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Letters on cancer: a toast to life — through tears

by
19 March 2021

Through frank letters to her friends, Claire Gilbert discusses the hopes and fears that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Here is the start of her journey

istock

Friday 18 January 2019

IT’S 20 hours since Dr Adam told me I have a protein that might be myeloma, a cancer of the blood. What an extraordinary and yet utterly ordinary thing to be told: that you might have a life-threatening condition, that you might die.

Because of course I am going to die anyway.

The one certainty about being born is that one’s life will end. And the shock of its possibility, perhaps sooner than one thought (but one doesn’t think, that’s the truth of it) is, I am finding, rather liberating.

Grace LauClaire Gilbert

At last: an absolute in my life that puts everything else into perspective.

I am breathing the air, loving Seán, connecting with Nutkin, the horse I ride this morning, seeing the sky, adoring the view of the Old Town from my eyrie in our house in Hastings, receiving the mighty view of the sea, enjoying the crunchy tang of an apple, and so on and so on: accepting the present moment and loving it.

And I’m not finding myself thinking that I will miss it, nor that I want to hang on to it. It is so precious, and it is itself. It will survive me and that matters more, now.

I was in the pub in Hastings Old Town when the doctor phoned. Sitting enjoying a pint with Seán, just off the London train. Dr Adam said: If you do have it, the treatments aren’t too bad. You don’t get sick or lose your hair or anything.

But still. Cancer.

I went to the cloakroom and looked straight into my own eyes in the mirror above the sink, and I saw strength enough for this. I shall — I shall — be a good companion for myself on this journey, whatever it entails (and it may entail nothing).

The Damocles’ sword of cancer has hung over me and you, my dear siblings, for a long time. It’s what our family dies of if the last two generations are anything to go by. I have been silently waiting for one of us to succumb.

And in contemplating the possibility that it might be me, I make the discovery that it is (at the moment, anyway) worse to be the loved one of the ill one, rather than the ill one herself.

When it happens to you, you face it. When it happens to one whom you love, it undoes you.
Cancer — illness, death — is profoundly social. And that is going to make it much, much harder.
For, however ready I might be to face my own death, Seán is determined that I will outlive him. He declaims as much with the voice of God over the dinner table that night. And how can I wish to die before him? His wife died suddenly, in a car crash, too soon.

 

Sunday, 20 January

DEEP tears rising to just below the surface of me. I resolutely think of other things, or repeat maranatha (an Aramaic mantra meaning “Come, Lord”) like a talisman.

I do not allow myself to investigate “myeloma” online; the endless imaginings and plannings that will attend knowing the prognosis and treatment should be delayed as long as possible, ideally until after I know for certain that I have it — for, of course, I may not.

Today I feel so well, so normal, and Seán really is not well, that it seems indulgent to imagine anything about cancer and dying and death for myself. The deep tears abate.

Dr Adam rang again yesterday to talk about checking his diagnosis. He is a nephrologist: I had gone to him to have my kidneys checked. He needs to hand me over to the oncologists.

I can’t do anything about this until tomorrow. Agitation and unhappiness flare up over organising the necessary tests. Death I can face, I think, but endless complicated arrangements for its prologue distress me.

I read Lucia in London by E. F. Benson. It happens to be the book I am reading here in Hastings, and its frivolity irritates me, but then it quickly becomes a comedy so charming and delightful that it brings life back to my life. Benson makes me relish what is, in all its absurd beauty.

I’m trying an imaginative exercise of letting love flow into my blood and around my body, imagining the love washing through my blood and all the cells and proteins in my blood, so if the cancer is there it is being washed in love.

Fr Eamonn speaks at mass about the story of the wedding feast at Cana in relation to what Jesus offers when we are nothing but jars of water: if I am empty of everything and don’t have anything left to give, his miraculous grace gives me not just more of the same, but a transformed self.

Yes. Cana wine. I can try that.

 

Monday, 21 January

I AM scared. Today we travel back to London and I have to start taking action to find out if this blessed protein is cancerous. I have to tell some close colleagues the situation because I may not be able to keep my countenance and they should know why.

But it will be shocking: the fact that nothing is yet confirmed does not stop imaginations firing up.

I can work. I have decided what I am going to say in my lecture on justice in public life. Thank God, thank God for work and the ability to focus.

On my own in the evening, I drink champagne, toasting l’chaim. Life. The great teaching in this time for me is to do what, citing Plato, I have advocated for decades: live as though you are going to die today. And that brings life to life like nothing else: vibrant, shouting, dancing, loving life. The champagne is vintage and delicious.
I weep. Just below the surface there are not only exquisitely painful tears whose origin is deep within me, but also a pumping stress. I can think calmly of only one thing at a time, so that is what I shall do. If I start to multiply my tasks and decisions, I am immediately in distress.

No appointments yet. You tell me this is the hardest time, J, you who have had cancer: when you don’t yet know.

My way of dealing with it is to let myself imagine the worst (whether that is outright death or ghastly ongoing treatments I’m not sure — the latter I think), but very gently, as though probing a tender wound, a place of great hurt and vulnerability. It hurts but it is life-giving.

 

Wednesday, 23 January

TODAY the deep tears and anxiety are right on the surface. I am breathing carefully, focusing on one thing at a time, asking nothing difficult of myself. I am alone so I let the tears fall. And I write this, now, and it calms me.

Despite my mortal fears, I also see, now as I write, the prospect of death as exciting. At last ultimate questions might be answered. At last that of which I have caught glimpses might be in plain sight and not partially, but wholly, what is.

I remember Patrick Mayhew’s five-year-old granddaughter piping up in her prayer at his memorial service: “I hope you have lots of adventures in heaven.” I don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if there’ll be a “me” to experience anything.

But if this life has taught me anything, it has taught me that love is its final truth, its meaning, as Julian of Norwich puts it.

So when the mortal things are put aside and that which has to come to an end does come to an end, what will be left, I believe, is love. And it is magnificent.

You say you will pray for Seán, J. You say that when you had cancer it was far, far harder for your partner than for you. And it’s true that if it weren’t for Seán and others whom I love and who love me, I would have little hesitation about embracing death.

While I certainly do fear and dread illness, I feel I could face it more readily and bravely if I didn’t have to worry about its effect on those who love me. But of course the last thing that loved ones want is to be a burden on the sufferer.

What a conundrum of human interdependence. As you say, J, our humanity is found in each other. Love is our gift to each other, but it is costly.

 

This is an extract from Miles To Go Before I Sleep by Claire Gilbert, published this week by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30); 978-1-529-35972-5.

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