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Thursday, November 29, 2012

End of the World!

A rather hot day in Brisbane and I've been holed up in my office for the past two weeks working my little Sri Lankan bum off on my major once-a-year-project.

In a nutshell, I specialise in assisting people who build nursing homes to squeeze some bucks from the Federal Government so they can build new facilities.

The last week has been spent studiously at my desk, broken only by a sojourn to the hospital.

Because after her first chemo shop, my sister Fiona had a bit of an allergic reaction - we think to the antie-emetics - and ended up in hospital on Day 2.

Nicky and I motored over to see her and were our usual sympathetic selves with the words:  "You look like shit" being the first words uttered as poor Fiona sat their forlornly picking at her plate of unappetising hospital food.

The good news is that, as as result of her allergic reaction, it MAY be that she will only need four -not six - shots of chemotherapy and I can only hope this is the case.

It's a few days later today and true to form, Fiona the self-confessed worry-wart has been imagining the worst of what, in my opinion are small and insignificant side effects.  Today she wanted to speak to me about a pain in her hand.

I have urged her to shrug things off more rather than assuming every ache, pain and reaction means we should be polishing up her wooden box.

Today she also told me how the school at which she has worked had run a fundraising drive to raise funds to support a weekly cleaner through her treatment.  We agreed that one thing cancer teaches you is how unbelievably kind and generous some people can be.

And, as we seem to do a little bit these days,  Fiona and I contemplated the inevitability of our respective untimely demises.  We all must eventually leave this world, eh!

It only after I hung up, that I realised the context of our discussion.

For you see, if the Mayans were right, in exactly 22 days it seems the World Will End.

It's not something I've paid much attention to - Doomsday Sayers.  I avoid them like the plague - as keenly as I avoid cliches.

Nonetheless, in taking stock of my adventures thus far, my curiosity was piqued.  Will the world end four days before Christmas, annoyingly meaning that the tickets I bought to a show in January will go unused?    Frustratingly meaning there'll be no Boxing Day sales to tempt my wallet?  Sadly meaning that I will miss the Senior Referees Seminar in February?

Is this how it will end?  Fiona only two shots through her chemo program and hairless;  I, one breasted and cursed with a head amass with follicles more suited to a pubic region?

Will it end with Harry half way through his degree, all those years of private education, academic achievements and scholarships gone to waste? And Ben, still to get the hair cut he needs?  And Al still to get that hole in one?  And me, still to see George Clooney in the flesh (in that G-string)?

You think it's a callous thing, life suddenly ending, but there is a bright side.  If nothing else, the impending End of the World should give us all cause to take stock and see where we are, and how far we've come.  Cancer has certainly done that for me.

If nothing else, knowing or seeing that end must teach us to applaud ourselves for what we have achieved, and what we have overcome, simply to still be here!

Because, as I have come to appreciate life is fucking hard and, really, it takes some guts and stamina to make it to whatever and whenever turns out to be THE END.

In my line of work of course, I meet many elderly people, many of who are in bad shape.  These are the good folk who have reached what might be called that 'ripe old age' when your life is past that climax, and is now about denouements, finales and codas.  When it's no longer about colons or commas or even ...ellipses... but full stops.

Frankly, I feel I should applaud them, cheer them on.  For neither you nor I can imagine what traumas or perils and challenges these elderly have survived, and how strong, persistent and tenacious they have been simply to get to that stage in life where they might actually be described as OLD.

Every old person is a survivor.  Every elderly person has hauled that now wrinkled backside through lordy knows what swamps and jungles - and for that we must surely respect them (however mean, irascible or unlikeable they may be).

Put simply, it takes sheer balls to have a long life.

And so, I guess you have to admit, the End of the World - in 22 days - is looking like a merciful release.  Either that, or the coward's way out.

Doomsday may well be a realistic scenario - check out this site http://www.liveindia.com/mayacalendar/index.html (copy and paste the URL into your finder window).

I for one, am unconcerned either way.  I enjoy life and I enjoy living.  There is something rather quaint and old fashioned about, well, breathing!

However, as I have said, there are no guarantees for any of us.  Who really knows what the future has in store for you or me?

All we can do is live now and live well.

Seize the day however you can.  Tomorrow may, still, not come.



Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sherpa 1

It's a fantastic day today as I arise after 9 am.  I'm a bit exhausted because last night I went to a rare concert.  Al, me and a few friends made the long trek to Suncorp Stadium, where we watched the iconic band, 'Coldplay'.

It's not that I'm a massive fan, but I do like a couple of their songs.

