As the clock ticked away, 2020 turned into a blur, morphing seamlessly into 2023. My life began to resemble a repetitive pattern – a dose of acid drops, a little prod here, a flash of the camera there, the shrieking machine, and then the solar glare. The noisy doughnut and I became well-acquainted pals, greeting each other like old friends every six months.
Yet, something about the system bothered me. Why were there no results? As a seasoned engineer, it was bizarre – the code of silence, only to be broken if the news was ominous. What if the results fell through the cracks? Got lost in the shuffle or misdirected by the Post Office? The thought of me lounging around, assuming all was well because of no news, while the opposite could be true, was unsettling. It felt like a recipe for disaster. I wanted a straight answer, whether good or bad. That’s the only way it made sense.
But life, with its peculiarities, had other plans. My left eye had started giving me trouble. The pain was evident when I’d look upwards with my eyes shut or dared to apply the slightest pressure on it with a probing finger. My better half, Helen, suggested the simple yet effective solution of not jabbing my finger into my eye. Womanly wisdom at its finest – hard to contest.
During one of my routine visits, I shared my woes with the doctor, who seemed surprisingly nonchalant about my complaint, an uncharacteristic shift from his usual attentive demeanour. Nevertheless, he arranged for the routine liver scan and included a brain and orbit scan as well.
Life proceeded at its usual pace, but I started noticing subtle shifts. My perception of distance was skewed. I’d reach out for something and unintentionally topple the item in front. Each mishap was a bitter reminder of the abilities I’d lost. My vision was now akin to a moth’s – anything less than the brightness of a thousand candles was lost on me. Even locating a black sock on a dark carpet became a Herculean task – my previous ‘man-looking’ now seemed like an episode from CSI.
My juggling talent, nurtured one Christmas day when I’d received a set of juggling balls, was now a relic of the past. Catching a single airborne ball seemed impossible, let alone keeping track of multiple ones.
And that massive letter A at the top of the sight test board? Using just my left eye, I could barely make it out at just one metre away. At the full three metres, I couldn’t even make out the shape of the board, let alone discern any of the bloody letters.
Then came the hardest blow – driving. As a young boy, I’d sit next to my father, watching him manoeuvre the car effortlessly. I could predict every gear shift, mimicking his footwork in my head even before understanding the logic behind it. Over the years, I’d savoured the thrill of controlling anything on wheels, embracing the speed, concentration and precision it demanded.
But now, that joy was fading. I’d hesitate at junctions, triple-checking both ways for hidden dangers in my blind spot. Overtaking became a daunting task. Judging the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles was a struggle. The open road, which once brought me immense pleasure, was now a glaring symbol of my loss.
It wasn’t the ominous thunk of bad news-bearing mail landing on the doormat that signalled my fate, but rather, the ring of the phone. That call. The one where the secretary, carrying the unmistakable scent of sterilised hospital corridors even through the phone, informs you the doc needs a chat. Not a casual chat, mind you, but a let’s-meet-tomorrow kind of serious tête-à-tête.
Inside, my mind was screaming, “Oh, Shit!” But the voice that squeezed past my lips managed a nonchalant, “Oh, OK. What time suits you?”
I hung up and turned to Helen, no words necessary. Our eyes met and said it all. The winds of change were blowing, and they smelled decidedly grim.
So there we were, reporting for duty at the hospital, taking up our standard positions in the soul-crushing purgatory that was sub-wait 6.
The moments ticked by in a slow parade of dread. The feeling was like waiting for my driving test to commence. That stomach-churning terror that left me a hair’s breadth from hurling. It was the same sort of jittery anticipation as facing the stern jury of the Civil Aviation Authority for my oral exams. But this? This was a different kettle of fish. There would be no celebratory high-fives or congratulatory pats on the back. Just heavy news weighing on my chest.
When my name finally echoed from the secretary’s lips, I hoisted my hand, only to be told, “I’m really sorry, but the consultant had to rush off to an emergency. He won’t be long. He’s quite eager to see you.” My eyes rolled internally at the dramatic irony. Sure, love, take your time. I’m just waiting for my life to go off the rails here.
