Until January


It’s a beautiful spring day. The sun is warm and the sky a soft blue, corrugated by widely spaced clouds. As I do most mornings, I went for a walk to get some exercise.

In recent times, I’ve been going further and in unfamiliar directions. It has surprised me that it’s taken so long to properly explore the extended neighbourhood, but I guess there have been extenuating circumstances.

Today I walked as far as Royal Melbourne Golf Course. The borders of the course are relatively close by – perhaps a 15-minute walk. The streets around the course are full of lovely homes with little traffic passing through. There are trees everywhere and people walking dogs, and it seems a tranquil place to live – and a charming place to walk through.

Peering at the houses as I walked by, I was reminded of the neighbourhood where I grew up. Though quite different in ways, there was a similar feel to it. I felt a kind of regret that I had given that up – though lost, it seems more apt. And, as often, it spurred me on. Don’t give up on it, H!

I’m in an odd space right now, a sort of limbo. The cancer is gone, and generally, I’m much fitter than I was. There are still issues to deal with, and I’ve actually been in more pain lately than previously, but it feels like I’ve got a handle on it. I may even have a dog soon. I’m not in the next stage yet, but it’s probably only months away.

Work is a mess – a man-made mess – but I’m reluctant to go into the details just now. The upshot is that until the mess is resolved, I’m left with only half a job. That puts my position in peril, as I always suspected might happen. It would do me good to get out of the place, and if I am to progress, I must – but I’d prefer to do it on my terms. There’s a bit to play out yet.

I’m coming to the point where I have to make a call on which direction to take. Getting cancer gave me a mulligan, but that expires soon. Ironically, if not for cancer, I may not have faced the choice.

I have until about January, I figure. By then, I should be fit and well enough to fully commit to full-time work. My eye will be fixed, and perhaps other things also. It will be a new year and, with it, a new opportunity.

The question now, as always, is where does the opportunity lie? And what will please me? It’s something I have to start thinking about now, I figure, and begin preparations for. The next month will tell a tale.

Time’s up


Tennis has lost a couple of great names from tennis in the last couple of weeks, with Serena Williams and Roger Federer announcing their retirement.

In the way of our times, reflecting their stature in the game, both became known by their Christian names. All of us were comfortable talking of them by their first names, confident that we wouldn’t be misunderstood.

Williams retired after her loss in the US Open. For the last few years, she’s been attempting to win one more grand slam title to make her level with Margaret Court as the most successful grand slam winner. She was older, though, she had fitness issues, and it was never to be.

In the wake of her retirement, there was all the usual hyperbole. Many said she was the GOAT. Others claimed she changed the game. I’m reluctant to say too much about her – I wasn’t a fan. Much of the commentary was over the top, but that, too, is the way of our times. It also attests to the force of recency and perhaps sentiment. When the dust settles, we might see a truer evaluation of her legacy.

For mine, Graf has been the best women’s tennis player I’ve seen. She played in an era of greater competition and was a complete player, whereas Williams overpowered her rivals.

I feel differently about Roger. Putting aside his sublime skills as a tennis player, what he possessed in spades is the quality that Williams lacked: grace.

Roger will be remembered as a wonderful player who competed in an era of greats. He took to the court and played with artistry and a casual flair. Many will say he is the GOAT among male players, and I think he has a better claim to it. I’m inclined to think he might be the best player I’ve seen, but even so, his great rivals also have a decent claim to it. That attests to the quality of the modern game in men’s tennis and elevates Roger’s stature.

He was always a joy to watch on the court and a gentleman off it. He played with such effortless grace, but it was his grace off the court that endeared him to millions. He was a humble winner and a generous loser. He is a reasonable, decent human being, kind of heart and with a quirky sense of humour – at least, that’s how he seems from the outside.

I’ll miss him. I always wanted him to win.

