Sometimes in your life everything changes. Whilst nothing changes. Forgive me. I want to get this down.
It’s the 11th July 2018. A hotel in Torquay. The world cup semi final. England Vs Croatia. I’m in agony. Huge stomach cramps. Nausea. I do an enormous shit. I’ve never seen anything that size before. The next day it still won’t flush away. I’ve had a pizza delivered via room service. I try to cut the turd up with the complimentary plastic knife and fork. I stuff the huge brown lump into a carrier bag and dump it in a bin on the promenade. I walk off fertively, not looking back in case undercover police think I’m depositing the proceeds of a drug deal. I’ve not eaten but I head for the hotel gym. Got to keep up the intense training for my over 60s bodybuilding debut next year. I eventually sleep. I wake up in time to make it in time to see the Paignton Players production of A Murder Is Announced.
Two weeks later. The cramps have stopped me sleeping. I’ve turned jaundice. My pee is brown. My stools are grey. I’m living on a diet of Calippos and golden syrup porridge. I phone the GP. A locum sees me. She looks and sounds concerned. “We have to consider the possibility you have cancer of the liver”. I leave and walk into a wall. I find it hard to tell people. Steven and I have a Proclaimers session. I forget the words to Over and Done With.
August. I’ve given up on the idea of sleeping. I try to watch the European Athletics Championship. It’s my favourite sporting event. I have to keep moving to cope with the pain. Joggers jog along the towpath. Barges meander along the canal. A fox attacks a swan. I wish I was as uninhibited as the swan in screaming. I’m yellow. I can’t pass it off any longer as a Torbados suntan.
September. The pain has stopped. My skin colour returns to slightly high blood pressure pink. Pee and poo back to normal. I feel fine. I return to work. A mate comes with me to the gym. I blast him. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight but my gym buddies compliment me on my vascularity. Heading in the right direction for next May. What the fuck has this been all about?
A Sunday morning CT scan. The radiographer is 45 minutes late. 30 of us, already gowned up are causing a bottleneck outside X-ray. Another 50 odd people, fully clothed play candy crush in the waiting room. The scan takes 10 minutes. I head to Steven’s to watch Muriel’s Wedding. I feel as perky as an Aussie bride. The prospect of liver cancer is evaporating.
It’s the day of the Rightful Lives exhibition launch. I wake up at 6.30 and tweet the life out of the exhibition link. I have a purpose. I buy Steven his pepperoni sticks for tomorrow. Three hours later, I’m sitting in the consultant’s room. The scan was good except. There’s a small tumour in my bladder. It’s got to come out quickly. He sticks his finger up my arse for good measure. I Google. Treatment for bladder cancer generally more successful than liver cancer. Something switches off. I tend to my affairs.
From the beginning I’ve had to chase up everything: the hospital referral, the scan date, the scan results. I get an operation date two days after seeing the consultant. A tiny waiting room. Lots of frightened men. Comforting wives, or in my case, my sister. I’m the last operation of the day. The supervisor of the recovery room shouts a lot. “I want trolley six out of here NOW. Move it”. On the ward, I’m nervous about looking down. I don’t want to see the catheter. I feel waves of disgust.
Next day and I’ve slept three hours. The pain is violent. The assassin arrives. They think there’s a blockage and she’s going to insert a bigger catheter. It takes 65 minutes. I hit the bed repeatedly. A kind nurse strokes my forehead. The assassin snaps at the nurse and reminds her that her job is to assist the doctor. I shake. I can’t catch my breath. I suspect I’m being traumatised. The assassin leaves. She hasn’t said a word to me during the whole 65 minute assault. Dr Ng arrives. Over time, he becomes my hero. If I’m prepared to take the risk, he’ll remove the new catheter. The relief is instant.
I’ve been home two days. I wake up at 00.30am. Someone has put my chest in a vice. My sheets are saturated in sweat. I’m scared to phone an ambulance. I might end up back under the assassin’s care. I do phone. The paramedics wire me up. I’m having a heart attack. They won’t let me walk down the stairs to the ambulance. The crash team are waiting for me in the car park. I can count 8 of them. My sister and Wayne have beat the ambulance. The surgeon talks to me all the way through the surgery. I like him. I might be dying but I feel safe.
It’s a different hospital to the bladder surgery. It’s like chalk and cheese. Everyone has time. I weep at people’s kindness. My razor has snapped in two in my toiletries bag. One of the nurses finds me a new one. I discuss musicals with the night sister. Everyone is happy with my recovery. I go home on 10th October. A bag full of medication. I throw my packet of cigarettes away whilst we wait for a taxi.
In four days, I had a tumour removed and had a heart attack.
Two weeks after the heart attack I go back to see the bladder surgeon. He hasn’t got my message about the heart attack. He is visibly shocked. He is grave. He apologizes for the catheter business. During the operation they discovered I still had a Urachus. 1 in a million of the population still have a Urachus after their birth. I’m one of them. In my Urachus was a tumour the size of a small melon. It was pressing on my bladder. The ward staff mistook the tumour for my bladder. I never needed to have the catheter changed. The surgeon is hopeful. It’s eminently operable. But not yet. I can’t come off the heart medication three weeks after starting. A good chance my heart wouldn’t survive another major operation so soon. Would I like to speak to a counsellor?
