Monday-Tuesday, 27-28 April: Of dying, drudgery and danke schoens

This post is ‘late.’ Soz. My brother Lindsay writes this morning (Thursday), with evident concern: ‘With a hole in your day from not doing the blog…you are probably struggling to keep your pecker up…let alone you chin!’ It’s not that, though of course there have been ups and downs. Just been so busy, and have had to prioritise other things these last few days, so haven’t been able to get back to it until now. Especially galling, because it’s my favourite activity, for the moment at least, and as far as I’m concerned, where there’s writing, there’s life. However, dear family, friends and ‘followers,’ I will probably not be able for much longer to offer my usual lapidary J style. My typing’s becoming noticeably less accurate and takes more and more time (of which I have less and less) to correct; then there’s the occasionally massively time-consuming fuck-ups with WordPress formatting (see the last but one post – it just wouldn’t behave!), up-loading photos etc etc. You’ll have to forgive any blemishes henceforth, I just don’t have the time…


On Monday, the last poetry books (forget the novel as a genre, much though I love it, poetry is the essence of literature imho) I’ve asked to be sent from college all arrive. Now I’ve got everything I want in this department for the battle ahead. My favourite poets, a shed-load of amazing new music, as well as old favourites, loaded onto my Ipad. All I need now is some t.v. series and films to catch up on. Can I confess that I’ve never seen Homeland? Or The Wire? (On the case with Peppa Pig, series 1 to what feels like 100, though.) This feels a bit like like the scene in David Lodge’s Small World (I think it’s that one) where a bunch of drunken Englit academics at a conference play ‘Humiliation,’ which involves fessing up to the great works of literature they haven’t read…Ulysses, even Hamlet, get honourable mentions, if I remember right…

By mistake, Maria at work has sent me my oldest brother Patrick’s Winchester school edition of Hopkins. But I’m pleased. There’s something very sweet about reading his carefully-pencilled commentaries on poems I remember as formidably challenging, as well as immediately rewarding, from my own school days. Since Patrick once taught me, at prep-school in Tanganyika, during his ‘year off’ before Cambridge, I’m looking forward to telling him what mark I’m going to give his efforts 🙂


Much of the day is, unfortunately, taken up with dross, mainly the legal variety. As I’ve said before, this is the last thing I want to be doing at this stage, so I say to all my dear readers who’ve been as lazy as I am, get it sorted at a leisurely pace while you still have plenty of time opportunity. It’s an odd feeling rethinking my will for perhaps the last time. What do I want done with my body? Before, I’d just asked to be cremated, tout simple. Given what I’m going through now, however, I want my organs to be available for transplant  purposes – especially given the acute shortage of kidneys. Let’s hope that, if it comes to it, my left one might be of use to somebody. Lest he or she forgets me, judging by recent experience, I’ll be making him / her get up and down plenty in the night! The rest I want cremated. And for my ashes to be taken to the top of Mt Valier in the Pyrenees, the place I’ve felt most spiritually at home in adult life, and scattered there. My good friend Paul Fontvieille from St Girons has tearfully agreed to do this. He once asked me, jokingly, if I could please carry him piggy-back to the top. Now he’ll have to do the favour for me. 🙂

Then I try to work through the endless pages about powers of attorney (zzzz), one for my health and welfare, one for my goods and chattels. The legalese is tedious in the extreme and, as a naïve layman, I just don’t understand why it all has to be so complicated. Everything has to be read through carefully, filled in, signed and witnessed by various different people, sent back to the lawyer for checking and then to a government agency with the appropriately Victorian name of ‘Office of the Public Guardian.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m immensely grateful to my old university friend Nick Noble (see next post) for arranging all this pro bono and for the incredible speed and efficiency with which his colleague is dealing with it. It’s entirely my fault for not sorting out some of this before. Still…

Later, Anna and I meet at Clapham Junction for our appointment with my conveyancing lawyer in Putney. It’s long and boring, but reassuring, too. I’m transferring the title deeds at ‘mine’ so Anna and I will be joint tenants in common. This will mean much less hassle later, enabling her to bypass the horrific bureaucracy of Probate – in regard to my property at least. It’s only when I see the list of charges at this suburban (sorry, Putney – that’s what you are) practice that I realise what a huge favour Nick has done me. The lowliest person at the conveyancing firm charges £185 an hour, rising rapidly to £350 for more senior people. I shudder to think what Nick’s top-end city firm should be charging me…

On the way back, in the rising temperature of our stuffy stalled train, I get increasingly concerned about Anna. She looks very pale and physically uncomfortable. Once again, I sense this business is much harder for her than me. Seeing her now, I wonder with mounting alarm if it’s not already becoming too much. I suggest ways she can cut down the dross in her own life. Getting a cleaner, shopping on-line, asking the Balham members of her family to prepare meals for her, in addition to Ahmad, who lives far away. If we can cut out all that stuff, Anna will ‘just’ be left with her busy job, a big academic book to finish, her primary care-role for Maddy and worrying about me.

