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.





Monday, 11 June 2018

The Perils of Dog Walking

I took Rex for a walk at Castlewellan today. It was the first time I had driven him in the car on my own. He has learnt to get into the front of the car, but normally one of us sits with him to hold and reassure him. Rex jumped in as usual and sat anxiously in the footwell. I tied him to the door by the lead and we set off. Rex shivered for a while, but soon settled down and rested. We parked at Dollies Brae and embarked on the round the lake loop, Rex on a flexi-lead. The walk turned out to be eventful and shocking.

The first incident was an encounter with two Yorkshire Terriers. They advanced yapping, encircling Rex rather like Red Indians attacking a wagon train in an old Western. Rex sat and kept careful watch as the terriers darted around him, barking and snapping. He was certainly intimidated and I was delighted to see an old lady appear to drag the terriers off. We resumed the walk.

We reached the other side of the lake without encountering many other dogs. Then a large black poodle appeared. They sniffed each other. The owners were some way down the path shouting to the dog. Suddenly a fight broke out. The dogs were rolling on the ground, biting and snarling. I pulled Rex away from the big black poodle but it jumped up and began biting him on the back until a chubby middle-aged woman arrived panting and dragged it off Rex by grabbing its hair. She produced a collar from her pocket and slipped over the poodle’s neck and put its lead on.

She snapped that my dog was very aggressive and I should have warned her of this.

I said that Rex wasn’t aggressive. It was her dog that wasn’t under control and had been the aggressor.

We had several exchanges about whose dog was the aggressor.

I told her she needed to keep her dog under control.

She shouted that her dog was under control.

By this time the husband had arrived, a large man in shorts with a beer belly; he glared at me.

I told her that her dog had been loose and wasn’t wearing a collar.

She shouted that he was wearing a collar.

I said, well he is now because you just put it on.

You’re not a nice man, she said.

He was wearing a collar, shouted the man in a broad Belfast accent, pushing my shoulder.

He wasn’t before, I said.

You calling my wife a liar, shouted the man, pushing me in the chest very aggressively.

I’ve had enough of this, I said, and began to walk away.

He followed me, shouting, where d’you think you’re going?

Then I felt a slap to the left side of my face; a light blow from the back of his hand.

Come on then, he shouted, d’you want to make something of it?

He was spoiling for a fight. It was just me and them on the far side of the lake. I kept walking.

In his shorts, he looked like a middle-aged schoolyard bully. I noticed he was working hard to keep up with me.

Then another light slap to the side of my face.

Come on then, he shouted again, d’you want to make something of it?

I sneered at him and kept walking away.

They soon receded into the distance and my heart-rate came down. I returned to the car with Rex. After this shocking incident, I decided not to come dog walking in Castlewellan on my own again. You never know who or what you might encounter.





Saturday, 2 June 2018

A Remarkable Man

My good friend and neighbour Charlie has passed away. He’d been in hospital for some weeks suffering from leukaemia. A week ago he took a sudden turn for the worse. And, a few days later, he died in the small hours surrounded by his family.

I last saw him about a week before he died. Despite his ill health, he was pleased to see me. He explained that the consultant had told him there was no further treatment that could be given to remedy the disease. He told me that he had suspected that this was the case for several weeks. In some senses it was a relief to him that this news was now out in the open. Typically, Charlie met this final challenge thoughtfully and unflinchingly.  

He was born on the farm at the end of our laneway and went to the village school. Despite passing the eleven-plus he didn’t go to grammar school, but left at 14 and worked on the family farm. He married Margorie and had three children. As the small farm was not bringing in enough, he began work as a bread delivery man for Ormeau Bakery. Intelligent, hardworking and with good judgement, Charlie tended to succeed at whatever he turned his hand to. Unsurprisingly, he worked his way up to Sales Manager for the whole of Ireland.

After retirement from the bakery he took up sheep farming again, delivered books to schools across NI and built houses for his children and grandchildren. He also spent a good amount of time helping me with any tasks that were beyond me. I knew for sure that Charlie would either have the answer to my problem or know who to turn to. His knowledge of the local area was legendary. He could describe the entire lineage of most families going back many generations. He knew who had lived in what ruined house and where they went when they left it. He knew who owned what land, how they had come by it and what crops or animals they had kept since his father’s time.

