The Thunderclap

 In Life Junctions, Vignettes

Sparkler (Kelly Bozarth)This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.

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Have you ever been afraid, as an adult? Our lives run along and from the outside often seem unaffected by incident. Perhaps we maintain a front but are profoundly changed within; perhaps we radically alter our lives and make that our new normality.

Once when I was afraid it was accompanied by a thunderclap. Readers should rightly roll their eyes at such a cliché, yet in my diary for that Monday I recorded,

Saw the Macmillan Nurse Sarah-Jane rather than the doctor this time. Biopsy results partially analysed. Not lymphoma but a malignant tumour stretching from my neck to my chest, and pushing into my windpipe and lungs. I can visualise it now. Oddly, there is a clap of thunder as she is explaining things, so I say, “That’s not a good omen!” More blood tests follow. Should have the final results this Thursday.

There was a single puffy cloud in the blue April sky and no hint of a storm, no obvious reason for a thunderclap, but it was portentous. Two potentially life-changing processes that intertwined through the same weeks of March and April would come to a head on exactly the same day: this Thursday. One was an application to become a civilian interpreter in southern Iraq, to try and use my language skills to help the situation there. I’d passed and might be going out within a month. This Thursday however I phoned to cancel my application; for the cancer was confirmed. “Curable: the kind we would have wished for”, she smiled, and I was relieved and forlorn at the same time.

I had no idea when I bought my 2004 diary that I would record so much detail in it. The banalities of normal life, the conversations, meals, train times are all there. I’d given a successful talk at the Egyptian Embassy just days before my first doctor’s appointment in March, but that was soon forgotten in the ensuing round of blood tests and escalating medical appointments.

I didn’t want to wallow or be bitter or sad, but they are all in my diary alongside my doubts, high emotions and, most of all, my fear. I had to weigh how much to tell and how to be with family and friends and colleagues and medical staff and other patients. It wasn’t necessarily a decision to ‘be positive’ in order to ‘fight the cancer’. It was more that I felt I had the power and responsibility to help those around me deal emotionally with my illness, to choreograph.

That wasn’t helped by suffocating so obviously, as the tumour continued to spread and push against my lungs. I wheezed, then found it harder to walk, and couldn’t walk up the steps at the station or at work, and then I had to stop work; and then had to stop walking. I had a fearful taste of life for a few weeks as an old and infirm geriatric. I was scared by a gang of teenagers one day. I couldn’t do things for myself I had taken for granted. Worst of all, I couldn’t plan a future anymore.

If I hadn’t been fit and running through the winter and reported a slight wheeze in early March, my diagnosis would have come a month later than it did. Even so, it was touch and go to be admitted in time for my first bout of chemotherapy, of three, successful, and then a long five years to be finally discharged.

Humility is the legacy of that fearful time. From being vigorous, independent and driven I became an invalid grateful for the kindness of strangers; the love of family and friends. Most of all I’m grateful for the connection I felt to others then and since; even conversations with fellow patients on the wards who passed soon after. I didn’t want to stop: I’d hardly begun to live yet. In the busy rush of life, I sometimes sit and drift away to those few short weeks, and recall the fear and the humility: the sudden thunderclap in a clear blue sky.

Goldfinch Line

This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.

  1. The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
  2. Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
  3. Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
  4. Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
  5. Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
  6. Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
  7. The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
  8. You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
  9. On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)

Photo credit Kelly Bozarth here.

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