The fourth instalment of Peter Wells’ diary of life with cancer, republished from his private Facebook with permission.
I’m the luckiest person on earth. I always feel this when I walk into our Napier house. It’s really where Douglas and I are truly at home. It’s a house we created together: our joint being expressed in the form of rooms, decor, furniture, books, art and a cat. We also have a house in Auckland which I know means we enter that percentage of greedy people who have two houses while many poor people don’t even have a house at all. But I thought I’d explain a little about what lies behind me feeling I’m the luckiest mortal alive when the key slides into the lock, the door opens back and I walk into the hall or a bedroom or the back room.
Having two houses comes from something I regard as a tragedy. My brother Russell died in 1989. He was on the threshold of a brilliant career, wherein his lawyerly skills, combined with his humanity and skill at te reo, would have set him up for the top echelon of a new Labour government. Instead he became HIV at a time of extreme stigma and he died in disgrace in the eyes of many people. Certainly he himself struggled with the abrupt end of his life (at 41) – an end to his promise. But when he died he left his house in Herne Bay to me and his partner, Chris. So if I was helped financially – as I was – this arose out of something that distorted my life and caused me grief, a wound that never really heals.
I eventually sold the Herne Bay house so I could pay for D’s mortgage on his own house in Greenlane. It also freed me up financially to live my life as I wanted. The income of the average writer is below the unemployment level. Now I could be independent.
So that is one part of the story. The other part of the story relates to our house in Napier. We bought this large Victorian home when it was a dump in three flats. I used some of the money from the house in Herne Bay. D had just got a job as director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery. We set to work returning the house to its original glory. It was back-breaking, slow and expensive work but we were fired by a vision. What fun we had going to the local auction house and making heart-thudding decisions to bid at auctions. I have to be honest and say this mutual pursuit of an ideal which did not yet exist lubricated our relationship so we sped into the future, fired by mad enthusiasms and ideas. There was always something to find, look at, think about. D is also a contrarian: he was against minimalism – instead he believed in maximalism, a drenching of the senses with scenarios built around atmosphere and a kind of decorative daring.
By the time my mother died I had the furniture and objects which came from my grandmother, my mother and my brother. Instead of being weighed down with a leaden sense of obligation, these things were integrated into the maximalist madness. I have a very sentimental attitude to family objects – almost a piety toward them. I like the memory held within a teacup.
Anyway slowly we built our mad kingdom, our folie a deux. The house here in Napier obliged, flattered to be so buffed up, looked at, thought about. It became our enchanted kingdom.
Then the council decided – and good on them – to develop a new museum and gallery. This was done but led to inevitable cost over-runs and then the inevitable controversy. What happened next was D became the scapegoat for one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Basically his career was ruined; the council paid for the ever duplicitous Wellington consultants to come up to Napier to sing the council’s tune; everything was D’s fault. D went from being one of the foremost commentators on design and modernism to someone gutted by a callow and bigoted set of provincials intent on one thing only – saving their own arses while making sure D took all the blame. It was ugliness incarnate.
In the end D resigned. Napier became tainted as the site of a disaster. But could we allow those curs to taint our house, our magic kingdom? No. We would not let the bastards destroy that too. We kept on living here, albeit part-time, and the magic runes of the house lulled us, soothed us and welcomed us back into a set of values we understood and appreciated. So that is another story which goes towards explaining why I feel I’m the luckiest mortal alive when I walk into the Napier house. There’s a whole history there – of survival, persistence as well as what you might call aesthetic victory – a preference for the hidden mysteries of style over barbarism. And what at first appears as privilege – and I would not deny it is privilege – has to be set beside the fact it is a privilege we’ve paid for, earned bitterly, at times against the odds. Privilege too has its price.
As for feeling lucky… Yes I know I have cancer and I know I’m in this space – God knows how long it will last – wherein I actually feel quite good and my back isn’t a pitchfork of agony, but I’m also aware that I don’t know what lies ahead yet. But even so, against all this – and I know it makes me loathsomely Pollyanna-ish – I still feel I’m the luckiest mortal alive simply because, dammit, I’m alive and I could well be dead. So I might as well enjoy living in this beautiful house which breathes as the soul of two lovers.
