Monday, 17 September 2018

Return to the Cancer Centre

The four months since my last CT scan had passed and I was again sitting in the waiting room at the Cancer Centre drinking my litre of contrast, one plastic cupful every ten minutes. As usual the room was deathly quiet and no-one made eye contact. Each cancer patient, most accompanied by friends or family, sipped resignedly; the level of contrast in their clear plastic jug showing just how long they had been there. I sipped and read the newspaper, trying not to let my fears overwhelm me in the hour before the scan.  

A radiologist came and called out a name. An elderly man stood up and walked unsteadily towards her. His two younger companions, a man and a woman in their early forties, looked concernedly at him for a short while then returned to their mobile phones. Shortly after he disappeared, the woman began playing video clips on her phone to the man at full volume. Have you seen this one, she howled? He shook his head, grinning. Soon they were both laughing hysterically. What about this one, shouted the man? She eagerly leant over his phone and they were again laughing hysterically. The manic noise of the clips and their braying filled every corner of the room.

I tried to ignore the row, but it grated on my nerves. Soon all the cancer patients were shaking their heads and exchanging disapproving glances with each other. The two were obsessed with their play and oblivious to the rest of us.

Excuse me, I shouted, would you mind turning the volume down?
They both looked up with a start
It wasn’t me, said the man, just like a naughty child.
The woman gave a big sigh and switched off her phone with a flounce of her head.
They both sulked until the older man returned from his scan.

I thought two things. Firstly, in marketing there is a prized category of consumers called ‘kidults’: over 30’s who have substantial disposable income and who share the values and mores of 16-25 year olds. Many of the adverts on mainstream TV are targeted at these consumers. Secondly, I pondered how kidults would try to cope with the painful stress of a parent who has cancer? By immersion in the opposite emotion?

My call came and I lay down in the CT machine, which whirred and whirled around me. In ten minutes it was over and I went home. After two weeks of sleepless nights and worry, I was back in the Cancer Centre to meet my Oncologist. She has a difficult job. Today she appeared more cheerful than usual. On the desk in front of her was what looked like a scan report. The text covered the full page, making it much longer than normal. My worries went up a couple of notches.

She began by asking how I was feeling. I explained my recent symptoms: pain in both hips and groins, stomach still disturbed. She said that the scan had shown that I have a small hiatus hernia and a small inguinal hernia. But apart from that I was all clear of cancer.

An enormous weight left me. I’d now been clear of cancer for two years. So I’d got through the most dangerous time. The risk continued of course, my previous recurrence had come at four years.

The other problems were a consequence of the series of major operations I’d had. They could be dealt with. My next scan would be in January.



Monday, 3 September 2018

Returning to the Auld Country

I lived in Scotland for nine years. My time there concluded very unhappily. My ex left me for another man, who she had been having an affair with whilst I was working away from home. We had been together for the archetypal seven years. I arrived in Belfast newly alone and not knowing anyone. At first I thought I’d made a terrible mistake and began applying for jobs elsewhere. But then I settled down, steadily sorted through my problems and bought a house in the country. Five years ago I met my dearest T. Our trip to Scotland last week was the first time I had been back for twenty years.

We took the ferry to Cairnryan and drove through Dumfries and Galloway on the old coast road. It was very attractive and we marked out some places to come back and explore in more depth. We liked Whithorn and Kirkudbright (the art and crafts town) but didn’t think much of Wigton, the much vaunted book town. It was a pale imitation of Hay on Wye, with a few small bookshops most of which were closed. We visited several ruined abbeys, an unusual round tower and a spectacular Saxon high cross at Ruthwell, where the first savings bank was also founded.

We stopped at Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre to be established in the West (in 1967). It is in a beautiful and peaceful setting in Eskdale, where two rivers meet. Although I’d helped sponsor the Great Stupa, built in 2000, it was the first time I’d been there. T and I walked around the substantial grounds and sat quietly in the great temple. We could have stayed for ages.

