Archive for the 'truth' Category

(Ooh) Heaven is a place on earth

So I suppose I better follow up on the last post and the bit about “not going to heaven when you die.” Before the crowd of pitch fork waving believers break down the front door and burn me at the stake for crimes against orthodoxy.

I can only recommend NT Wright and “Surprised by Hope” as a great unpacking of the idea of the Christian hope (where almost all of the following is plagiarised from) and what the Bible actually says about “the resurrection”. There were no mental or theological gymnastics, just a little recognition of a world-view that is assumed without reference to GOD’s word.

The central point of GOD’s redemptive narrative is the death and resurrection of JESUS. I suppose all of us could be happy with that. Some of us will focus a bit more on the death, some a bit more on the resurrection, but we could all agree that neither works without the other.

The central part, to the Christian hope is that CHRIST was raised from the dead. That he was bodily raised in physical form, a physical form that was undoubtedly different from the one he’d so recently been in, but physical all the same. The Bible is quite clear about the resurrected JESUS’s physicality, along with the fact that it not so simply physical as it had been before. And what was so stunning about this is that it is made quite purposely clear that JESUS did not return as a ghost, like Casper the friendly ghost or Nearly Headless Nick. This was something quite different. Indeed a big reason why the beliefs of “the way” in the first century were so unique. Lots of people had a notion of some “spiritual” non-physical continuance of existence. No one had anything like a body physically raised.

JESUS then leaves. Where he goes the Bible is remarkably unclear about – yes to Heaven – but what/where Heaven is is left undefined. Instead we have defined as somewhere “up there” which is why Yuri could (apocryphally) say that once he got up there that there was no GOD cause he couldn’t see him anywhere.

This is where the cultural assumptions come into play. That heaven is a place (somewhere else) with white fluffy clouds and fat babies with harps and bad aim. GOD has a white beard, and a James Earl Jones voice, everyone wears sandals and JESUS never, ever looks like he’s middle-eastern. Heaven is therefore the place where we go when we die, when we will finally be free from these terrible, nasty body things and we’ll float like spirits, free from such boring demands of physicality.

These are ideas that of course have developed within the Christina tradition (centuries of Christian art will give that away) – that does not mean that they are Christian ideas. The idea that we can discard our bodies and float like spirits is good old fashioned platonism (at least a Christian interpretation of it). The idea that the soul is the only important bit of life is not a Christian idea. The soul itself is rarely mentioned in the Bible, yet it is so prevalent in all our talk from salvation to resurrection. This is gnosticism revisited. These ideas are firmly embedded in our belief system but they are not Christian.

Let me emphasise then what is Christian. In CHRIST we have the example. When we die, he promises resurrection. And this will be bodily, physical, in some form not entirely different from what we already have. Though of course there will be some fundamental differences. When we are resurrected we will be resurrected, guess where? Right here. This is the key point. We get new bodies. On a new earth. Rev 21 tells us that CHRIST returns in glory not to snatch us from the evil jaws of the creation but that he returns to rule over the redeemed and renewed creation.

When I think about that I realise I already believe that. This is hardly any new kind of heresy, it’s just that my thinking has been muddied on the whole issue. Because of the underlying cultural (not biblical) assumptions, and all the terrible songs and hymns that we sing that lead us up the garden path in terms of resurrection theology. Let me put it this way. As Christians we believe what non-Christians think that we Christians believe about life after death:

Love of mine some day you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark

No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
If heaven and hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs

If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

Death Cab for Cutie (I sang this song in my cafe gig in NZ cause I like songs that reveal what non-Christians believe about the meaning of life. Though only now I realise how far apart we are in our beliefs)

Most of you will have realised that I’ve left a bit out. That yes we die, and when CHRIST returns and makes everything new and rules on the new earth (not in heaven on the clouds with the fat babies – he’ll be bored with all that by then) that we will be with him in our cool new resurrection bodies, not floating round like disembodied shadows on the cave wall.