Letting go. I’m sorting through my papers at the moment for the obvious reason. They’ve been stacked in the back shed, placed within plastic boxes according to some law of logic which now eludes me. Now each box is dragged onto the back table and I excavate. It’s both nauseating and exciting. Nauseating because it’s the mess of your past, the turns not taken, the botched plans that never went anywhere, the wryness of wrecked hopes. Exciting because you forget so much – you’re forced to forget just to go on living (if we kept full consciousness we’d go mad.) But there they are, the tickets to the Biedermeier exhibition you saw in Vienna alongside a Schiele show with a forgotten five Euro note. Or things you’d forgotten like an entire project which never went anywhere even though you had to argue right through to the High Court to get access.
There are the odd letters and notes found. A fax I sent to D when I was marooned at the Adelaide Writers Festival, sharing a session with Arundhati Roy (cold, snobbish) and feeling lonely (“the only one I want is you”), the card I gave my mother when I nervously brought out my first novel.
There’s a whole professional history there – different drafts of Des Remedies and A Death in the Family as well as notes on a film group back in 1985 when we were fighting for short film to get recognition from the Film Commission (at a time it had no presence.) I always seemed to be fighting for something.
A lot goes into the bin – duplicates, stuff no longer relevant. Joyfully all my tax details from a much earlier time. Those dead, dead cheque books like vanquished tongues.
I always knew I’d have to start gleaning things, reducing, sending things away, apportioning among archives and sorting out what is strictly personal or autobiographical (and what goes into the trash.) Will I be like Walter Nash who kept every bus ticket? What might a future biographer want to know, even assuming such a person were to exist? The letter forgotten between the pages of something entirely boring? I have tended to be very openly autobiographical most of my life so there will be, in most cases, very few surprises. And perhaps in some senses these very postings are my own act of letting go – a personal auto da fe whereby I lose my sensibilities to do with what is best kept private, indecently or decently withheld?
Letting go for me is a very relaxing business, partly because I have resisted it so much all my life. But now is the time for cleansing, sorting, throwing away and shuffling the essentials into the “keep” pile. This will go on for days and weeks, maybe all year, the piles reduced according to a new form of logic which will emerge as I attempt to tidy my life away so I can make, or at least attempt to make, a reasonably clean exit.
Is there such a thing as cancer euphoria? There was apparently such a thing as TB euphoria. It was one of the things which powered Katherine Mansfield’s tremulous, poignant writings towards the end of her life. I understand the mood. Everything appears almost unbearably beautiful, precious. You’re too happy to the point of it being painful. Everything around you appears beautiful.
But I’ve never heard of cancer euphoria. Cancer as a word is ugly, black in colour, bleak and lacking light. It’s not associated with lyricism. And I cannot think offhand of any writer suffering cancer who has written significantly about cancer. I mean outside of “cancer diaries”, a title I find – how can I say this – loathsome? I myself am said to be writing “a cancer diary” and my early Spinoff writings were introduced as much. This is despite my saying to Steve Braunias that the title made me vomit. I hated the idea. Why? Because all of life is reduced to one plaint. I’m more than my cancer, I hope. In fact if these postings have had any subliminal message it is that I have a life so much more wide ranging than this one terrible disease. Yet I am my disease too. I am its mortality. And there seems no easy way round a quick definition. “A diary of a literary gent, an almost famous-homo, lover of cats and décor who incidentally has a terminal disease which preoccupies him day by day, hour by hour.”
I saw Simon Wilson’s cancer diary in the Herald on Saturday, felt sorry to hear that he too has this fucking stupid disease. I sped-read his piece and marvelled at the difference between men, authors, people (of course.)
Simon is a wonderful writer, undoubtedly one of the best journalists in New Zealand. His writing is always limpid, highly intelligent, and he manages to make complex situations comprehensible which, God knows, is a great gift. His approach to his diagnosis is less emotional than mine, more fact-based, more transactional, you might say.
