Doing time


There’s no hyperbaric treatment today because of maintenance, so I get a welcome opportunity to sleep in. I’ve been awake since early, nonetheless, and am sitting here now wondering what comes next.

I feel a bit lost without the structure of having to organise myself. I should be up soon, showered, and sitting at my desk for work, but it’s not so much that I can’t be bothered as I’m not interested.

I will do it because I must. I’ll go through the motions and perhaps get the whiff of something that interests me. Others look to me for leadership, which places some obligation on me. I don’t want to let anyone down.

I wish I could explain what it’s like. It changes, or my perspective of it does, but I still feel pretty isolated – emotionally isolated, if nothing else. I feel a distant hope mixed in with a weariness that’s physical but also emotional. Washed out describes it well.

Part of that is simply because I feel I’ve been at this so long and because every time I think I might be approaching an endpoint, it proves to be an illusion.

I’ve kept myself up for so long, pushing through physical limitations and keeping myself positive. None of that will change, but in this moment of repose, I long for a break.

It’s one of the moments I miss the company of Rigby, not to mention the close family I once had. One who would divert me and give unadorned affection. The other the tacit support and love that would allow me some respite knowing I was in safe hands.

I’ve always been independent and am good at it. I’m organised and determined and will go it alone without flagging (well, only a little). But I know if there were someone I could lean on through this trial and open myself up to, how much easier it would be. I feel like a tree on a bare, windswept plain, bent by the wind and stripped to the austere essentials, firmly rooted but alone.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be in for more surgery before the end of the year. I expect I’ll continue to improve in other facets and return to some aspects of everyday life. I’m heading in the right direction, but some things may never come good, and others that need more work. That’s the story. No matter how I spin it, I have to do the time and keep going.

Disrupted and dislocated


Today is the sort of disrupted day that makes prognostications such as I indulged in seem irrelevant. I’m sitting in the French restaurant I visited a couple of weeks ago. French music is playing again. I have a hot chocolate in front of me and an almond croissant on it’s way. I’m killing time a head of a hyperbaric session at 12.30. Earlier, I was at St Vs for another scheduled appointment.

The appointment this morning was with an infectious diseases specialist. It puzzled me at first when I was reminded of the appointment. Bad as it is, cancer isn’t infectious at least. Then I remembered. They’d discovered I had an infection last time. I’m on a long course of antibiotics to treat it. This was a checkup.

It’s all very familiar to me by now. I see specialists of every stripe, confusingly so sometimes – who’s responsible for what? But, no matter, the routine is identical.

I sign in at the front door, as you must do at every hospital these days. Then I make my way to one of two waiting rooms where I register my presence. Quite often, the waiting rooms are full. Many of the patients are aged, and it appears more than half are obviously in a bad way. You sit up straighter. You try to project good health, as if to prove to the world that you’re just a visitor and don’t really belong. Hospital waiting rooms are dispiriting places.

On this occasion, I didn’t need to wait long. I was called in to see a doctor I hadn’t met before. He was affable and conscientious. He had a quick look at me but didn’t have much to add. He went through the scans of my last PET scan, which I found vaguely disconcerting. He pointed out the white patches which were plates, and loose clips which would remain in place forever.

It was clear he was a sceptic when it came to hyperbaric treatment, which put a dampener on things. Through the conversation, it became clear that there was still a long road ahead of me, and that I would be returning to them regularly in the years ahead, even if it all went well.

I left feeling chastened. That’s not unusual. Out in the world you can blithely believe what you want, but in hospital medical reality held sway. They’re always encouraging, but cautious in their prognosis. You remember fresh, nothing is certain.

After another blood test, I left. There was just short of three hours until my next appointment and there was no point returning home. I walked towards the CBD. I felt a little glum thinking it’s alright being positive, until…

It was quiet and there were empty shop fronts, but so much I recognised and remembered still. There was a time the Melbourne CBD felt like a second home to me. I knew every nook and cranny, was familiar with bars tucked down anyways and cute little eating places I shared with friends. For probably 20 years I reigned over that, but that time was gone forever I realised.

I looked through the front window of a favourite bookstore before entering The Hill of Content just down the road. I browsed the bookshelves, as I have hundreds of times before over the last 30 years.

As always, there’s the serenity of a library, made hip by the interesting music playing in the background. As I take down books to examine, the same chastening thoughts curl like smoke in the back of my mind. There’s a rising resistance however, until I bump up against the edge of ‘fuck that’ – so familiar and welcome. It’s lucky I’m a gnarly prick.

