The Old Grey Goose

Just 13 days after the fateful phone call, the old grey goose – aka my mother-in-law – passed away.

As I texted a work colleague:

Thanks a lot, we’re all in good shape. Kids are getting there and Eleanor and me feel grateful we all saw her fully alive the other weekend and that she’s subsequently gone so quickly and gently. A decade too soon; but how you’d want to go if you had aggressive cancer: I’ll be in and just fine tomorrow. The old grey goose has flown off to her final peaceful resting place. It’s all good.

As I wrote to her after we saw the weekend before last:

Dear Hilary – as you said as we left your room today, there is so much I also want to say; but your energy is precious and I don’t want to take more of it than I should.

I just wanted to tell you – as I said to Eleanor in the car – that you looked very beautiful today; you had a kind of luminousity, your hair is lovely and the warmth and light you have brought to all our lives shone out from you and touched us all very deeply despite the pain and weakness in your body.

We will all remember this weekend very positively; I am so very glad we came.

Love

John

I had a good old cry after sending it – something the kids have never seen before; but I think made us feel better.

She was a wonderful woman with a central place at the heart of all our lives.

All too quick; but I think it’s what she wanted – the old grey goose valued her independence more than anything, and never wanted to be a burden. She is at rest.

Lance

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Last night I stayed up late, to watch a remarkable documentary on a fallen hero of our times – Lance Armstrong. On the day the Tour de France hit London, it couldn’t have been better timed.

The ordinary background, the “f#ck ’em all” early years, the descent into cancer and vicious chemo, the fight back and astonishing, triumphant 1999 Tour de France victory. Then the doping rumours, allegations, flat denials, Feds, hubris, betrayals (of him and by him) and the final fall.

His is an epic story of Greek proportions. But I come away confused… Charming, brutal, controlling, intimidating. But now vanquished: a quieter, reflective and for me, a better man.

A modern Achilles, it’s not for nothing that all Greek tragedy had a narrative arc. There are no gods in real life, only mortals. And in acknowledging he has done wrong – albeit too late and with a trail of lies and damaged lives in his wake – he has begun the steep climb to redemption.

I wish him well on that road.

Font of Knowledge

I owe Steve Jobs a good deal. From early dial-up internet on my original Aqua iBook to blogging with an iPhone and iPad. Despite liberating £1000s from my wallet over the years, I am eternally grateful to him. He has opened up a world of new possibilities, knowledge and ideas to me and many millions more.

Poor guy looks like he’s on his last legs though. Emaciated and gaunt, bowing to the inevitable he stood down as Apple CEO the other day. If I were a betting man I’d reckon cancer will have him within 6 months.

A famously hot tempered perfectionist, I wonder how much cancer has changed him. Diagnosed some 6-7 years ago, reading his 2005 Stanford Commencement address – made to a hall of eager freshmen – he had a pretty ‘nailed on’ philosophy well before the ‘Big C’ properly got hold of him. Like David Servan-Schreiber, cancer will extinguish him but it didn’t beat him.

He calls life’s rich pattern ‘connecting the dots’. I think of it as a ‘Nile delta’ of possibilities. Either way, it’s a fact that life often makes sense looking backwards. But the tributaries down which we flow through life are serendipitous, random and unfathomable. Once you’ve noticed your route though, it all looks pre-ordained.

I quoted Jobs’ example of calligraphy (below) the other day. He created, from random events, the font-rich world we take for granted on every electronic device. Imagine if he’d taken technical drawing instead. It could all have been very different.

The moral I draw? Don’t waste time trying to plan life, live it. Think more about today than next year. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And finally, even the big things in life generally happen by accident, it’s how you respond and what you do next that matters.

Here’s a piece of his Stanford address:

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Servan-Schreiber

I was sad to read today that David Servan-Schrieber lost his battle against cancer the other day. But although he lost the battle, I think he won the war. He lived nearly twenty full and vivid years post diagnosis of a brain tumour. His cancer spurred him to develop as a human being and to write. Reading his books and fearing the big ‘C’ did the same for me.

His writing combined a rock solid scientific foundation with an interest in the whole person. As someone wrote in an obituary, he was tete, coeur et corps – head, heart and body. All I have to say is read his books: ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’ for the head and the heart and ‘Anticancer’ for the body.

A good man, who it is tempting to say died too young. But reading about his full medical, research, writing, speaking, travelling and sporting life, perhaps at 50 he managed as Aristotle recommends: ‘to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.’ I hope so.

Hospital

I went to hospital on Monday to see a consultant to check up on the moles I’ve been worrying about. Here’s what I tapped out on my iPhone as I sat waiting to go in:

Hospital

It scares the living sh1t out of me. Just walking here brings deep anxiety to the surface. My heart rate is up, I’m conscious of my chest.

We don’t see illness and death unless we go looking for it these days, but here it all is. Everyone you look at you don’t know if they’re losing their life or here to save them. Especially the older people.

The NHS is fantastic, but support staff sometimes look right through you. Two members of staff are currently hailing each other down the length of a corridor in front of me, while I sit here with several others wondering whether fate has something lethal, painful or banal in store.

I will likely end my life in one of these places. And in this very hospital we witnessed the start of life too – my son was born here. But this hospital despite its cleanliness and modernity reeks more of entropy, human decline and infirmity than life.

It brings back my melanoma which is why I am here. I don’t want to die here, but maybe I will.

It turned out to be banal. That’s the weird thing about health. Like life, you take it for granted for much of your life, although you know you shouldn’t. But also, like life, you have to take it for granted – to some extent – otherwise you don’t make the best of it.

In the space of five minutes lethal turns to banal and in the space of five days fear to insouciance. I’m glad it’s this way round. But the useful goad to action, which having melanoma on my mind has been, is something I now need to find from a happier more positive place.

Reading my old friend Aristotle again sat on a tube ride yesterday – and talking to half a dozen different really thought-provoking people this week – I have some emerging ideas…

Day one

Where to begin. I’ve blogged elsewhere for a couple of years now, so I know the score. Write what’s in your mind and go with the flow. It’s the day before my 42nd birthday and I’m typing (a little clumsily) on my brand new iPad which I’ve waited over 9 months for. Lovely. As Arthur C Clarke said the only thing which differentiates any sufficiently advanced technology from magic is the ability to understand the technology. The iPad like the iPhone is magic.

I decided to start writing because I’ve been thinking about it for a year or more. But I feared starting and in any case could never get my hand on the laptop – an iPhone is too fiddly for WordPress. So today is day one and what is in my mind? Mainly cancer.

Just thinking the word is enough to create tension in my chest. I had malignant melanoma over 15 years ago and had a big chunk of my left thigh chopped out. Strangely I can say melanoma more easily than cancer – I’ve said it more often to explain covering up in the sun or the large scar I have which shows in shorter shorts. Cancer riddling me is the sum of all fears. And one I’d long forgotten. But David Servan-Schreiber has reawakened my angst with his excellent book Anti Cancer. I think everyone over 35 should read it.

His curse is to scare me into going to the doctors. In rare cases melanoma returns and I have a couple of things to get checked out. His gift is to make me see – as I’ve been working up to for months, that looking inside yourself, caring for your own wellbeing and writing it down are all well worth doing. I had started a ‘to do’ list for my 50th birthday. The advice of a good friend, Anti Cancer and the fear of not making it suggests just getting on with it. Writing this is a start.