On the same day there was Stephen Fry doing a public outing of the fact he also has prostate cancer. This was an excruciating live to camera performance which I don’t doubt he already bitterly regrets. Somehow he can’t make the transition from man of famous bonhomie to the humiliating details to do with cancer which affects a gland within the anus. There’s no transition here between wit and something which does not require the cosmetics of wit, only clarity. How do we speak? How do we say what we have to say?
Every civilised man needs a good woman friend. My great friend for the past 25 years has been the distinguished writer, Shonagh Koea.
We clicked when we met at, of all things, a wedding. (I say this because weddings seem like the picking fields of her novels.) I had read her latest novel, a marvellously fruity affair called Staying Home and Being Rotten (her titles are always small masterpieces. Yet Another Ghastly Christmas is from her oeuvre.) Nobody was writing like Shonagh in New Zealand at the time. She was witty and highly observant of the foibles of every day life. Shonagh herself was distinctive, with thick black hair and the sardonically amused look of a Roman emperor or empress who had come to live among ordinary folks and come to accept their mistakes.
It turned out she grew up in Hawke’s Bay so we had a mythos to share. I am unsure now how we came to write letters to one another. But very quickly we were writing letters each week, even if we were in the same city. There was a lot to comment on: literary parties attended with the usual rash of bad behaviour; ordinary apercu about daily living; writerly problems. Shonagh was far ahead of me as a novelist and her letters were like an informal guidebook to her highly idiosyncratic methods of composition.
Shonagh, it turned out, also had a great streak of kindness and she was very kind to me when, as always in life, I trudged through some seemingly impenetrable crisis. She had the advantage of being slightly older than me and her wisdom was accrued from a life not only well lived but tried at times by great difficulties. We laughed a lot. And we also had an abiding love of cats – the silence of cats, the companionship of cats, the wisdom of cats. When our respective cats died we shared an empathy of grief. She understood pain both human and animal.
But now we arrive at what seems a problem. I have safely within a box in the watertight back shed not hundreds but thousands of letters from Shonagh (just as she had 1000s of letters from me.) D when he is being amusing says he plans to live off the income of the edited letters of PW and SK.
In fact we have both informally agreed that the letters go to an archive of our choice. So there is no problem. It’s just the sheer vastness of the correspondence which sometimes seems daunting. (52 weeks a year, at least a letter a week, times 25 years…) It’s a risky business, saving letters, as they tend to backfire. Look at Philip Larkin and his crummy letters to his secretary Monica Jones.
It’s a huge risk in these highly judgmental times. One wrong sentence and it’s off with your head. In writing the letters have we actually created a noose to be placed, at leisure, round our necks at some later date? Or is it publish and be damned? One can always specify the letters are to be consulted only. It’s an intriguing question and one Shonagh and I have not yet discussed. (The letters were written for the joy of communication with no sense of an end-point.)
I could not have had a kinder friend. Really through Shonagh’s agency I found excellent specialists in Auckland when I was numb with shock and insensible as to what to do when I got my initial diagnosis. With my cancer she has been astute, endlessly patient and deeply understanding. I only ever had one sibling and he died long, long ago now. Shonagh is by way of a sibling I never had.
For no particular reason D had started to feel weak, directionless, lacking enjoyment in everyday things. To me it seemed inexplicable, worrying. There seemed no obvious reason which only made the situation worse. Then I had a sudden perception: he was exhausted by the long term task of looking after me. It had been going on now for five long months. We had moved beyond the excitements of crisis and the terror of the diagnosis. We had clung together tremulously, barely able to breathe when it was all happening. Miraculously he never faltered.
Without my ever asking he took on the burden of looking after me. He began cooking, which was something I had always enjoyed doing. More than this he began to cook really beautiful vegetarian meals. It took me a long time to work out this was in response to his understanding of the role of overconsumption of meat in relation to cancer. I had just thought it was part of a personal predilection – he liked vegetarian food because it was slimming and he was going through a gym phase. (The blindness of a partner – too close to actually see.)
