A story of sorts begins today. It will start the day after I received my death sentence. According to the experts, given the stage of development of my most aggressive tumours there isn’t much they can do. The various treatment options can at best slow down the progress (a rather strange word to use for something that is gradually killing me) of the disease and try to prolong my life as comfortably and for as long as possible. I could have anything from one to four years with a reasonable quality of life but at some point it will be all about pain control and decline. Morag and I decided to be moderately optimistic and assume we still have two years of active life together and any more will be a bonus. We’ll worry about the rest when it happens. What I’ve decided but not shared with Morag is that I will begin to write a story of my life; not ‘the’ story you’ll have noticed. I will start (in fact have started) by telling the story of the story, why I’ve decided to do this and what I see it being about, for the moment at least. In one sense it’s all about me. I’m not writing it for anyone else and I’m not assuming anyone else will read it. I may even decide to destroy it before the end. I’ll decide when I get there. For the moment the intention is to write as if no one will read it in much the same spirit that reluctant dancers are encouraged to ‘dance as if no one is watching’ to overcome any inhibitions and self consciousness. This strategy has the advantage that it gives me licence to write badly, ungrammatically, indulge in cod psychological and philosophical reflections, attempt the odd bit of doggerel, plagiarise, even be offensive by telling the truth. No need to pull punches when they may never hit the target anyway. As far as any plagiarism is concerned, it will almost certainly be inadvertent. If anyone should read this and spot something they think I have stolen from them, I wouldn’t bother to waste any money on lawyers. The money will all be gone. In another sense the story will be about anything I decide to write about. Any profundity will probably be accidental. Any profanity will be entirely intentional (pee, po, belly, bum, draws). So the beginning of this manuscript will be about the immediate circumstances of me writing this and why – as I said, the story of the story. This will be in due course followed by the story itself. I can’t say much about this so far as I really don’t know much more than you do. I’m hoping to find it surprising.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago. I had had an accident riding my mountain bike in the local wood and ended up the next day, after waking up in the night weeing blood, in the urology ward of my local hospital. I was initially seen by a consultant urologist appropriately and unfortunately called Mr. Peter Idle. All consultants are addressed as ‘mister’, just like in the Forsyth Saga. I expect they routinely refer to patients and underlings who have found disfavour with them as cads, bounders, even ‘the absolute limit’. Because of my age, in my late 60s, some found the circumstances that led me to being hospitalised with a ruptured kidney as rather amusing, but while they had me in their clutches I had a digital examination of my prostate. What they found led to me having a biopsy a couple of months later when I had recovered from the kidney injury and the eventual diagnosis of prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer is designated with a score that indicates the volume and aggressiveness or otherwise of the tumour or tumours. It is then awarded a ‘stage’ in its development on which depends the prognosis, your chances of a cure or, if not, how long you’ve got. Initially my score was quite low and I was told my cancer was at stage T1. This meant that no surgical or other sort of intervention was necessary and it was just a case of keeping an eye on me and every three months or so having a blood test and, if the test was worrying, a scan. To cut a long story short within a year my cancer had reached stage T3 and I had surgery to remove my prostate. Unfortunately this turned out to be too late, it had already spread, and over the next couple of years, despite various other treatments, radiation, hormones and so on, I raced through all the other stages and am well on my way to oblivion, hence the rather clever title (in my opinion) I’ve given this memoir, Death by Stages.
So this is where I am now. I was given between two and four years to live so Morag and I decided to assume we will have two years of, hopefully, active life with plenty of good times to come. Nearly three years have passed since and my condition is now gradually deteriorating. How long I last will be largely up to me as I have no intentions of withering and dribbling away, confused, incontinent and devoid of joy. I will, as of today, start planning my self-inflicted demise. I haven’t told Morag about this as I will be doing this by myself. It would be unfair to inflict any responsibility on her.
I’m not sure quite how this memoir will go and it may turn out to be partly a diary of illness and partly a reflection on my life up to now. I will try to write something most days but in practice it may only be every few weeks. Sometimes it will be about my current situation and sometimes some sort of reflection on aspects of my previous life. Of course a reflection can only be a version of the real thing. I am a witness to my own life but even so my account may not be reliable. Many eye witness accounts of the events of the Second World War and the experience of the blitz in London are notoriously at odds with one another. For some it was a time of community, shared concern and support, all mucking in together and singing the old songs in the underground stations and cellars. For others it was a time of sexual abuse in the dark, black markets, hypocrisy and exploitation. I once went to a reunion at a children’s home with a friend who had spent a few prepubescent years there and in the main had not had a bad experience. I met some others who had been children there at the same time who had very different experiences, of fear, neglect and loneliness. One in particular, over 30 years later seemed to be still very much affected by this and attributed many of the things that had gone wrong subsequently in his life to the emotional and psychological baggage he was burdened with at that time, the lack of confidence, the sense of worthlessness and betrayal, the habit of defensiveness and blaming others. Neither my friend nor this unfortunate individual were miss-remembering, let alone lying. They both told the truth as they saw it, remembered it; two different versions but also two different truths. There is no reason to believe that any person is the most reliable witness to their own lives. This document will be based on my truths as best I can tell them but certainly not ‘the truth’.
But, for what it’s worth, the following is my story.
Questions: why is he writing this? What is the purpose for him? Therapeutic? Just something that he can realistically do as he gets increasingly ill? Knowledge of death refocuses your mind, not only in the present but perhaps a reappraisal of the past. To begin with he is still reasonably well and mobile and can continue to interact with friends, family and new people he meets. There are some opportunities to question the past to some extent by talking to other people.
Who is Morag? Wife, partner, sister? Is she with him at this point or have they parted? Is this a good name or should it be something else? Could it be a male partner?
Where is he? In the place where he got the fatal diagnosis or has he moved on to end his days alone as he has no intentions of moving into a hospice.