28 November 2010

Toast, Ribena and Beer

Two and a half weeks ago, I padded into the kitchen in my pyjamas and proceeded to make tea and toast. Blinking myself awake like a sleepy bear, I spread butter on the first slice with my clumsy morning fingers and managed to rather expertly flip the piece of toast out of my grip. It cartwheeled through the air and came to rest on the floor...butter side up!

I deduced that this was a victory of epic proportions and surely signified my mastery of The Fates. Munching my now-salvaged toast, I swaggered into the bedroom and sat down at the computer desk, grinning broadly and thoroughly enjoying my new found status as a master of the universe, able to bend physics and accepted-wisdom to my will.

Unfortunately, when extraordinary good fortune comes your way, life seeks balance. Chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect, call it what you will, but a price must be paid.

At 7 am I received a telephone call. Lifting my mobile, I looked at the display and saw the name 'Carol' flashing up. My heart sank.

Carol is my Dad's partner and I could think of only one reason she would be phoning me at this time of the morning - something was wrong.

She explained to me that my Dad had been rushed into A&E the previous night with chest pains and extreme difficulty breathing. After various tests and an x-ray, they detected that he had pneumonia.

This was not the sort of news I wanted to hear.

Since then, it's been a hectic and upsetting fortnight.

My father's pneumonia was due to a severe drop in his immune system. That sort of thing doesn't just happen by itself, so tests were performed on his blood as well as a rather painful procedure that involved corkscrewing a small amount of bone marrow out of his hip, something that he didn't particularly savour.

A few days later, I received a telephone call at work from Carol. My father's condition had deteriorated and he'd been in a lot of pain, so could I leave work and go to the hospital? I didn't need to be asked twice.

It was a strange, surreal journey during which I juggled various possibilities around in my head, trying to find the best way to deal with it all.

Walking nervously into his hospital room, I found my Dad sitting up in a chair, pyjama'd and dressing gown'd, reading his Kindle and sipping a cup of tea. I almost cried with relief. Unfortunately, that relief was very short lived. The test results had come back, he explained to me. There was an underlying cause to his reduced immunity. The doctors had diagnosed him with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

For the briefest moment, my face crumpled and tears sprang to my eyes, before something inside me sharply said, "No. Don't do that. He doesn't need your tears and self pity, he needs strength and support." I sniffed my tears away and nodded.

"Right," I said, "so at least we know what we're battling against. How are they going to cure it?"

Almost two weeks later, he's been treated with chemotherapy, which is still ongoing. I always envisaged large machines, white-coated serious-faced technicians and plastic tents like something from E.T. The reality, of course, is rather less impressive. Two to three times a day, they inject him with what looks suspiciously like Ribena, and then he carries on reading his Kindle, playing games on his iPod Touch or watching films on his portable DVD player - he really is a fan of technology, frequently purchasing items that I enviously examine with squint-eyed desire.

They've let him come home a couple of times on day release which has been a huge morale boosting exercise for him. He's reclined on the sofa, by a roaring coal fire, watching his favourite TV programmes on Sky+ and eating hearty cooked breakfasts. I can't begin to describe how important that's been for him, and I honestly think it will have an enormous impact on how he deals with this disease.

I've spent the last week and a half sleeping on the sofa at his house, whilst working from one of my employers offices based at Kingston, only a mile from the hospital (my employers have been fantastic and I'm so glad that we have various offices dotted around the country that allow remote working). The net result of this is that I now have the posture of an 80-year old man and an almost inexhaustible supply of cat hair on every item of clothing I own.

Early Googling of Leukemia revealed to me that recovery rates are 40%. Further Googling, once additional details were known, raised the probability to between 50-70%. However, the doctors completed further tests and, based on his general health, they've given him an 88% chance of complete recovery. When he told me that, I went outside and, for the first time, broke down in tears. I refuse to cry for the bad things that might happen, but I will shed a tear out of happiness when good news comes our way. One of my favourite movie quotes is from The Spanish Prisoner, a David Mamet film, in which the fantastic Ricky Jay says, "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." Truer words were rarely spoken.

My personal coping mechanism has been to compartmentalise the whole issue. My father may die, but that has been put away in a corner of my brain because, currently, it's a possibility that I refuse to acknowledge. Instead, in my mind, the outcome is very simple. He will continue to receive treatment, and the cancer will be beaten into submission. He will then be released from hospital for a period of rest and relaxation. Shortly afterwards, he will return to work and everything will become normal once more. That is the only possible outcome because, quite simply, the alternative is unthinkable.

I'm uncertain whether my coping mechanism exhibits extraordinary reserves of personal strength that I never knew existed, or whether it's simply a case of obstinately refusing to accept reality, arms folded like a recalcitrant child, eyes squeezed shut, endlessly shouting "la la la la la, not listening, la la la la." I suspect the latter, but will claim the former.

And that's how it currently stands. This blog post is, of course, a much truncated version of events and I've decided not to bore you all with too many details. Hopefully, however, it explains why I've not posted anything for the last few weeks and, most likely, won't post anything for a few more months to come.

For now, everything is a blur of activity with little time for thought or relaxation. But one thought stays in my mind's eye, carrying me forward through this: By the summer, I shall walk into a beer garden, sun warming my face, holding two pints of bitter. I'll look over and there at a table my father will be sitting playing with his latest electronic purchase. He'll look up and grin, and then we'll sit down and drink our beer together; a father and son enjoying each other's company in the bright sunshine. I'm very much looking forward to that.