I tell her she should consider getting compassionate leave from work, starting right away. But trooper that she is, Anna won’t hear of it. She wants to reserve compassionate leave for the week of the operation and the following one. Besides, she can’t let her students and colleagues down. Happily, however, there’s only one more week of teaching and she’s negotiating with her Head of Department, who’s very sympathetic, to be spared the endless meetings which clog up university summer terms, especially where she works. It’s not enough for my liking, but I have to respect her wishes.

We go our separate ways once back to Clapham Junction. I suddenly feel quite crap when back at ‘mine.’ Instead of getting on with proofing the opening chapters of my novel for Clare, I waste time catching up with the news on The Guardian and BBC online. One item immediately catches my eye and helps to put things in perspective again. It’s a story about a migrant ship-wreck off the island of Rhodes and the heroism of a local Greek who saved many of those thrown into the sea. It’s the picture which arrests me most. How brilliantly it captures the drama, the exhaustion and bewilderment in the face of a beautiful victim, the man’s absolute concentration on his task. Dare I say it, in other circumstances there’d be a massive sexual charge in their postures and expressions. I can’t help thinking of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus,’ which it both contrasts with and complements so strikingly. Only the Greek man’s wings are lacking…

Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’
Migrant Anodyomene
The Migrant Anodyomene (courtesy of The Guardian)

Reminded of the comparative pettiness of my concerns, I turn to the novel with renewed enthusiasm. My initial impressions are confirmed – there’s very little to change. In fact it reads as if it hadn’t been written by me and (Ego alert, watch out, Bart) and I find myself increasingly absorbed in the story, the situation, the characters. Let’s hope Clare has a taste for quirkiness, black humour, and an engagement with World War Two from a rather unexpected perspective…

In the evening, I’m back at my G.P. Instead of the affable Rumanian, there’s another locum who isn’t up to speed with my case. I wish she could control her look of dismay as she reads on-screen. I try to put her at her ease, asking bright questions about her peripatetic role round different surgeries and how disruptive that must be. She relaxes and writes me the new sick-note in light of the surgeons’ latest letter. I’m signed off until mid-July at the earliest.

It’s no use pretending. Her expression gave it away, reminding me that I’m ‘incurable.’ Really? When I get home, I tear open the other package which arrived this morning. Half-a-kilo of apricot kernels, sourced with some difficulty. This is how it’s supposed to work. The kernels have a protein in them with binds only onto cancer cells. They contain a trace of cyanide which kills them. This may seem totally ‘woo woo,’ but I’ve nothing to lose, have I? I bite into my first one. Taste of an unripe almond. I’ll build up, one more each day, until I reach five, then stick there. ‘Warning,’ the label exclaims, ‘on no account take more than thirty a day. Risk of severe toxic reaction.’ Suddenly I remember an Agatha Christie I read when I must have just been entering my teens (no it wasn’t all Conrad and Dostoyevksi!). Sparkling Cyanide. Cyanide was the killer’s weapon of choice. Better take this slowly.

It’s late and I don’t want to disrupt bed-time at Anna’s. So I hunker own at ‘mine,’ preparing an alkaline supper. Later, nervously anticipating my pre-op assessment in the morning at St Mary’s, Paddington (C and W doesn’t do surgery) I trawl through my photographs again and find one which perfectly expresses what I’m fighting for.

My Sleep and Beauties
My ‘Sleep ‘n Beauties’

St Mary’s is a downer. The pre-op assessment’s in a grim Victorian-looking building; from the outside, it resembles a cross between a barracks, a factory, and work-house. Perhaps it performed all these functions before becoming a wing of St Mary’s. The inside’s equally dispiriting: a dark and neglected warren of stairs and narrow corridors, little natural light, peeling paint on the grubby walls, cramped rooms which feel – even they aren’t – dirty. This is the other NHS, I feel, a world away from the light and spacious C and W. Surely Kate and William can’t really be coming to a place like this to have their second baby? There must be a luxury wing elsewhere.