The concert was sold out and, with tickets to the mosh pit, it was an experience standing in the open under a clear, balmy sky, a cool half moon hanging from the sky like a nibbled biscuit, while Chris Martin sang some of the bands classics including my favourite:  "I Will Fix You".

"When you try your best but you don't succeed/When you get what you want but not what you need/When you feel tired by you can't sleep/Stuck in reverse/And the tears come streaming down your face/When you lose something you can't replace/When you love someone but it goes to waste/What could be worse?

And the chorus - I love it - 'Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you.

They released confetti - pink hearts, butterflies.  I felt sad.  For a minute I thought that it's what we all are: confetti flung into the wind, expunged into the universe in an act of love, celebration, flying, soaring, fluttering, until we finally settle on the ground, underfoot.   Squashed.

Shit.  A miserable thought like that could make anybody weep.  (And afterwards, because I can't help myself, I did wonder if when 'Coldplay' becomes as old as say 'The Rolling Stones', they might change their name to "Oldplay"?)

In a good mood, Al and I return home after midnight, exhausted.  The zeds reverberate around the room pretty much as soon as our heads hit our respective pillows.

But when I wake today, I need coffee to get going.  And I know I have a big day ahead of me.

Fiona starts her chemotherapy today and I've promised to keep her company.

She's at the Royal Brisbane Hospital on the other side of town and it takes around 55 minutes to get there.  It's a good drive and I make good time.

It takes me a while to navigate the grounds and locate the car park.  The RBH (as it's more commonly known) is now a new hospital and it's quite impressive.  Soaring ceilings, plenty of pretty artworks, people everywhere.

I ask directions from a volunteer with a bung eye who is sitting behind a desk in the foyer and eventually navigate my way to the oncology ward in the Joyce Twedell building.  Briefly I wonder who Joyce was?

When I reach the right floor, I have to queue for 5 minutes just to ask where Fiona is, but I find the staff helpful.

Fiona, with her husband Richard, is seeing her doctor and I spend a few minutes flicking through a magazine while I text her to advise her I'm in the waiting room.

Soon the three of us are reunited and we have to go through some rigmarole as Fiona hasn't had her blood test.  We go down lifts, up escalators, to pathology.  We kill an hour having coffee.  I must say we have a really good conversation.  We go back to the oncology ward.

We are joined by Xavier, Fiona's gorgeous first son.  He's a bit of a cool dude, Xavier, with aspirations to be an actor and a bit of the chutz-pah of a confident 20-year-old.  A nice kid who take his role as the eldest of five seriously.  He has promised to look after his mum.  What a sweetie.

And so the four of us wait until Fiona is finally led to - ta-da-da-DUM - the chair.  There's a bit more stuffing around about dates on forms, a bit of confusion about pre-medications she should have taken but wasn't told about.  A tiny bit chaotic I think, but what can you expect?  It's a bloody busy ward and these people are worked off their feet, interchanging shifts, manipulating paperwork.

Soon Fiona is receiving her pre-treatment briefing, the heat pack is on her veins.  She is first injected with some anaesthetic and the cannular is neatly inserted by a confident nurse dubbed the "Master Cannulator".   Which I guess is better than being dubbed the "Master Bater".

It is at this stage that I see the way Fiona's eyes are wide.  I'm not sure if Richard sees it but as her sister, I know she is terrified.  I know I must have looked like that: that split second, that harsh moment of reality when you know it's not just a bad dream.  You really do have breast cancer.  This really is chemotherapy.  Shit, shit, shit.  Why is this happening I think?  To her, after me?

But Fiona is stoic.  She pushes through the fear and eventually, I think she seems to be handling it well after all.   There's a bit more waiting.  A problem with paperwork, the pharmacy and the drugs she needs to be sorted.

It is at this point that Richard asks the nurse if he can put on the ice cap he has prepared.  You see, it's been proven that if you place an icy cap on your head prior to receiving the Doxyrubin - the one that causes the hairless - might help preserve precious follicles.

Fiona puts on the cap which makes her look like she's a rugby forward in protective headgear.  She looks kind of cute I have to say.

There's a bit more waiting and, by this time, would you believe it's 4 pm!  I'm starving and so is Xavier so we decide to get something to eat.  Neither Fiona nor Richard are hungry - well, would you be?

When I return, it's all started.  My beautiful sister who has never had a single drug inserted into her pristine body - who gave birth to five big heifer babies without a single sedative, who has studiously avoided pharmaceuticals for most of her life - has her first taste of my old mate Doxyrubin.

You may recall it's the "Red Devil", the one I really hated.  Fiona says it's cold just like I said it was.  I feel a bit sick in the stomach seeing the red stuff again.