Over the 17 years I had lived next door, in the house that Charlie had built for his eldest son (who emigrated to the USA), I spent many evenings at his home being entertained with stories about local people. He was my link with the past, my present helper and my pal. No challenge was too big or too small for him. He was a supremely skilled man (all self-taught) and extremely versatile. At the same time, he was goodhearted, considerate and modest. I will miss him very much.

Charlie’s body came home from the hospital and there was a wake. On the third morning about fifty family and friends gathered at the house for prayers led by the minister. Then the coffin was lifted and carried down the lane, one man at each corner. Slowly we travelled the three-quarters of a mile to the church. I was honoured to be one of those who carried him. And I hope, that when my time comes, I have a similar send off.

Throughout the wake, Rex had barked madly at each new visitor. But when the cortege walked down the lane he sat in silence and solemnly watched everyone pass by. The hedgerows were bursting with white hawthorn blossom and the verges were thick with cow parsley. The little church at the crossroads was filled to overflowing. Extra chairs were brought in and set in the aisles and vestibule. The service concluded with ‘Abide with Me’. We filed into the graveyard, which was bathed in strong sunshine. Charlie was laid in the earth beside his mother and father. May he rest in peace.




Sunday, 20 May 2018

Rex: A Suitable Case for Therapy?

We’ve had Rex, a border collie, for nine months now. He is a rescue dog. At first he caused little trouble (apart from his bad habit of chasing cars); we think he was just glad to have a home where he got regular food and he wasn’t beaten. But over recent months his psychological disturbances have become more apparent. He has become very demanding of attention and deeply jealous of anything that he perceives as a rival.

His primary rival is my bicycle. He cannot bear to look at it or even hear it (the rear wheel clicks distinctively). When he sees me going out to the garage, where the bike is kept, he flies into a rage. He howls and barks madly and does his best to attack my car. I’ve now had to park the car where he can’t get at it, as he has scratched the front and wing in previous rages. He also perceives the mower and the wheelie bin as love rivals. So when we are mowing the lawn or taking the bin out, he again flies into rages and tries to attack my car.

We do our best to calm him by stroking and reassuring him, but his hatred of these rivals is so deeply felt that he will only be temporarily pacified. And when our attention wavers from him and towards the mowing or the bin or the bike, he again flies into a rage. I first became aware of this about a month ago when I was fixing up my bike for a wee ride. It was a good day and I had the bike out on the lawn to do some maintenance. I’d taken off my watch and put it on the garden table. When I wasn’t looking Rex came up, took my watch from the table and began to chew it. Luckily the watch is stainless steel and I noticed what he was doing before he could damage it too badly.

A couple of days later, the relief postman (who is scared of Rex) left some parcels on the garden table. When I came home I found all of the parcels shredded and the chewed contents strewn across the driveway. The butt of his rage this time was a book of poetry by David Harsent; Rex may not be much of a critic, but he knows what he doesn’t like. I chided him for attacking my watch and my parcels and since then his rages have been directed towards my car

T, who reads counselling books, thinks that he has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. Now that his needs for food and shelter are being regularly met, he has moved on to his needs for attention. Here there is a huge deficit from his first year of life with the abusive old farmer. We do our best to stroke and reassure him each day, but you could pet him for 24 hours every day and it still wouldn’t be enough.

It’s significant that he has selected my car as the primary target for his rage. Does he really want to attack me for not paying him sufficient attention? But I imagine that I’m not a safe target for his anger as I am also the person who feeds him and takes him for walks. So he diverts his rage towards a safer alternative. He never attacks the bike, the mower or the bin. My car has become the scapegoat. However, on occasions, I have taken Rex for a walk whilst also taking the bin out to the corner of the lane. It is interesting that on these occasions, when he was getting something he likes and my attention, he wasn’t disturbed by the bin at all.

