Thursday- Friday, 09-10 April: Of Downs and Ups

The following morning, I head home early. Having selected from memory some of the most inappropriate music we could think of for a wedding, we searched the internet for further contenders. While we were doing so, I suddenly half-remembered a piece of music played at the funeral of my dear friend Alan, who died many years ago from cancer. For years I’d meant to chase up and identify it. I’d never heard it before Alan’s farewell and it had a tremendous impact on me. I was so stupified by emotion and the sudden overwhelming sense of Alan’s presence it wrought that I just listened in a trance to everyone else sing the unfamiliar words on the song-sheet provided for all his heathen friends.


Alan MacLachlan, 2003. In death, still larger than life.
Alan MacLachlan, 2003. In death, still larger than life.

After much head-scratching and googling, I recalled someone telling me after the service that Johnny Cash had done a version. Suddenly it was easy to hunt down, via his discography. ‘How Great Thou Art!’[1] When I get settled at the computer now, I want to hear it again. First up, however, is a Youtube version performed on ‘Songs of Praise.’ As soon as it begins, I burst into tears. They stream down my face for several minutes until the piece ends. What’s going on? Is it remembering Alan – or my wonderful Irish friend Larry from St Girons who went the same way last year? He’s been on my mind, too, since I got my diagnosis. Or am I weeping for myself, unspoken fears welling up from the depths? Or is it the unexpected encounter with the Sublime, as manifested in the hymn? A delayed response to yesterday’s non-news? Or the accumulated emotions of the last week? Whatever, I haven’t cried like that since receiving the news in 2010 of the death of Kimwaga, my beloved childhood minder in Tanganyika.

Kimwaga and I in Tanganyika, around 1957. He's warily holding a hyena cub, which may have become one of our menagerie of temporary pets.
Kimwaga and I in Tanganyika, around 1957. He’s warily holding a hyena cub, which may have become one of our menagerie of temporary pets.


Anna phones soon after to check how I am and we talk it through. I soon feel better and can get on with the day. Not so Anna. Alarmed by my fit, she determines to hassle Chelsea and Westminster to make sure I get the new scans done later today or tomorrow. Several hours later, she reports back. It’s taken this long to get through. As part of the Tory deregulation of the NHS, a single, under-staffed switch-board now serves seven hospitals, including C and W. The operator didn’t know who to try, especially as we only know the forename of the surgeon who called yesterday, Pippa. Eventually, Anna managed to contact Urology in C and W. There was just a voicemail and she left her details. Eventually, an administrator rang back, assuring her I’d be contacted as soon as the appointments were made. More frustration. I feel it as strongly on Anna’s behalf as my own. I wish she’d not wasted so much of her time. I so want her get back to the last chapter of her book and knock the thing on the head. Doing so would give her the kind of focus and distraction I’m getting from this blog. But she’s less cold-blooded than I am. So far I’ve little but good to say of the NHS. Apart from the time lost because of Easter, I’ve had an excellent experience. But suddenly I have a stab of real anxiety, not just about the latest delay, but about how easy it would be to get lost in the constantly ‘reformed’  bureaucracy of the NHS, as many have before me.


In the early evening, I have an appointment with my local G.P. He’s an amiable locum, from Rumania, replacing my normal doctor while she’s been on maternity leave. We go over the blood tests I had last summer and he reiterates that everything was normal, including renal function. Had the tumour been present then, he assures me, something would have shown. Apparently this wretched thing must have implanted itself since August. But I have doubts still. Following one of my blood tests at C and W, Doctor Dave told me that I had good renal function. The tumour doesn’t seem to have interfered with that. I guess that G.P.s can’t be expected to have the knowledge of specialists, so I decide to leave it until I’ve had my surgeons’ meeting. Dr. Ruhiga is genuinely sympathetic and expresses his condolences as he writes me a sick note for work and one for the insurance companies from which I’ll have to claim for my cancelled trips to Palestine / Israel and Denmark. He assures me that if I have any immediate problems, I’m simply to call him at the surgery, not feel obliged to come in.

Multumesc!’ I thank him as I leave. My one word of Rumanian always makes him smile.


