In Sickness and in Health – Episode 4
Staying ever-hopeful through long term treatment for cancer or any other life threatening disease for that matter is only part of the story. Not all of us are good at coping with the relentless positivity modelled by medical staff, admirable though it is.
As you face up to your condition and give yourself over to the treatment, hunkering down to deal with it, there are times when everything looks pretty bleak. And to get through that involves the gentle but steel edged art of waiting.
If you’ve lived your life up till now at full speed and expect results to come quickly, this waiting business is hard graft. Especially when the enemy you have to contend with is something and deep and unseen inside you.
The only evidence you have comes from the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scans, as they are so grandly named, but it takes years of specialist training to understand the results. So I have to settle for being reassured by the colossal size of these scanners and the crazy noises they make when you’re inside the tunnel, like a sound track on a kid’s cartoon. Why are they painted white and beige? I asked the radiographer. Comfort colours, he replied with a wry smile.
But despite the fancy technology, they really do look like a cross between something out of a James Bond movie and the Manapouri Power Station generators.
There is nothing visible or physical that lets me give shape or form to this very internalized condition that leaves not a scratch or a bump. Nothing you can even put a sticking plaster on.
So I was helped by the Kaikōura earthquake happening in the middle of my troubles. That massive ripping apart of the mountains, coast and sea and the chaos it brought to so many, reminded me of the fragility of all created things, and my own vulnerability as a tiny part of that wider drama.
Kelvin Wright put it beautifully. Writing about the aftermath of the devastating quake, he said “the landscape is a ballet, not a sculpture, mobile as a cat”.
You can look up to the hills and hope to see help there, as the psalmist says, but it’s not any sort of help that is fixed and unchanging. My life, like the life of all creation around me, is a constantly surprising, volatile, ever emerging reality. Earthquakes outside me are the evidence of that massive global evolution, echoing what is happening inside me on a miniature scale, however huge it feels at times.
And at a slightly more domestic level, I was also helped to externalize what’s going on inside me, by tripping over in the middle of all this treatment , scraping and bruising face and hands, and fracturing a knee cap. The result was bloody and dramatic, leaving me trussed up with a splint and crutches, but at least I had something to show for my woes. In a strange way I was grateful for the visible damage of my fall. It may be trivial compared to whatever is happening with the cancer inside me, but at least you can see it.
Friends can make jokes about it and compare my abrasions with Joseph Parker’s, tell stories of people falling over on crutches and share memories of much worse things that happened to them. Swapping stories of injuries great and small is all good fun and brings a laugh a minute at a dinner party. For me it was good because it came at a time when you can’t laugh at all about what is really happening inside you.
Because whatever that happening is, it’s about as controllable as an earthquake. The hardest part of all this is just accepting that sense of something out of your control, letting go and dropping into the black hole it opens up. When I’m finally able to do that, there is some relief at not trying to manage what is outside your control. And in the blackness I reached around for something to hold onto.
There is a whole school of survival skills that I had to learn for myself, not so much of the Bear Grills kind of living off the land and keeping ultra-fit, but skills of a mental, even spiritual kind that connect body and soul, head and heart.
The art of waiting, no less. For someone as impatient as myself it’s a whole new discipline, and just about as hard to learn as deep sea diving.
There are lots of layers involved, ever deeper as you descend, starting with learning to live with the unknown and unseeable and being unable to find words to do justice to what’s going on. There is a powerlessness that goes with being seriously ill that demands more than cheerful optimism to cope with. Patience is even more important, staying steady, focused on the next small step, which is about all of the future you can see, expectant, determined, and when there is nothing to be said, savouring the silence.
A friend of mine has an autistic son who requires constant attention and direction, and answers to endless questions, exhaustingly so. But recently she went on holiday with him and decided to give up making all the decisions and let him set the agenda for those days together. So she let go and he chose the hotel room, the menu, which beach to go swimming, how long to drive for.
She didn’t want to organise or control anything. And if dinner that night turned out to be the KFC and Coke he wanted, rather than the pasta and wine she preferred, she went with the flow. And for much of that holiday they didn’t talk much at all, but simply enjoyed each other’s company in the long silences.
The art of waiting is always a quiet affair. It requires us to refocus our priorities, and simplify our life where we can, clearing out the clutter and attending to what is good and true and beautiful. “Anything worthy of praise,” a fellow called Paul from Tarsus wrote a long time ago, “ think on these things.”