I maintain a roster of writers who live with cancer and write about it in the media, and I check in on them every so often to see how they are. If they seem to be doing fine it makes me glad for them, and also, selfishly, gives me a sliver of comfort- entirely irrationally, I know, because I am not them and I do not have the same type of cancer they do and the nature and speed of the fallout from our respective diseases exist as independent events in the world. But I dare to feel, if not more hopeful about the final outcome, at least not quite as imperilled. Other people are getting time; maybe I’ll get some too.
And some, of course, don’t do so well, and they die, as the writer Graham Joyce did of lymphoma cancer yesterday. His warm and wise piece on cancer and the mythical journey from last December gave me a way to think and write about my own cancer story, and I felt a real sense of loss when I heard of his passing.
In June this year he wrote:
There is a problem with some of the language around the mythology of cancer. Many people want to talk of you “fighting it” and “beating it” and all the rest. And most of this language proceeds from love – they want to fight it for you, they want to beat it for you. But while some cancers will lie down and you may indeed live for ten or twenty years to die instead of a heart attack, it is not the case with all of them. So we need a new language for dealing with it. In fact in my case, what my wonderful doctors and nurses of the NHS in Leicester are doing is fighting to buy me time. From what I’ve read about Mantle Cell Lymphoma I’ve discovered that there is no certainty about how to treat it and that keeping it at bay is more an art than a science. So they keep trying different stuff and they keep finding ways to buy me time, and the hope is that after the latest treatment there will be another treatment to buy some more time.
And in August, just over a month ago:
I await a promised drug. The cost of the drug is beyond the imagination of mere mortals (in other words pennies but the Big Pharma Wheel is cog-to-cog with the Giant Insurance Wheel so that each pill must be seen to be rarer than rubies). However there is a window of possibility in a special programme for me. But while I wait in the holding pattern, it’s back to the chain-gang of chemo, breaking rocks…I have a brilliant team of doctors and nurses, trying to unlock time for me, at great expense, working hard to help me…
But Nature does what it wants, when it wants, and that is why we need to abandon this talk of “battling” and “not giving in” to cancer: we don’t lose to it, it kills us. However, although I want to emphasize this point, I’d be doing him a disservice if I positioned it as the main message of his writing, which it wasn’t- the main message was that we should grant ourselves some of the time we have alive, however limited, to just observe the world and rejoice in it:
…And with that uncertainty of the time previously taken for granted comes the prospect of grace. I’m not religious, but I know moments of grace when they are gifted. Ordinary moments, but they make the hairs stand up on the back of your forearm. Watching my boy race through the field with our dog; getting deliciously lost in a new bluebell wood; the four of us laughing until it hurts at something said one dinner time; my daughter showing me her latest painting; the music of rain; driving back from a beach walk on my wife’s birthday when the setting sun boiled up huge, blistering poppies in a golden barley field and flushed pheasants and hares and other totemic animals from the roadside. Quotidian moments, each no bigger than a nutshell really, but infinite and delirium-inducing when you come to examine them…
So these treatments, these purchases and parcels of time, have opened up windows and portals that maybe I’d have been too busy to see before. I’ll take that.
A detail from his posts that always stood out for me was his love of walking and open spaces and birds, particularly herons; which I deeply relate to, as a ramble through London’s parks gives me the same sense of uplift he describes (I often spot herons too):
So maybe it’s just a grassy field. But, with the weather being high, we took a rug and a picnic and settled on the bank of the river for a lazy afternoon. The Sence bubbled away gently, flowing as it does towards the River Soar and into Leicester in the distance. I put my head down and gazed up at the clouds and thought: why would anyone want to die? Then my old friend the Heron flew up from the river. Did it fly from right to left or from left to right? Oh, let’s not get into that. It’s just beautiful.
I had a glorious walk with my family in Bradgate Park on Christmas Eve… in the deer park there was a squall of rain followed by brilliant flourish of sunshine and the most mighty rainbow I’ve seen anywhere..There was also that heron that flew up unexpectedly. And the white hart that startled from behind the dry-stone wall…
A heron flies up, and the heron is traditionally both a messenger from the underworld and a bird of great good fortune. Make of that what you will. But as far as I was concerned, when a heron flies under a mighty arching symbol of hope, both have already delivered a wonderful Christmas that I never actually expected to see. Will it go on delivering? So long as I am able to see it.
So I’ll be thinking of him every time I hobnob with the Grey Herons in the waterfowl gardens in Regent’s Park now. I know I will not get to do it forever, even though it sometimes seems that way in those moments- how could anything possibly go wrong in a world in which I am allowed to stand in silent camaraderie with a heron in the late afternoon sun? But it doesn’t matter, I will say to myself, remembering Graham Joyce and his humorous, heartfelt, enduring words. It’s just beautiful.