Sorry to hear the news and good luck with the operation. I’m not a big fan of giving advice – I dread it actually – but I remember feeling lost, pretty much from diagnosis onwards. The below is an effort to at least give a badly drawn map as per Holub’s poem. It may not be a route to anywhere sensible but it is, at least, a route that has been taken.
You’ll do it wrong
I spent most of my time feeling like I was being told off by, or letting down, the people I loved. It wasn’t until in remission when talking to a charming woman at the Marsden hospital, a fellow patient, that I learned we all do it wrong. We were laughing about how cross people got with us. As she said, “I’ve just never managed to have cancer the way people want me to.” Well neither did I. And I suspect neither will you.
Tick, tick, boom
For me, the period before the operation was surreal but fine. Lots of phone calls, medical records, CT scans and the like. Then hospital. Then waking up. And then the slow process of it sinking in. When I was asked before the operation if I was OK, I could honestly say yes. Everyone else seemed far more upset than me. It was only afterwards, when everyone was breathing a sigh of relief, that everything began to unravel. And at that point, everyone else tends to look a bit surprised and ask “What’s wrong?”. It took me a while to realise that there is a delay. It only starts sinking in when most people think you should be fine. I wish I’d been ready for that.
It’s not a cold
I suppose beforehand I’d thought I’d get cancer and then get better in the same way you catch a cold and then recover. You don’t recover, in that it won’t be the same you. You won’t necessarily be worse, or weaker, or better, or stronger, but you won’t be the same. As my Dad said, more succinctly, when I asked him about his prostate cancer and how he coped, “mortality’s a bitch”.
Brief your nearest and dearest
Tell them the following: “Don’t stand on ceremony. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t worry about how I feel. I need your help.”
Ask them to let you know they love you. Ask them to actually say it, not just assume it’s understood. You’ll not feel very lovable and it’s easy to forget. Last but not least, tell them you love them too.
Much of the discomfort I felt came down to a combination of my not wanting to ask for help and (I think) my family, my girlfriend and my friends not wanting to intrude or do things wrong. That was a two-way problem. For me, as the delayed reaction kicked in, and as I started really needing help, I felt more and more of an imposition. Hospitals made me feel like meat, mortality made me feel like a dark cloud. As a result, The one thing I never wanted to have to do was ask for help. Or ask for visits and company. I didn’t want to have to ask for meals to be prepared because chemo was making me sick and exhausted. As far as I was concerned, it was so obvious I needed help and support, putting me in a position where I had to ask for it and actually say something like “Will you come to chemo with me?”
The flip-side, and one I was too self-absorbed to see, was that others needed to feel that they could help and that they were doing things that were useful.
I was lucky in the end. I didn’t realise quite how lucky till a little later. Regardless of how unpleasant, grumpy, and lost I was, friends, family and the woman I loved just turned up. They didn’t ask for permission, they just said they were visiting. They didn’t ask what I wanted to read, they just brought things.
So tell them to turn up whenever they want. I far prefer the memory of struggling to work out what to do with a compulsory two tubs of chicken soup than wondering why colleagues 5 minutes down the road didn’t find time to visit.
Company not consolation
Most people I knew didn’t know how to deal with this sort of illness. Some, and it is usually your closer friends and family, are happy just to squeeze a hand or sit with you and talk crap. Because it is a serious illness, though, other seemed to feel they needed to be more sincere and heartfelt than they normally are. You will almost certainly be called brave, stoic, maybe even a soldier or a trooper. You may hear that it’ll be fine, that you’ll get through this or that people are there for you, whatever you need.
The difficulty is that if, as I did, you spend more than a few nights weeping, feeling scared and feeling alone, all of these platitudes only serve to highlight the fact that it is you, and not them, that is ill. It’s an odd feeling having people visit and them leaving with you feeling worse. But however awkward, it is worth remembering that all the visitors do mean well. It is company, not consolation, that is helps.
Hunt out the happy people
There seems to be a tribe of people who are happy. Not in a forced way, or for show, just happy. Children like this naturally. I loved seeing my nephews destroy my hospital bed. I loved seeing Julia and Luke turn up and be more cheering at that age than I could ever have been. I was lucky enough, too, to meet several in hospital. Beh Zad, who was so cheerful he wanted to chat all the way through the night. Nigel, who’s behind-the-curtains running commentary, during my first barium enema gave me and the nurse fits of giggles. More poetically, I had a bed opposite a cabbie who was a member of this tribe (despite having a stomach that look liked it had been napalmed). I still remember laughing at his argument with his neighbour.
Him: There’s blue sky up there behind the clouds.
Neighbour: And what’s behind that? Space. Infinite bloody nothingness.
Him: Not quite. Space and stars. Infinite nothingness and infinite twinkling possibilities.
The tent-pegs of hope
People of all walks of life will surprise you, in good ways. A dinner lady at work took me under her wing, a nurse burst into tears and gave me a hug, a cleaner in the hospital brought me an unasked for cup of tea, a fellow patient told me I had a good heart, my old babysitter was sister on one of my wards and a bowls champion called Jack came in to see if I was OK because he was worried about me. I found things easier if I made a conscious effort to mark these things down. They’re the tent-pegs of hope.
As a projection it’s almost certainly not going to map onto your circumstances. I do hope it might help in some small way, though and I wish you all the best.
And she’s 10.
Am seriously impressed!
Really enjoyed Doubt. This parable definitely going to be reused with students.
“A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew— I know none of you have ever done this—that night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession.
She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. “Is gossiping a sin?” she asked the old man. “Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I be asking your absolution? Father, tell me, have I done something wrong?”
