At the hospital

First thing this morning I met my mum at the hospital for her monthly check-up. She went in early, and by the time I arrived had already seen the doctor – but she had news.

For months we’ve been pressing for something more concrete from the doctors. It’s difficult, I know, to offer a prognosis with any precision, but we know that. We just want to know something, rather than be left with our own uninformed prognostications and fanciful notions. Let’s gert a coffee, she said.

We’ve been discussing for weeks the questions we wanted asked of the doctor. This time we wanted to pin him down. In my absence mum had asked him the pointed question: how long do I have? For once, it seems, he dropped the cheery bedside manner and spoke honestly. “Well,” he said, “if the chemo reduces the cancer and gets rid of your cough then maybe 2 years. If it doesn’t, maybe 4-5 months.”

It was strange hearing this despite it being pretty much what I had thought. My sister, who lives in some denial I think, had asked last week what I thought. I pondered it, searching to discover what I thought on the subject. “February,” I said, and it seemed a fair estimate.

Now the chemo may do it’s thing, but history tells us that even if it works it won’t be as simple as that. Each time mum goes to have her chemo she is tested first to see if her body can take it. The chemo, unsurprisingly, knocks her around. Her platelets drastically reduce, her immune system sits on a knife edge. Half the time they have cancelled the treatment because her body is not up to it, and I can’t see that improving any. On top of that the chemo makes her feel dreadful. She’s in a bad way right now. She has a terrible cough directly related to the cancer. She is weak, tired, has hot flushes, heart palpitations. Much is the cancer, but much is the treatment.

I don’t think I’m a pessimist by nature. I believe in things, in possibilities, in general I have confidence that much can be overcome by will and commitment. Yet I am not confident now. My mind defaults to the worst, not because I’m a pessimist I think, but rather because I have watched mum decline, because I am doubtful that the chemo is feasible in the longer term. It may not be 4-5 months, but I don’t think it will be 2 years.

After our coffee I went upstairs with mum to the chemotherapy area. Around the room people, mostly old, lounged in comfortable looking chairs with IV’s looping into their arms. They looked relaxed, almost mellow. We were shown into an adjoining room. We sat and talked, waiting. Once more I had that feeling of unreality: is this really happening? Once more I couldn’t quite believe it. Is this really what its come to?

We were joined by an Italian family, parents and a daughter. The mother was small, when she sat her feet didn’t touch the ground. They spoke little, humbled and made silent by the occasion. An elderly Chinese woman neatly dressed and with rosy cheeks came in and sat down. She smiled at us as if she were an old hand. It happens to everyone, I thought. Anyone. Morning tea was served by bustling women in hospital smocks: coffee, tea, or juice? We waited for someone to attend to mum. When they did they spoke with the kindly voices people use with children.

I kissed mum goodbye: the chemo was going ahead. I walked by the shuffling sick people and out into the bright sunshine. I got in the car and drove away. The radio was on and I listened while my mind went ahead of its own accord. Why is there cancer I wondered? What is the point of it? It seems a good question now, but it burst from me like a gasp, a reaction to what I had just witnessed, the emotional residue of the confusion that I felt, with a little futile anger for good measure. Then my mind took over. There is no rhyme to it. No reason. It happens.

My mind went in those circles while I drove instinctively and without conscious thought, until I was forced out of that again. “Come on Volvo, you fuckin’ goose!” I exclaimed at one point at the car in front of me paused at the green arrow. As the Volvo turned I felt the disconnect between what I was feeling inside, what was happening to mum just a few kilometres away, and the banal instinct that had me abuse the driver in front.

In the end there’s little to say, and not much really to think. It is, it happens, it progresses, one day it will end. For me it is oppressive, one more small stone after another added to the pile slowly crushing me. That’s how I feel. How mum feels I can only imagine.


I went with mum to visit the oncologist last Thursday. We went to the Epworth hospital in Box Hill. Like many people I dislike hospitals. They give me the creeps. I sat there in the waiting area for us to be called in. I exchanged small talk with mum and with my aunt who had come along to. I cast an idle eye over the other people sitting there. Most where old, and most of the patients appeared to be men. They were a collection of largely shambling, breathless men sitting there patiently with their wife at their side. They seemed humbled in a way, which is what serious illness will do to you I guess. How do you fight the mysterious might of the invisible flaw that threatens your life? Sitting in the doctors waiting room you place your faith in the doctor, and in God perhaps, your wife clutching your hand.

It was a depressing scene for me. I sat there fit and healthy and determined to remain so. I did not want this decline. I was horrified to believe that I to might be subject to this one day and be just as powerless. To live between doctor’s appointments swallowing drugs and scratching out the months is the life of thousands across the world, but it seems no life to me.

It’s not death that scares me. It’s the powerlessness. Of being a mere pawn in the struggle and knowing it. Of becoming irrelevant and dispensable as I grow frail and tired. I’ve seen so many people just wind down even when they’re well. The driving force that kept them fit and vital wanes when they find they are living day to day without real purpose. That’s the key to it: purpose. It’s what keeps us alive. Just like a shark needs to move constantly forward to stay alive we need a sense of purpose in our lives to do the same.

I once wrote a poem of sorts about that. It was derisive in a way, amusingly bitter. The movers and shakers of yesteryear, the captains of industry now retired filling their empty hours trailing their wives in the supermarket like children with their mothers. That’s not for me.

We were called in. The oncologist asked a few questions and then examined mum, and then we discussed her case. Without going into detail the basic facts are these. Mum has two tumours. The smaller tumour is the primary and might be operated on but for the second tumour. The second tumour is larger and in some kind of pouch. He spoke of giving mum a mix of radiotherapy and chemo daily over a six week period. When prompted he admitted that the cancer was advanced and quite aggressive, but reckoned she had a 50-60% of surviving.

It’s funny how everything is relative. A month ago if you had told me that mum had a 40-50% of dropping dead I’d have been aghast. It’s different now. We walked into his office fearing the worst. Walking out this seemed a kind of good news. We talked it up like that and it was only later that I stopped to wonder at it. Yes, mum will probably survive, but it is a thin margin. She may equally not. What has happened in the last few weeks is that the goalposts we were so familiar with and took for granted have been moved. We have been conditioned to a new reality, and anything that brightens it just a little seems like a positive.

Don’t get me wrong: I am much encouraged. I expect that it will turn out okay, but I know it might not. It is looking better, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

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