It’s the usual rigmarole. Height, weight, blood pressure, blood tests, ecg. When the nurse tells me I weigh 12.8, I’m startled. I’ve lost a stone since this business began. Is it the insidious thing inside nibbling away at me or, as I’d prefer to think, the alkali diet? I’ve been having no wheat products, nothing with fructose (so most fruit has been cut out, no juices and smoothies), no chocolate, cake or muffins. I’ve replaced normal fruit (except bananas, which are mildly alkali) with avocados and tomatoes (both of which are, in fact, fruit!) Lemons, totally counter-intuitively, are very alkali, their bitterness apparently deriving from precisely that. I’ve noticed these last few days that I’m on my way to a six-pack, something I never managed even in my younger, heavy-duty gym days. Well, let’s not exaggerate. I now have close to a four-pack, but I sense I’m getting there.

The grimness at St Mary’s continues. There’s a very old lady two seats down who’s bemused by the map that’s thrust into her hand, showing her how to get to ecg. She’s very frail and I can’t believe the wretched nurse can’t find five minutes to take her. Is this place really such a sausage-factory? Since I’ve just come back, and found it difficult enough myself to navigate the various buildings and departments, I offer to take my co-sufferer. She keeps thanking me all the way. I’m glad I made the effort. To me she looks on her last legs and I’m not certain she’d have got there unaided. Why’s no-one here to help her, a relative or friend? She’s so old perhaps she has no-one left.

Despite my efforts to remain chipper, it’s proving hard to get a laugh out of this place. The only opportunity comes while completing my medical questionnaire with a very large nurse with a West African accent. Ghana, I ask? Nigeria? Gambia? The countries I remember are quickly exhausted by the shakes of her head.

‘Put me out of my misery.’

‘Sierra Leone,’ she tells me with a booming laugh which makes her ample body quake.

We talk about the current situation there. Then it’s a long list of questions.

‘Have you ever suffered from memory loss?’

I want to hear that laugh, see that quake again. ‘Can’t remember,’ I reply with a straight face.

It takes a moment for her to cotton on and produces the effect I’d hoped for. Can’t believe she hasn’t heard that one before; but she says she hasn’t.

‘Have you ever been in contact with anyone suffering from mad cow disease?’

‘Moo,’ I suddenly low, as she watches me, concerned by my lengthening silence.

Shaky, shaky, all over again.

‘Why are you here?’ she murmurs almost fondly when we’ve finished. ‘You’ve answered no to every single question.’

Because I’m dying. That’s why I’m here. The realisation hits me really powerfully for the first time when I get back to the waiting-room. In my absence, it’s filled up with the illest-looking assortment of patients you could not wish for. We’re all of us dying. Without the operations we’re being assessed for, everyone’s doomed. This time in two weeks exactly, I realise with a shiver, I’ll be under the knife. What if something goes wrong? There must be good reason why they make you sign consent forms? And what if my other organs get damaged in the process? A scalpel slips into my liver, or my bladder’s punctured? One of the team has a hangover? Or has slept badly? But I steel myself; the chances of a mishap are small. I’ve put myself in the hands of Mr Khoubehi, whom I trust (so much I always call him Mr.)

The question suddenly rears. What is dying? What does it feel like? I can’t speak for sudden ends. In my case, which is still the leisurely process it’s been from the time this thing established itself until the diagnosis, and even since, apparently, the answer’s complex. I posted previously about the feeling of being inside an invisible transparent carapace. Sometimes I have the sense that it’s getting thicker (it never gets thinner), making everything outside me seem a little more distant and unreal. So that I feel I’m sinking ever further within myself into this strange world where no-one and nothing can reach me the way they used to. And I’m also watching myself do so, as if I’m two people now, observer and observed.

Quite contradictorily, dying’s also living with an intensity I’ve never experienced before. Whatever my physical state, which goes up and down, sometimes rapidly, I have a furious inner energy which has to make something of every minute. That doesn’t mean doing something all the time (though in some ways I’m attempting much more than when I was well); but it means that I feel – and want to feel – everything with an unquenchable passion. Poetry, music, love, friendship, fatherhood, writing, all have an immediacy, a depth and complexity they didn’t have before. And this is the biggest paradox of all. After dying like this, how can one go back to ordinary life, its banalities and routine? Once I’m healed, as I know I will be, won’t everything seem just a little tepid? Perhaps I wasn’t really alive when I was well, nowhere near this extent, at any rate. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson I’m learning. But how will I be able to put that lesson into practice later? At the moment, to adapt Yeats’s ‘An Irish Airman Forsees His Death,’

