A Journey to be Repeated

My home is 13.5 miles from the far side of Brighton (21 km), where the regional cancer centre perches on a hill near the cliffs. On Tuesday morning the journey took about 50 minutes by car. One special traffic jam added about 10 minutes. It will be interesting to see what the average journey time becomes during the seven weeks of daily travel over there when I have radiotherapy for my prostate cancer.

Last summer, routine blood tests showed something might be amiss in the nether regions; after an endoscopy, an ultrasound scan and a six needle biopsy, the surgeon concluded I needed treatment. His diary had space in a week or so and he advised radical surgery. The cancer specialist in the next room was a bit more hopeful and advised further blood tests to see just how fast the little varmint was growing. Two days before Christmas, he revealed that the speed was too high to ignore. Treatment began the same day. The tablets were OK, but the monthly injections were through a needle big enough to convey a smallish camel.

The trip this week was for a CT scan, to reveal the exact state of play; have those injections done anything, apart from scar me for life? The oncologist, radiologist and head of physics now plan where to shoot the X-radiation that, we all hope, will shrivel the little tumour to nothingness. A CT scan involves lying on a mobile table jerking slice by slice through a rotating X-ray machine, just as the grocery store cut bacon when I was a kid. Instead of a pile of meat slices, this one gives a sectioned three-dimensional view of my insides.

From mid-May to mid-July, that weekday drive through Brighton will wear me out as much as the few minutes of radiation and the consequent fatigue as my system deals with the dead cells. Travel I like; this—who knows?

Anyway, I’ll keep this blog up-to-date as things move on. If I pluck up enough courage, I’ll share how I’ve reacted emotionally to this bold type notice of my mortality.

29 April, 2005

Colombo & Tsunami

I like the little I know of Sri Lanka. Colombo seems more spacious and cleaner than other South Asian cities. It’s less crowded, and being near the sea helps. Last Thursday afternoon, I was shocked to travel just two or three miles south of Colombo along the Galle Road to spot evidence of the tsunami’s destruction. Colombo itself shows no signs, in fact I expected none, because it is so far in the lee of Sri Lanka, well in the shadow zone. On previous visits I stayed at a hotel on Galle Road, 400 metres from the beach, the railway line running between the hotel and the sea. A couple of miles further on we began to see shells of houses or piles of rubble just beyond that line. The minibus turned right off Galle Road, bumping closer to the sea between single storey dwellings. Then left onto a dirt track parallel to the shore, leading to the local harbour. On our right, fishermen and their families occupy a strip of land 100 metres across. A few days before the Chinese prime minister was here to inaugurate a project to restore this little harbour and a dozen others like it round the southern coast, so this village had been tidied up–as far as any devastation can be tidied up. It was late afternoon on a public holiday–New Year’s Day in Sri Lanka and southern India–but the men couldn’t work if they wanted to. A small group came over and explained how the waves came in, sweeping away houses, boats, nets, despite a substantial breakwater 800 metres from shore. Two families live in shacks next to the rubble of their homes, protecting their plots even though the government has banned rebuilding within 100 metres of the sea. That takes in all the land these and neighbouring families live on. “We have filled in the forms to get money for nets and boats,” says one man, “but we have had no money at all.” Only two children give full smiles as they stand with their mother for a photograph; the adults and older children have an air of sombre resignation–forms but no money. Further down the coast it’s worse, we know. One train carried hundreds down this line to be drowned. Today, deep grey clouds hover above an inland storm; the blackest of crows squabble in the coconut trees; the sea sparkles. On the way to this sad place, we saw a motor scooter and autorickshaw collide; on our way back, an errant pick-up truck brought mayhem to traffic returning to the city. Normal service has been resumed.