I felt better after that and so I bought a book, for old time’s sake. I wandered down to the city centre and then through familiar stores, making my way slowly towards the station. I was surprised to see so much demolished and new construction in their place.

Soon, I will return to the Alfred for my daily treatment (though none tomorrow). I suppose I’ll make my way home after that and I suppose I’ll rouse myself to do my job. That’s what I mean by disrupted, though dislocated may be a more apt term. After all this, what point work?

There is a point, though. I just have to recall it.

Maverick pragmatism


The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and it’s certainly warmer than it has been lately – but I find myself out of sorts.

I had my morning therapy which, in hindsight, always seems a bit of a blur. Outside of unwanted dramas, such as I experienced the week before last, it’s pretty uneventful, if not downright dull. I travel to the hospital in the dark, I lay quietly for nearly two hours, wiling the time away, and then I return.

On this occasion, it’s the return that has left me sour. Reversing out of my parking spot at the station, I heard scraping and got out of the car. It seems my front bumper had caught on something, and the momentum had wrenched it out of position on either side. There’s no serious damage and is easily repaired, I expect, but it’s annoying.

Home now and back at my desk working. I feel very unmotivated, but it’s nothing to do with what happened earlier.

I visited the office last Friday for a change and had lunch with my manager while I was there. Later, we had a discussion in which we had opposing opinions. The experience crystallised views that had been forming for the last six months.

My illness, if that’s the phrase, has left me ambivalent about the point of work. I know I need it to pay the rent, etc., but I can’t get excited about the actual work. In principle, anyway. This has always been in me.

I’ve always had a bit more of a detached view than most and was aware that it didn’t amount to much when you thought about it. To counter that, I had personal ambition and the sort of innate competitiveness that can turn the most trivial into a contest. I had to do it, and that being the case, I wanted to do it well and get all I could out of it. As it happened, I would often experience the joy of doing a job well. That remains true.

I still feel it when I get involved. I feel the surge of a looming challenge and want to overcome it. And, when I do, it’s very satisfying. It’s a pleasure of the moment, though, like being on the winning team when the siren blows. It’s good, but I question the value of the team.

Recent experience has emphasised that. The value of many things is open to question now, but in reality, all I’ve done is travelled further down a road I was already on. And I’ve become more actively conscious of it. Where before I might have given a frustrated shrug of the shoulders, now it is something urgent I must act upon.

I have become a bit of a maverick outsider, talented and respected, but consciously outside the system and somewhat disdainful of it. Again, much of this is by nature but more pronounced now. I suspect I always knew I could get away with more because I was smart and used it. And I’ve never been interested in belonging – just the opposite, probably. It suits me to come swooping in with the answers and then sit back with a satisfied air – though I probably seem more aggressive than that.

I’m conscientious and hard-working and fair-minded, but there’s something of the hare to me. My manager is the tortoise, which is why we made a good team. He plods along at a steady pace, making the occasional clumsy blue but utterly reliable in the sense that he’ll keep going without dissent or complaint. He’s a team player and company man.

He also does all the stuff I have no interest in doing – budgeting and admin, managing staff and responding to senior management. I’ve done that in the past but am long past it now. I realise that I may appear all care and no responsibility. I have the luxury of being a maverick and even being outspoken occasionally. My situation has added a layer of tolerance.

I’m glad that I don’t have that responsibility. Even if I were perfectly fit, I wouldn’t want it. That’s my limit now. I can manage doing the things I’m interested in and not anything I’m not (mind you, that’s the best use of me also). It doesn’t mean I don’t take responsibility – I do and am prepared to hang my hat upon my performance.

Perhaps by nature, but also by virtue of his role, my manager is a pragmatist. I think I’m pragmatic too, sometimes harshly, but I’m also a bit of an idealist. That’s a virtue of being a maverick.

We had a discussion, if not an argument, about how the piece of work we did – live chat – was being used. It’s very poorly used by a section of the business, and it offends me in two ways – that I’ve gone to the trouble of building this, and they abuse it, and because I think it shockingly unprofessional.

My manager shrugs his shoulders. Not your problem, he says. He’s like a tradesman who does his bit, and if the whole remains faulty, it’s not his problem. The difference is that I invest in the whole. I’m not just interested in whether my bit is working or even if the whole is working; I’m invested in the outcomes and how well it is used.

I get a lot of that from my consulting background when success was measured by performance. We’re building tools, and it matters very little if there’s a green light when you turn it on, if the tool is improperly used, or if it doesn’t achieve what it’s intended.