The years to come seem waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

Jesus, my mobile’s on silent in obedience to the notice on the wall. What if Anna’s tried to ring? I fumble it out. No message yet. I flick idly through the new emails which have arrived during my tests. The volume hasn’t diminished. A couple of names I don’t recognise, including a certain Thomas Podranski. Another ‘follower’ I don’t know perhaps? I swipe on through, deleting all the messages about forthcoming events – at Goldsmiths, the South Bank and so forth. Then the penny drops, Thomas Podranski! The administrator of a wealthy German educational trust, a bit like the Leverhulme. Last autumn, I speculatively applied for one of their grants to complete the book I’d planned to begin towards the end of my current fellowship, twisting my project to fit their political science and international relations paradigms. Not a chance, everyone said, you’re an arty-wafty. That impression was confirmed when I received a searching follow-up letter from the Stiftung Gerda Henkel, quizzing me, amongst other things, on my knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic. Minimal, I responded, though I do have a team of expert translators who’ve agreed to help. Exposed as a chancer, I thought at the time, straight into the bin with this time-waster’s application.

I open the attachment fully expecting a brief formal rejection. But look! I can’t believe it! I’ve got a fellowship for twelve months! 3000 Euros a month living expenses. 3000 Euros for a research trip to Israel / Palestine. And get this! 300 Euros a month for Maddy, because she’s a minor! If I didn’t think it would be the final blow for them, I’d run round the waiting-room hugging and kissing my fellow-patients. Motivation to beat this thing? Here’s another one, massive! Lucky? The word was invented for me. Suddenly even this wing of St Mary’s takes on a golden glow…It means I can either retire as planned from or finish the Leverhulme at my leisure and segue seamlessly into the Gerda Henkel.

Mint Wing
The Mint (ha, ha!) Wing, St Mary’s Hospital

Euphoria’s exhausting, I discover, on leaving the hospital. By the time I get home, at 2, I’ve got that familiar drained, empty feeling which even the Podranski email can no longer shoo off. But I’ve got to keep going. I’m doing Maddy-care tonight, from 5 to 10, when Anna gets back from Birkbeck. And meanwhile I’ve got to get on top of some more of this legal dross. I feel I’m flogging myself as I plough through more forms, getting increasingly wound up. The printer cascades out page upon page. Something like 40 with all the explanatory material. How the hell can I fit all this stuff in?

Thank God I’ve asked Sally to give me a hand tonight (remember I don’t want to be alone with Maddy in case of another kidney attack – it might completely freak her out). I’m still feeling frazzled when I pick her up from Blundell’s; but once piled in to Sally’s battered red Noddy-car (remember it got bashed up when we went to hers for lunch a while ago), my mood lifts again (upside down, you turn a-me…) Once at Anna’s, Maddy enthusiastically shows Sally her princesses’ ward-robe. The dresses come tumbling out, Arna, Elsa, Merida, Belle, Sleeping Beauty and so on, followed by a bit of role-play connected to each one. Later, while I get Maddy’s dinner ready, Sally starts preparing ours. So generous and helpful. With her Abel and Cole weekly organic vegetable delivery, she’s soon ready to begin her ginger and garlic stir-fry.

Before she can do so, however, something unprecedented in the recent annals of Maddy history happens. After a big dinner of pasta-pesto, beans and strawberries, our little girl shifts from the sofa, where she’s been watching Cinderella, to the rug in front of the t.v. Within minutes, she’s fast asleep, fully clothed in nursery gear. I look at my watch disbelievingly. It’s barely 7.15. I decide to let her sleep a little. But at 8, she’s still out for the count. Gently as possible, I lift her up and carry her to her bed. She doesn’t wake.

‘Hey, Sally,’ I exclaim when I get back to the living-room, unable to remember the last time Maddy was asleep before 9, ‘you’ve got to come round more often. Anna and I might get our evenings back!’

The food’s delicious. Then Sally gets out her Ipad. On Youtube she finds a meditation exercise by Deepak Chopra.

‘Come on, this’ll do you good.’

We listen together, eyes closed. Within a minute or two I’m in a deep trance-like state, able to hear and respond to Chopra’s instructions, but in a place of utter tranquillity. I don’t know how long it goes on for. But when it finishes, I feel completely refreshed and fully centred again, the frazzle of the afternoon a distant memory. I need to do much more of this – perhaps Anna would benefit, too.

Maddy’s still sleeping deeply when Sally leaves, about 9. Once she’s gone, I get out the legal dross. My mind clear, still and focused, I get through it rapidly. By the time Anna returns from Birkbeck, I’ve done most of it. She seems much better than yesterday, animated and enthusiastic. That’s her last proper class done and she’s had fantastic student feed-back on the course.

‘Jammy sod! Another fellowship? That’s three years on the trot. How do you do it? Congratulations!’

As we hug, everything seems manageable again.

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