This frailty

I feel as if I’ve understated the pain and discomfort and sheer disarray I’ve experienced these last 6-7 weeks. It’s what we do in our stiff upper lip sort of way, but how ridiculous it is when I’m like this in my private moments also – as if unwilling to admit to myself how awful it is.

I’m in bed this afternoon. Regardless of the pills I took, the pain screamed in my face and head. And I felt so tired. And even when the pills begin to take effect, this pressure in my head never goes away, as if too much is crammed in too small a space.

That’s the physical. Then there’s the mental side of it. There are moments I feel overwhelmed by the totality of the experience – the fear and uncertainty, the sense of aloneness. For some reason, probably reasonable, I’m scared of the surgery to come, though I crave the relief it promises. The thought of how I am be sliced and dissected doesn’t bear thinking about.

Funnily enough, I have little concern about the hardship and pain that will follow. All the doctors I speak to make it clear how difficult it will be, but I accept that because it’s the right sort of pain – the pain of recovery.

The experience has reminded me of mum. She had cancer, and in the end, she died of it. Throughout her illness, I tried to do all I could for her. Being of practical nature, most of it was in helping her deal with the logistics of a terminal illness. I would ferry her around and do chores for her. Every time she met with her Oncologist, I would be there. Then, when she knew there was no surviving it, we went together to a funeral parlour to make arrangements when the day came. And I remember one Saturday afternoon sitting at her dining table, going through photos and discussing her eulogy and checking out catering options for her wake. Strangely, it’s a fond memory. We laughed a lot that day.

What I realise now is how little I understood how terrifying it must have been for her. Gaping into the maw of great uncertainty is terribly confronting. It’s also a very lonely business. I guess it’s not something easily shared, but I wish I had known better to at least try and comfort her. For all I actually did, it feels like a sad failure. That’s how I feel now – alone in a wilderness.

I went to the hospital this morning. It’s a familiar journey now. Every time I walk in, it feels the same. There are sick people everywhere, and I feel I don’t belong. After what I have described above, it seems a paradox, but I don’t look ill as other people do, and it’s all – literally – in my head. I am otherwise spry.

It’s the insidious nature of this thing that it doesn’t necessarily mark you, and I’m always at pains to present myself with pride. I look about the waiting room, knowing there is something inside me that will kill me if not treated, and see so many who appear wretched and hopeless. Yet, the man in a wheelchair or the woman breathing from an oxygen tank may be in a better situation than me.

I overstate it, perhaps, but the point is that there’s more to it than what you see.

The surgeon is one who’ll be operating on me next week. He explained to me some of the things I should expect and answered some questions. He tells me I’ll have ‘subtle’ scars. The radiotherapy may inhibit growing facial hair on my right cheek, negating one option I was considering. I have no feeling in my right cheek currently, and I won’t get it back – though, over time, the area of numbness may reduce in size. All going well, he said, there should be no ongoing infirmity. I’ll lose some teeth, though he’ll keep it to a minimum. And I sense I have to be wary of cancer returning.

I try to make light of things. It’s what we do. I joked earlier on Facebook about how I’ll claim the scars on my face are from my duelling days at a German university. The truth is, it’s very much a surreal nightmare. Only months ago, I felt completely fine – and thought the first pangs were dental related. Now I have cancer, face surgery, and months of recovery, as well as some physical disfigurement.

But I’m luckier than many. I have a way out. I should be grateful for that. So forgive me these human frailties. I’m just a man.

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