The pragmatist in me says I should let it go – be like my manager. I can’t be, though, even when I question the value of work. That’s because whatever value I find is in the quality of the work I do. It’s pointlessly empty otherwise.

I feel sure I’m coming to a crossroads. My immediate priority is to make it to January next year when I qualify for long service leave. Now that’s a pragmatic objective. After that, I’ll have to check where I’m at. The reality is, I can afford the luxury of being a maverick at work and being tolerated for it, but I can’t afford to be so cavalier with my life. I have to survive.

I imagine there must be a way to reconcile these disparate elements, but I don’t know how as yet.

Upping the ante


Most of the time these days I’m pretty tired. I’m up a little after 6.30 in the morning, travel by train to Prahran, and walk to the hospital in time for my treatment. A couple of hours later I’m doing it all in reverse. At home, I get caught up in work, which is a combo of meetings, emails and deep analysis. There’s a lot to do. At the end of the day is bed and sleep, which is not nearly as good as it used to be.

Nothing here is too extreme. In reality, I’m using as much energy – or less – than in the good old days when I went into the office every day. The difference now is that I’m still recovering from cancer.

It’s not pleasant feeling this weary, but I don’t mind it, mainly because I think it may be necessary.

I don’t know if most people understand how utterly draining major surgery is to the body – not to mention the radiotherapy and chemo that followed. I’m still amazed to remember how weak I suddenly became after my surgery last year. I was a big, strong man who could go all day. Once I regained consciousness, I couldn’t raise my arm above shoulder level and needed therapy to walk again.

Much of the last half of last year remains a haze to me. I was very weak and frail and lived from treatment to treatment. I think back to the mind-numbing routine every day with an ambulance arriving to collect me and take me to the hospital for my treatment, and the trip home afterwards. There was very little else.

I was physically incapable, pretty much. I averaged between a thousand and fifteen hundred paces a day up to Christmas. I picked it up a little after that, but only got it up to about 3000 paces a day by March. Even a month ago, I was probably doing no more than 4,500 paces. Now, and for the last couple of weeks, it’s been north of 8,000 paces.

Last Saturday, my whole body ached from the unfamiliar exertion. I felt pretty old. But, no pain, no gain. I would do 10,000 paces easily before, and often quite a bit more. If I want to recover fully, if I want to get back the strength I’ve lost, then I have to get the miles in me. That’s all there is it to it.

Unfortunately, what makes it more difficult is my hip. I didn’t have to deal with that before. By the PM most days, my hip is aching and have a distinct limp. I hope that is something that will improve, but I don’t know. Motion is lotion, my stepdad used to say, so I’ll err to believe that the increased exercise will do it good also.

Ever since surgery last year, most of my physical indicators have been elevated. That’s no surprise with the body flat-out trying to recover.

I used to have a resting heart rate in the sixties. Now, it rarely falls below 80. It might peak after a brisk walk at around a hundred. Now it’s nearer to 130.

My blood pressure is all over the shop. It was high last year before surgery. In the moths after it feel drastically so that I was prone to faintness and even collapse because it was too low. Now it is high again.

I hoped and expected that as my fitness improved they would improve also, but that hasn’t been the case. It may still happen in the near future, and perhaps all it needs is for my fitness to stabilise and my body to adjust. For now I take it as a sign that my body is still busy healing. There’s a lot still happening in the background, and I hope that’s all it is.

I’ll review once my hyperbaric treatment finishes. I’ll be very disappointed if there’s no evidence of improvement. For now, I’m taking blood pressure medication again, and thinking about seeing my GP in the near future for a general check-up.

It’s easy to overlook other things when it’s all about the cancer, but maybe there’s a cue to look further, look deeper. But then, I don’t really know.

People and place


I’ve done an awful lot of reading over the last year. Getting sick freed up time and changed my habits. For a while, after coming home from surgery last year, I didn’t have the concentration to read for long periods. Still, outside of my daily sessions for chemo and radiotherapy, there wasn’t much I could occupy myself with. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t writing, and I was sceptical of watching daytime TV. I’d keep myself busy with small things, often just browsing social media and the internet on my iPad. I’d break it up, though, with reading.

At the same time, my daily routine changed. I’ve always read before going to sleep, but in the old days, that might be a half-hour after going to bed at 11pm. Suddenly, I was going to bed by 9.30 because I didn’t really have the energy to stay up much later than that, and I’d read for an hour – or more – before switching off the light.

Before, I would go to the library for my books and otherwise judiciously order a book or so online for delivery every month. I barely left the house when I was sick, so the library became impossible. I still bought the odd book, but with less money coming in, I did that less and less. I’d never really taken to it before, but suddenly Kindle became my main way of reading. I’d still rather read an actual book, but it was cheap and convenient to check for specials and purchase for a few dollars.

