I wake to May Day after a tricky night of intermittent kidney pain which prods me awake from time to time. International Workers’ Day (politics alert, so I’ll leave it there.) The occasion of celebrations and gorgeous singing every year from the parapets of Magdalen College in Oxford (hegemony at work, surely?) The student May Queen competition they used to hold at Whiteland’s College, part of the Roehampton Institute, where I taught before Goldsmiths (gender politics are involved, inevitably – so isn’t everything political? How can I avoid it? Just not draw any lessons?)
And a month exactly since all this began. This time back on April Fool’s Day (how ironic), I was preparing for my day out with Maddy, Sam and Anna (how doubly ironic, given I’d last seen them at poor Stew’s funeral in December, after he died from cancer) at the Transport Museum. Raring to go, not a care in the world. Apparently cured of the infection which had caused the testicle attack. Fully recovered from the exhaustion of the day-trip to Cambridge – wasn’t that just the tail-end of the industrial antibiotics course I finally finished that very day? No cough. And now? As Yeats wrote of the Easter revolution in Dublin in 1916:
All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.
That last line captures the paradox of my predicament, which I discussed in an earlier post. There is a beauty in the Easter revolution I’m going through – a far deeper and more intense appreciation of how, despite everything, I’m so very lucky in my family and friends, in the life I’ve led, in the power still to potentially create something interesting, if not ‘beautiful,’ through this narrative. Of course, I’d much rather not have had to go through all this. But these are big positives, even in the most shocking, unexpected and darkest turn of events to hit me since my father died when I was twelve. Feel amazingly calm as I consider all this. Is it the effects of Gabi’s guided meditation lingering on?
The fun restarts when Anna brings over her various choices for wedding gear and we consider what’s the best combination we can come up with between us. This time in a week, we’ll be married! I can hardly believe it. I’m sure any lingering fears and doubts Maddy has will quickly disappear in the whirl of dressing up as a brides-maid and the wedding brunch party. She’ll probably start demanding we get married on a regular basis. And me! At the age of 62! So often since Maddy came along, I feel – delightfully – that I’ve been living life backwards…
My brother Ames’s email about the importance of protein intake makes me sit up. Apparently I need 60g a day in normal life. Now I’m ill, and especially in recovery, I need to try to double that. Moreover, only flesh will provide the amino-acids essential for rebuilding. I check the packets of nuts I’ve bought. I’d have to eat a pound of hazelnuts every day to meet his target and I still wouldn’t be getting the amino-acids. I’m going to have to compromise the alkali diet.
Later, at the shops, I’m startled to understand what Ames’s advice entails. A cooked chicken breast, for example, has 27g of protein, a 100g (four oz) of cooked salmon 26. Can’t see myself being able to get the equivalent of 4-5 chicken breasts or salmon steaks down daily after the op, when appetite’s legendarily depressed. Besides aren’t these things stuffed with the growth hormones cancer apparently adores? Instead, I buy some organic hemp protein at Whole Foods. The greenish powder resembles wheat-grass and doesn’t taste bad at all. Still, getting four dessert spoons of the nutty stuff down every day is going to be a challenge and that will still only give me a third of what I need as a healthy person. I already feel I’m downing so many supplements that there isn’t enough room for food itself…
At tea-time, Gideon (see previous post) kindly comes round to help me make a start on sorting out my roof-deck, still in stricken winter mode. I have to get it sorted soon, if I want somewhere worth coming back to convalesce after the op. We sweep up rubbish, cut out dead growth, give the good stuff a quick trim where appropriate, rake the topsoil and start shifting tubs from their winter defensive positions back to summer stations. It looks so much better after an hour. We’ve accomplished a lot, but Gid has to go. Paradoxically, I’m relieved. Even with him doing most of the work, I’m knackered.
