What I want is to – to be present. That’s what I’ve learned. I want to strive for presence, now, here in my kitchen, with a Boeing overhead, and later at Merenna’s prize-giving as she collects her award. In my writing, as I listen to the music in a line and as my characters cause each other damage. In my reading, too. As a thirteen-year-old boy says ‘A light can go out in the heart’ or ‘It seemed you could never really know another person.’ To listen to the voice in that, and the tone and the syntax and the desolation. To hear it, feel it and imagine it, as one might the shock of recognition of Thomas putting his hand in the Lord’s side. I want that ‘deep down sense of things,’ to use Hopkins’ phrase. The wild cry of shame in Shim’s voice when he comes in late and when we aren’t even angry with him. The laughter and a candlelit table which is both transitory and timeless. To spot words in Shakespeare plays that you didn’t know he used – ‘botched’ for example. To watch weird dance and read good, meaty thrillers. To walk on Exmouth beach on bracing Saturday afternoons and be rugby tackled by your son and his friend. To use trains. To watch the light take leave of a room. To breathe, and then breathe again, but to notice it.
I wrote the passage above nine summers ago, in July 2006. Between February and June I had undergone a gruelling two-week cycle of chemotherapy ‘infusions’ for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During this period a radiologist had misinterpreted my mid-way scan, declaring my tumour to be growing, not shrinking. Until this mistake was discovered, a period of nine days, my family and I had lived with the possibility that my treatment was not working and that I would not, as we say, ‘make it’. By July I had had a PET scan, an instrument which is able to detect cancerous activity at a much more fine-tuned level than those I had received previously. Still my doctors could not be sure how to proceed. Though they were more or less persuaded that I would recover, they still wanted to be sure of what they called ‘a good outcome’. To make doubly sure of this they scheduled me for six weeks’ of radiotherapy treatment, which began in August. I wrote the passage above just as this was becoming more of a certainty, albeit, at this stage, an unspoken one.
As I sat at my kitchen table I therefore felt entitled to a sense of being in limbo. I was neither acutely ill (my PET scan had detected ‘minimal’ cancerous activity), nor completely cured, a word I have still never heard a single doctor utter in my hearing.
Even I, with my cloth hearing and slowness of uptake, had begun to read the signals, spoken and silent, that I would probably live. Far from joy, however, I felt a gnawing sense of frustration that my life would still have some way to go before returning to normal. I believe I wrote out of that frustration, a homesickness of wanting to live a changed and better life, but not yet seeing the means by which I might achieve it.
I now know that ‘normal’ is not what I returned to, because the person I was after my cancer was not and could never be the same as the one before. What I longed for that July afternoon as I sat at my kitchen table may have been an illusion, therefore, but it was also a desire to hold on to, or in some cases renew acquaintance with ways of being and living which I felt I had let slip. (The thrillers and esoteric dance spring to mind particularly in this regard.) I hoped I would return to work, for example, but could never have anticipated how complex a process that would turn out to be. Major life events continue to happen whether I wish them or not: I have lost several friends; my children have now left home. The word ‘remission’ (literally ‘sending back’) seems curiously inept to describe this process, first because it is not one process, and second because it is not a sending back to who we were before. I now think of it as a sending forward to a new (and, in my case, shattered) self who barely knew what day of the week it was, let alone what he now wanted to be.
I will never stop being grateful to the therapist who listened as I pieced this together, and to my friends and family who did the same.
Cancer taught me (is still teaching me) that the negotiation and renegotiation of who I am and what I want out of life, while not always brought about by trauma, is often given new impetus by the same. Without going into the details, I have had cause to reappraise some things this summer. (If I am honest, and with the benefit of hindsight, I think this process began around a year ago.) I think the outcome of this reflection may be visible to no one but myself (and perhaps the people nearest to me). I am speaking here of daily practices involving silence, reading, walking, praying, and writing: what my July 2006-self called ‘presence’ but which we might now know as ‘mindfulness’. And even that is not the full story.
One further outcome of this is my decision to leave Twitter. By which I mean I will not leave Twitter. For example, as soon as this post goes live on my website it will also appear on Twitter, via the marvels of technology. (I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid, as I think Dudley Moore once said.) You will still be able to find me (if you’re interested). The difference is I will not be there. There in the writing, the showing up and doing the writing, but not there in the sense of looking to see how the post is doing, counting the retweets and favourites, obsessing over my stats, then thanking everyone for their RTs. That is over for me, for now at least.
Also at an end is the endless (and I do think it is endless) scrolling to see who has said what about whom, from Jeremy Corbyn to the woeful form of Chelsea to Adrienne Rich and James Schuyler. And then RTing and favouriting them, as though I were doing the world a big favour, then looking to see how those went. That is over too, for now, at least.
I have even deleted the app from my phone. I can’t believe it.
Please do not get me wrong. Twitter has been the best kind of party for me. I have not been the victim of trolling or abuse, thank God. I have only been met with courtesy, kindness, humour and, in some quarters, lavish and gracious support. I think of the people I have met as friends. Thank you. You know who you are. All of which makes it harder to leave. For once the classic teenage break-up line is right: it’s not about you, it’s me. The person I am (or might be about to become, or have become…), if I do not make some changes. The person I want to be, the person I need to be, and the person I was sitting at my kitchen table (I am here right now) nine years ago, with cancer, longing for a chance to be present and alive in the moment, and realising it took having cancer for a chance to find it.