By the time I boarded the train in Prahran I was fairly certain that there was something seriously wrong with me physically. I felt exhausted. The month of December, leading up to my move back from World Vision in Jakarta had been stressful and busy, and since returning to Melbourne, work, family and returning to my apartment after two years had given me no time to rest. Ongoing neck and back problems and aching joints had all exacerbated my general feeling of dis-ease.
I had planned my annual medical check up in Melbourne a couple of months ago while still in Jakarta and had all the blood, urine and other tests done in the lead up to Christmas. It is nearly two weeks later, and my Doctor always insists that we go through the results together, in person. So today, I am on the train going back to get the results. I am wondering how he will tell me “I am sorry, the news is not good, we need to do more tests”.
I sit across from a young man with milky complexion. He is bald except for a few clumps of soft fluffy hair; I am guessing he has had cancer and radiotherapy. I wonder if this could be me in a month or two. I picture myself alone in my St.Kilda apartment retching into the toilet, the after effects of my chemotherapy. I think of my friend now in recovery from Hodgekinson’s lymphoma and the pain and discomfort he endured over the last 12 months, or another friend who had prostrate cancer, then surgery and now needs to use a little air pump to get an erection. They are both a few years younger than me. Every day leading to now, I have found myself thinking about various scenarios of sickness and how I will deal with them. Over the washing up, painting my apartment, showering, going off to sleep, a stealthy fear, attaching itself to my psyche like a leach, and when I become conscious of it, this leach is feeding on me, hard to be free of and each time leaves a wound. And now today, results day, has come the more I intuitively know that my life as I have known it is going to change forever and not for the better.
I wonder whether perhaps I would have been better not having the check up and just carrying on until I drop and die and friends and work colleagues saying “I saw him just weeks ago and he didn’t say anything, but I thought he didn’t look well, I can’t believe he is gone.” Another friend Kim, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, rather than have chemo, embarked on a regime of natural juices and he was dead in 6 weeks. The images of my future are so real and I am almost moved to tears of emotional self pity. I wonder at the courage of the man opposite me, and how much I really want to keep living and about what I can still do in the time I have left and how much I am prepared to endure for that. At least if I am well enough to make my next trip to Kenya then maybe that will be enough.
Returning to Australia after Jakarta involved much more than just hopping on a plane, there is a lot of reconnecting, renewing acquaintances and becoming a resident again particularly with my family. Even getting on this train, with an impatient queue behind me, figuring out which zone I am in, what kind of ticket I need, searching for the right money, and do I need to validate my ticket or not. In this transition back from two years in Jakarta I have lost all my routines, everything seems complex and uncertain.
Working in the Burwood office. It takes me a while to get used to all the white faces and that I understand what everyone is saying. In Jakarta it was understandable that I didn’t really connect deeply with the challenges and changes in the lives of those around me as I couldn’t catch the peripheral conversations. Here I can and yet I realize how little I know about my friends and their particular struggles. How little they know of mine. One of my friends takes me aside and very politely tells me I am speaking too loudly on the phone and making it hard for others to work. I am grateful to him. I am learning to be part of the World Vision hush.
I make email connections with friends:
“Hi John, wonderful to hear from you, I hope you are doing well. Last Thursday I arrived back after my two year stint in Jakarta. I will now be based in Melbourne again. So please when you are down, give me a call, I would love to catch-up, buy you a meal and swap stories. Very best Christmas wishes to you, Alice (JB’s wife) and Talooka (their oversized Afghan cross dog). “
John: “Mate, Glad to hear you are back and for sure would love to catch up.
Just so you know, Alice and I are not together now…….. Talooka is with Alice. “
“Oh John, I am so sorry to hear that. And it is so hard to find a good dog.”