We drove on through the uplands on single-track roads to Selkirk, where the statue of Sir Walter Scott looks down on the town square. We were staying in an Airbnb nearby, and taking the train into Edinburgh. It was a comfortable journey of 50 minutes into Waverley. My reading was at the Scottish Poetry Library on The Royal Mile. I read poems from my new collection which were well received. There was a full house of about 40 people. Pretty good considering there were 2500 other shows on in the Fringe Festival.

The city was buzzing with creativity and very crowded. The pavements of the Old Town weren’t wide enough for everyone. Going between shows was a bit of an ordeal. We saw two plays at the Summerhall, the best of which was Midnight Soup, a play in which the audience of 12 sit around a dinner table and cut vegetables for soup whilst offering memories. The play was devised by a Frenchman in homage to his grandmother and the frame for it was a series of readings from her diary. I found it very affecting and enjoyable. And in the end we ate the soup we made.

The most excellent show we saw was Reversible by The 7 Fingers, a company from Montreal. It was a fantastic blend of physical theatre, dance, acrobatics and circus skills, put together with a brilliantly simple set of three movable walls with doors and windows. The theme was memory and migration. The highly skilled performers flew through the air and in time, accompanied by great sound and light design. It was one of the very best shows I’ve seen in 40 years of going to fringe theatre.

Next we went to Roslyn Chapel with its very impressive and ornate stone carvings. It is a living example of something good that has come from Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code has increased the visitors tenfold and provided funds for the waterproofing and restoration of the chapel. We carried on to Stirling via the Kelpies, two 100 feet high horses heads. Kelpies are Scottish water spirits that often take the form of horses. These are spectacular.

I worked in Stirling for seven years. We visited some old stamping grounds, looked up places I lived and caught up with several people I was still in touch with. One of whom had taken early retirement and become a sheepdog trainer. She took us out on the moors with two of her seven collies who rounded up a flock of sheep most effectively. We, of course, wanted to take one of the dogs home with us.

On our last full day we went to Glasgow by train. We walked along Sauchiehall St, had tea in the Willow Tea Rooms and visited the Mackintosh House, walking past the blackened ruin of the Art College. We found a vegan cafe with 80 different types of tea next door to a splendid second hand bookshop.

My last act was to visit the place where I had lived with my ex. It was a flat on the top floor of a red sandstone tenement building in the West End. As I walked apprehensively up the steps of the building, a young woman was about to go in through the front security door (which hadn’t been there 20 years ago). I explained that I was coming back to see the place after 20 years. She let us in and went on ahead up the stairs. We dawdled along behind her; I noticed that the hall tiles were brown, not green. As we approached the top floor, the young woman was about to go into the flat in which I used to live.

Is this where you lived, she asked?
Yes, it is, I said.
Would you like to see inside?
Yes please, I said, just for a minute.

She opened the door and ushered us in. Memories came flooding back. It was the same flat but filled with someone else’s furniture and things it looked completely different. She showed us around all five rooms. She was renting the flat with her husband. They were expecting their first child. T and I smiled at each other. I felt I had come full circle and the unhappy ending that I experienced there was completely gone.





Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Keeping Going

The month since Rex’s death has passed almost in a blur. We have been functioning at the bare bones of normality. Between waking and sleeping we have been getting by as best we can. During the day we have been distracting ourselves, rather than getting on with what we needed to do. Thankfully it has been holiday time so there have been few demands that couldn’t be postponed.

My main distraction has been cycling. I’ve always loved the feel of fresh air on my face. I started off on the Newry to Portadown towpath. I would drive to Scarva with the bike on the car. Typically, I would first head north, turning at the point where the canal meets the Bann and head back down to Poyntzpass, where I would stop for lunch at the excellent Petty Sessions. My favourite delicacy would be Mrs Copeland’s rhubarb pie with ice cream. Afterwards I would continue on to Newry, turning at the end of the towpath and returning to Scarva. The entire trip is a flattish 38 miles.