17 April, 2005

Small Journey, Big Consequences

My mother is 90 years old and quite frail in health. Since she was widowed she’s lived alone, keeping her independence, preferring a private lifestyle in her apartment. A couple of weeks ago she moved into a nursing home one mile from where she’s lived for 37 years. The journey was short but the emotional impact was huge. One way Mum has kept herself going is a strict routine through the day; at precise times she would get up, move to the kitchen to make a drink, or prepare lunch. It was an effort lately, but it retained her independence and structured her days. Now the nurses decide the routines and the shape of the day. For a little while Mum found the loss of control difficult; she worried about her medication and whether it would appear at the right time. Because the nurses check her in her room through the day, her privacy was eroded. That, too, was hard for her. It was so good, some days after her arrival, to hear that she feels safer at night now. Instead of the lonely hours in her own place, she has staff a few seconds away if she needs help. I’m so grateful for this good outcome of one of the shortest journeys this blog is likely to describe.

15 April, 2005

One Small Journey

The South Downs are a range of chalk hills running roughly east to west along England’s south coast. My town lies between the Downs and the English Channel and my home is less than a mile from the Downs, in the northern part of town.

Last Sunday, Marian and I walked to Cissbury Ring, a hilltop iron-age fort. The climb starts on a bridleway (that’s a path where horse riders have ancient rights to travel) between two golf courses, one privately owned and the other open for all comers to play. Since the advent of mountain bikes, cyclists also ride the bridleways, pumping their way up in low gear, faces red, flying down at speed, exhilarated at the rush of air and the tyre-scattered, crackling stones beneath.

We walked up, slowly, stopping to examine the familiar views across the valleys, tracing out the pathway over there that would take us back home. In early April, the first flowers grace the hedgerows; light, bright colours against the dark twigs where leaf buds begin to swell. This year the sheep must be in a different valley, but Cissbury Ring will give them grazing this month, according to the notice pinned on a gate.

Further up into the Downs farmers have ploughed lower lying fields; the white chalk gives the brown soil a cake-like look, as if dusted with caster sugar. The winter bareness is still apparent, but in a few weeks leaves will appear to fill out empty space. We are surprised by the volume and variety of bird song.

Next to the path down the hill, half a mile before Waterworks Cottages, someone has placed a triangular, rough hewn stone inscribed like a headstone with

15TH APRIL Of Carefree Days, Of Picnics, Horses, Walks, Birds…. ALWAYS REMEMBERED

No name, no year. Just good memories of journeys taken together. Like Marian’s and mine that day.

6 April, 2005

Clapping The Losers In

To me, rugby football seems less of a waste of time than soccer. Being Welsh, and with Wales looking on course for a grand slam victory in this year’s Six Nations Tournament, I was glad to watch the Wales-Ireland final on satellite TV in Maputo, Mozambique. March 19th, 2005. With four colleagues I went to a bar with four TV sets, two for the rugby, two for some soccer.

Around one table were half a dozen British expatriates; two wore rugby shirts, one Wales, the other England, the rest of the blokes neutral. Mr England Shirt was probably mourning his nation’s performance. Anyway, Ireland did well, but Wales gained an early lead and final victory. As my compatriots consumed buckets of lager, my group rather anaemically stuck to lemonade, not that we were quieter or less enthused by the game than they.

At school, I was tall, very short sighted and destined to play second row forward. This is when your head gets squashed between first row buttocks in the scrums and your shoulders ache from pushing hard to get possession of the ball. Once that was over, I used to run around the field unable to see the ball, let alone work out what to do if it ever came my way. The school seemed convinced we had imbibed the rules of rugby football with our mothers’ milk, such was the lack of instruction. One winter Thursday afternoon, the Religious Education master showed an un-Christianly cruel streak when he asked if I was enjoying the afternoon walk around the field. May he rest in perpetual soccer.

When the school team played, it was customary for the winning side to line up and clap the losers in. “Magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat,” thundered the headmaster at one assembly when we rejoiced too enthusiastically about a 60 point lead by our first fifteen.

Wales clapped Ireland in. It warmed my heart to think that old fashioned courtesies still exist. And this memory was triggered off the other morning when I read in the Bible—in Proverbs chapter 24—Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.

I’m still wondering how the good Lord saw the Wales-Ireland match. And I confess to rejoicing, just a bit. My daughter-in-law is Irish.

6 April, 2005