The Queen is dead


As everyone knows by now, the queen is dead. Indeed, you’d be hard put to escape the news of it. Coverage of her life, her death, and what comes after is so pervasive that a random switching of the TV channel is likely to bring up another account of it. Much as I liked the queen – as, it seems, most did – there is something obscene about the wall-to-wall coverage. To my eye, it has become more than a celebration and commiseration of her life and death. There becomes something cynical and opportunistic, cloaked in mournful tones.

I liked the Queen. Most Australians did, even those advocates for a republic, as I am. We recognised her devotion to duty and common decency, her sense of humour and stout human values. She was a strong woman and ever-present in our cultural life. She embodied a view of Britain and Britishness which has perhaps become archaic in recent decades but which remained true in her. Whether it survives, her death will be interesting to see.

Though I don’t believe in the concept of monarchy, no one could claim she didn’t fulfil her ‘duty’ in the highest sense of the word. She was on the side of the people and shared herself with us.

I believe that inherited authority and privilege, as is embodied in a monarch, is an abomination. That it’s anti-democratic never gets a mention these days. And why should one set of people, one family, as such, be accorded such devotion and power by virtue of lucky birth?

Speaking for myself, I can’t recognise that authority over me. I find it mildly sickening how so many fawn over regals, but then it seems something human nature needs in some form. Like religion, it’s the craving for belief in a higher, benevolent power. I’ve never had that need, neither emotionally nor spiritually, and intellectually I can’t believe in it. Every man is entire to himself. You may choose to subvert yourself or choose independence.

I say all that and recognise at the same time that the queen gave herself to the institution. Perhaps she understood the privilege she was born into and was determined to repay it in public service. No one could ask anything more of her than what she gave. She was a great leader in her way and a splendid human being. A non-believer, I respect and admire her. I mourn her loss, and the world will be a lesser place without her.

In truth, I’ve always felt some sympathy for the royals. Much as I might decry their unearned privilege, much is expected of them. They’re born, live and die in the public eye. Every move they make is recorded in minute detail by the media – there’s even a scabrous set called ‘royal watchers’. They’re expected to do their duty, often at the cost of any private or personal life. They are hijacked from birth by an expectation they never asked for. For the most part, they give themselves over to it. There are few, like Harry, who escape it – though he still rides its coattails, nonetheless.

We have now entered into an absurd twilight with her death. Though it’s sad, it isn’t the tragedy some might think. I said to a friend a month ago that I had the feeling that the queen would die within a month. That I was right doesn’t make me Nostradamus – the Queen was 96, and this moment was coming. She led a full life and had a good go at it.

Aside from the media coverage, which we’ll have to endure until after her funeral, there are other absurdities, such as parliament shutting down – as if the world stops with her death. There was no sport played in England to honour her. And it’s been announced today that even here, in faraway Oz, there will be a once-off public holiday to mark her passing. I love a day off, but it’s becoming ridiculous.

When the dust settles finally, it will be interesting what the new world order that will emerge. While the Queen’s role was largely ceremonial, she was a great figurehead, and her personality was the glue that held much of the commonwealth together.

It’s long been said that Australia would never become a republic while the Queen still lived. The clamour for it has never gone away and has become louder in recent years. After a seemly pause, it will come again, and I suspect some of the coverage in recent days will drive more to the cause.

I suspect it will have further ramifications for the UK. I expect the case for Scottish Nationalism will re-surface. And there are already signs of a burgeoning Welsh independence group. Then there’s Ireland.

The monarch now is King Charles III. He’s a different character from his mum, but I’ve always liked him. I expect in his reign that we’ll witness much that changes.

Forward planning


When I was on holiday, I spent several hours over a few days constructing a complex set of spreadsheets to map out my financial situation and project into the future. I’m at the stage, particularly given my recent illness, where I have to consider how I live in retirement.

I mapped out several different options based on income, with variable factors such as the annual return on my superannuation, CPI, and standard of living.

To a degree, I was pleasantly surprised, though there are plenty of caveats on that.

