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Every Second Counts

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Nearly twenty years ago a couple were out on a date.  They had been seeing each other for a while – both divorced and with children – they had both been through the mill a bit as is the same for most people who have lived even a little bit of life.  The man was nervous.  He was going to tell the woman that he couldn’t see her anymore. Not an easy thing to do. He wasn’t sure how to tactfully bring it up.  Telling someone that that you can’t see them anymore is not nice for anyone to say or for anyone to hear.  Can’t, rather than won’t.  Won’t is the reason why most people stop seeing each other, and also not nice to hear.  Can’t is a different ball game.

After fussing his pint for a bit he decided to just blurt it out.  Get it over and done with.  That had to be for the best.  At least it would be said then. So he did.  He told her that he couldn’t see her anymore.  He wanted to, but he couldn’t.  He had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was going to die.  So it really wasn’t fair that they kept on seeing each other.  And then he waited.

The woman took this news in with remarkable calm.  And responded in the only way that she knew how, which was to be entirely tactless.  She dismissed him as talking nonsense.  This was not the reaction he was expecting.  He enquired, with some considerable interest, as to why a terminal diagnosis was, in her non-medical opinion, nonsense.  He considered it to very serious and was coping with it as well as could be expected in the circumstances.  The woman advised that it was nonsense because she also had a blood cancer.  She had been diagnosed in her early thirties and her diagnosis was not promising at the time.  It was not particularly promising now but her doctors continually did their best.  A number of years had passed with her future being knowingly and medically uncertain, so she had learnt to live with it.  And so would he.

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A man is rushed into A&E in an ambulance.  He had collapsed at home. The consultant on duty has no information about the patient other than there is a man with leukaemia lying dying in A&E.  The patient’s file would be coming over from the hospital treating him so the doctors could see the detail.  But that wouldn’t be quick enough for the consultant faced with a person dying right then and there.  So he did what he could with what he knew in that moment to save his life.

He couldn’t have known at that point that the man had undergone six years of chemotherapy.  He couldn’t have known that he knew the name of all of the nurses and doctors in the haematology department, and they him, because he had spent so much time there.  He didn’t know that his wife had sat there each and every day, holding his hand.  He didn’t know that he had got up at four o’clock every morning for the last six years to see the birds when the sun came up, because he knew he was dying and he couldn’t face it lying down.  And he didn’t know that the man had got on his motorbike less than forty eight hours earlier, because that was what he loved to do, and bugger it, he was going to do it.  Just one last time.

The doctors were trying to buy time whilst the file came and then they would be able to work out what best to do.  Time that could not be bought because the man now had sepsis.  They probably knew that but they tried anyway because that is their nature.  The (grown up) children were summoned by his wife to his bedside.  They watched the monitors and talked to him, hoping that he could hear them and that they could make sense of the bleeps and the numbers and that they meant something positive.  They knew.  They all knew. But they didn’t want to. Always the medical team worked quietly away.

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It is said that love comes quietly. One minute you don’t think or don’t know that you love someone and the next you know that you do. And then you know you’re stuffed because love takes some undoing. After being completely and utterly abandoned by my own father, I never expected anyone to come into my life that could even begin to fill the gaping hole in your heart that you just have to live with.  Not that they didn’t or even don’t love you.  Just not enough. 

My stepdad wasn’t perfect.  He was grumpy, he was miserable and you could never give him enough damned tea to drink.  He was on so many drugs at one point that he shook.  If he got his hands to stop shaking long enough to get his fork to his mouth, his head started shaking so he couldn’t get the fork in his mouth.  We did the only thing you could do in such circumstances, which was to mercilessly take the piss.  When he died I felt completely and utterly broken.  I cried every morning in the shower for two years so that no one would know.  I don’t know when I stopped doing it everyday.  Such is grief. 

When he was first diagnosed the doctors said that they hoped to give him five years; he lived for six.  That was two thousand one hundred and ninety days in total.  Fifty two thousand five hundred and sixty hours.  Three million one hundred and fifty three thousand six hundred minutes. I shall be grateful to the NHS for the rest of my life for every single last one of them.

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Choose Life

 

wham

I want to take you back to the eighties. And if you’re not old enough to remember the eighties, then let me tell you about it, you’ll be horrified. Shoulder pads were in. Power suits with big shoulder pads were definitely in. As was big hair. And when I say big hair, I mean big flicks and lots of hairspray to stop it from moving a millimetre in a force nine gale. Highlights. Blonde ones. Perms. All for men as well as women. Metrosexuality was something that was well underway in the eighties, although I suspect that most men would have balked at the large bows that Princess Diana wore.

There were videos, personal stereos. And a lot of people were desperate to know who shot JR – I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know or can’t remember.

The height of automobile sophistication for the thrusting young gentleman was a Ford Capri. My parents and grandparents drove a Ford Alpine, which wasn’t the height of anything and probably the depths of something, but it was a lot more than lots of people could afford at the time. And infinitely better than waiting for a bus to the city (they didn’t go anywhere else) which took about two hours and came twice a week.

In 1983 it was made law for people to wear seatbelts, following eleven previous attempts. I remember there being the most almighty row about it and people getting very het up about the infringements of civil liberties. Most cars at that time only had seatbelts in the front seats so children remained free to brawl with their siblings on the back seat entirely unrestrained, which I also remember doing. Babies could be held in someone’s arms. It only became compulsory for adults to belt up in the back seat in 1991.

If you wanted to get around on your bicycle, as most little people did then, then what you wanted (but probably didn’t have) was a Chopper. This had an extra large seat which allowed you to give a croggy to your friends with the added bonus of being able to see where you were going as they were behind you rather than perched on your handlebars.

