I woke up this morning with a tune in my head – Steve Winwood’s ‘Somebody help me, yeah’. Must be fifty years old. It was dark. I was wet with sweat. In the last 3-4 days something new seems to have been happening, with a variety of new symptoms suddenly coming up. My hips are aching deeply with a new kind of arthritis. It gnaws at me. It aches deep in my bones. I lay there, stewing in my sweat. I needed a pee but I couldn’t move. The wind was rattling the barn doors.
With first light came the cawing of the hundreds of crows down in the woods below the farm. I love those crows – they assemble in the woods in autumn, gathering from all over West Penwith, to stay together through the winter. Samhain is their time. But this morning their crowing was eerie, echoing around in my psyche and reverberating against its walls.
The aching was invading me, spreading up my back, through my pelvis and down my legs. I don’t often feel self-pity nowadays, but this morning I did. Somebody help me. I wanted to ring up a magic doctor who would come to my aid and rescue me – but when I ring the doctors, all they do is question me, rattle notes down on the computer, and that’s it. Or perhaps they prescribe something I don’t really want, or they might arrange yet another scan in two weeks’ time. I want to be examined, looked at and touched – however wondrous and diagnostically revealing they might be, I don’t want yet another faceless scan.
OMG, I’ve got to get up. My bed’s wet. I’ve got to loosen my bones somehow but they won’t move. I’m stuck. Something inside me disintegrates. I’m desperate for a pee. I heave myself up and get down off my bed. My shirt is wet and cold – I struggle it off and it lies there, limp on the floor. I’m standing there naked, shivering.
Groping around for a new shirt, I pull one out and, wobbling in my heart, I struggle it on and stagger to the toilet. I can’t do this any more. That’s the feeling. Shooting pains go down my legs. I’m standing there peeing, and my heart collapses. Tears well up and I’m standing there, holding myself up, peeing and crying, feeling helpless like a little boy who’s lost in space and can’t find the way home. The tears roll down my face into my beard, my stomach quivers, my legs are working hard to hold me up. I’ve never experienced arthritis like this before – I’ve had arthritis only since last winter as my cancer chemotherapy drew toward its end.
I finish peeing and stand there, holding myself up. My crying is just crying, not about anything, just emotion, tears, weakness, lostness. I stagger back to bed but it’s wet – I can’t get back in. Just as well Penny’s coming later to clean my house – she changes the sheets, makes my bed and takes my dirties away to wash them, bless her. I stand there looking at the bed, my brains slowly computing that the relentless procedure of getting up is about to grind into action, whether I like it or not. Well, at least I’ll be able to move my bones around and loosen up this aching stiffness.
I’m standing there, mindless, helpless, and the sound of the crows is echoing around my psyche. Somebody help me, yeah. But I’m an old warrior: when they’re firing at you, don’t stand there – do something, anything. Do something to pull yourself out of this nightmare. Well, at least no one is actually shooting at me. I’m fixed to the spot, with my feelings erupting and leaking all over the place.
Suddenly I’m with that family of Kurdish Iranians who, a couple of days ago, were gulped up by the fierce waters of La Manche, the English Channel, as winter comes down – the family who sold everything to come to Britain to find a new life, who drowned and were taken into Neptune’s arms and away to heaven. Alhamdulillah, God bless you, you people: you wanted a better life and you got this.
A good friend had sent me a copy of The Afterlife of Billy Fingers – I finished it last night. It’s the story of a man who died, who communicated back to his sister to tell her what it was like on the other side. There’s a kind of sweet relief to it, to his after-death release, and part of me is there in that realm, leaving my pain behind, while another part of me is standing here shivering, aching, crying uncontrollably as the pain eats at me, reminding me so cogently that I’m still here on Earth, still here, witnessing the aching in the hollows of my bones, watching, crying, wobbling, witnessing, experiencing.
Palden, pull yourself together. Don’t just stand there bloody shivering! I get my jalabiya (an Arabic robe) and put it on. Uh, it’s the wrong way round. I’m struggling it round and eventually get my arms through the right holes. Put the kettle on – yes, the universal solution to everything. So very British. Put that kettle on, Palden.
My bones won’t move but I force myself. Fill that kettle, put it on. What next? Light the fire. I light the kindling and pile on two logs and there I am, on all fours, staring at the licking flames. It’s a good position though: my backbone clicks in four places – ah, relief. But the relief just unleashes another flood of helpless tears. Dripping tears, licking flames, crarking crows, lashing rain, Atlantic gusts, rattling doors, aching bones.
The kettle boils. Oh fuck, now it’s the next bit. Tip yesterday’s dregs out on the fern outside my door. A clutch of China Keemun goes into the pot. Water on top. Aah, I’ve achieved something! I’m crying less now. The words of the I Ching ring out: perseverance furthers – it furthers to have something to do. But I find myself just staring at the tea cosy hugging the teapot and a memory comes up.
I was at a checkpoint and there was a queue of Palestinians standing there, waiting to be let through. The Israeli soldiers, twentysomethings, were, I think, slightly enjoying the power they had over these poor sods, who were standing there just wanting to go home after work. The soldiers wave me forward. One looks at my passport. Yes, you can go. But hang on, what about them? They can wait, says he. Then I shall wait too. He looks at me: hm, an awkward fucking foreigner. I refuse to go through until they let the Palestinians through. I’m tired and want to go home too, after a long day in Jerusalem, but no.
