Author Peter Wells was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and has found posting on Facebook about his treatment makes the experience easier to bear. He says the writing helps him to sort out things in his mind – ‘a sort of mental housecleaning’ – and the response he gets to the posts makes him feel connected and less alone. ‘In fact,’ he says, ‘it has been remarkably therapeutic.’ Here is one of those posts:
At times I open my eyes and I’m surprised to find I’m in a hospital room. I look around me and adjust. It’s by no means painful or awkward now – it’s just a new kind of normal – and I ask myself how I ended up here.
It takes a while for my mind to travel back, branching off at emergency stops, sudden moments of fright, meetings at which these fears seem addressed – only to find, later, the one small detail unaddressed that turned out to be the one significant thing that would pull you back into hospital.
Yet once you’re in here it’s such a self-sufficient self-perpetuating system it’s very tempting to give in. (The painkillers help.) It seems to function without you, yet you seem part of its function. Endless pleasant people appear to ask questions, often the same questions over again.
Occasionally you must disturb yourself, and you struggle in your hazy mind to connect the pertinent facts, so that the one unaddressed small problem does not open up before your feet again. (Hospice Pain Management seems so ideal but you have no reference point or address for example.)
You are either close to dying or you are infinitely distant. You are intimate now with the idea – but only the idea – of death and you are not sure you want to get any closer. Isn’t a vague impression kinder at times? Besides who can read the sentence? “I’m an eleven-year survivor of cancer,” an acquaintance said to me the other day. There are no rules. Take medicinal dope. Take turmeric. Just try and remember all the pills and what they’re meant to be doing to you and for you.
Be grateful. Be grateful you’re alive and we have a hospital system which still functions. Just be grateful.
And lie back on that bed in Ward 64, Room 5 thinking of all the stories you’ve heard, so spliced open in the urgency and heartbreak of the moment. Feel humble to be so near the human condition.
The painkiller eases your blood through your veins. You wonder if you’re not being sentimental. You wonder if you don’t actually like being removed from life and wrapped up in cotton wool and protected.
Then you hear the rattle of the wheels of the wheelchair coming closer. The orderly has arrived to wheel you down to ‘Transition’.
Transition is where you’re headed. The cotton wool is taken away. The plugs are taken out of your arms. You say – Iike a schoolboy leaving a boarding school he suspects he’ll never escape – cheerful goodbyes to strangers who you hope never to see again, at the same time accepting that when you do meet again, inevitably, you will be familiar and hail-fellow-well-met.
Then, at the last moment, that young doctor with a smooth face unfurrowed by life’s harsh teachings – the one who gave you marching orders this morning – pops back in. ‘By the way, have you got enough Sevredol [painkiller] to get on with at home?’ No Blanche du Bois could have answered with more sincerity.
This is a new kind of transition for me. In my memoir Dear Oliver I talk about how aging is as much a philosophical experience as a bodily one. Being sick, ill or whatever it’s called – experiencing cancer – is the same. It’s not only an illness, an attack, but it’s a kind of new learning, with all its ability to not connect, lose meaning or project new translucencies. I’m trying to listen, to hear, to negotiate what is patently a difficult and complex course. But it is also an education in the human emotions, not least of all, my own.
Peter Wells is an award-winning fiction writer, essayist and writer/director in film. His memoir Dear Oliver (Massey University Press) is due to be released in April 2018.
Text and images © Peter Wells.