After a while I wanted to try something a bit more challenging. From our house, I set out on backroads through the drumlins towards the Mournes, turning just before Lough Island Reavy and heading across country before Hilltown to loop around to the west of Rathfriland. This is a ride of a similar length but it feels much harder as you are regularly going up and down short steep hills. I call this route the Tour of Rathfriland and it has about 1600 feet of climbing, according to my cycle computer.

Then I tried some longer rides, taking the bike on the car down to Meath and Louth. One of my favourite rides starts at Ardee and travels on backroads to Kells, where there is a great lunch stop. It is a cafe and a second hand bookshop called the Book Market. They are very obliging and have plenty of interesting books. The first time I went there I had the all day breakfast, but with white and black pudding as well as all of the trimmings, it was a bit too heavy for cycling and I found myself belching for the next twenty miles.

Another good ride starts at Castlebellingham and follows the coast road to Termonfeckin. Yes, this is a real village and not a place out of Father Ted.  It has a high cross and a good cafe in the garden centre. Afterwards the route goes on through Drogheda, on fairly busy roads, to the Battle of the Boyne site. Then the hills begin. You ascend King William’s Glen and then you keep on climbing, until dropping steeply down to Mellifont. The first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, founded in 1142, built beside a steam at the end of a narrow valley. Then it is on to Monasterboice, with its round tower and high crosses, and back across undulating country to Dromiskin and Castlebellingham. This is a hard ride, 57 miles and 2200 feet of climbing.

With so little rain and plenty of sunshine, this has been a great summer for the bike. My knees and arms have turned dark brown. I’m fitter, having lost fat and gained muscle. Old trousers now fit me again, but I’ve stayed at roughly the same weight. T has chosen a different path. She has lost herself in studying for her evening class, spending day after day reading for and writing assignments. They are to be handed in soon, I’m sure she will get good marks.

Whatever we have been doing during the day, we take it in turns to make the evening meal. Afterwards we always walk together down the lane. We hold hands and remember Rex’s favourite spots, talking about him as if he was with us. We began this a couple of days after he died. It is helpful and reassuring. We keep going together.




Saturday, 28 July 2018

At Your Side

Death walks beside us throughout our lives. We don’t notice nor pay much heed to this constant dark companion. After a dangerous scrape or a serious illness, we breathe a deep sigh of relief and go on. ‘There but for the grace of God’, we say. When someone close to us dies, we grieve and ponder on our own lives. But, after this hesitation, we carry on. ‘What choice do we have?’ we say.

Rex’s death remains deeply shocking to us. It has been the closest and most painful of a recent series of reminders of our mortality. Nothing can bring him back from his terrible death. And there is no antidote to grief. It has to be lived through. Yet, a shock to the system also gives us something else. The opportunity to not carry on in the same way. Our natural desire is to simply re-establish all of the routines that we previously had. But they don’t fit anymore, our normality feels empty and fractured, someone (and something) important is missing.

I have had such reminders before. My first wife died in an accident thirty one years ago, several weeks after we moved in to our first house together. I contracted cancer seven years ago and was given a very poor prognosis. Looking back, I can see that after each of these shocks my life changed significantly. At the time I didn’t see either of these events as an opportunity, just as severe threats that I had to struggle to survive. But they were both catalysts and through a very painful process, akin to the shedding of a skin or a shell, I came to see myself and my way ahead differently. And the course of my life changed.

Oddly enough, the benefits of these changes have been considerable. After Gill’s sudden death, I kept a series of promises to her. She was often reminding me to get on with my Ph.D. I’d always say, I’ll do it next weekend, let’s go away this weekend. She would give in and we would go away, often to the mountains, and next weekend rarely came. A year after she died, I did knuckle down and finish my Ph.D. Through this I came to value my intellect more highly, I then gained a new lectureship in Scotland, worked very hard and was promoted to Professor within nine years (the job at QUB that brought me here twenty years ago).