As far as music was concerned in this country; Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Madonna, Tracy Ullman. Wham were big. And I was going to marry George Michael. He was handsome, talented, he could sing, he could dance and he seemed like a thoroughly lovely person. Of course he was gay, but that hadn’t occurred to me (or anyone else it would seem, except I suspect it had probably occurred to George), as I was only little. Besides, as soon as he met me, he would want to marry me, I was sure of it.

Some time in early 1983  a woman was at a hospital, wearing her dress with her large bow on it as was the fashion then for the pregnant woman about town. It seemed that pregnancy was still something a woman felt she had to hide then. As if it was some mystery best left to women to get on with behind closed doors.  Nevertheless she would be frowned upon by society if she didn’t do it and vilified if she didn’t want to do it. This particular woman was perfectly happy to be expecting her baby, and had actually left her job when she had her first child eight year’s previous, because that was what women did then and no one thought that unacceptable.  She had no need of a perm for her hair was as curly as curly could be, and the most beautiful raven colour. She had spent most of the seventies trying to straighten it and dye it blonde. Aged thirty four she was considered rather too old to be having children and something of a high risk. She had had some blood tests (anyone who has had a baby will know that the minute anyone medical sees you they have an uncontrollable urge to stick a needle in your arm and drain some blood from you) and was there for the results.

The woman was ushered into a room to see her doctor. She sat down and waited patiently. The doctor looked up from his notes. He told her that she had leukaemia.

Then he sent her home.

I sincerely hope that the doctor concerned no longer practices, or has at least practised their bedside manner since that day. The woman was something of a mess; was this serious? It sounded serious. Was it going to affect her baby? How long did she have? She had two other children – were they going to be left without a mother? Her partner telephoned the hospital and asked for someone to have a conversation with him and his wife because they had a few questions.

Thankfully the doctor that they saw on this occasion was rather better at his job. He answered all of their questions as best he could. He was clear that it didn’t affect the baby. But the one that everyone must have when receiving this sort of information: “how long have I got?” he didn’t really have an answer to. It was quite unusual for this type of leukaemia to have been found in someone so young and he wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. Other doctors were suggesting that they treat her, but he felt that watching and waiting was the best option at that time. So they watched. And they waited.

I would now like to take you forward to Sunday 8 January 2017 and recount the following telephone conversation:

Woman A  :  I just wanted to let you know that I am going to London for a couple of days – I have never seen The Tower of London – and I want to remind you where my Will is and where all of my papers are.

Woman B  :   Oh right – is this a bucket list type thing? And is it entirely necessary for you to tell me where your Will is every time I speak to you, Mum? It is London. London. Not Afghanistan. Are you planning on popping off?

Woman A  :  No, but they can’t get on top of this thing in my lung, and I just worry about it.

Woman B  :  I know, but try not to worry. We’ve been here so many times before. And there are a lot of steps at the Tower, for it is a tower, and the clue is in the name. There are plenty of benches.

Woman A  :  Oh yes, well I will get [friend] to sit down – you know she has a gammy knee.

Woman B  :  [annoyed now] I wasn’t getting at [friend’s] gammy knee. She can drag it along. I was suggesting that you sit down as you get tired.

Woman A  :  [in the manner of Mrs Bennett] Oh I’ll be fine. I’ll give you a ring when I get back.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that that was a conversation between me and my mother. Annoying the crap out of me as usual. My mother was the woman who was sent away from the hospital in 1983. And the baby was my younger sister, who is now a mother herself. The doctors watched and waited for twenty years. And I have lost count, and I genuinely mean that I have lost count, of the amount and type of treatment that my mother has had in the past fifteen years on the NHS. She has sat through eight courses of chemotherapy alone, I believe. She has met lots of people, some she has sat with chatting whilst having treatment for a few weeks, and then she hasn’t seen them again. She said she always wonders how they are and if she will bump into them again. All the time she has been hooked up to the drip by someone who worries that they have bruised her veins again. Tea has been served to her by a lady who is always polite and smiles. Her bed has been changed by someone who, in broken English, asks how she is and cares about the answer. All the time, her treatment authorised by a doctor who is now down to his last options and is desperately trying to find a way to save her life. So I get quite cross when the NHS is bashed. In my admittedly limited experience, doctors and nurses want to save lives and patients, whatever problems they may have, want to live, or at least, don’t want to die.

In spite of the efforts of medical professionals, many factors must influence someone’s survival. Up until the past few years, my mother has been lucky enough, if you can call it that, to have a disease that is indolent. Some people, lots of people, are not that fortunate and not given that choice, however brave they are and however much they want to live. But I do think that in my mother’s case a pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face has seen her through. She’s British for God’s sake. It’s what we do! Whatever her faults are (and believe me she has many) she always decides to just get on with it. She will take her dog for a walk, and it matters not a jot to her that she will struggle and have to go home because she simply cannot walk anymore – the dog needs a walk dammit. Stuff the steps at the Tower of London – she’s going and she doesn’t care if it takes her all day to get to where Henry VIII’s suit of armour is – she wants to see it. In short, after that awful day in 1983, whatever thoughts went through her head, I like to think that when she came home on the bus, that she was listening to the Wham Rap on her walkman. And whereas some of us would like to think that we would plump for the less refined attitude of “fuck it” on the receipt of the news that she had just been given, she decided to hold her head high.  In a moment of weakness, entirely uncharacteristically and undoubtedly because no one else could hear it, she decided to take some advice, and it was George’s.  No, not to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.  He got that wrong – no one wants to be woken up before someone go-goes anywhere unless it is to bring them a cup of tea.  No, it was advice that was as good today less than a month after we mourn his loss, as when he bounced around on Top of the Pops as a handsome young thing:  choose life.