To start with, I’ve accepted that I have to work for the next 10 years at least to build up my super balance. To be safe, I’ll need to develop a side hustle I can continue into retirement – I’m looking at $10K annually, but hopefully much more.

I’m lucky to be with a super fund with the highest growth over many years. That has a huge bearing on the outcome – more so than gross salary. They’ve averaged over 9% returns over the last 10 years, and that’s despite virtually zero growth over the previous financial year. The difference between 8% and 10% of annual growth equates to years of income when I’m retired.

I’m not sure generally how the pension factors into this. As someone with few assets, I’ll likely qualify, though I’m unsure to what extent. It’s changing all the time, regardless. For the moment, I’ve left it off. Anything I get from it will be a bonus.

It’s hard to see myself becoming a homeowner in the next few years, so I’ve assumed I’ll continue on as a renter. That’s a bummer. I want to live reasonably well and have factored in a decent holiday overseas every three years.

As for expenditure, I’ve mapped out what is likely to be the major capital items I’ll need to buy – a new (preferably electric) car, a replacement TV, washing machine and fridge, all of which are over a dozen years old currently. In addition, I need a new couch, and I’ll look to replace the current TV unit and coffee table – big, heavy items in solid wood – with something lighter and smaller. There will be other bits and pieces, including a dog, which I want sooner rather than later. What I know is that these are purchases I need to make before I retire and while I’m still earning a salary. That’s where the salary becomes essential.

I’ve projected my lifestyle and savings based on my current salary, a midpoint about 20% higher (which I should be able to achieve and which I should be entitled to currently) and 50% higher, CPI adjusted. It sounds like a lot, but I’ve earned that much before and, in fact, much more. I know it’s possible to achieve that, but I wonder if I want the responsibility to go with it.

I finished the novel I’ve been writing while I was away. The next step is to get it professionally edited and look at getting it published. Worse comes to worst, I’ll self-publish to Amazon as an ebook. I think it’s pretty good, however, as do others, so I’m hoping for more than that. I look at any income I get from it as a bonus, though it probably won’t amount to much more than beer money – which is okay. I like beer, and I might even earn enough to afford champagne instead.

I’ll shortly move on to writing my second novel, for which I’ve already completed the first draft. Writing is hard but easy if that makes sense, and I have plenty of ideas. I expect I’ll never stop doing it, and maybe that’s where the $10K will come from. I’m considering setting up a Patreon account, though I’m wary of it. It feels too much like charity.

I visited the office yesterday, which was a novel event and cause for reflection. The offices have been renovated and re-opened, and there was an air of celebration.

I’ve been thinking about work a lot, obviously. My intentions remain unchanged. I hope I make it through to January when I qualify for long service leave. If I depart then with that, and about 7 weeks of accrued annual leave cashed in, I’ll have a handy cash amount to alleviate some of my liquidity issues. I may even manage to sneak a holiday – though, thanks to the eye surgery I need, I’ve downgraded that from 6-8 weeks in Europe, as I hoped, to maybe two weeks in Japan. Europe can come later.

Ideally, I will find another, better-paying job. I don’t know how prospective employers view cancer survivors, but the market remains buoyant. I get a lot of enquiries, though mostly for project management roles, which I hate. Now is not the time, though, neither because of my LSL nor my health, which I want properly stabilised before I take on another role.

I was asked yesterday by a supporter of my work what I want from my job if I were to continue. The easy part of that is a fair salary. I despise them for their pragmatic cheapness. But when I thought about it further, other things came to mind.

I’ve proposed an ambitious roadmap for development over the next 18-24 months. The recommendation is to move from the on-prem to a cloud application, with a list of functions to be configured within it over that period. In terms of salary, I’m a minion, but I’m also the sole architect of what will be a transformative business project if approved. The person I spoke to yesterday is the advocate for it, taking it to the steering committee. I provide the IP, and she does the sales job.