The following day, I try to focus on the blog, thinking about ways to write more efficiently and effectively and looking at various web-sites to find a template I like. I also realise that I need to find out much more about kidney cancer if I’m to put myself in the best position to fight it. I read some of the booklet which C and W gave me but there’s so much information and so many varieties of the disease (I don’t even know which category mine falls into) that I find it hard to take it all in. Then – against my better judgement – I do some quick searches on the internet, trying to stick to what look like reputable sites. A couple of things unnerve me. First of all, kidney cancer appears to be one of the most obdurate varieties. Apparently, it doesn’t respond to any great degree to chemo, which is one reason they generally remove the infected organ unless they can be sure of excising it fully from the kidney (ie it hasn’t grown as large as mine.) Secondly, to my surprise and alarm, I learn that if it spreads, it remains ‘kidney cancer’ whatever other organs it implants itself in. So it doesn’t become lung cancer as such if it lodges in the lungs. That sounds ominous if it’s so resistant to chemo. The alternatives include radiotherapy, which carries a risk of promoting a new cancer in its own right. And ‘biotherapy.’ This involves pumping female hormones at a high volumes into the body. This is what my friend Larry in St Girons had to have. I remember him complaining bitterly about ‘growing bristols.’ Which is exactly what he did, poor fellow, concealing then under increasingly loose and capacious shirts. ‘Fecking tits getting in the way,’ he’d sometimes expostulate as he stooped over his plate when we met for lunch  at Gilles Simonet’s patisserie / restaurant in Place Jean Jaurès. Now I understand much better the humiliation he must have felt, despite my reassurances and his witty references to Tiresias. If I have to go down that path, I think I’ll to have to hide away at home…


Nonetheless, once I’ve put aside my brief researches, I soon feel calmer. Where does my seeming equanimity, at least on my own behalf, come from? To begin with, I decide, it’s largely because I’m 62. Perhaps if I was twenty, or even ten, years younger (as poor Stu was), I’d see things very differently. But apart from the teenage years following my father’s unexpected death, I’ve largely lived the life I wanted to. I had a fantasy childhood growing up in the great game reserves of Tanganyika / Tanzania, where my father worked as a conservationist. I’ve had incredible friends and some wonderful relationships (none more so than with Anna and Maddy). I’ve travelled all over the world, both for my job and for pleasure. And I’ve had a genuine vocation, which has just about sustained me through the often extremely annoying, narrowly ideological and quite unnecessary ‘reforms’ to higher education over the last few decades. More recently, this vocation has reinvented itself as a passion for non-academic writing. I’ve published a memoir and completed a novel (if any agents are reading this…) The desire to continue down this track is one reason why retirement doesn’t fill me with the dread it seems to inspire in so many people. Quite the opposite. My book on Palestine / Israel will be my last, and I hope best, academic work, after which it’s back to literary non-fiction and fiction. Who knows, perhaps one day this blog will provide the raw materials for something interesting. But let me not get ahead of myself…


And then, long after I’d thought it was way too late, I’ve been blessed with a family, something else to occupy me and help me grow, even in retirement. It’s difficult to express what having a little girl means to me. Everyone who has (had) one will know what I’m talking about. In my case, there’s added relish because Maddy arrived so belatedly and unexpectedly in my life. I know what it’s like to lose a father while still a child. It’s certainly one of the reasons I never had any of my own all these decades. I was just too afraid that they might have to experience the utter desolation I went through for several years (no such thing as counselling in the macho 1960s.) Now I realise all the more forcefully that I have to conquer this malady for her sake – as well as for Anna’s. Besides, I am NOT going to be cheated of seeing Maddy grow up into the beautiful woman she will undoubtedly become.


Anna’s sister Kate is going to take Maddy for a sleepover with her beloved cousin Tara in Balham, so we’re able to enjoy another evening alone, just the two of us. I’m beginning to see the upside of this illness! I make spelt pasta with vegetables and halloumi cheese and after dinner, we set to work on the blog. With her experience of writing one, we make good progress, though there are lots of things that we can’t work out (hers is hosted by her college.) I’m going to have to contact my friend Ben, who lives up the road. Even more than Sally, he’s the master of all things techie and I’m sure he’ll be able to tie up the remaining loose ends.


Before we go to bed at mine, I take a glass of water with some tincture of turmeric. My Brazilian friend Deni recommended it for the arthritis in my left forefinger (no doubt from too much time at the key-board.) It’s been sitting in the cupboard ever since I bought it, rational scepticism overcoming my temporary interest in ‘alternative’ remedies. It’s one of the basics of ayurvedic medicine, I remind myself. If it works on arthritis, perhaps the tumour won’t like it either or will at least stop demanding sugar. Let’s see what happens to my finger first over the next few days….

[1] (skip the annoyingly long and shmaltsy prelude); check out also this little boy’s version–3858.html

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