But what happens when we die? Do we not actually go to heaven when we die? This is where the tricky bit comes. The Bible actually has quite a bit to say about the resurrection and where it fits in. But it doesn’t say quite so much about the in-between. Is it some kind of cosmic hibernation? Paul speaks about preferring to depart and be with CHRIST. Which at first glance sounds like “going to heaven when you die” but surely he must mean something different – as it is he himself who goes on to say so much about the resurrection. Indeed CHRIST does the same. Leaving the disciples and telling them he will return. So where does he go in the mean time. He goes to “heaven” which is loosely defined though perhaps most useful as “with GOD” or “in GOD’s presence”. Beyond that the Bible does not have that much to say, at least not in specifics.

Again let me emphasise that when we die, and go wherever JESUS went to when he left the disciples, it is vital to realise that this is not the fulfilment of the Christian hope. The resurrection is the fulfilment. As NT Wright says. It is not simply life after death, but life after, life after death.

There are lots of implications of this. It’s important in that it’s a proper understanding and articulation of what the Bible says, and reveals it’s uniqueness in the hope that we cling to. That the body and the physical world itself is not evil – it is fallen, but not evil. When we die of cancer it is not that mitosis and cellular division and ultimately (well until CERN tells us otherwise) particle physics that is ingerently wrong – more that it is fallen. Our DNA itself seems part of the fall. Indeed it seems that even that will be redeemed.

[As an aside, there was also in the book a “factoid” about the human body that the actual particles (in terms of atoms and so on) are completely exchanged for different ones over a course of around 7 years (undeniably true to some extent –  though impossible to accurately measure). We (quite literally) are what we eat. And to be delicate – dispose of, in terms of skin, sweat etc…). Fascinating. Well if you like that kind of thing.]

It means that we are not to lock ourselves into Christian self-righteous ghettoes and pray that we’ll be raptured (whatever that means…) before this horrible sinful world gets the better of us. It tells us that GOD is in the business of redemption and renewal, and that both we and the creation itself are going to be renewed and redeemed and that it’s our role to inaugarate and announce the Kingdom of GOD by decalring that JESUS is Lord over all of it.

It’s important for lots of reasons, few of which are outlined here, so perhaps it’s just an exhortation to read the book, and more importantly read the Bible, and read it withoout the Plato-goggles on.

Debate exposes doubt

Two things happened at the same time this afternoon.

41szyxcnlwl_aa240_.jpg1) I appear to have won a million pounds (yet again) in an online promo I never entered. These good people are all so kind in emailing me and asking me for my bank details. Who says humanity’s going downhill…

2) I have finally finished Ideas – A History from fire to Freud.

The book has been sitting there staring at me everyday, telling me to get my ass in gear and finally get it finished. Your reading habits get soft with modern novels and anatomy textbooks. I struggle a tad more with non-fiction like history and Harry Potter.

I take the occasional mad notion to “improve my mind” or some nonsense like that and try reading erudite books written by dead people (though written when they were alive, not actually written by dead people. Though that would be kind of cool). Generally I find I actually quite enjoy it. Sometimes I just enjoy the imagined kudos of reading books by dead Russians and dead alcoholic poets.

But back to the history of ideas. A book so ambitious will obviously fall foul of a temptation to see an overarching picture in the history of human thought. We love trends and progress too much, we see it everywhere. CS Lewis called this Historicism: “the historicist tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or atheological…”

The trend is always of course towards progress. And a very loaded sense of the word. The idea that the longer humanity keeps going, then the further forward that we make it. That every new idea is an improvement of the old. This owes a lot to Darwin and evolutionism (not evolution in the biological sense)

[Brief aside. I’m trying to avoid the whole evolution debate, as it all gets a bit infantile in online debates as people try to outwit each other and make fools of each other and it’s more about pride and and wit and arrogance and being seen to win the “argument” than it is about the issues of the debate. These things are much better discussed in a pub or cafe with actual human beings involved. One thing I can conclude from the theory of biological evolution if that if it fits then we’ve definitely stopped evolving. As soon as our brains got big enough to start protecting the weak, and indeed find “artificial” (creating fire, tools, eating meat, standing up) means to preserve the self (preserving of course, a faulty genetic lineage) then the whole natural selection process went out the window. If evolution is man kinds great salvation then the moment our brains outgrew our reproductive organs (though the female of the species says that maybe that never happened…) then we effectively committed evolutionary suicide.]