I got cancer around the time I left academia. After years of dispute and disillusion, I took early retirement to focus on my own creative work. Just a couple of months after my first collection was launched, I was brought in to Belfast City Hospital via A & E and then told the bad news. Four major operations and two recurrences later, I am almost two years clear of the disease (after being given that long to live, seven eventful years ago).

I’ve written in earlier blog posts about the changes that cancer has made in how I try and live my life. Essentially, they are: living in the here and now, living wholeheartedly, doing what matters as well as you can and not wasting time and energy on what (and who) doesn’t. Rex’s death gives a powerful reminder of their significance, for dogs do all of these things naturally.  We couldn’t wish for a better example.



Tuesday, 17 July 2018

A Death in the Family

I’m writing this with a very heavy heart. Our dear dog, young Rex, is dead. We found him the other morning. He had died in the night. His lifeless body was hanging from the low fork of an ash sapling in the hedge at the corner of the garden near his kennel. He might have been pursuing a rabbit or barking at a fox or a badger some five feet below in the ditch of the adjoining field. He must have overbalanced from his vantage point and fallen to be hung by his own collar. It was a terrible sight, one that has come back again and again in our nightmares since.

Rex had been with us for almost a year. He was a little over two years old. Although he was a rescue dog, he had a marvellous temperament. He was highly affectionate, extremely patient but also very alert. He made an excellent guard dog. He also loved to hunt and chase. He wanted to run after every animal he saw, except sheep and cattle which he was afraid of. Unfortunately this also included cars and bicycles, so we had learnt to keep him on a lead during walks and tethered at home.

Rex bonded with us equally. We formed a small family. There is now a huge empty space in our lives. Whenever he saw you, Rex would prick up his ears and wag his tail and come over and rub himself against you. With his thick black fur with a white ruff around his neck, he was very warm.  He was also strong and weighty, underneath the fur he was all muscle and bone. There is not a moment in the day that we do not miss him. Our life seems all the poorer now. We are hurting very much.

Because of the threats that had been made against Rex by the old farmer down the lane we called the police after we found his body. They came and examined the scene carefully. We also checked the night vision camera with motion sensor that we had installed beside his kennel. There was no evidence of suspicious activity. It had been a terrible accident.

The two policemen returned his body to us wrapped in an old sheet. They were animal lovers and clearly affected by his death. When they had gone we went out and unrolled the sheet. Rex lay there peacefully. We stroked him and talked to him, just like we would have done any day. Then I dug a grave in the corner of the garden and we laid him to rest. We gave him his favourite treats for the journey and placed a plain wooden cross above his head.

After this we had to go out. We drove around aimlessly for a good while. On the way back home we kept to country lanes. We didn’t really want to see anyone. Then T spotted an animal in the road some distance ahead. We approached steadily trying to make out what it was. Coming over a small rise we saw it was a young hare sitting in the middle of the road. He appeared to be waiting for us. Amazed, we stopped and stared at him. He gazed calmly at us. Then he loped into the adjoining field and away. It was surely a sign from a spirit animal. Rex was running free.




Sunday, 1 July 2018

A Tap on the Shoulder

I’ve been struggling with more bad news this past week. Another good friend and neighbour has just been given a terminal diagnosis. She has an aggressive breast cancer and a full mastectomy was unable to remove all of the disease. So she now faces a course of chemotherapy to try and slow the disease down in order to extend her life. And this blow comes just a few weeks after my good friend and next-door neighbour passed away from a late-diagnosed and untreatable blood cancer. When the big C returns so starkly and so close at hand, it feels like a tap on the shoulder saying ‘You’re next’.