I realised that if the proposal was rejected, I couldn’t continue. I’m chips-in on a new, cloud-based platform. By comparison, the current platform is a dog (no offence Rex). To continue unchanged when the benefits of shifting are so stark would make my position untenable. For the record, I expect it to be approved, more or less, despite conservative apathy.

Then, though I said nothing, I thought I couldn’t continue in the current structure as it is. I need to get away from my TL, who seems more like a duffer every day. In any case, what I do doesn’t logically fit in his team, and it shows. I was always the guru at this – live chat and chatbot – and I brought it with me when I took the role in his team.

The problem is that he knows a fraction of it but ultimately can decide what we do with it. I need separation and autonomy. He’s already stuffed it up enough and has been clagging up attempts to develop it. They’re my three conditions if I was to remain.

It’s probably 50/50 if I do stay. A new manager started yesterday, and a re-structure is very much on the cards. And I have some influential supporters and advocates. I was off 6 months with cancer and returned part-time, yet I gained some gloss with stakeholders because I managed to save something from what had become a bin-fire of a project commenced when I was away.

There are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes. That’s life, I guess. How my health – cancer – plays out is another question mark. As I tell my friends, I’ve got to figure another 30 years at least.

For the moment, unfortunately, I’ve had to cancel my cataract surgery because I can’t afford it. It’s situations like that I have to get beyond.

I love September


I love September. Spring has come and the days are brighter and warmer, and the long, cold winter finally comes to an end. It’s the transition from one phase to another, and by the end of the month the barbecues are getting their first go at it for the season. And, if you’re an AFL fan, the finals are here. There’s a vibe in the air. An expectancy. Excitement. This is it, what it’s all about.

It’s the first week of AFL finals and what an absolute fucking cracker it’s been! I can’t recall a better set of finals games on the same weekend. In one game, the lead changed 20 odd times before the winning goal was kicked with about a minute to go. In another, a team came from 7 goals down to win. The least of the games was close and tight and full of pressure, and the best, yesterday, was a brutal, see-sawing match at the MCG before a raucous crowd of 93,000.

My relationship with footy has been more ambivalent this season. There have been some great games and it’s been a good season, but the performance of my team, combined with disaffection with the declining standard of umpiring, has seen me tune off more than ever before.

I used to be a footy junkie. I’d watch just about every game available on TV, and for many years I’d attend over a dozen games a season. My health has impacted on that, but I only attended three matches this year (ironically, all victories). On TV, I might start watching a match, but will often be off it by half time doing or watching something else. My interest couldn’t be sustained if my team wasn’t in it – and, sadly, often then also.

This weekend has been entirely different. I’ve watched every game and been thrilled and enthralled. It’s like returning to church and rediscovering the beauty of devotion.

I know everyone says this about their favourite sport, but I have very little doubt that nothing matches the sheer spectacle and excitement of a good game of Aussie Rules. There’s tremendous skill and unparalleled athleticism, big hits that verge on the brutal, and high performance under conditions of extreme pressure. And it has fantastic romance. It’s the greatest game in the world.

I’ll be watching for the remainder of the finals series, likely on the edge of my seat. For the record, I think the Grand Final will be the Sydney Swans versus either Geelong or Melbourne (a preliminary final worthy of a grand final if Melbourne makes it that far).

I’m unwilling to pick a winner. The Swans should make it because they have home finals, and there’s no team as disciplined or hard at it and which makes such good decisions under pressure. But then Geelong have been the best team all year, and Melbourne is the reigning premier whose best is superior to every other team. And, it’s possible, that some other team might sneak through. It’s finals footy – anything’s possible.

As for my mob – I hope they’re watching and it burns deep that they’re not a part of it. It starts with desire. Be there, do it. Next year.

My jaunt north


I haven’t really commented on my trip away. It was just what I needed. It had a great combination of activity and restfulness. I was nurtured and made very welcome by my old mate and his family. And all of this in one of the more beautiful parts of the world.