Reading by Kindle opened up many different reading options than before. Besides the mainstream stuff, here was the stuff aspiring writers would self-publish to the world wide web. Not surprisingly, the quality was pretty haphazard. Since the start of the year, I’ve read about 70 books, probably 50 of them on Kindle. About half of them would get my tick of approval.

Recently, I’ve read two books described as viral bestsellers, and in between, one of Agatha Christie’s books.

In a way, I could understand the popularity of the contemporary books. Both had an interesting premise, which is why I read them. In both cases, I was disappointed.

I love literature, and I’ve read a lot. I like to be entertained, and sometimes I’m happy to immerse myself in some escapist fiction. Ideally, I want to be moved also, and perhaps even informed. I don’t expect that so much, but having been brought up on great literature, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I am. What I do expect is a standard of story-telling that draws me in and is credible not just as a plot but in the characterisation. Ideally, I want to feel as if I’m in the same room and feel as if I know the characters. That, to me, is good writing.

The two contemporary books were racy but lightly sketched in comparison to that. They feel very much a product of the social media age, so I wondered if the kind of writing I enjoy is now old-fashioned? Does it – indeed, can it – resonate with a younger generation as it did with me? Am I out of step and my expectations unreasonable? Have I been spoilt – and others, ‘unspoilt’, more capable of enjoying this because they know no better? Or is it just a matter of disposable nonsense?

So many questions!

I’m not expecting high literature, though certainly, in the case of one of these books – which aspired to be more, I think – the opportunity was missed to transcend the storyline. It was a much-lauded book compared by one to Annihilation, which is indeed an excellent and much superior book (by a proper writer). Look, it wasn’t terrible, just a bit tedious, unconvincing, and filled with unlikeable characters.

What is lost is depth. There’s very little sense of place or much consideration to it, it seems. The setting was conceptually vivid in both cases, but nothing more was made of it. It’s like writing a book set on Krakatoa and letting that be the sole reference point, without any description of the burbling volcano or the jungle or the sea surrounding it. We got signposts, not descriptions, interior or exterior.

Then there is characterisation, upon which so much good writing and great novels rest. But, again, we’re given outlines without detail or insight.

I read both to the end out of curiosity, but there wasn’t any tension. To my way of reading, they both lacked weight and heft because nothing was described sufficiently for you to care about. As a result, nothing got under the skin.

I’ve mentioned Agatha Christie for context. I’ve never been a great fan of her work. I read a few in my teenage years, but probably no more than two or three since then. Her appeal now is a quaint nostalgia, helped along by the iconic characters she created. I’ve always found her formulaic but inoffensive.

I don’t know what it was, but I enjoyed reading the old Christie novel (The 4.50 From Paddington) more than I did these other two books. Perhaps it was familiarity with her work and characters. Though much in the time she describes is foreign to us now – servants and whatnot – its novelty has been diminished by the years past. Ultimately, there’s more warmth and vitality in something written as if from memory than something designed to shock and constructed out of old tropes.

But then, I’m certainly becoming a curmudgeon as I grow old. I reckon I have similar views on music and movies.

There is still a lot of decent writing out there; you just have to seek it out. I’d encourage anyone who seeks to write, but let’s not overpraise nor condemn. That’s true of anything, anytime. I get that blurbs and a lot of critical comment today is meant to catch the eye, and not all of it is sincere. Judge with discretion. Nothing gets better without saying it as it is.

Grommeted


I was up extra early yesterday to get into the hospital to recommence my hyperbaric treatment. It was still dark when I left home. These days, the only time I’m ever up that early is when I have a hospital appointment.

It was cold and it had been raining. I drove to and parked at Sandringham station to catch a train. At that time of the morning, the train was sparsely populated, but it reminded me of the once ever-so-normal days when I would catch a train to work every day. Just as then, I sat by the window with cans on my ears watching the world go by as I listened to my music.

The sun had just peeped over the horizon when I arrived at Prahran station. This is familiar territory for me. For many years, I lived a decent walking distance from here. I would visit the bars and restaurants not far away when there were more bars and restaurants to attend.

As I walked down Greville Street towards Punt Road the nightlights winked out as the sun made a milky appearance. I passed by the College Lawn, where I’ve had many a pint sitting in the beer garden, and where once I won the door prize. It was all so familiar. Agreeably so.