I know that this is all so much worse for the immediate family. I also know that at my last scan, six weeks ago, there was no evidence seen of the disease. But cancer is not a disease that is easily rationalised. When you have been in its clutch and escaped, you remain vulnerable to any sign of its return. Although appearing to function normally day by day, you are also always on alert and keeping watch. My oncologist has told me to check my body regularly for any strange symptoms and has given me a number to ring if I find something. I’ve not found anything yet, but if I did they told me that they would bring me in for an early check.

I’ve realised that the only antidote to this fundamental anxiety is living your life well. Doing what matters as well as you can and trying your best not to be distracted by things that in the fullness of time you’d see as insignificant. This sort of approach to life was exactly what Liz Atkinson spoke about at her early retirement a week or so ago. It was the most important thing that she had learnt from working for over forty years with people suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

At present, I’m spending plenty of time working on my poetry and going cycling in the fine weather. This for me is living well; for mental and physical wellbeing are surely interlinked. Over recent months I’ve put together a second collection of poetry. My first was published in late 2010, and in early 2011 I was diagnosed with cancer. For several years I didn’t write any poetry. I was almost totally consumed by fear and keeping watch. Then, tentatively, I began to write poetry again. In recent years, despite the series of operations I’ve had, I’ve been writing regularly. The style of my writing has changed post-cancer, as has everything else in my life.

I’ve had plenty of success with my new poetry: I’ve placed poems in a series of good journals on either side of the Atlantic and I’ve won a series of awards in poetry competitions in England, Ireland, Scotland and the USA. Now I’m looking to find a publisher for my new collection. There are relatively few poetry publishers these days and competition is fierce, so wish me luck.




Monday, 18 June 2018

Beyond the Bucket List

Liz Atkinson, the Head of Care Services at Cancer Focus, is about to take early retirement. This was heralded by a very well attended event in Belfast at which tributes were made to her work in supporting people suffering from cancer and their families. Liz leads the Cancer Focus counselling, therapy and advisory services. She also helped found the Sing for Life Choir. And I know only too well how important these services are, as I have benefited from them enormously over the past seven years.

When all the tributes were made and the presents given, Liz spoke about why she was taking early retirement. She said that she had been working with people suffering from life-threatening illness for forty years. This experience had shown her that life was short and precious, and it had given her the great privilege of spending time with people who were not going to recover. It had taught her that you should follow your dreams and not be distracted from them, but focus your time on what really matters for you. She said that her teenage daughter had come to her and said that she wanted to be an actress. Instead of telling her to become a teacher or a solicitor, Liz and her husband said, if that’s what you really want, then go for it. Her daughter is now at drama school.

After a long and successful career in nursing and the charitable sector helping others, Liz said that she now wanted to take on some new challenges. She told us that she had always wanted to learn to play the piano and now she would. She also spoke about doing plenty of gardening, spending more time singing with the choir and finally visiting places around the world that she had only read about. There was great applause and then we tucked into the cake.

I think Liz’s thoughts on what you learn from a life-threatening illness were very well put. I have been feeling exactly the same way. The past two and a half years have been very hard going for me: two cancer recurrences and three major operations. But now I have been cancer free for twenty months. And after the last operation, the dreaded thoracotomy some nine months ago, I have also been able to both breathe and eat normally. As the pain from this surgery recedes, I can at last begin to focus on things other than my fears.

Once a week, T and I have been going on little trips, afternoons out to different places, not too far away, such as Carlingford. We are also planning a holiday to Scotland in August and taking in the Edinburgh Festival. In the autumn we will have a trip to our favourite hotel in Mayo, the Mulranny Park, on the shores of Clew Bay. And when the dark and cold of winter returns we intend to get away to La Gomera.

What Liz didn’t spend much time on was the distractions from your purpose and how easy it is to become diverted. Every day there are problems that arise, many of these emanating from other peoples’ disturbances and inadequacies. What cancer has taught me is that life is also far too short to become embroiled in this sort of stuff. The best policy is never to suffer fools and always to speak your mind. On the journey of life there are many false friends. Far better to have fewer genuine ones.