Suddenly I saw what I had hitherto been blind to. I was exhausting him just as my mother had exhausted me. I understood too something deeper about this state of exhaustion because I myself had been through it. You are caught in this eternally incomplete state whereby you wanted the person to stay alive, you wanted them to stay well, you wanted to go on loving them but you also subconsciously knew the only relief you were ever going to get was when they died: this marked the finite point of the endless tension. But this in itself was shocking. So you were caught inbetween two powerful emotions, one apparent, one barely glimpsed.
I am not saying of course that D is waiting for me to die. That would be grotesque. But from my own experience with my mother, I did understand the conflicted emotions involved in looking after someone in a terminal condition (as in fact extreme old age is). You had to keep going, you had to keep being cheerful or at least not depressed. You had to provide support, the nourishment of love: but what about you, the essence of you? Was that being fed, allowed to live, allowed to feel free? In that lies the great problem of these situations.
One is bound together by love: death to a degree is the solution but also – and this is what is so painful – it is the very thing you dread, the very thing that will end what is both a beautiful companionship and a duty so harsh it almost kills you. How to balance the two so that one does not eat away at the other? How to stay alive with all your emotions in tact?
Now it was my turn to nourish, to look at him carefully in silence and try and work out what was best to do so we both flourish, one supporting the other.
I was interviewed a few days ago by Steve Braunias, books editor at the Spinoff, the day after chemo number 3. It was a strange process. The interview took over three hours as the email questions and answers passed between us. I took some time to frame my replies though I’m usually quick on the trigger with replies. The final questions I found very difficult to answer as it covered territory I had never thought of – or at least seen in that way. It is hard not to feel naked in these situations.
Steve Braunias is a very different man to me. Once in the past we fell out completely. But since he offered to put Hello Darkness online I have felt – not an obligation to him, but a responsiveness I might otherwise not have had. We have buried whatever our hatchet was. Putting Hello Darkness online under the Spinoff moniker gave it a kind of impetus and sent the diary/journal/postings out into the wider world in a way that I really appreciated.
So this interview is a meeting of minds between two very different men, each seeing the world pretty much completely differently but agreeing to meet for the purposes of discussion. This seems pretty civilised to me.
“You look so well!” I’m so often greeted with these words. It’s my low level paranoia which dictates an accusation in the words. Shouldn’t I be “looking sick” whatever that means? Pale, hobbling, visibly in decline? Am I some kind of fraud, milking the sympathy of the public while secretly being actually quite healthy? The fact is I continue to look surprisingly well – most days. I still have wisps of hair after my third chemo.
But this isn’t the full story. There is a behind-the-scenes reality which is less roseate. This is the one D is privy to, when I awaken full of aches and feeling incoherent, hardly a whole person. I only need to forget my pills once for my body to react with a vengeance. It’s frightening, my dependence on long-release morphine. I revert very quickly to the state I was in when it all began. So the bone pain is always just hovering there awaiting its moment to force an entrance. I’m not complaining, just commenting on my reality.
So this photo [below] is by way of a…..corrective. It’s me feeling crook. The inside reality. After my third chemo I seemed to suffer from a deep tiredness. So deep I could barely summon up the energy to move from one room to another. I also had thrush really badly in my mouth. It’s so demoralising when you can’t speak or eat, two of my favourite activities. So this is the obverse of my “looking so well” in public. It’s an act – but a very good act. And like all actors in the end sometimes I can’t tell which part is truth, which is fiction.
Often I’m looking well partly because I’m out in the world and I’m reminded that I’m alive and not in the isolation unit of my bedroom or at home. There’s some sort of adrenalin involved in being part of the theatre of everyday life. So I guess I just get off on being let out into the real world which strikes me as slightly miraculous.
March 14, 2:04am
“But do you make a living?” I wonder how many visiting architects, lawyers, even sportsmen and women are asked this question. Yet at a certain level of journalism it is de rigueur for the visiting writer. I call it the revenge of the journalist-who-once-dreamt-of-being a writer.