And reconnecting with family. One of my daughters has just broken up with her boyfriend of eighteen months. She loves him but is still young and couldn’t see a future at the moment that involved them both. He is still holding out the possibility that they can get back together. We talk, I give some fatherly advice. And get a text message at midnight that says “We talked and I followed your advice, and the crap hit the fan, oh Dad, what I mess, I blame you……….you owe me a trip to Africa”
My eighty-two year old Mother seems to have aged since I saw her 9 months ago, we sit and drink tea and eat Christmas cake and talk about how unseasonably hot the weather has been, how it has damaged her garden and scorched the Christmas lilies, we go and look and I see how the once perfect trumpet like petals have been burned by the nearly 40 degree pre-Christmas heat wave and now look forlorn and are dying prematurely and won’t make it until Christmas. My mother takes the heat personally as a betrayal, ‘it is just too hot” she says, as though personally wounded. I eat more Christmas cake guilty about the 3 kilos I have added over the last year; my mother is a wonderful baker with a lifetime of experience. She tells me how her friends are aging. How one has just decided that she can’t drive anymore and tried to sell her old car and couldn’t find a buyer. She took it to a scrap-metal dealer and they gave her $150 and then, as my mother says, before her eyes it was flattened into biscuit!! I am thinking that at this point Mum and I probably have different ideas about what this biscuit looks like. But our conversation is about aging and things passing not about biscuit facts and we both laugh at whatever we are thinking and move on to talking about whether on Christmas day we should go to church at Mums retirement village or at her former church in the suburbs. We decide on the church service at her retirement home.
On Christmas day, and with my sister, her husband and kids, we stroll together down to the events room at the retirement village where the service will be. It is confronting to be surrounded by so many elderly people in one place. They are a collection of unsettling vulnerability; frail walking, talking, sitting and especially the transitioning movements between are all filled with uncertainty, bodies only lightly anchored to the earth, autumn, dry leaves at winds mercy. Around half the congregation have walking frames. Mum tells me that they are supposed to leave them neatly parked outside the room but increasingly people can’t get from where they are supposed to leave their frames to their seats, and though this a place of many rules, many written in large letters, polite but firm on the surrounding walls, people turn a blind eye to those who drive to their seats. A drive in church. There is an oversize lighted NO EXIT sign above a door at the back which seems a bit incongruous to me at this moment. In each corner of the room there are also neatly parked four wheeled walkers interlocking like shopping trolleys. Most have been personalised with bits of ribbon and cottage industry knick-knacks. Several have teddy bears strapped onto the front. I am thinking that like the drivers of Kenworth trucks and old sailing ships there must be something in the DNA of humans that we like to put a mascot on the front of our vehicles as we navigate the uncertainties of the way ahead. I look at my sisters boys, eight and eleven and think that they too may one day need walking frames, and throughout our whole lives, how death is always more certain than tomorrow and when is a good time to leave our body and move on.
I am now on the train again on my way back to Prahran. I have been to the Doctor and all my tests have come back fine, Cholesterol up a little but otherwise a clean bill of health. I feel light and healthy and very ready for the year ahead. I try to put myself back into the frame of mind I had on the journey in, but it is illusive. It is as though my present reality has erased my past projections. Like a magicians slight of hand, my updated reality has replaced what was there before. And I reflect on how I seldom stop to consider the error between the “anticipated” and the “actual”. My present version overwrites and saves the last version, and that is all have on my hard drive, and mostly without me noticing. This amnesia like tendency is a very strange thing and I seem to keep repeating this, as though experience has taught me that it was effective, which seems not to be the case. While I see that I do need to organise and plan my futures, I don’t need to try and live in them as well. Not only could I have avoided my recent “near death experience” but I could have been more engaged at times over the last 3 weeks as well. I am wondering how much this kind of projecting is hindering my “attention” when I am in the field and working alongside people who need and deserve my total mindfulness and how listening with everything is sometimes the best thing any of us can bring.
T.S. Elliot’s line comes to mind “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything” and I have resolved to make increasing my capacity to pay attention, to mindfulness, my New Year’s Resolution.
So much for mindfulness, lost in thought and unfamiliar with the Sandringham line, I miss my stop and have to navigate my way back, but never mind, apparently I am not dying as fast as I thought and probably have time.
Melbourne June 2010