I signed into the hospital as usual and made my way upstairs. First priority was to have a temporary grommet inserted into my left ear before settling down for another hyperbaric session. Things moved slower than I hoped, then not as smoothly as they might once they did. It wasn’t a great deal of fun, but I finally had a grommet inserted on the second attempt (the first attempt is sitting loose inside my ear canal). Thrilled a delighted.

I had missed my booked session, and they had to squeeze me in for a letter time. I had 40 minutes to kill and so decided to get a cuppa.

Hospital cafes aren’t my cup of tea (or coffee), so I exited the building and walked towards St Kilda road. More memories returned to me. I remembered working at Caltex on St Kilda road in the late nineties. Once a week, a mate and I would walk through Fawkner park towards the Alfred Hospital, where there was a sausage sizzle every Friday.

Back in those days one of the hot nightspots around Melbourne was the Chevron, on the corner of St Kilda Road and Commercial. Spent a lot of time there also, and took the opportunity to check it out. It’s apartments now and has been for about 15 years.

I found a cafe to nest in and ordered a hot chocolate. I sat in a deep, mustard yellow armchair by the window and read The Mask of Dimitrios. In the background French lounge music from the thirties and forties played. By happy not-so-much a coincidence, the pleasant staff were also French. It was a nice half hour I spent there, and I left feeling in a more beneficent mood than I had on my previous visit to the hospital.

I had my session and returned home.

This morning I woke early again for my next session and repeated the itinerary of the previous day, albeit shifted 30 minutes later.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go to plan today either. I woke with my pillow stained with blood from my ear. I reported it when I got into the hospital and it was initially waved off. I think they thought I was exaggerating. Upon examination, they discovered that actually, yes, it had bled quite a bit, and the dried blood had crusted in my ear.

There followed a couple of excruciating hours, literally so for a good part of it. ENT specialists came and went, flushing out my ear initially and cleaning out the blood. They poked and prodded as if I was an inanimate object and not a human being with live nerve endings. In the course of doing that the grommet they had inserted yesterday came out with the clotted blood. That was bad news because they had to replace it.

At first, they tried to do so without an anaesthetic, until they figured that wasn’t a great idea – a view I supported very strongly. They numbed my ear and went away and came back again to finish the job.

Even with the anaesthetic, I could feel it. The eardrum is sensitive. Everyone knows that. What they were trying to do was to squeeze a piece of tube into the hole they made yesterday, but it wasn’t a great fit. Several times as they tried I would flinch from the pain, which was an instinctive reaction – much as you might recoil after putting your hand in a fire. Ultimately, I had to hold my body rigid so that it wouldn’t move, and finally, they got it in.

I’ve had some unpleasant experiences over this journey, but today’s experience ranks in the top three.

Once more I’d missed my session time, by about two hours. I had another half hour to kill before they could squeeze me in. I returned to the same cafe as yesterday and the same chilled French folk for a flat-white and a Bex for my soul.

Afterwards, I had my third ever hyperbaric session. Very boring, but maybe it’s doing me good. I’m hoping it’ll be boring again tomorrow. Too many off-script adventures the last few days.

Clearing the boundaries


I woke up early this morning to get to the hospital for my hyperbaric treatment. I wasn’t conscious of being in any particular mood.

I drove to the hospital through middling traffic and walked into the hospital 5 minutes early. I had a RAT, which was clear, and then had to change out of all my clothes – including undies and removing my watch – to put on a pair of hospital scrubs. Ten minutes later, they slid me into the hyperbaric tube.

They reckon when it’s fully pressurised, the pressure is like being 14 metres underwater, which is about twice as much as when you fly. You’re all familiar with your ears popping when flying; that’s absolutely necessary in the hyperbaric chamber to equalise pressure and ease any pain or risk of damage.

Normally you might do that by swallowing or holding your nostrils closed and blowing. Because of my surgery and the loss of feeling, I couldn’t do the second, so all I could do was keep swallowing as the oxygen pumped in and the pressure increased. It took a while for it to work. Along the way, they had to slow or even back off on the pressure because my left ear was troubling me.

The treatment after that was uneventful, even boring. I just lay there for over an hour. I couldn’t even read a book. When the attendants released the pressure again, I felt a crackling and gurgling in my left ear. The doctor on duty inspected it and reported it was bruised from the pressure. Long story short, I can’t continue treatment until they do a minor procedure to allow for the pressure to equalise more efficiently between the inner and outer ear – similar to the grommet in my right ear, just more temporary.

I left, frustrated and weary thinking I had to have yet more surgery.