You may be talking to someone who hasn’t “had time to read your book” but they hold the upper hand as they run through a series of questions which go from “did you always want to write” to “which is your favourite book’ before swinging off into ‘have any of your books sold well?” (made money.) This, again, is from the journalist who hasn’t actually read your book. It’s a species of low level humiliation, whereby the lack of intellectual vitality of the community is revealed by the lack of interest in the journalist. “This is another job” seems to hover just beyond the perimeter of his questions. Of course, since he has not read the book – he has barely read the press pack – he can’t ask any questions about the book. ‘What’s the press reaction to the book been then?’ was a further crafty question meant to reduce the author to a quivering mess. “Well, it went on the book shelves yesterday…’
And so it went on, a press interview in an undisclosed town somewhere in the North Island. Later I went for a walk by the sea which, post storm, had the most magnificent waves. I stood there a long while and looked at the waves unfolding. Gradually I felt myself again.
March 19, 1:52pm
In Wellington inbetween running here there and everywhere I had time for a catch-up with Georgina Beyer who I’ve known since the time she appeared in Jewel’s Darl (1987), a friendship which went on through her years of celebrity of being the first trans MP in the world. Georgie Girl, the doco that Annie Goldson and I co-directed, recorded some of the dilemmas of that time – and onwards till now when we are both experiencing health challenges.
Georgie had a new kidney last year and is settling into that, and of course me with cancer. We had a lot to talk about, reminisce but also in a way celebrate – a good long friendship with something almost shy at its heart – a concern for the other person even though our lives are very different. We asked the waitress to take our photo and here we are, two people getting on in years, but determined to enjoy the sunshine and the experience of an enriching friendship.
March 20, 12:40pm
Tomorrow’s my book launch and today I feel like shit. I’m back to the “stomach upset” blues, a particularly levelling complaint. I end up feeling weak and dirty as old dishwater. Tomorrow, too, I’m having a CT scan – that’s how my launch day begins. I have to fast from 8.30am to have the scan at 10am. This was one of the very early scans I had, when it all began. It won’t be as frightening – I’m an old hand now. But my mood is all over the place.
It doesn’t help that I saw on Facebook just before that David Calquhoun has died in Masterton Hospital. I knew him primarily from the Alexander Turnbull Library. It was he you dealt with when selling manuscripts. He was a lean sprinter of a man, slightly nervous – but this was about him doing the right quintessential thing. I hesitate to say it as it is no longer regarded as a quality, but he was a “gentleman”, intelligent, fair and sensitive.
I also had a much more personal connection. During the Springbok tour, during the Hamilton game, I was outside the stadium with friends. We managed to pull down a wire fence and then we all ran towards the stadium. I was a fast runner and got to the parked trucks first. But as I looked down the chasm between trucks, I saw police with their truncheon type weapons ready. I had so much momentum up I was poised to run into the chasm. But David, who I knew only by sight, grabbed hold of the back of my outfit and yanked me backwards. He saved me. This was such an instinctive but kind action. In the melee of the afternoon I never thanked him. I thank him now.
I’m sorry for this melancholy undertow. I finally listened to my interview with Kim Hill this morning and was heartened that I didn’t make a complete fool of myself. She seemed in a positively jolly mood and I said “yes yes yes” much too often. I found it odd being treated as a terminal case, as someone, in the longer or shorter term, dying, as this is not the way I conceptualise my life.
March 27, 2:49am
Can I cope with good news? I’ve inured myself by wearing a raincoat of disbelief – by soldiering forth in a stony haze of obliviousness – what do I do when good news turns up?
I’m writing this in the chemotherapy room which is more like a kitchen at a church hall during a women’s parishioners meet. There’s a lot of laughter and it’s almost carelessly cheerful.
Today when I met with the oncologist she told me my CT scan had come back delivering the good news that my cancer tumours had shrunk by half, that all other aspects were as positive.
She even went so far as to describe the scan as “beautiful”. Can a scan be beautiful? Certainly, when it delivers such stellar results.
I sat there stupefied, incapable of asking the meaning of this in terms of the bigger picture (why rain on my own parade?) I have been told so often I look so well (suspiciously well?) that now it can be confirmed that my cancer is not advancing at a fast pace but – maybe? Momentarily? Long term? – has lurched to a halt. Let’s not ask now whether it is momentary or permanent. Let’s not ask any of those drizzling questions but accept that, for this day now, this week now, my luck has held.
