Back in February 2012 I was locked in a deadly embrace. The embrace was not with the Cancer – trying to kill me; nor was it with the chemo – which had come the closest.
My brush with death had happened as 2011 drew to a close. Christmas was days away, but I was too far gone to be thinking about watching Scrooged for the fifteenth time.
I talked with the ambulance man like there was a whole life stretching ahead of me. I talked marathon running. Maybe he’d had hundreds of conversations with dying people. Maybe he was keeping me calm, as we sped through the streets of North London.
There are things that I came to know later, that I did not know at the time. My body was shutting down. An infection, let-in by my shot immune system, had done its work. I was breaking down my own proteins and deficient in all the basic elements of life. I was an hour or so away from death.
By the time I wrote the following piece, a fair proportion of my everyday existence was concerned with avoiding infection. It talks of neutrophil counts the way dieters talk of calories. But I had other things on my mind too.
While I had survived my dance with death, my dad was not even keeping time. He had lost the ability to walk, read, or perform the most basic of human functions.
This again, I only came to know later. Back in February 2012, I was too sick to travel, and he was seeing out his life in the North East of England – in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend – three hundred or so miles from me.
I did get to see him before he died, later that year. Its a memory I can’t begin to describe.
I am now a fatherless son.
Back in early 2012, I still had a father; and I was thinking of fathers and sons. We were sharing something quite unusual: we were at the same dance. Think of those marathon contests held in Depression Era America. The last couple standing, would win a paltry sum of money.
Yet our dance was different. The one who embraced death the longest would not win. They would be extinguished forever.
The Prisoner of Tufnell Park, February 2012
I often trip myself up trying to be eloquent. It’s probably the reason why I take so long writing fiction. But hey ho …..we all have our own methods. Here’s something that tripped off my pen this morning. No attempts at editing or eloquence have been made.
Since November last year my universe has shrunk down to my home and University College Hospital, London. On a few occasions I’ve ventured out to a local café, but these were special occasions (my sister visiting from Newcastle and a lunch with my daughter). At two family meals I felt incredibly sick and self conscious. Chemo baldness does not look like a fashion statement – it’s what it is, Cancer. But after three months with no hair , I’ve become used to the stares, and honestly don’t care.
But I do care about the restrictions this disease has imposed on my life. Simple activities such as going for a drink (I can’t) and watching a film at the cinema (a reservoir of infection) are out of the question.
But I can watch a film at home, read a book or do some writing. The latter two were virtually impossible while actually receiving chemo – the chemicals scrambled my brain. But it’s been a few week since my last Bleomycin injection – so some faculties have returned.
I can’t go for very long without a nap, and need to take a zillion pills just to keep the sickness at bay , and stop my two clots moving to some major organ. The clots are managed by two self-administered injections per-day (it’s a wonderful life !) . So in-between the pills, potions and injections; the tiredness and the memory lapses ( yes that’s another thing – my short term memory has been fried) ;I manage some semblance of life.
The injection as I mentioned before is a worry; but I also have to be careful about infection. My last neutrophil count was 0.44 , putting me at huge risk (and I know exactly what happens when someone like me gets infected) . So I have to be careful about visitors – no colds or people with sick children. Contact with animals is also out of the question – although as I have no pets this is less of a problem. I do visit supermarkets (I need to eat), but keep these trips to a minimum. I rely on the kindness of friends when it comes to food.
To summarise: I’m tired, nauseous (occasionally), open to infection and bald as a coot. I’m a social butterfly – with broken wings, who can’t go to the cinema, see a band or go shopping (lets say when I need clothing) . I inject myself twice a day to prevent an embolism and potentially instant death.
Oh and I can’t travel (I have no car or driver). I’ve been unable to see my father since last summer. Coincidentally he’s been very sick – had two strokes about the same time as my Cancer diagnosis. He’s also unaware of my condition and his condition is extremely poor (I would classify it as waiting to die). I’m not saying the relationship between my dad and I has been great. But I’d like to see him before he dies. I have to accept this visit may not be possible.
And I can’t seem to escape the subject of fathers and sons – it seeps into my reading, writing and viewing. I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s Dickens Biography, that pretty much laid bare his awful relationship with his (impecunious) father and his many sons. Dickens for all his concern for the poor , was a terrible father; cruel some would say.
Famous sons and not so famous fathers was the subject of a Guardian article I read over the weekend (by the Irish author Colm Toibin). I’m shoehorning this a little as he also included the relationship between his mother and himself. But the main piece centred on WB Yeats and his literary ambitious father. I saw no parallels in my life, but the theme of fathers and sons just keeps cropping-up.
Take for example Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I watched this film cold (and on the internet) . Now maybe the chemotherapy has warped my brain, but I enjoyed this fathers and sons themed film. But what I don’t get is the critical reaction, the words rabid and feeding frenzy come to mind. There’s a unanimous condemnation from bloggers, TV pundits and film critics alike.
Maybe I felt a connection with the second theme of the film , the fact that the boy and grandfather are locked-in , a sort of prisoner of their respective conditions (aspergers and elective-mute) . So when I happened across a Guardian Film Blog this morning the prisoner of Tufnell Park, could not resist contributing:
I saw the film before reading the reviews or a synopsis of the plot – so had no idea what to expect . The aspergers/ autistic spectrum part of the film worked because they have created a fantasy end of the spectrum–the type of social behavior exhibited by the boy (meeting complete strangers and having a heart-warming time with them) would just not happen (if you were actually on the spectrum ) . Its like pain-free Hollywood Cancer popular in some of the tearjerker films of the past. But as I said I treated it as fantasy.
Although the central device of the film – a quest like search – is of course a direct reference to the computer games much loved by autistic/aspergers kids. I can also see why 9-11 was used, because if the father had died say in a road accident it would not have elicited the same response from all those New York strangers –so something big and memorable had to be used. Hanging together the quest , with someone else’s father – and his fathers father (the old reverse Oedipus problem) probably worked better in the book .
But I enjoyed Geoffrey Wright and Max Von Sydow all the same. I was not annoyed by the kid, nor was I annoyed by Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock. So all in all , as a piece of escapist entertainment (not a serious examination of 9-11)- I thought it worked. But what I can’t understand is rabid response to the film – it’s just so out of proportion – and self righteous.
Not everything I watch or read can be neatly tied into a fathers and sons theme. Take for example a programme I watched last night on Sky Arts1 about the Architect Norman Foster. I was expecting some great buildings and a profile of a really interesting man , but I was not expecting Cancer finding its way into the mix.
They showed Foster who’s in his seventies competing in a ski marathon, and then went on to describe his cancer treatment. And just when he thought he’d licked the Cancer, they told him it was terminal. But somehow Foster managed to survive. He allowed himself six months to recover before completing in the ski marathon again . He also happens to have recovered from a heart attack – a man of steel.
Hope is a word I’ve not used for a while, but watching that seventy year old man compete in a marathon gave me just that. I know how tough it is to run a marathon when you’re young and fit , I just can’t imagine what it’s like as a Cancer survivor. But when I stop being the prisoner of Tufnell Park, that’s just what I’m going to do.