There are plenty of highlights. A week ago today, I was at the Byron Writers Festival. Strange as it seems, I’d never been to one of these events before. It was a sunny day, and the large crowd in attendance was progressive by nature, as were most – if not all – of the sessions, barring one occasion when an anti-vax loon from the audience got up to say his piece. He was quickly shut down.

It was reassuring to witness and absorb so much intelligent commentary. So much was thought-provoking, and there were some very impressive speakers. I came away from it feeling intellectually invigorated.

The day before, we’d gone to Byron Bay and did the lighthouse walk. That’s a walk along the beach and then up a steep and winding path along the clifftop and through the bush to the peak of Cape Byron, where the old white lighthouse sits.

It was a beautiful, sunny day as we drove into Byron. Casuarina pines lined the road giving the place a festive feel. The main strip was bustling, and we drove through it towards the beach.

The beaches all along the coastline here are spectacular. They’re long and deep, the sand is pale white, and the surf can be pretty good. Watego Beach is particularly beautiful. It’s fringed in green and is one of the smaller beaches, a gentle arc framed by rocky headlands. Facing the sea are beautiful homes well beyond the reach of most of us.

I’ve done the lighthouse walk before, about 15 years ago. I don’t remember it being so difficult, but then I was fit and well then. This time, I had to pause several times on the way up. Though I’m a lot fitter than I was, I’m still well short of the norm. I’m slowly gaining fitness and strength, and it shows. Exercise like this is great for me.

On the way up, we stopped a couple of times to watch dolphins frolic about a kilometre offshore and then, very fortunately, watched a whale breach the surface. It’s out of season, though it’s a renowned whale watching spot. Up the top, we paused at the kiosk to have a drink and take in the vista. Then we made the return trip.

One curious and amusing sidelight was the reaction I got to the t-shirt I was wearing. I had on a black t-shirt with the retro Essendon logo on it. We’ve had troubled times lately, but we’re a famous club with supporters all over the world. I got about half a dozen people commenting, from go Bombers to people shaking their heads at the recent shenanigans and commenting that things can only get better. Surprisingly, I wasn’t heckled once.

Back on the beach, the sun was so warm I took my shirt off – the first time in many months, and unthinkable considering it was still winter in Melbourne. In Byron, the season was different, and there were plenty of others taking in the sun – including a good number of topless bathers.

Byron Bay is wildly popular these days, but you can see why.

On Saturday, we drove to Nimbin for a soccer game. The route took us through some very pretty towns and beautiful landscapes. We went through hills and thick forests and plantations of Macadamia trees. I was particularly taken with Bangalow and Clunes.

We drove through Lismore, recently the scene of terrible floods. The locals explained how high the floodwaters had come, which was barely comprehensible. Not until you’re there do you realise the unbelievable scale of the event – strange, I write that as Pakistan is suffering from catastrophic, unprecedented flooding. In Lismore, the water reached higher than you could ever imagine.

It’s beautiful countryside beyond that. I love the Australia land. Something about it moves me. I feel both possessive and blessed. It’s a rugged country that contains almost poignant beauty. We’re a land of such contrasts and variety. I doubt there’s another country in the world, with the possible exception of America, with such a geographic range. I have a great attachment to the land, in a different way from the attachment I have to our nation. Though I’ve only seen a fraction of what is a vast land, I feel I know it so well inside me. I know the nature and character of it. I’m moved and feel as if we who live here have won the jackpot.

Nimbin is a different place altogether. While they played soccer, I went for a walk. Within two minutes of walking down the main street, I had characters sidling up to me to check if I might be interested in a purchase. Nimbin is well known as the weed capital of Australia, and the lifestyle there generally reflects an alternative, environmentally conscious type. Though I knocked back the offers, on reflection, I wish I’d at least inquired – just for the experience (marijuana doesn’t do much for me).