But Fiona is real trooper through all of this.

We are chatting so much I don't really notice the point at which the drugs are switched.  When Doxyrubin becomes Docetaxyl but there it is - that evil black bag.

We are  little through this procedure when Fiona panics.  She feels short of breath.  There's a lump in her throat.

Momentarily, my thoughts are suspended.  Shit, shit, shit, I think, please let this go without a hitch.

Fiona presses the emergency nurse call button and then, it is poetry in motion as three nurses converge on her so quickly it's really very impressive.  This may be the public hospital system but be assured, the quality of care is very high.  The drug is halted, saline is given, an oxygen mask is placed on her face, pulse and blood pressure monitors are mounted.

A minor allergic reaction perhaps they say and so phenergan is administered, sending Fio off into a droop of sedation.

She's taken off the drug while things recover and Xavier leaves.

Eventually, it all begins again and pretty soon, phase two of my sister's first chemotherapy is over.

By this time, it's getting close to 6 pm.  After 7 hours, the parking costs here go from $22 to $28 and being a cheapskate, I think I should vamoose.

The worst is over.  From what I can recollect, the Cyclophosphamide to follow is not so bad.

I kiss Fiona, I kiss Richard.

As I drive home I think that in 18 weeks, the brunt of Fiona's treatment will be over.

I have absolutely no doubt that she will rally through her treatment with flying colours.  Because we had the same parenting, she has my positive attitude, resilience, with that ounce of philosophy that allows us to keep things in perspective.

Importantly, she has the one ingredient I believe is essential to her recovery - the love and support of family and friends.

In the end, I think, it is this that is the light that guides you home.

In the end, this is, really, what will fix you.





Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hope and Himalayas

It's a cool and sunny Tuesday morning and I arise quite late.  The sky is a shining blue and, on the horizon, the sands of Stradbroke Island are blindingly white.The house is quiet as everyone is out - Ben at School, Harry (home for the Uni break) is at an exam, Al is out on business.

 It's five days since I returned from my mammoth trip to the subcontinent. 13 towns and Cities throughout Northen India, Nepal and Bhutan in 30 days.

My body clock is still out I reckon and it's taking me longer than expected to return to normal bedtime habits.

It is unfortunate, because last night, at just before midnight, I intercepted the text from my darling sister Fiona, informing me that this Thursday, she begins chemo.

You would have thought this piece of news would have meant that there was no good night's sleep for me afterwards.  But that is not the case.  (Had my stupid dog Spunky not awoken me at 5 am to let him out for his wee, I would most likely have been awake chirpy and bright at 7 am).

In fact, I slept more soundly than I might have because in truth, throughout my absence overseas, my concern was not that Fiona WOULD have chemotherapy, but that she wouldn't.

You see, Fiona, unlike me, has studiously avoided most pharmaceuticals since her marriage to Richard, a chiropractor who generally favours natural therapies.

They are firm believers in good nutrition, exercise, healthy living.  They are into supplementation, yoga - they are annoyingly vital people.

In fact, if anyone should have been least likely to get cancer, it should be Fiona.

But, as seems to be my theme these days, folks, may I say again, there are no guarantees.  It is simply hubris to believe that you are inviolate from life's travails.

And, even if you feel you have already endured your share of life's travails, there is no guarantee that there isn't an even bigger lump of shit coming your way.

However,  after my journey to the spiritual heartlands of the sub-continent there are two lessons I have learned that tell me that, in this environment of inevitable 'shit-hauling', there is a bright side.

Firstly, in India, a great realisation came from the shit that is intrinsic to the traveller's experience of this vast, beautiful and captivating country.  Of course there is the shit of biological origin, usually involving an intestinal tract and, at last, an anus.   It was an encyclopaedia of shit I discovered on the crowded pavements of this land of rogues and rajahs - cow, sheep, elephant, goat, dog, duck, chickn, pigeon, buffalo... human - no living creature can exist without shit.

So in the first instance, let us just accept it.  I don't care if you are Nelson Mandela, Miranda Kerr, the Pope or Leonardo Da Vinci.  No, not even George Clooney.  Since the dawn of time, man and animal have had the need to shit and be honest, you too have an anus.

Yes, yes, you may like to look at your life as a centre-spread from Home Beautiful.  You may be stunning, beautiful, handsome, articulate, successful, intelligent, deeply interesting, the Source of All Things Truly Magnificent.

But Descartes was wrong.  "Je pense donc je suis"?  Non, non, non.  For truly, what he should have said is "Je chie donc je suis".  I shit therefore I am.

Or more accurately, I argue, "Je transport la merde, donc je suis."