They lock me in a room and I sit there for an hour. Later, a soldier comes in, stands there. I’m sitting there, looking at him. He’s American – probably an enthusiastic recent immigrant who has performed aliyah, return, fulfilling his own dreams of a new life. Suddenly he says, “You know what? We were talking yesterday and wondered how you English make tea”. “Excuse me?”. “Yeah, make tea – how do you English make tea?”.
Well, within twenty minutes I’d got them to assemble the bits and I showed them how we Brits make tea. This is what happens sometimes, in the bizarre movie of conflict. All the soldiers were in with me now and we were all drinking tea and chatting. “Okay, you can go now”, says the officer – he’s twenty years younger than me. “But what about them?”, I say, pointing to the Palestinians, still queueing. He looks at me, looks at them. I can see his mind, calculating.
A bit pissed off, he goes out, opens the turnstile and shouts at the Palestinians – “Go!“. They look surprised and start trooping through, wondering whether it’s a trick. By now there must have been two hundred of them. It took a while. They all troop off into no-man’s land, toward the gap in the further security wall, heading for home. “Okay?” say the officer, looking at me. “You’re a good man”, I say, “But you could have done it earlier”. “Get outta here”. “Enjoy the tea – pity I couldn’t bring you some of my Mum’s fruit cake.”
As I walk out I wonder whether a bullet might follow me, but no, I’m a privileged Brit and it would cause an incident, and this is apartheid and this is how it works. I walk alone through no man’s land, watched by young, bored soldiers imprisoned in their watchtower, all busily doing their military service and probably wishing they were in a nightclub in Tel Aviv.
I go through the gap and twenty or so Palestinians are there, waiting. I recognise a few of them. They take my bag, grab me and lift me up on the shoulders of two of them, jibbering together in Arabic and carrying me like a caliph to a waiting taxi. As we drive away, we all wave. The taxi driver takes me to a cafe in Bethlehem. “My father, my mother, my brothers, you have tea with us – you good man.”
Tea. It must be ready by now. Has much time passed? The stove is warming up. My eyes have dried. I go wash my hands and face, pour the tea and drop down, exhausted, in my seat. Somebody help me, yeah. It’s getting light. A bevvy of crows is now sitting, blown in the wind, on top of the farmhouse roof. My back is aching.
And so begins another day. ‘A bad day’. This is what you get sometimes, with cancer – bad days. But Lynne is coming tomorrow – this makes me cry again. She’s so good to me. The aching is easing now. I’m coming back. It’s a Thursday, I think.
Thank you, everyone, for your lovely comments. I’m sitting here the day after, drinking kombucha, the fogs of Penwith are drippily enveloping the farm, and I’m still alive and getting there. Penny, who comes every Thursday, gave me a revelation: it’s not arthritis but sciatica! Though I might have arthritis too. Goes to show, the trade-off we have medically: modern pharmaceutic drugs undoubtedly do save lives when it’s a dire emergency, which it was for me last year, but they also can charge their price in side-effects. If my cancer diagnosis in Nov 2019 had been one month later there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here now. But then, holistic treatments have problems: too many specialists and no complete all-round healthcare, and it can cost a bomb, so it benefits the relatively privileged only.
Anyway, from an awareness viewpoint, I had a revelation yesterday. I found I was able to be completely involved in the process but also the Watcher within was witnessing it simultaneously, and this was a great gift.
It’s bizarre saying this, but cancer has been a gift – though obviously it’s difficult too. But then, for the astrologers amongst you, I’m on a Neptune opposition Saturn, and this whole journey was triggered a year ago while Saturn-Pluto were doing a trine to my Saturn. So this is a lesson in turning Saturnine experiences into something good: Saturn is a Teacher you cannot run away from, and its beneficence lies in wringing us out, shoving us through the mangle and breaking our bones, metaphorically or literally.
The sciatica comes from the fact that bone marrow cancer eats your bones and, in my case, it caused some of the bottom vertebrae of my back to collapse – and now my sciatic nerve is getting squeezed. I’m going to visit John, my chiropractor in Hayle, and also discuss this with Liz, the haematologist at Treliske hospital.
I wrote this piece unpremeditatedly, while still in the process. As a writer I have five decades’ experience, but something more has emerged since cancer entered my life. I wasn’t actually seeking your sympathy – I sought simply to share a situation that is not uncommon, but many of those who experience it aren’t as articulate as I. I was aware I was channelling not only my own pain but that of many others out there in the world, many of suffering alone and uncared for.
While writing this, Lynne arrived for our customary fortnightly long weekend – it’s such a relief when she comes. While talking to her just now, I was saying that beyond all the treatments and therapies that can be done, the key issue in healing is happiness. I’m fundamentally happy, despite everything. There’s a key also in the word ‘suffer’, which means ‘allow’ – permission, acceptance, taking things on board.
But the great asset I draw on too – and I say this for folks younger than me who are trying their best to follow a path of change and spirit – is the fruits of fifty years of psychospiritual work, and reasonably good diet and lifestyle. In my case, I’ve nevertheless incurred cancer, but my immunity and my psyche are pretty robust as a result of my history and attitude, so I encourage you to keep on your path of growth, however you do it, because it does pay dividends. Keep it up, you good souls out there. But there’s always a twist to everything in life: my cancer is caused by toxicity, seemingly not by lifestyle issues – in my case radiation and electromagnetic exposure (phone, wifi and nuclear).
Bless you all. Thanks for being with. I’ll be offline for the weekend – and that’s part of my therapy too! Love, Paldywan Kenobi.