I drove to my old stamping ground, Hampton. I went to a cafe I used to frequent and, waiting to be seated, had a couple of old ladies barge in and take the table meant for me. They were a couple of Brighton types and very rude. I was shown to another table. I waited ten minutes to be served and then walked out.

I went to another cafe, relatively new and much less busy. I was served by a sweet-natured teenage girl who got my order wrong. It was no big deal, and I made nothing of it, but as I left 20 minutes later, I realised I was in a cranky mood.

I get gruff when I’m cranky, which wasn’t helped by the fact that my speech had gone off sooner than usual – maybe due to the treatment. I stalked back to the car, feeling a cold agitation and a sense of impatience for something I couldn’t define.

Today, I think, is one of the few occasions that I feel sorry for myself. It’s okay; I’ll allow it this time. I was conscious of all I had lost, which I felt ever keener knowing there was no one I could talk to about it. I’ve never really complained, but I was unlucky to lose my close family prematurely. Losing my mum, particularly, was very hard, and her death set in train a series of calamitous events that left me with no family to comfort me in hard times.

I felt the loss of Rigby too, my boon companion. I think of him a lot and am still vacuuming up remnants of his fur! It feels pretty sad. The other day, returning home, I made a wish that I would open the door and he would be there. I felt quite good about it, much like when you feel your numbers might come up in lotto this week. He wasn’t there, though. Nor have I won lotto.

I miss him. I wonder how I would have coped last year with the cancer breaking if he hadn’t been there for me. I have vivid memories of that torrid time that recur to me regularly, yet in all of them, I return home to the eager affection of Rigby. I’ll probably get another dog soon and will be grateful for it, but it won’t bring back Rigby.

I’m a bit sad currently about friendship in general. No recriminations. Everything has a lifespan. Not great timing is all.

I feel I have lost a lot and possibly suffered more than my fair share of obstacles. I’ve always been conscious of not wanting to make that an excuse. You’ve got to deal with what comes your way, no ifs, buts or maybes. I’ve done that, but I’m aware of the cost.

I feel, in a way, that so many years have been lost, and remind myself there’s still time to find the comfort I need and yearn for. But, after tarrying for so long, I’m impatient to get that started, not knowing how.

There’s a feeling now different from before, which I’m unsure if it’s just a part of getting old or, more likely, it’s a part of coming close to death. There were always things I did and wanted to do, and they seemed a part of the continuum. If not this year, then next, or five years from now. There was no perceived limit or boundary. You know it exists, but distantly, and life feels boundless.

Now I feel the truth that more is behind me than ahead, and the times when I may have done the things I truly wanted were wasted. That’s an extreme perception that the urgent sense of loss exacerbates. The truth is, I did other things instead. While great fun and valuable in many ways, the things I did were transient. They were a moment that passed. I missed the opportunity to build something lasting.

It’s a classic tale. As they say, it’s later than you think.

Now, I can see the boundaries ahead. I can hear the clock ticking. Nothing feels boundless anymore. I try to recapture that sense, and it’s a key reason I strive to enhance my physical health – if I can feel and look younger, then maybe I can get some of that sense again. The sense of limitless possibilities. Maybe that can be, but then maybe it’s a delusional attempt to reclaim time lost to me.

Having got to this point, having survived cancer and experienced a form of enlightenment, I’m impatient to get back to the main game, knowing my opportunities to perform and score are dwindling. I feel it urgently: I have to make it count.

So, that’s the definition I was looking for, perhaps. It will remain true, but tomorrow is a different day and may bring a different view.

The wonder of it


I’ve been out and returned since I wrote the earlier post and found myself thinking about it as I visited the supermarket and library. The nature of a blog like this is that it’s personal, particularly in my version of it. I’m not so interested in recording the quotidian activities of my life, though I feel obliged to note down some of it. I’m interested in the psychological journey – how I see and experience things and the evolving perspective along the way. The logical extension of that is a degree of self-absorption, if not navel gazing. It aligns with my nature also.

All of that is heightened when you endure a life-threatening condition. Though it’s terrifying, it’s also fascinating. To bear witness to the breakdown of your body and functions and then toil as they slowly, haltingly, patchily repair is a thing of wonder.

It’s astonishing to comprehend when so many simple functions fail. You live at a baseline and above it often, but abruptly, you plunge beneath it. How can you not see things differently when your experience is so radically altered? The elementary experience – and expectation – of living is turned upside down when your speech and hearing fail, when your muscles become frail and your consciousness fragile, and your ability even to taste fades, and eating is a trial. With it goes a sense of self.

