling over dogs.
And, then, in 2000, I met Kerri. That moment changed my life. Within a year we were living together. We now have two girls, Megan (16) - Kerri's daughter - and Lilah-Liberty, who is five. So, here I am at 60: blissfully happy, an older dad and hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels in love.
An actuary told me that your 60s is the last decade you can reasonably expect to get to the end of in one piece. After that, all bets are off.
I have a lot I still want to do. At least three novels and a political history to complete. Paraglide from the top of the Reichenbach Falls. Write the lyrics for a West End/Broadway show. Host my own radio programme. Finish the motorcycle lessons I began a decade ago. Trek the Inca route. And pass my maths O-level (it has bugged me since 1972).
Have I any advice to pass on to younger readers? Love can walk into your life at any moment, so be prepared. Being an older dad is a wonderful thing. Don't be afraid to be a maverick - the herd is often heading in the wrong direction anyway.
The most effective, enduring influence still comes in the form of a gentle, kindly word. Champion books and freedom of expression. Never walk by on the other side. Never believe that you're better than someone else - even when all of the evidence suggests that you are. Put yourself in their shoes before rushing to condemn someone. Never be afraid to change your mind. Don't bear grudges. Never be afraid to laugh at yourself. Take any and every opportunity to ridicule pomposity.
A well-argued case is always more powerful than a brick. Never let anyone else set the odds and expectations for you. If you think you can help someone and make a difference for the better - then do it.
At this moment there may be a woman - in her late-70s or mid-80s - thinking about August 13, 1955: the day she gave birth to this boy.
Well, all things considered, my life has been a happy and fulfilling one. Thank you for bringing me into the world. And thanks to Sam and Adelaide for taking a badly broken, deeply scarred boy and putting him on the road to recovery and happiness.
Someone recently described me as "the happiest pessimist I have ever met". Yep, that'll do. At 60 and still loving life, I'll settle for that.