“There are only two things that are certain in life - death and taxes”. “The ultimate taboo”. Et cetera, et cetera. You all know the score. We’ve all heard it before.
Well, SPLAT. Here it is. Splat. That’s me, splatting death on the table, in all its glory. Death. Sorry. If you don’t like it, move along. Nothing to see here.
But here’s the thing. It is inevitable. We all have to face it, and increasingly often as life ticks by, until it’s our turn. That might be before birth, minutes after birth, or it might not be until you’ve cruised through the full century and are a wrinkly old prune of 112, like the chap who shuffled off at that age the other day.
For me, it will, almost without a doubt, be in my 40s. It might even be in my 43rd year. This year. That’s what we were told just before Christmas, anyway. Back then, I just wanted to get to the bluebell season and I’m delighted to say that box has been ticked. Next up, a halfway decent summer please, and then we’ll have another look at any prognosis you would care to throw at me.
That’s one element that affects Bekky and I more than most - the prognosis. Throughout this increasingly hideous cancerous journey, we have studiously attempted to ignore any sort of prognosis flung in our direction. We’ve certainly never asked for one - nobody has a crystal ball, nobody can say with any certainty when my lights will go out. Some remain perhaps a touch overly optimistic, others (Bekky and I, for example) like to try to remain balanced. The optimism is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, and it can be a most welcome tonic when things from my perspective are on the darker side, but could it be a misplaced denial of reality? “You’re going to be fine”...well, I’m not. But I am doing my damndest to remain “fine” for as long as I can.
And as I type this, I feel “OK”, which is to say that if a doctor hadn’t told me I my entire abdomen is riddled with tumours, I wouldn’t have a clue. I’m fairly uncomfortable, my stomach is bloated, I’m weaker than I knew it was possible to be, sure. I know I am ill, but if you told me death was lurking behind me with his scythe, waiting for the right moment to first put me in a hospital or hospice, and then duly bring said scythe down upon me, I’d have said you were mad. That’s now though. This time a couple of weeks ago (pre-stenting), I might not have.
It changes by the day. Sometimes by the hour. If I am distracted, say by writing a blog update, death couldn’t be further from my mind - I’m just an ordinary human being going about his ordinary life. Evenings and nighttime, and alone time, tend to be hardest though. I often find myself in the bathroom before going to bed, staring at my somewhat gaunt face in the mirror and it hits me - you have cancer, it’s everywhere, it’s gonna get you sooner or later. Or I will wake up in the dead of night and lie in the darkness wondering when, how, what will it be like, will I be conscious, will it hurt, will I even be aware?
I hope not.
But that’s yet another factor - nobody knows. Nobody who’s died has lived to tell the tale. It is the ultimate unknown. And that in itself is frightening. There’s no guidebook - “The Lonely Planet Guide to Death” hasn’t yet been published, as far as I know, nor even “The Dummies Guide”. It just happens. Does old age make it any easier? By the time you are in your 80s, are you better able to accept that you’ve lived a life and the clock has ticked to a stage where it’s finally going to stop? Because knowing you’re going to die in your 40s is not easy, let alone acceptable. Bekky and I have so, so much more life to live together. To travel, to move house, to have (or I guess these days, adopt or foster) children, to progress in our careers, to do what everyone else does without a second thought - just to live. Yet it’s not going to happen, whether my demise comes this month, next month or next year. Death is significantly closer to me than it is to most others in their early 40s.
Should you find yourself in my shoes - and I sincerely hope you never do - morphine helps. Not just for the pain, but mentally. I have been taking about 60mg daily for well over a year now and it gently wraps my brain in cotton wool, preventing me from overthinking which, without it, could well drag me down into a pretty dark place. Not that I don’t find myself in a pretty dark place sometimes anyway. It’s inevitable, but the morphine is a gentle buffer, much like an anti-depressant I guess, which allows me to ponder while not getting too sucked into the intricacies of death itself.
That said, the other day Bekky and I were discussing my ashes and what to do with them. Obviously, my immediate family will have some of me(!) but I’ve also created a map using What 3 Words (you should look it up, if you don’t already know about it, it’s a brilliant system) of locations where I would like to be scattered, and it wasn’t until afterwards that it struck me, just what a monumental thing it will be for Bekky to have to undertake - carrying powdered me about the country and sprinkling me here and there. It’s a bizarre, utterly bizarre concept. Doubtless, some of you will already have done so, but imagine what carrying a loved one, a former human being, in ash-form would really be like. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Here’s a reality check for you. This blog is about my (our, Bekky and my) cancer journey. Do you want to know something even more intimate about it all? Well, over the last couple of weeks, Bekky and I have confronted death more directly than at any time since this whole “journey” began. Until now, I have managed to remain fairly blase about the whole thing but with the stenting, the profound weakness that has followed and perhaps too much time in lockdown and spent on the sofa, it has allowed us space and time to really discuss many of the intricacies and much more of the detail of my demise. Last week, it felt closer than it has at any time. And that’s terrifying for us both.
I would love to say I am at peace with the whole concept but that would be a lie. How can you be? There are moments - all too frequent recently - when it consumes me, along with thoughts of Bekky. It comes back to something I have mentioned several times in this blog in the past: the ultimate abandonment, almost a betrayal, leaving Bekky alone, no husband, no children, just her and the dog. It is the most awful, gut-wrenching image. Her, alone, at home, in the evening. So very alone. No one to talk to, no one to hug, no one to cry or laugh with. And the one person she should be able to rely on to be by her side during such a tragic time is the one person who can’t be there, who can never come back. Never.
So is there a conclusion to this monologue on the ultimate taboo? Well, I’d say no - the conclusion comes in the form of my dying day, the day my heart stops beating, my brain stops thinking, my body becomes an inanimate object. And then I’ll be chucked on a kind of formal bonfire and after that, my powdered self will be liberally scattered about the country (and with a little luck the planet), just in case I have any awareness of where I am in “the afterlife”. Whatever that might be.
My current predicament combined, as silly as it may sound, with lockdown and “shielding”, prevents me from living anything even vaguely resembling a full life at the moment. You live your life however you choose to live it.
But remember, it’s yours and you only have one. Life can be short.
Be kind, and enjoy it.