I still have another half hour in chemotherapy till I can get out. I won’t run or jump or leap or cry. I’m too used to living with my condition for that. Besides, as always, nobody will answer the big question: how long have I got? Is it in fact a question that has an answer? And that the scale is more elastic than I had previously thought? Does one swallow make a summer? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. That titanic life force that pervaded my mother’s life has leapt into mine. I cannot stride but I can walk.
March 28, 4:45am
The waiting room is a place of many private moods. There is no cross chat between we people waiting. There is however discreet surveillance. This goes along the lines of: which one has it (nearly every one is in pairs) and how bad are you? Where do you fit on the trajectory of cancer? For example yesterday there was a desperately thin young woman in a summery flute of a frock. She was so weak she had to be helped along. For someone like this we both gaze hungrily – so this is what it’s like – but look away, as it is a heart breaking spectacle. Even to be seen like that is an affront for the wounded.
The waiting room is always quiet though there is innocuous pop music playing. There is art on the walls, up to date magazines (though as D pointed out, not the mag with the cover that said “This is the only woman who made the Queen cry”). By such trivialities we divert ourselves. The receptionist is vague: she’s too busy on the phone and does not recognise you, even though, by now, you have been coming there quite a few times. Besides, you’re vulnerable.
We’re all sitting in the waiting room waiting to see the oncologist who will determine our progress – or rather illuminate our progress or lack thereof. We’re impatient, all of us though we all mimic people who are busy reading magazines. Every so often a side door bursts open – these people have a different rule of silence – and it’s someone from the chemotherapy room. This is a site of busyness, of activity, of doing. This is a place where bells ring and people come and go.
But we wait in silence.
Suddenly my oncologist appears outside her office door. She is smiling but she is often smiling so I don’t make much of this. She has to smile, sympathetically, through all sorts of failings, humiliations. But today once we sit down and the door is closed – this closing of the door is always an important part of the ritual as what we are to talk about can be painful – she appears positively rhapsodic. She quickly explains the wonderful news. I have trouble hearing for some reason. But I do hear “tumours shrunken in half”.
She talks further, illustrating the CT report but I can’t really comprehend the medical terminology but again I hear “shrunken in size”. This is related again and again. But somehow I am locked like a machine which can’t quickly adapt.
“That’s wonderful,” my lips say and I turn to D and say, “It’s wonderful isn’t it?” I’m dazed. The oncologist is so happy, she’s a hay bale ablaze in summer sunlight, she’s a circus turn at the highest height doing dazzling turns. But I am somehow slow to catch up. She asks if I have any ongoing problems. Not really, apart from my usual reaction to chemo which is diarrhoea. She suggests I take medication for it in advance. But what does it mean a voice says in my head. Am I going to live now? I don’t dare ask this outrageously naked question. But what does it mean? I seem to be coming awake now. Will I live? Will I be alive for longer now, guaranteed? Or is nothing guaranteed? But I’m much too well bred – too timid – to ask this huge question.
We discover I only have two more chemotherapy sessions to go, not six. It’s clear the session is over. Time is money. And I need to go in for my chemotherapy session. We say our goodbyes. Yes, we all agree. It’s wonderful news. Wonderful.
Only later, much later, does it occur to me the oncologist was so rhapsodically happy because how often did she have the chance to deliver good news? How much of her professional life was made up of mediating between terrible news and some slim hope – between possible improvements against devastating impossibilities. I had been obdurate in not joining in, in supplementing her very real burst of happiness. I had been slow and dazed, almost disbelieving. But for her it was a rare holiday in hope. She had a right to be so riotously happy. I see that now over my left shoulder as I advance into a new day, lighter, more buoyant. Yes, I am alone now. It is a day later. The news has sunk in. Yes I can cry. And so, I am afraid, dear readers, I bawl on my own, only now realising the weight I’ve been living under ever since October last year.