I join the cardiac rehab group. It’s useful. I like exercising. I look at my fellow 11 heart attack survivors. We don’t talk much. Just small talk about allotments and fried breakfasts. I’m on the trampette. I wonder who we are now. Who we were before our surgery. Talking about feelings isn’t part of the recovery programme. Someone mentions Brexit and it all gets very tense. Not very good for the blood pressure. I do some bicep curls with the 3kg dumbbells and reflect that I was using 15kg just three months ago. Loss seems to be occupying most of my thoughts.
I’ve got to wait until at least January and keep everything crossed that it doesn’t spread. I spend Christmas at Steven’s. I stay an extra day. I love him more than my repaired heart can bear. We have a John Travolta Christmas Day. Grease followed by Saturday Night Fever. I notice a tear escaping as Rizzo sings There Are Worst Things I Could Do. Excess chocolate keeps the tears at bay and we sing and dance to Stevie Wonder. It’s perfect. It may be my last Christmas. Wham!
6th January. The day before the operation. My last visit to Steven for two weeks. I want to hug but we don’t hug. We enact the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers instead. That’s as good as a cuddle. I go home and pack a bag.
There’s no time to get nervous. I’m scheduled first at 9.30. I wake up mid afternoon in intensive care. Lots of wires and tubes. A massive urine bag dangling over the side of the bed. A self administering morphine drip. A nurse makes me scrambled egg. They tell me the Urachus, the tumour and a quarter of my bladder have been removed. I’m alive.
The next day my book is published. My sister picks up a copy from home. The ward staff are interested. It gives us something to talk about besides blood thinning tablets. The ward round. I’m not filling up my bag enough. They want to fit a bigger catheter. I freeze and remain frozen for 90 minutes. I can’t say a word. Dr Ng appears. He does the whole change in 90 seconds. I grab his arm and tell him he’s exorcised my demon ghost. He’s not sure what to say. I celebrate by walking for the first time in 36 hours. The cardiac rehab nurse pops in to see me. Am terribly touched by everyone’s humanity. Six people on the ward die. The screens come round and it’s all hands on deck. Then the screens are pulled back. A nurse is changing the sheets. Another nurse is packing belongings into a bag. I witness this dance six times but I can’t get used to it.
I’m moved to the ward I’d been on back in October. It’s scary. Lots of alarms going off but nobody answering them. Where is everyone? A night nurse shouts at me for shitting my pyjamas. On a better day I’d smash his head into the wall. But I’m in pain from the catheter. I feel ashamed. I’m disgusted by my condition. The man in the opposite bed designs jigsaws for a living. My cousin visits. So do the support workers. My sister brings cheese sandwiches because the food is making me heave. I barely sleep for six nights. I want to escape like Steven did from the ATU but there’s no Take That singing The Flood to kick me up the arse. I’m discharged six days after the surgery.
Jayne turns up with a roast chicken dinner. I phone Steven and he tells me his best Richard Whiteley joke. I’m home. Four days later I contrive a trip to A&E because I can’t bear the pain of the catheter any longer. After 10 days, I struggle to pee straight. It goes everywhere: the wall, the floor, the cistern, my tracksuit. Everywhere but the specimen bottle. After 5 hours, 6 bottles of water and 4 mugs of coffee, I can go home. I can wear pants again. I can turn over in bed again. I sleep for 11 hours. The following week I have the staples removed. There are 32 of them. I can bend down to put my socks on. For three weeks, putting on socks had become a humiliating game of hoopla. The next day I reunited with Steven after two and a half weeks. He does enjoy a scar.
February and March. Back to Dr Ng (how do you pronounce that name?) Embarrassingly I can’t stop calling him “my hero”. The biopsies show the cancer hasn’t spread. What was there, is all out. Just twice yearly scans to be on the safe side. Discharged from the heart hospital. Completed a second batch of 12 sessions at the cardiac rehab group. And I turned 60. I’ve swapped a urachus for a freedom pass. Exchanged a tumour for free prescriptions. To mark the occasion I’ve treated myself to an antique writing bureau.
I’ve taken two weeks off work. A huge space has suddenly appeared and I need to stare into it. Even get into it. Brushes with death allegedly are meant to deliver a wisdom and calm that didn’t exist before. I know nothing. I feel a huge relief but I’m lost. I’m experiencing polarities more accutely than ever. I want to talk but I don’t want to talk. I want adventure but I want to lock myself away. You know when you’re driving to a funeral. Someone important has left your life but everyone walking down the road are carrying on as normal. Shopping. Arguing. Holding hands. Every day feels like that at the moment.
If you’ve got this far, thank you. I’m glad I can write about it. I’ve been writing this in a pub beer garden for the last three hours. I’m frozen. Time to go home.