Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Visit

I’ve been living in rural South Down for seventeen years. I moved back to the countryside as an experiment, after living and working in cities for many years. I bought a bungalow, surrounded by fields and farms, with views of the Mournes. My main fear was isolation. Instead, I got back in touch with the natural rhythms of the seasons and was welcomed by neighbours despite not having any family links with the area. There was one particular neighbour who I became close to. This week I was disturbed to learn that he was very seriously ill in hospital.

C had grown up on the farm down the lane. He inherited the land and kept sheep, despite having a management job in Belfast. He was one of those people who could successfully turn his hand to almost anything. In fact he had helped build my house. It had been constructed for his eldest son, who moved to America. I’m fairly practical, but this has limits. So when there was something that needed doing that was beyond me, to the house or to the half an acre that surrounded it, I turned to him. C would always have the solution to my problem and would sort it out promptly and effectively with a minimum of fuss. At first I tried to pay him for his time and trouble, but he would never accept anything. It took me a little while to realise that the neighbours’ economy was trade in kind. One good turn required another. I helped him out with tasks of his that required several hands, took my turn in the strimming of the grass verges of the lane and always mowed his lawn whenever I cut mine.

Some years ago he began to have bouts of tiredness and muscle aches. He put this down to ageing; he is a decade older than me, but a good bit fitter. So he gave up his job and lived on a pension and sheep-farming. These bouts persisted. He went to the doctor who diagnosed him with fibromyalgia and put him on steroids. The treatment didn’t seem to work and when he complained about this the doctor increased the dosage of the steroid.

Last year he was floored by a chest infection and was hospitalised for several weeks in Daisy Hill. His fatigue increased. Some months later the chest infection returned and he was again hospitalised. This time they began to test him for a range of other problems. After running many tests they could find nothing. They were again going to discharge him, but decided to refer him to a Haematologist at Craigavon. He was tested further and they eventually discovered that he had a rare form of blood cancer which attacks the bone marrow.

C was also told that if he had been suffering from fibromyalgia it ought to have improved on steroids in a matter of months. His early symptoms had probably been of the blood cancer and there was a clear failure on the part of the GP not to refer him for testing for other conditions (thankfully we are with a different GP). Because of this he had several years of deterioration before he got the correct treatment, which is a very expensive course of drugs that can only attempt to arrest the decline.

It was another chest infection that had returned him to hospital this time. His infection markers were high and his blood/oxygen saturation was dangerously low. He was being pumped full of different intravenous antibiotics and had an oxygen line into his nose. He lay on the bed in a side room, gasping and panting with the effort of talking. We spoke about the old days when he was fit and well and active. He realised that he would never be able to go back to them. All he wanted was to return home. But the prospect of that was remote.

He asked me how I’d coped with my cancer treatment (he had visited me in hospital). I said that I’d had it easier than him. I did have four big operations, but my incapacity, although painful and difficult, had always been temporary. I’d struggled to get well each time, but I’d never been continuingly incapacitated. I didn’t know how I would cope with the situation that he was in. I told him that the only strategy I knew was to take things one morning/afternoon/evening/night at a time and try your best. Given the challenge of his situation, it seemed a lame answer.

An auxiliary nurse came with a tray of food. C slowly ate some soup with mashed potato in it. I opened his small tub of ice-cream and he scooped it up with a teaspoon. I explained that, as T was away, I had to go home to feed the dog. I promised to visit him again soon. We clasped hands. He told me he would be very pleased to see me.

As I drove home, I pondered on this visit. I knew that C had given me a timely reminder to make the most of life when you are able, and not to waste time and energy on what might seem important but which really didn’t matter very much. What he wanted most of all was to be at home again and do ordinary things. There was no dramatic bucket list of foreign destinations to see.

The Ghost of Cancer Future had visited me. I realised that this creature would come calling for me one day. I fed Rex; he wagged his tail and licked my hand. I made my own tea and read a little. The late sun shone on trees coming into leaf. Birds sang. The mountaintops glinted. I was well and I still had time.