How 2017 brought a fond farewell and a joyous welcome
As one year gives way to another, we ask two writers to reflect on a memorable year for them... for very different reasons
John Laverty, who lost his best friend Davy Smyth on Christmas Day 2016, tells of how the past 12 months have included moments of intense grief but also some wonderful memories.
I've kept all of his text messages. The majority are pretty banal; the type you normally delete without a second thought. "Are you free for coffee tomorrow?", that sort of thing. A large number are apologetic; the man was always running late.
And then there's this from early 2016: "Sorry bro, can't make it today. This morning's chemo really floored me. Can we try for early next week?"
Typical Davy, apologising for the side effects of terminal pancreatic cancer.
God, how I wish he was running late today.
He was always worth waiting for and, no matter how annoyed you got, instantly disarming.
I still think about David John Smyth every day. I have pictures of him on my work and home computers, not that I need them to prompt a fond memory.
There's always something… a place you drive past, a former team-mate from the Irish League days, an ex-girlfriend you bump into.
And the songs. He loved American soft rock… the likes of Journey, Toto and Survivor. Don't Stop Believin' and Africa helped form the soundtrack to our halcyon summer of 1982.
We thought life couldn't get any better then - and we were probably right. The last hurrah before full-time employment, mortgages and other 'serious' stuff kicked in; indelible recollections forged with an unforgettable friend.
As was oft repeated to wry smiles at the funeral a year ago, two well-known 53-year-old men left us on Christmas Day 2016. One was a hugely popular, outrageously charismatic, live-life-to-the-max kinda guy - and the other used to sing with Wham…
Last Christmas. On December 22, I saw Davy for the final time. It will haunt me forever. It's terrifying to witness the damage cancer can do in just a few weeks.
We'd met up a month earlier and, as usual, Davy had to rush off. "Let's get together before Christmas," he later texted.
And we did - in a private ward at Belfast City Hospital. He was chronically emaciated and could hardly breathe, let alone talk.
I couldn't bear to look at him but pretended otherwise. He saw through me.
"I know; I've looked better," he croaked, the renowned gallows humour prevalent even then.
He spoke of late night documentaries he'd watched; the man didn't do fiction, either on TV or in books. Real life, and especially one like his, produced enough drama.
"They're going to let me out for a couple of days at Christmas," he declared.
We both knew that wasn't true. And I knew, embracing the bag of bones my best friend had become, that this was goodbye.
One year on, I still well up when I reflect on that distressing dichotomy; glad I was there for him in that sterile room, yet wishing I hadn't witnessed it. I don't want to remember Davy that way.
I prefer to recall the attractive, fun-loving, quick-witted, gregarious, highly intelligent, instantly lovable man I spent so many enjoyable years with.
I never tire of telling people how proud I am that Davy/DJ/Smicker bore a merciless, killer disease with such dignity, courage and fortitude.
"What kept you?" he asked with delicious irony as I entered the cafe for our first meeting following the devastating diagnosis.
Then, after a short bout of uncharacteristically awkward small talk: "Right, let's get rid of that elephant in the room..."
Actually, there were two; a few years earlier, I'd decided to step off the party bus and go off in a different direction.
Today, I regret how abruptly that happened, yet any recriminations were, like the dirty dishes that afternoon, promptly swept away.
Davy even ribbed me about morphing into a non-smoking, teetotal, rather dull married dad while his back was turned.
"I'm so ashamed of you," he said.
"Whatever happened to kindred spirits?"
Touché, but we'll always have Paris. And Benalmadena. And Donegal, the Countryman, the Bot, the Grouse, the Templeton and Larne FC Social Club.
Yes, we talked for hours about the past. We avoided the 'f' word because we were all too aware that, tragically, there would be no future to discuss.
His last text message? Late November 2016. "Leaving now. Be there real soon, bro."
In the end, the perennially late Davy Smyth reached his final destination far too early.
Alex Kane reveals how the joyeous arrival of his second child this year has finally given him the emotional security to embark on solving the mystery of his own early years
I was struck by something when Indy (Independence Atticus) was born in July. I should have been struck by it in October 2009 when Lilah-Liberty was born; yet, for some reason, it didn't register with me then. But looking at a photograph of them together — and hearing people tell me how much they both look like me — it suddenly dawned on me that they were the first humans I had held and hugged who shared my blood.
I have no memory of my birth parents, or of grandparents, or siblings, or aunts and uncles. There is no one I can compare myself with in photographs; and no photographs with which I can compare Indy and Lilah-Liberty, spotting similarities and genetic traits that can be traced back through the family. I was like an abandoned, uninhabited island.
I remember, a decade ago, during a series of miscarriages, being asked if there was any ‘relevant’ information in my family background and replying: “I’m adopted, I don’t know.”
That answer is no longer good enough. Indy and Lilah-Liberty have a right to know about their roots. All children do. I had taken the decision not to inquire on my own behalf: partly because I thought it would be a betrayal of my adoptive parents, who had helped me to rebuild and reinvent myself; but mostly because the nightmares which have dogged me since I was six persuaded me that there was something very dark, very disturbing, which I would actually be better not knowing.
In my Letter to Indy (published by the Belfast Telegraph in August — and which received more feedback than anything I have ever written) I wrote: “It also made me wonder whether I should do what I have resisted doing my entire adult life, finding out about my parents. In the same way that you and Lilah-Liberty exist because of me and Kerri, I exist because of them. I haven’t made the final decision about it yet ...”
Well, I have now made that decision. In the boxes and files in my study the children will find hundreds of articles and hundreds of thousands of words by me. They will find articles about them, my adoptive parents (who they never got to meet), my adoption and my cats and dogs.
But nothing, not one single word, about my first six years or the circumstances which led me to an orphanage. If the emotional highlight of 2017 was Indy’s birth and the happiness he has brought us, then the psychological highlight for me was the realisation that I didn’t need to be afraid anymore. I didn’t need to worry about upsetting or betraying my adoptive parents, because they knew how much I loved them. I didn’t need to be afraid of what I might uncover about my past. I’m not the person I was when I was adopted in 1961. I now have my own roots and my own family.
I have spent much of my career as a columnist/commentator investigating the subject of ‘identity’. Who are we? How do we see ourselves? Why do we vote the way we do? In what way do our early memories and backgrounds continue to influence us? And yet I know nothing about my own beginning. Nothing about the man and woman who created me. Nothing about those four years before I went to the orphanage. Nothing about a family circle that must have existed at that time. Nothing about the orphanage itself.
And the most important questions of all: what makes a parent give up a child; what makes the state step in and remove a child from a family background?
So, at the age of 62 I’m about to embark on a journey of discovery. I don’t know what lies at the other end — although I do accept it could be uncomfortable. But I also know that, at last, I’m ready for the journey. I know that the roots I have now are strong enough to see me through anything I might discover. And I hope, I really do, that there are people who will want to meet me at the other end; people who have vague memories of a boy who was a part of their lives from 1955-61.
Indy’s arrival triggered off a series of expected emotions and unexpected questions and decisions. That’s the joy and power of children — particularly for those of us who don’t know our own roots. It has already been a fabulous year and now 2017 has the potential to be one of the most important of my life. Happy new year, everyone.