It is a challenge, obviously, but it’s much more than that. You become your own biological experiment. A part of you steps back, probably by necessity. It’s like peering into a microscope and being exposed to a myriad of mysterious worlds you never imagined. But it’s you!

It’s my physical self that has suffered this damage. I’m sharp as I ever was and my psyche is healthy. It’s my body that has been attacked, and hence my focus on it. I had something malicious grow inside me. It’s gone, though it can return. To reclaim what was taken is a victory. Every sign of healing is a bit of territory I take back from this foe. To become robust again, to feel my swagger return, is defiance of a fate otherwise decreed.

There are many bigger and stronger than me, true even when I was perfectly healthy. There are certainly many, and maybe most, who are more attractive than what I’ve become. I may take that as a mark of achievement one day, but for now, the only way I know I’m winning is in my physical progress. It becomes an obsession.

Winter is coming, I know. No matter how much I regain, the mounting years will slowly erode. I’ll defy that too, but it’s more readily accepted. One thing that has changed is that I’m much more aware of my mortality and the mortality of others. I know, most likely, the day will come, and I know how I don’t want to die. I’ve seen enough of that.

It’s the sense of detachment that gives me the perspective of transience. Everything passes, as it has for thousands of years. What seems vital and urgent to us now will one day be a thousand years past. I’ve had an awareness of that previously – it’s why I chose to write, to leave a mark – but it feels more real. Less theoretical, more practical.

Overcoming


I begin my hyperbaric treatment on Monday. There are two options. I could either sit in a chamber with others with a transparent hood is placed on my shoulders in which I breathe oxygen while the pressure in the chamber is increased. Or I could lay in a bed within a transparent tube. Again, oxygen is delivered while the pressure is increased.

I preferred the first. Laying in a bed wearing hospital scrubs is not for me unless absolutely necessary. That’s what I will be doing now. The choice came down to start that on Monday or the other sometime in July. I’m keen to get it done and feel the effects, so Monday it is.

I’m not sure what to expect. I hear good things but don’t know what benefits I’ll feel, if any, and how much my health will improve.

I’ve no doubt it will be positive; I’m wary of expecting too much of it. At the very least, I hope to experience some general health benefits. The combination of pure oxygen and high pressure accelerates natural healing. In my case, the focus is mending the bones in my face and aiding the regrowth of skin in my mouth over the exposed bone.

I hope it also reduces swelling and returns greater mobility to my mouth and face. It would be nice if it improved my sinus also, if it repairs my nerve damage, and if it frees up my hip. These things are less likely.

What I do know is at the end of it, I should be in a better place – how good, I don’t know. If it fails to meet primary objectives, I’m looking at surgery again.

I can’t worry too much about how things may turn out. Every day is a mission to get more exercise and become stronger while managing symptoms. I have become accustomed to many of the symptoms. I’m far from full health, but now I’m dealing with a collection of lesser issues rather than one big issue. It can be annoying, and it certainly inhibits my lifestyle, but you accept it for now and keep going.

Overall, within these constraints, I think I’m doing pretty well. There was a time I couldn’t walk to the front door without feeling I would collapse. Many a time, I would cling to the doorknob for dear life until the wave passed. Later, when I was more capable, I would still need to rest every 50-60 metres walking. All my fitness was gone, every skerrick of stamina a distant memory, and I felt as weak as a child.

I’m much stronger now, in fact, and appearance. I lost most of my muscle after surgery, and it took a long time before I felt any strength return to me. I’m lucky, though, in that I muscle up quite easily, and much has now returned – my chest is deep, my shoulders broad. I’m not what I was. I can’t run as far as I could before, nor as straight, thanks to my hip, but I can walk for hours if my hip allows it, and I’m taking stairs two at a time again, in defiance of the pain.

I even feel a bit of (crooked) swagger return to me.

I was in the city yesterday for a rare occasion in the office. At lunchtime, I walked through the streets, checking out the places I knew so well before. I ended up in a bookshop where I bought a few books. I felt my old self, in spirit, at least.

It’s curious how important it is that I return to some semblance of physical capability as before. In ways, it makes perfect sense, but though I was always physically robust, I’m more the cerebral type. It’s clear, however, that much of my sense of self is concentrated in my physical being.

I liked being tall and strong. Year’s roaming streets on my travels had made me physically enduring. There’s no doubt there were occasions I enjoyed imposing my frame into situations. And, for the most part, I felt attractive, even in contradiction to reality at times.

I guess it’s not enough for me to be a mind; I want to be a mind in a body. And when I consider my inclination to the sensual, it begins to make more sense.

It’s very true also that when you have something taken from you, you yearn for its return. I am made aware of this capacity more keenly because it has been lost to me.