April 2, 5:27am
There have been three very favourable reviews of Dear Oliver – Linda Herrick in the Listener, Tilly Lloyd on Newstalk ZB, and David Hill’s review in the Herald is generous and good-willed, qualities you don’t often meet in a book review – and today I learned it’s number one on the Indie Book List.
I’m very quietly thrilled about both the reviews and being number one. I feel like a child who runs away in a playground or park to secretly open a present completely on his own, so as to luxuriate in something that otherwise might be snatched away or disproven. The fact is I can hardly believe it.
I heard today that Hello Darkness, the Spinoff’s edited version of these postings, is a finalist in the 2018 Voyager Media Awards. It’s in the personal essay section. I’m pretty thrilled as I had been sitting on my bed, Googling life expectancy rates with Stage IV D prostate cancer. I realise this seems a hyper-morbid thing to be doing.
But I go through these stages of trying to work out exactly what is happening. I really don’t know. Am I in remission? Or am I….
I’ll pop in a post here I wrote ages ago but felt I shouldn’t post. It’s about my dilemma.
Do I believe I am going to die in the next few years? Some part of me has to be prepared for this. Metastatic prostate cancer that has entered the bones is notorious for its ruthless speed.
But do I think I will somehow be excepted? Yes, in some deep prehistoric part of my brain I feel I will not die. This is the spoilt me, the prima donna me, the one who calls out: SURELY NOT ME! ANYONE BUT ME! I feel deeply offended by the idea.
Well, why this literary pose then that you are close to dying or at least intimate with the idea? Am I being counterfeit, maximising public sympathy, milking it while secretly having tickets on the fact I might be alive in twenty years’ time, boring everyone senseless? It’s so hard to work out and in that lies the precise problem. No one will tell me ‘how long I’ve got’. At times I feel astonishingly strong and vital. The blood of my peasant ancestors pours through my veins. I will live forever, I feel when I’m like this. Then it only needs the smallest upset and my vulnerability is pathetically revealed. The curtain slides up almost with malevolence. I gaze on the theatre of death, the characters welcoming me in. “Not yet,” I cry out. “Not yet – give me some more time. I need…I need to do…(anything almost so long as I can stay alive.)”
So where am I? A counterfeit personality milking the public’s sympathy? An emotional carpetbagger, a liar? Or someone confused about exactly where he stands? Maybe I’ll be doing handstands in ten years time? I just don’t know. I just don’t know.
(When the Manaaki Programme arrived from Mercy Hospice I felt a sense of outrage when I saw in it a sub-bracket termed Planning Ahead and what did it say but “Funeral Planning.” I just looked at it and gasped. Surely this doesn’t mean me? Am I meant to be planning my funeral already? Like Alice I cry: I won’t! I won’t!! I won’t!!!)
I do however try to live looking in two directions – forwards and – not backwards (though I enjoy looking into the past which suddenly reveals itself as unexpectedly rich – I seem to understand it better – I feel through the layers to a personal truth that eluded me before). But I also look into a dark unknown, trying to make myself a little more familiar with its shape. Bess, my mother, helped me there though I have no illusion that dying isn’t messy, chaotic, dirty. After all, it is decomposition, reduction. It is removal ultimately. Does it help to live so openly on the page? Yes, it does for me. It helps me to speak. I don’t want to be frightened by a noisy silence. I’d rather gabble. I’d rather sing. I’d rather do almost anything than face that long dark frozen silence ahead.
Not that it is long and dark and frozen. I understand that. It’s a return to animal matter. As Oliver Sacks says, humans share 70% of their DNA with plants and animals. We’re all part of one big beautiful motion through time, so my dropping away or returning to matter isn’t that significant…except personally and to the few people to whom I matter. But that’s a different kettle of fish. But as for the specifics – the specifics of time – it’s so haunting. Nobody can say precisely. And in that lies its own dilemma – living with uncertainty, living day by day, not looking ahead but living in the present. Isn’t there something to say for that, however? Living in the present. Particularly today…
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books, where you can buy Peter Wells’ new book Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā history (Massey University Press, $39.99).
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.