I sat down and had a good brunch, then browsed the stores selling hemp products, alternative clothing, etc. I think I was pretty clearly an out-of-towner, but then there were a few tourists who had made the journey.

The only other time I’d been in Nimbin was around 2005 when I visited the market, which was great.

I saw the end of the soccer match, and then we drove back to Mullum. That night, I took my hosts out for dinner to thank them for their great hospitality. They’re a great lot. They have a couple of daughters, the youngest of which took to me, and the other very welcoming. A set of parents lived nearby and were very kind, too.

I stayed in a comfy cabin amid the trees. One day, I walked out the back door to find a couple of wallabies grazing there.

It was great, but I was glad to get home. It made me reflect a little. I have aspirations for a big European trip next year, but perhaps I’m not ready for it yet. It’s likely not something I’ll be comfortable doing until I feel my life has settled into some sort of groove. The reality is, I remain unsettled by health and circumstance.

Before the fact


Tonight, I can’t sleep. It’s just on 1am, and I’ve just turned on the light after more than an hour of lying in the dark. I slept wonderfully well when I was away. There was probably a range of reasons for that – fresh air, plenty of exercise, a good bed, not to mention a psychological relaxation at just being away from home.

For all that, I’ve slept well since my return also. Until tonight.

I visited the ophthalmologist this morning to get the lowdown on my cataract. There were no surprises. At the end of the session, I paid just under $500 and had been booked for surgery in October.

I need the surgery and am glad to have it organised, but I’d much rather it had never become necessary. A month ago, I had no idea I had a cataract. I was planning the annual upgrade of my glasses when quite abruptly, I realised my eyesight had markedly declined. That’s continued; even with my glasses on, everything is becoming fuzzy.

I have no real options but to get this done. The cataract is growing quickly. I don’t know if I’ll be able to drive in a month. But it’s just another thing I have to deal with. Another thing taking me away from the hope of some return to normality.

Now it’s keeping me awake. It’s not fear or trepidation or anything like that. After all I’ve been through, a small procedure on my eye seems almost minor. It might seem a bit crass, but it’s the financial impact that concerns me.

Last week it was confirmed that I must pay about $1900 to the ATO by March next year. My car is currently with the mechanic, and I expect a bill of around a grand (actual $1683). Now, this. I don’t know what it will cost yet, but I expect it will be many thousands. I will get much of it back through Medicare, but I still expect to be out of pocket by over a thousand ($3,500), and quite likely more.

I can afford bits and pieces, but it’s getting a bit rich for me in combination. Add to that the climbing cost of medication – that’s heading towards a thousand for the year also – and I fear I’ll never get ahead. And it seems such a waste.

I’m frustrated and weary. I have to stump up the cash somehow, and I’m sure I’ll manage somehow, but it doesn’t keep me from stressing over it. It’s the sense of helplessness that’s most challenging, but that’s a common feeling when you have a severe illness. I just hoped I would be past that by now.

The good news is that afterwards, I can ditch my glasses. Maybe I should focus on that – though focussing on anything at the moment with my eyes like this is a tall order.

What it means most crucially is that my concept of what ‘regular’ life is put on hold. I envy people who go about their lives with barely a care. I was one of them once. I don’t know when I’ll get back to that or ever will.

I did a lot of productive thinking while I was away. It occurred to me that this was the first time in many years that no one was waiting for me to return home. I missed that, even if it was ‘only’ a dog previously.

Part of regular life for me is having a dog around the house. I realised I had to get onto that, but it’s unlikely now, if not impossible, until sometime next year. I have to endure longer. It seems the mantra of the times. I just have to do it and somehow find a way. You don’t know how tiring it is to keep at that day after day, week after week. But that’s the deal.

I wish people understood. I think that most know who know me think I’m wickedly resilient. I get lauded for my supposed strength. And maybe it’s true – but it takes a lot of effort, and that’s what they don’t see. They see the outside. That’s H, they think; he’s a survivor. In a way, it absolves them of any responsibility.