All sorts of possible outcomes danced their macabre tango in my head. Clear as crystal, the diagnosis was looming. They had peered into my skull and, against all odds, found a brain. (Sorry, Helen, I know you had your doubts.) That just left the mystery of my aching eye.
The sharp pain and the eye scan pointed to one chilling term: Enucleation. A term as cold and clinical as they come, synonymous with an eyeball eviction notice. All signs pointed to lingering cancerous tenants causing the discomfort, so it seemed time to take a leaf out of Matthew 5:29’s book: And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for. thee that one of thy members should perish, and. not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
That wasn’t 100% correct, as unusually, all five of us in our family are left handed, but you get my drift.
Finally, the consultant emerged from his superhero antics, probably having just salvaged another patient’s eyesight while a team of medical Avengers performed their miracles. Or maybe he had just dealt with another Darwin Awards contender who had decided angle grinders and safety goggles don’t mix. Regardless, it was our turn.
As we settled in for the bad news, I barely noticed the presence of a nurse hovering behind us like a spectre. “There’s some bad news, I’m afraid,” the doctor began, as I was mentally preparing myself for a Cyclops future. “I’m afraid we’ve detected a number of lesions on your liver.”
As I looked at him, the gravity of his words almost slipped by. What about my eye? I almost blurted out. But I managed to mutter instead, “So what’s the prognosis then?”
“Well, without treatment, you’ve probably got between three months or maybe a year or so.”
My reflection stared back at me from the mirror behind the consultant, a mask of calm puzzlement. Inside, my mind was a maelstrom. Three months? Was he out of his mind? That couldn’t be. Dying wasn’t on my to-do list. Not now, not in three months, not ever!
Meanwhile, my poker face barely skipped a beat. Perhaps I looked like I was trying to solve an unusually tricky Wordle puzzle. But inside, I was screaming.
The woman who stood behind us was unveiled to be a specialist cancer nurse. Her words, “Yes, so it’s stage four metastatic liver cancer,” rolled off her tongue with a blunt matter-of-factness that my reeling mind struggled to digest. “I’ll be helping you throughout your treatment,” she promised.
The consultant reiterated his apology for the grim revelation, gifting us a sympathetic glance before making his exit. It must be a heart-wrenching task to deliver life-altering news, to shatter people’s worlds, and then to leave them amidst the ruins. His hasty retreat was an understandable act in this entire debacle.
The nurse, our guide through this nightmarish landscape, ushered us into a room designed to nurture shattered spirits – a sanctuary bathed in dim, soothing lights, plush chairs promising comfort, and the essential presence of a Kleenex box.
Once seated, she began to outline the palliative treatments that loomed on my horizon. Helen broke down beside me, her sobs a sharp echo in the silent room. The nurse reached out, offering a tissue as a small lifeline. Helen’s anguish, invisible to my direct line of sight, tore through me with every whimper. It was unbearable, the sound of your soulmate falling apart.
Palliative care. Those words signified a lifeline that didn’t promise a rescue but only a postponement. A stretch of existence teetering on the edge of the abyss.
Helen took the wheel for the drive home, a focus point amidst the storm. As for me, a surreal numbness settled in. I couldn’t die, not yet. There were villains out there, the wicked of the world, who were far more deserving of this fate. I was just a regular bloke, occasionally a bit grumpy, but no criminal. This just wasn’t fair!
Life had become a gamble, a toss of a coin with a one-in-two chance of landing on a death sentence. Over the last three years, I’d been playing this high-stakes game without even realising it. Five MRIs checking for liver cancer, while I remained blissfully ignorant of the statistical chances of ocular melanoma progressing to metastatic liver cancer. Until now.
The walls of our home felt oppressive with my guilt. I had betrayed Helen, broken the promise of our shared golden years. We were supposed to grow old together, zip around on mobility scooters when our legs couldn’t carry us anymore. We were supposed to hold hands and race around the aisles of Morrisons’ in a burst of geriatric adrenaline. The thought of abandoning her to face this world alone was crushing. I could only imagine the depth of her pain because it mirrored my own.
Tears coursed down our faces, a testament to the shared heartbreak of a future cut short.