Any helpful advice from dog owners (or dog therapists), especially those with experience of rescue dogs, would be most welcome.




Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Visit

I’ve been living in rural South Down for seventeen years. I moved back to the countryside as an experiment, after living and working in cities for many years. I bought a bungalow, surrounded by fields and farms, with views of the Mournes. My main fear was isolation. Instead, I got back in touch with the natural rhythms of the seasons and was welcomed by neighbours despite not having any family links with the area. There was one particular neighbour who I became close to. This week I was disturbed to learn that he was very seriously ill in hospital.

C had grown up on the farm down the lane. He inherited the land and kept sheep, despite having a management job in Belfast. He was one of those people who could successfully turn his hand to almost anything. In fact he had helped build my house. It had been constructed for his eldest son, who moved to America. I’m fairly practical, but this has limits. So when there was something that needed doing that was beyond me, to the house or to the half an acre that surrounded it, I turned to him. C would always have the solution to my problem and would sort it out promptly and effectively with a minimum of fuss. At first I tried to pay him for his time and trouble, but he would never accept anything. It took me a little while to realise that the neighbours’ economy was trade in kind. One good turn required another. I helped him out with tasks of his that required several hands, took my turn in the strimming of the grass verges of the lane and always mowed his lawn whenever I cut mine.

Some years ago he began to have bouts of tiredness and muscle aches. He put this down to ageing; he is a decade older than me, but a good bit fitter. So he gave up his job and lived on a pension and sheep-farming. These bouts persisted. He went to the doctor who diagnosed him with fibromyalgia and put him on steroids. The treatment didn’t seem to work and when he complained about this the doctor increased the dosage of the steroid.

Last year he was floored by a chest infection and was hospitalised for several weeks in Daisy Hill. His fatigue increased. Some months later the chest infection returned and he was again hospitalised. This time they began to test him for a range of other problems. After running many tests they could find nothing. They were again going to discharge him, but decided to refer him to a Haematologist at Craigavon. He was tested further and they eventually discovered that he had a rare form of blood cancer which attacks the bone marrow.

C was also told that if he had been suffering from fibromyalgia it ought to have improved on steroids in a matter of months. His early symptoms had probably been of the blood cancer and there was a clear failure on the part of the GP not to refer him for testing for other conditions (thankfully we are with a different GP). Because of this he had several years of deterioration before he got the correct treatment, which is a very expensive course of drugs that can only attempt to arrest the decline.

It was another chest infection that had returned him to hospital this time. His infection markers were high and his blood/oxygen saturation was dangerously low. He was being pumped full of different intravenous antibiotics and had an oxygen line into his nose. He lay on the bed in a side room, gasping and panting with the effort of talking. We spoke about the old days when he was fit and well and active. He realised that he would never be able to go back to them. All he wanted was to return home. But the prospect of that was remote.

He asked me how I’d coped with my cancer treatment (he had visited me in hospital). I said that I’d had it easier than him. I did have four big operations, but my incapacity, although painful and difficult, had always been temporary. I’d struggled to get well each time, but I’d never been continuingly incapacitated. I didn’t know how I would cope with the situation that he was in. I told him that the only strategy I knew was to take things one morning/afternoon/evening/night at a time and try your best. Given the challenge of his situation, it seemed a lame answer.

An auxiliary nurse came with a tray of food. C slowly ate some soup with mashed potato in it. I opened his small tub of ice-cream and he scooped it up with a teaspoon. I explained that, as T was away, I had to go home to feed the dog. I promised to visit him again soon. We clasped hands. He told me he would be very pleased to see me.

As I drove home, I pondered on this visit. I knew that C had given me a timely reminder to make the most of life when you are able, and not to waste time and energy on what might seem important but which really didn’t matter very much. What he wanted most of all was to be at home again and do ordinary things. There was no dramatic bucket list of foreign destinations to see.

The Ghost of Cancer Future had visited me. I realised that this creature would come calling for me one day. I fed Rex; he wagged his tail and licked my hand. I made my own tea and read a little. The late sun shone on trees coming into leaf. Birds sang. The mountaintops glinted. I was well and I still had time.