I shouldn’t complain. I’ve made it my life’s work to be independent. I’ve pushed people away, unwilling to admit to need. I’ve proudly proclaimed my self-reliance. In the end, it becomes habitual, and when people see you, that’s all they see.

I’m having a moan, I know. I want it both ways and can’t. I want to be independent and be seen to be independent, but I also want people to understand it’s not as easy as it looks. I’ll accept help to a certain point, but no more – but then will feel aggrieved when no more is offered. We are complex beings.

I write because it makes it easier for me to manage these things. Writing slows me down. It brings clarity, insight, and perhaps some raw self-awareness. These are the things that allow me to continue – not the brute strength that others might imagine.

Ultimately, I have to manage and deal with a set of conditions. It’s easier when you know what they are. I’m lucky that way – I’m honest and can see. It’s the sort of honesty I could be more open with if I were smarter.

I’ve survived. I’ve come through. I think back to last year when I was in a bad way and marvel at how I did it alone. I know now that I probably needed a carer, but I made it without one. It’s easier now. Not over yet, and maybe not for a while, but I’ve dealt with worse. That’s what will happen now. I’ll deal with these challenges one way or another, and in a year, I’ll look back and wonder what the big deal was. Perspective. It comes easier after the fact.

Now it’s 1.41am, and time to have another shot at sleep.

P.S. The morning after. I got the quote. I can’t afford the surgery. I’m doing my sums and looking at other options, and I’ve told them that I’ll confirm by Tuesday, but unless I pull a rabbit out of my hat, it won’t happen.

The arse in question


Back in Melbourne and this morning in Armadale, having a coffee, waiting to visit an eye specialist to look at my cataract.

It’s an area familiar to me from many years of living or working nearby. I lived in the next suburb for over a decade, and my old massage shop is probably no more than a kilometre away. Sitting here with a coffee and a cinnamon scroll, I’m enjoying the ambience.

I caught the train here because I don’t have my car right now and because they advised me I shouldn’t drive after seeing the doctor.

I got off the train and started walking towards High Street, passing by a cafe I remember visiting many years ago – 1988. It seems a world away in time and memory.

I was there with my mum and my girlfriend at the time. We’d been out looking at places to rent. I’m not sure if I was in love at this point, but I had the notion I wanted to settle down with this woman.

I remember returning to the table we shared to find the two women discussing how good an arse I had. Remembering it, I felt like weeping. My mum is dead 10 years this year, and the woman – Margaret – is long gone.

The dread


Quite often I feel it’s a small miracle to have survived cancer. At the same time, there is a surreal edge to it as if I can’t quite believe I was placed in this situation. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but sometimes I think I only have to wake up, or give a vigorous shake of the head, to find it was all a dream.

The sense of the surreal is compounded when I meet people who haven’t seen me since before all of this happened, as is the case with some this week. Almost invariably they give me a searching look examining me for scars and signs of my illness, before proclaiming that I don’t look too bad, and, better than they thought.

I smile at that and agree, there’s been a great improvement, much more than I thought likely. Still, the signs are clear to see.

The other night I got a message from an ex-colleague who had only just discovered my situation. He was shocked and sympathetic, as you would expect, and asked what happened. I stared at the screen of my phone and wondered how I could possibly answer in a couple of sentences. In the end, I gave him a few laconic cliches. That’s what they’re there for.

Having survived for over a year since surgery I can now discern separate stages of the process.

Initially, it’s all fear and uncertainty. The word cancer by itself is enough to conjure up a sense of utter dread. You don’t know if you’ll survive and the thought of an abrupt – or drawn out – ending is terrifying. For me, there were all sorts of existential pangs that went with that. I felt bruised and sorry at the thought that I might die unfulfilled. More immediately, I had to deal with surgery and treatment and that was confronting – though I clung to it like a man marooned clings to a liferaft.