India proved to me that creating and hauling shit, in the biological and philosophical sense, is the nature of life.  It is inevitable.  It's unavoidable.

But what is not inevitable is how you deal with this fact of life, this fact, indeed, of BEING.

How you deal with it is YOUR CHOICE.

In India, here is how they deal with it.  In a nation where I experienced thieves, beggars, liars, snake-oil merchants and a sea of people where the only thing charmed seemed to be the odd cobra or three, the luckless are lifted above their situations by an amazing and wonderful quality that is Hope (but not Vander Poorten).  Their choice is to hope.

In chaotic traffic where vehicle drivers choose not to wear seatbelts, carry entire generations of families on roof racks as they careen down steep mountainsides, navigate rubbled roads with no identifiable signs of traffic control and can't see the need for tyres with tread, safety is reduced to a hope in the form of their various gods and deities who take pride of place on peeling dashboards.

Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Ba'Hai, even a visit to the Home of Mother Teresa in Kolkata - I met people with a variety of beliefs in my travels and realised that without a spiritual connection to SOMETHING, these people would simply not survive.

In short, I realised the one thing that lifts some of us above Great Shithole that is much of this planet, the one pure and incorruptible thing truly, is the ability to Hope.

Give up hope and you may as well pick up stumps and just admit Sri Lanka really is a better cricket team than India.

But there is that second learning, and it is a big one.  A really big one - 8,848 Metres of it in fact.

For this epiphany emerged out of a combination of experiences - a scenic flight over the Himalayas, then on a commercial flight to and from Bhutan, and then from the highest hill in Darjeeling - as I first cast my eyes on the most incredible of this world's many wondrous spectacles (and no, it was not George Clooney in a G-String).

Mount Everest as you know, is a not insubstantial hill, the Earth's highest mountain located just inside the border between Nepal and what should be Tibet but is now, alas, actually China.

First conquered by Hilary on May 29, 1953 and named for Sir George Everest, the former Surveyor General of India, what can you say about this mountain other than it is fucking huge... yes, I know, I am a poet after all. (For the record, George Everest opposed the name because it could not be translated into Hindi).

But as the majesty of this mountain was eventually fully comprehended, I was struck by the Great Metaphor it represents for each of us.

For you see, in the great plain that is your life story, it's not the pretty flowers, the glorious grasslands or the rapturous rivers that captivate and fascinate.  It is the mountain.

Your mountains are what defines the country that is you.  It's your highest mountain - the one YOU climbed - that the people in your life admire.  It's the climb and the conquest that will define your life.  Because this the beacon to your character.

For all we know, Edmund Hilary may have had other great achievements. He may have saved a baby seconds from being hit by a speeding car.  He may have been fluent in 85 languages.  His children may have duxed their subjects and achieved such glorious fame that a replica of his wife's loins were cast in gold and donated to the Indian Museum so that all of us could genuflet before this incredible organ, the one that squeezed out such fabulous progeny.

However, what history honors and remembers is the daring, the focus, the tenacity, and for all of them - Hilary, Tenzing and his 35 Sherpas who first conquered this peak - the courage.

I mention the Sherpas too, because history makes so little mention of the teamwork that accompanies any major achievement.  No great mountains are climbed alone and none of life's great challenges are ever overcome alone.

Where would I be without my family and friends?  How can one accomplish such feats unassisted?

That's why I know that, no matter what, I would drop everything to hold Fiona's hand through what is coming, her own great climb.  I don't know if I will be her Tenzing but surely, I will be one of her Sherpas.

And the best thing I know thanks to my recent travels, is this.

As my journey through the subcontinent wound down, Lee and I landed in Darjeeling where, from its tallest hill, you can spot Everest on a clear morning.

But guess what?  From this vantage point, from a part of your journey miles away from where it all began, Everest is hardly compelling.  It's reduced to a molehill!

Here is a picture (taken with my dinky digital camera with its crappy zoom capacity) to prove it.

From the top of Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, you may think that Mt Everest is that tallest peak.
 In fact, it's the one in the middle

The point is that in time, your perspective on what you believe to be YOUR biggest peak, your hardest climb, your penultimate challenge alters.

What might have once appeared to be so impressive and even fantastic, becomes just another mountain in a range of peaks.

And so, this is my message to my sister Fiona.

Climb that mountain, then keep going for no one knows how far we have to travel.

Importantly, have faith - have HOPE - that your decisions are good ones.

One day, you'll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

The view changes from a different window and one day, sooner than you realise, the only thing you'll know for certain is that Life really is Good.

La vie est vraiment bonne.