“Yes!” Father O’Rourke answered her. “Yes, you ignorant, badly brought-up female! You have borne false witness against your neighbor, you have played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed!”
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness. “Not so fast!” says O’Rourke. “I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me!”
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to the roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. “Did you gut the pillow with the knife?” he says.”Yes, Father.” “And what was the result?” “Feathers,” she said. A world of feathers.
“Feathers?” he repeated. “Feathers everywhere, Father!”
“Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!”
“Well,” she said, “it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.”
”And that,” said Father O’Rourke,“is gossip!”
via the indispensable Mr DuPlessis this video shows:
a) a large slice of my childhood
b) the same school I now teach in (the playground hasn’t changed)
I found out on Saturday that a friend of my mother’s is in hospital at the moment with numerous cracked ribs and a punctured lung. How she got there is, somehow, wonderfully “Oxford”.
Her husband has been very ill and is now in a wheelchair. He felt that a tree needed pruning in their back garden. Rather than ask in the tree surgeons she decided do do it herself (she is mid 60s). She put the chainsaw on a long extension and set about climbing up the tree. When she was 10 feet or so up, she began to cut but lost her footing and fell. The tree was overhanging the neighbouring garden and she bounced off the branches, landed heavily on the wall and then fell into her neighbour’s garden. At this point she feels she may have blacked out.
Now, the council own the house next door and they had recently taken the decision to turn it into a home for teenagers with very severe learning difficulties. To help these teenagers, the council had installed a large trampoline in the garden. When she came round, five of these children were bouncing up and down on the trampoline shouting “Angel from the sky! Angel from the sky!”
It took her some time to work out where she was. When she did she climbed back over the wall (no mean feat as it is 6 feet high) and dragged herself back to her ill husband. There, she made them both a cup of tea. He comfortingly said that it didn’t matter, she didn’t need to prune the tree all at once.
Yesterday, a little bit before being sent home, a reverend came round our ward. Two had gone to theatre so there were four of us: two cabbies called Pete and Rob, a thirty-something and me.
The reverend started with Pete and they had a long chat. Then he moved on to Rob, and again had a long chat. When he reached the thirty-something, there was less chat and more “Are you in pain? Is there anything I can do?”.
Next up was me. He walked to the end of my bed, looked at me sans smile and then wandered off.
Don’t know what to make of it … half of me relieved, half of me put out.
Perhaps it was my superhero shoes.
Yesterday, I had another one of those conversations about classics. Anyone who studied Latin, Greek or both to any level will have had something similar.
“Really, ancient Greek? Wow. What’s the point of that? I mean, I’m sure it’s interesting but why bother? What jobs does it set you up for?”
Everyone who treasures their classical education has their own reason for doing so. Mine were various: teachers, notably Nick Aldridge and John Claughton, inspired me; I enjoyed deciphering the language; I became mildly obsessed with the invention of tragedy and whether all heroes were “mad”; and more. Others love myths, or art, or ancient history, or the fact that it helps your spelling. Some of these loves are brief. My brother, sadly, was infatuated with Persian Naval tactics. The affair was brief and ended bitterly.
This time, finally – and yes it has taken me far too long – I think I managed to crystallise why I treasure the classics, and why I think Ancient Greece deserves study: it’s what you might call “the human adventure”. By that I mean this big old project all of us on planet Earth have of learning how to live together. Studying the classics, spotting some of the classical seams running through Western civilization, makes you feel part of something larger than yourself. Soppy perhaps, but hey ho.
And if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Pericles.
“It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognised; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private intercourse, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having an especial regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as to those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
‘And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish melancholy. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own …
Our city is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils which they face….
If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the gainers? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; and thus too our city is equally admirable in peace and in war.
For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless; but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy. The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger. In doing good, again, we are unlike others; we make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favours. Now he who confers a favour is the firmer friend, because he would fain by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbours not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit.
To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace”
Just been to a great ‘maths lesson’ by The Idler Academy’s Head of Mathematics, Alex Bellos. Much of it I’d read in his book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland but there were enough interesting asides – and a refreshing lack of portentous ‘thinkers’ – for it to be a good evening.
One of the astonishing bits was seeing monkeys outperform adults in memory tasks. The chimps at Kyoto had to remember some numbers in order
Anyway, feeling very enthused. Will be going to more academy talks I think.
I still resent how difficult skateboarding is but I do love this.
I saw Jerusalem last week. It was 3 hours long, some of the country folk a little generic, but fabulous.
Then I went to a night out at the new Bush Theatre. It was smaller, less hyped, but in its own way just as wonderful.
Both were a relief. Recently, I have found bookshops, music and the like harder and harder to face. I am beginning to opt for very professionally done (but ultimately crap) airplane thrillers over challenging fiction, background music over anything else. I am reading more books that you forget as soon as you put them down, TV that you don’t mind not pausing while you make a cup of tea.
As Darwin said,
“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact . . . .The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
Except Darwin’s general laws were pretty impressive and mine are becoming more and more like platitudes drawn from pub trivia. I am not quite at the “kids these days” horrors a younger me swore I’d never say, but I am slipping along the the slope.
Nor am I alone. Many friends I speak to, male friends at any rate, are all increasingly reading non-fiction or trashy plane reads. Trips to the theatre, to concerts, new fiction and the arts all are treated with not dread exactly but at least a sigh. They take so much concentration!
All of which makes me wonder, perhaps this panic about children and attention spans is the projection of middle-aged men (like me) grumbling about their loss.