Then it’s off for my wedding hair-cut. Here’s a confession. I’ve never liked my hair, which is ‘fine,’ (ie thin), straight and flat; when I was younger I used to wish I had thick, curly, dark hair like my half-brother Patrick. It’s always proved difficult to cut and only the most skilled practitioners have managed to make me look anything other than a dick. So I was delighted to discover Marco in Clapham Junction and have stuck with him ever since. That’s twenty years now I’ve followed in his train as rent rises have forced him further and further away to his current berth in Tooting. It’s been a pain sometimes – half an hour by bus each way and, because he doesn’t take bookings, sometimes there are 3-4 people already waiting. Because Marco really takes his time to get it right, that can mean a whole half-day’s taken up just with getting a hair-cut. Vanity of vanities…
Now I just can’t face that trek. A couple of days ago I phoned him, explained what’s happened and asked if there was any chance, just this once, he could just possibly come to mine one evening after work. I played heavily on illness, the wedding and our twenty years’ relationship. He was very sympathetic but explained he’s short-staffed at the moment and working many extra hours. No promises, but he’d see what he could do.
Realising Marco was a long shot, I made a provisional booking at the closest hair-dresser to me, just down Lavender Hill. When Marco called back yesterday to say that he just couldn’t see how he could manage it, being so short-staffed, I felt bereft. For my wedding cut, I thought, I’m going to have to entrust myself to someone I don’t know. Damn my stupid hair. (Ego alert) Now I’m off to Raccoon, praying I’m not going to leave it looking like one. In case it might help, I take along a photo in which I’m sporting a fresh Marco cut, taken beside a Pyrenean lake, many years ago. Not a line on my face, radiating health.
‘If you could do something like that for my wedding next week,’ I tell Enzo, the manager, ‘I’d be very grateful. And if you can make my face look like that again, there’ll be a very big tip.’
He laughs. We’ve connected and, as he studies the photo more closely, I know he’s going to do his best. We chat in the usual hair-dresser’s salon way. At least I’m spared the ‘are you married?’ routine I used to get so often before discovering Marco. When I mention I’ve been going to Marco, Enzo’s eyes light up. He worked for him before the move to Tooting; it was too far for Enzo to travel, so he started his own place. Yippee! He’ll know his business, then.
Indeed, he produces a pretty exact copy of the cut in the photograph. So next Friday I’m not going to look like one of the abused rescue animals in Jim Carey’s Ace Ventura – Pet Detective (a bundle of laughs if you haven’t seen it!) Phew! Enzo then gives me lots of tips I never heard from Marco. If you want volume, dry your hair with your head upside-down, starting from the nape, don’t use any gel except Bed Head (which I’ve never heard of), use a hair-dryer but only on medium etc. As I leave the staff call out, you look great, auguri, auguri! (How I wish I could discourse on politics, especially after Ed’s astonishing comments on last night’s Question Time about a future non-relationship with the SNP – whoops! – instead of this tedious stuff no-one else can possibly be interested in!) Still, for me, the appointment’s been a big boost. Though Enzo couldn’t do anything about the wrinkles, I do look 5 years younger minus the stringy scrag which has accumulated since December. Better still, no more wasting time going to Tooting. Enzo’s at least Marco’s equal and he’s just two minutes away…
In the evening, I get called back by Dr Pat Hanlon, a contact given me by the KCUK charity. I’d assumed he was an oncology doctor, but he’s actually an academic like me, at Birmingham University, where Anna used to work before Birkbeck. Common ground established, he tells me of his own experience as a kidney cancer patient.
‘You think your growth’s big at 6.4 cm. Natural enough,’ he says, ‘but believe me some people’s get to 20cm before they present any symptoms.’
The diameter of a puff-ball mushroom! With no warning signs!
‘The kidney’s so deep inside the body, that’s what allows it to grow like that.’
He’s full of interesting facts and figures. I’m the exact median age for contracting the disease. Research is indeed increasingly linking it (and some other cancers) to that tiny mould in ware-house-stored cereals and grains which I mentioned before. Six months to six years is indeed the normal prognosis for someone in whom it’s shifted to the lungs. So, if I’m average in that respect, too (which of course I’m not!), that gives me 30-40 months. He takes me through what to expect from the operation, how long recovery time might be and when I might expect to be fully back on my feet. But he stresses that there’s no rule of thumb. Every case is potentially unique.
He, too, advises me to try to transfer to the Royal Marsden. The leading place in the world for cancers of the lung, with several new experimental therapies on tap. If none are yet available at C and W / St Mary’s, he says, I’m most likely to be put on biological therapies – not the (female) hormone therapy which poor Larry had to undergo (apologies for the mistake.) But their side-effects sound pretty unpleasant in their own right.
By the time we’ve finished, however, I’m in much less dread than I’ve been from time to time about being sliced open. I feel almost cocky as I head to bed.