I’m sitting in the garden again. It’s a great way to start the day, when I’m at the cottage in north Wales. It’s Monday morning, and the sun hasn’t been up that long. As I look out to the near horizon and see the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia ‘frozen’ in a petrified undulation, and hear the most delightful birdsong, and see foxes playing close by, and with a coffee and notepad on the garden table, it’s one of those days when it really is good to be alive, and appreciative of all that there is. But, today my thoughts are really on yesteryear. Anniversaries.
Anniversaries can be tough times.
I’m thinking of events of nine years ago. My heart is somewhat heavy. I can remember it as a time when thoughts were in turmoil, because it was the time when I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.
If there is a ‘part one’ to this account, then it begins with a dream (which occurred a number of weeks or months before problems arose, and at the time seemingly had no correlation to what was about to happen). That account can be read: Here!
As I sit here, sipping coffee, I remember: It wasn’t swallowing difficulties that alerted me, then, that something was wrong, but the fact that food seemed to ‘stick’ at the base of my oesophagus – the tube between throat and stomach. Food would ‘pile up’, until by sheer weight it would enter my stomach, and as it entered I’d feel a raw and sharp soreness at that ‘valve’. Sorry to be so graphic. But, I remember it as though it was yesterday.
By the time I saw my doctor and had blood tests done – I moved quickly and, thanks to the NHS system and my local doctor and others who moved equally quickly – I was soon referred to the endoscopy department at the local hospital. By then, I was eating ‘mashed up’ baby food (for babies aged 4-6 months). Baby food, I can tell you, is disgusting…unless you’re consuming a desert. I knew that whatever was wrong was becoming ‘more wrong’.
My plea with God was: Please make it something simple like a hernia. A ‘plumbing job, please’.
I left work early, walked to the hospital’s endoscopy department, and checked in at the reception desk. My endoscopy-doctor’s name was scribbled on the white board on the wall. Was he really called Dr Swallow? Apparently, so. Ironic!
I was ‘brave’ and only had a gargle numbing agent – which tasted of awful, over-ripe bananas – and then it felt like twenty feet of ‘tubing’ was pushed down my throat. That is an exaggeration, ofcourse, but the fact that it felt like a salmon in my stomach flipping about isn’t an exaggeration. Camera and ‘mechanical grab’ were obviously in place!
And the question of whether I would gag as the tube entered by throat, having swallowed this gargle-anaesthetic, was answered. Momentarily, I gagged.
The endoscopy ‘tube’ went deeper, then it was retracted a little, and then a little deeper, and this went on for about twenty-five minutes, as I lay on my side. Photographs were taken, and a few biopsy samples were taken, too, and then it was over. I wondered: with the numbing agent still effective in my throat, if I would I gag as the endoscope was removed. Yes, I gagged.
I sat on the end of the bed.
Nurses flitted around, and the Doctor was busy typing away in the corner. Three minutes later, thought it seemed like three hours, he sat next to me. He said, ‘Are you the kind of man that likes a direct answer?’ I nodded, and said in a hoarse voice, ‘Yes’.
He continued, ‘We will need to await the biopsy results, but I believe you should prepare yourself for the result that shows that you have oesophageal cancer’. My world fell apart.
God hadn’t responded to my ‘hernia plea’.
I couldn’t speak for several minutes. As he continued to fill in the details, it was if the ‘real me’ had moved some distance away, to reside at the far end of a tunnel. On tv ads and dramas this is usually dramatised with blurry scenes and with a voices-in-the-distance effect. And, that was exactly what it was like.
It was as if my soul had detached itself from my body and there was a delay in what I was hearing, and a delay by me in replying. Some of my Druid friends, my Wiccan friends, and especially my Shaman friends would call this ‘soul fragmentation’ or ‘soul loss’, and (then) I knew that that was really an apt description of what had just happened to me.
In some senses I felt like a ‘zombie’. There, but not there. I walked back to work, psychically numb. I cleared my desk, ‘phoned clients due in the following day and cancelled their appointments, and informed the charity project managers of my plight – at the time I had been employed to counsel those on probation, coming out of rehab or who were disabled in any way – all seemingly perfectly composed. But, it took so much effort. It felt like an ‘act’, but I needed to do it.
It took me an hour to get home. I was okay until I got through the front door, and then I just fell to my knees and sobbed like a small child. I wish I could tell you that I was mature and adult about it. Do men cry? I don’t know. I did! Then, I didn’t care whether it was right or wrong. I wept tears of shock, absolute shock. I needed an emotional response, and, so I wept some more. And some more. So many tears that my tears ran dry.
‘Crying does not mean a person is weak, but it means a person has a heart.’
I pride myself on being an honest man, but I lied to family and friends about the endoscopy result. Over the next few days, when asked, I would say the endoscopy result was inconclusive and that I needed to wait ten days for the biopsy report. I don’t think I handled that the best way – I should have been more honest – but there was part of me that knew I wasn’t yet strong enough, or recovered enough from the shock, to tell people and deal with their responses. I dreaded other peoples responses.
And yet, even in their state of unknowing, I valued their company, and gave thanks to God for such genuine people, especially for my family, and friends, and friends of faith. I gave thanks, like never before. Thanks for Christian/Celtic Christian friends and their deep love, but this was mirrored by love expressed by my co-Druid friends of faith, Wiccan friends of faith, and Shaman friends of faith, and others – all decent, sincere, honest and loving people. (Later, when I did tell people, one Muslim young man – a friend of one of my sons – came up to me and asked if Muslim prayers meant anything to me. My response, was, ‘Ofcourse…and besides I need all the prayers I can get.’ If I ever needed a lesson in faith, I learned then that the prayers of men and women of any faith are most welcome in a cancer diagnosis. It cuts out the ‘denominational squabbling’).
‘Ennui is the echo in us of time tearing itself apart.’ Emile M. Cioran
For ten days I carried on as usual – telling those near to me nothing, other than I had two weeks holiday to use up or lose it, hence my being at home all day
I felt like the loneliest man on the planet.
And, nights were awful.
‘The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald
I busied myself during the day. Visiting friends and family. Even more book reading and café visits. I had the cleanest home for miles. Scrubbed clean, and scrubbed clean again. All had the effect of tiring me, and that’s what I needed. But, in the time between daily activity and sleep, I felt dreadfully alone. Sleep was an escape, but it seemed to short – and I prayed not to wake before the morning. The moment I awoke in the morning’, there was a ‘window’ of about ten seconds of bliss as I lay there, and then reality would hit me, and the feeling of dread would descend on me like a malevolent dead-weight, like a succubus (but without any of the fun). I needed to get up, busy myself, and then it would pass, almost.
Ten days later, I got the result. It confirmed oesophageal cancer. The shock-energy, by then, had gone. There were no more tears left.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I spent some time with the oncologist, then, and a ‘plan of attack’ was decided upon; and in a strange way, that comforted me. I knew chemo, and a massive operation and radio-therapy lay ahead. But, some action was now in place. Some germ of positivity was taking root.
My plea to God was: Get me well, please, or take me quick. No lingering ‘exit’, please.
At that time I remember being totally calm, knowing that I needed to be positive – though honest and realistic – and galvanise myself and use all available ‘inner resources’ to attempt to get well. Emphasis, then, lay on the word ‘attempt’, as I then had reconciled myself with the possibility of imminent death. Ofcourse, I wanted to live. But, I had to be aware of the alternative. I was know ready to tell family and friends. That was nine years ago.
‘Have you ever had a shock in life? It takes great hope, faith and courage to bounce back.’ Lailah Gifty Akita