There’s something innate in it, however. I remember reading ancient Greek history. I was drawn to the Spartans more than the Athenians. I have more in common culturally with an Athenian, I think – the love of art and discourse, good living and philosophy. Not to mention, democracy. But it was the Spartans I loved for their fierce virility and stoic sense of civic duty. I admire them for their hardness and willingness to put their beliefs into battle. And, in action, their ruthless ability.

I love the arts. I love thinking and wondering. I could read all day long, and I never want to stop learning. These are comforts. They’re what makes life a pleasure, among other things. But I’m aware also that comfort must be earned, or so I believe. They’re the pay-off from living with a rigorous outlook and understanding they’re a luxury and a privilege. It’s a perspective, I guess, which echoes stoicism and even an unexpected WASPish attitude.

For me, it means I need to feel physically capable as well as everything else. I take pride in being independent, and physical health is necessary to maintain that – which is another reason becoming critically ill is so difficult. Add the usual mix of male ego and vanity, and the picture completes itself.

I want to be out in the world, and I want to be capable and robust and putting myself forward as if nothing ever happened to me.

Buttoning up


I had lunch in the city today with one of our vendors. We met at a top-end Chinese restaurant, and I had a lovely meal, though my pleasure is tempered a little these days by a feeling of self-consciousness as I eat. I was brought up well-mannered and with an understanding of dining etiquette. I always felt at home at even the most elegant of tables, but that was before I got cancer.

Because I can only open my mouth so far – perhaps 60% of what I could previously – I have to be very aware taking every mouthful; every portion has to be assessed as to whether it will fit in my mouth and, if I figure it will, what the best angle of approach is. Eating with chopsticks reduces your options. I can’t cut the portions in half, so I have to be particularly clever – or just cram it in. I feel somewhat inadequate.

I realised another thing over lunch which may have longer term ramifications.

I’m already wondering what my working future will be. I smell of roses at the moment, partly by virtue of others publicly stuffing up and partly because I’m the one fixing them up. I think I’ve reminded others of how smart I am and reminded myself at the same time. Not that I ever doubted exactly, but sometimes it slips from your mind. Plus, returning from illness, I guess you’re never really quite sure how sharp you’ll be.

I’m in a better position now than I was six months, not just because I’m a lot healthier, but because I’ve reminded the powers to be of the value I bring.

It looks relatively positive then, and I can’t help but get deeply involved when the heat is on. I’m reluctant to admit it, but in the heat of battle, I enjoy it. I like being challenged, and I like having the answers and using my mind. And I like it when it all works as it should.

It’s when the heat is off that I wonder what the point of it is. I know, I know…but no matter how good a job I do, it doesn’t amount to much. A year from now, one person’s stuff-ups and another person’s successes won’t matter and will hardly be remembered.

Getting cancer and contemplating the prospect of becoming non-existent stirs things up. It prompts you to act on the things sitting dormant in the back of your mind. Now is the time because you don’t know if there will be another time.

For me, I’ve idly wondered about doing something more in tune with my outlook and philosophy. I don’t know what that is. What makes it hard is that I’m quite good at what I do, even if it doesn’t align with my values altogether. And, I’m at the stage of my life – and health – when I have to squirrel away as much dough as I possibly can.

The other thing is that I figured that all these years, I’ve been wasting what is basically a top-shelf brain doing things of no lasting import, and it was about time I started to use it for myself. I want to do things worthy of my intelligence.

Then, today, at lunch, I found myself labouring as I tried to speak clearly. The more I tried, the harder it got because I was wearing myself out. I’m sure I’m intelligible when there’s no background noise, but in a restaurant, with a hum of conversation, it becomes more difficult. I became aware of that and felt a bitter embarrassment.

I don’t know how much my speech will improve with time or if it will at all. I’ve always been a man of reasonably clipped conversation – direct and without extravagance. But there have also been regular occasions when I’d get on a roll and talk fluently and with pleasure. For someone who has an opinion on everything, who takes an interest in art and history, politics and culture, it was always a joy to expound and interact in the right company.

The bonus was that I was articulate, even charming occasionally. I considered myself a good conversationalist when I was in the mood, both erudite and witty.

There’s none of that now. I’m just not capable of it in my present condition. I hate it, obviously, but perhaps I have to learn to accept it.

So, that’s another thing I know after today. If there isn’t any improvement in my speech, it’s likely to be career-limiting anyway, but I know I won’t want to put myself through that day after day regardless. I’ll need to find another role where I can get away without speaking so much.