Then comes the stage of treatment. Surgery has utterly drained you. You feel feeble and weak. You can barely eat. Walking is difficult. The day is a dull and repetitive routine starting with the ambulance picking you up to take you to the hospital. You stare out the window. You do your treatment – radiotherapy mostly, but chemo occasionally. You go home to sit in the corner or lie down, and do it all again tomorrow. Quite often, you feel dreadful.

The prevailing memory of that time is of enduring. I hated it, but I knew it might save my life. I counted down the days and was tempted to take a day off here and there, but I refused that. I had to stay the course. Head down, do it. I don’t recall much emotion. Perhaps I was too exhausted for it, but I think the truth is that it gets push aside. You have no time for it, no energy, and there’s no point to it. All of your being is focussed on getting through to the other side.

Then it’s past and you’re on the long, slow recovery. I was so weak. Eating remained an issue. I had lost so much weight, and I lost more. It was a different mode of endurance, the focus of which was getting stronger. I set myself goals. I was positive, optimistic. Get through this and you’ll be home free. At the same time it was hard to comprehend how much I had lost.

Then you start feeling better. You put on weight. You can do more, walk further. You become more functional generally and that continues, week by week. There’s a sense of hope and belief. It will pay off in the end, you figure. You look forward to a time when you believe you might return to some semblance of regular life. The news is good about the cancer and you push on, feeling bolder and like your old self. A sense washes over you that through this you have gained wisdom.

Now I’m in the next stage, which is more difficult.

The improvement has continued, but I’m frustrated at the pace of it, and impatient to be somewhat normal again. All that you can deal with. Be patient, grasshopper.

The thing is though, you suddenly remember you’re not out of the woods. It’s as if all this time busy getting better that you’ve forgotten that the cancer can easily return. Now it comes to you.

Everytime I hear of someone with cancer, my ears prick. A friend of mine, his mum died when her cancer returned. The news of ONJ the other week was a reminder of how you’re never free of the spectre. Then, getting in the car at the airport in Coolangatta, my mate tells me he’s come from a wake – for a man who died of cancer.

The reality is that there’s a pretty good chance that cancer, in some form, will return. The doctors tell me they’ll deal with it if it comes. They seem pretty upbeat, as doctors will be, and talk about immunotherapy.

I don’t know what the odds are, but let’s say it’s 50/50 that the cancer will come back in the next five years. And let’s say my chances of surviving that are 50/50. That gives me a one in four chance of dying from it in the next 5-10 years.

All this is speculation based on numbers pulled from my head, but the logic holds if not the odds. It’s at my shoulder, and probably will be the rest of my life.

This hit me hard when I got up here. I felt different. I’d been living in my own bubble and suddenly I had moved out of it. I saw myself as others did, as someone recovering from cancer and different from everyone else. I expected, and hoped for, an opening of my mind coming up here, but didn’t expect it to be so abrupt.

I imagined the despair I would feel at the thought of having to go through all this again. It was tough the first time, but you move into action. It must be different the next time.

I wondered if this is something I should prepare myself for. Should I accept that it may come back and kill me the next time? Should I confront death – non-existence – now, while I’m still capable? Do I make my peace?

Somehow, it’s not in my nature. I know I will fight every inch of the way if comes my way again. I don’t know that I’ll ever accept it. To be honest, I don’t know that I have the strength or philosophy to deal with it now.

I can feel it though, and hate it. There’s so much I want to do, so many plans I want to make, and it horrifies me that all that may come to naught. There’s no fairness in these things, but it feels unfair.

I think I have to continue on the presumption that I have many years ahead of me. You can’t live crimped thinking it might end anytime now. The odds, in the end, favour me. All that is fine, except I can feel it there. I suspect the only way of getting past the sense of dread is to live fully and in defiance of what may be. Give it time and life will normalise. In the meantime, I’ll make my plans, and move towards the changes I think must be.

Next stage? I don’t know. Perhaps there is a blossoming.