The simple premise that humanity, society, the whole shebang is getting better. That as time passes at the rate of sixty seconds a minute, so humanities change is uni-directional.

Along with it goes “chronological snobbery” (another Lewisism). The idea that anything new or modern must be better than what came before. To be introspective about ourselves as Christians – there’s an element of that when it comes to the church. How many find themselves leaving the established church for a contemporary, even “emergent” movement? And how many of these moves are strongly influenced by chronological snobbery, the fact that it’s cool and fashionable? This is not a judgment on the theology, practice or thought of modern evangelicalism – in fact that’s precisely the point, that people are more influenced by what’s new and cool than the substance of things.

In retrospect the church was a bad example. I find myself wanting to define every term, knowing that I misrepresent them all as I type. Sigh.

The other idea of historicism is the ludicrous notion that the canon of history is complete. In Christianity I’m pretty sure we believe the canon of scripture is closed – correct me if I’m a heretic, or burn me at the stake, whichever’s easier… Therefore we can now stand some 2000 years later and pass comment on the overall picture contained within.

If you do this with history then you kind of make a bit of a tit of yourself. Like writing a review of the sixth sense 10 minutes before the end. “This was a crap film, where not very much happened…” Obviously hugely different than if you stayed for the last 10 minutes. “This was a crap film, where not very much happened and it turns out your man was dead the whole time…” You get what I mean.

It also brings up what I find to be the most ludicrous notion of all. That now, that early 21st century thought has finally got it. This is the answer. Yes of course all that nonsense about the world being flat was wrong, and all that carry on with apples falling out of trees is badly misguided, and yes I know we taught you that stuff is made up of protons, electrons and neutrons but now we think there’s a few other things going on. Trust me, I’ve got it right this time.

Assumption (quick aside, can any one tell me the difference between assumption and presumption? I could look it up, but I’m a very lazy man. And no jokes about making an ass of u and me…) is a big thing. All those algebraic equations worked on the principle that “if x=4 elephants…”. Indeed scientific principle is dependent on the hypothesis – hopefully proved.

If you drop a brick off a bridge a 100 times and it falls at the same speed every time then it simply tells you that when you dropped that brick 100 times off a bridge it dropped at a certain speed. It does not tell you that it will drop at a certain speed. That takes assumption.

We now know (famous last words…) that if we drop that brick off a bridge on another planet (never mind a black hole…) that it’s gonna fall different.

We talk with such confidence that we actually know what’s going on (Christians are very guilty of this too, though we do have that old, divinely inspired word of the ultimate being and belief in the supernatural to fall back on. A kind of metaphysical joker to play) in the universe. It takes a pretty massive assumption to believe (oo err, careful now) that.

The world used to be flat, both the scientific institutions and the church denied that for quite a while (the church longer than the scientists). The history of science is full of people getting it wrong and looking like idiots. We look back at quaint and infantile scientific theorems and mock. Though we read only the classic “history as told by the victors”.

History is dependent on source. History could be defined as everything that’s ever happened ever. Then the “history” that we’re working from is nothing but a millionth of a fraction of what’s actually happened ever. We have only what was recorded (by the victors again…). And even then why do we presume that the “history” we have is what was recorded. How much has been lost, burned, or never recorded (neither Incas nor Mayans – two culturally advanced peoples – kept written records). How much of our most important archaeological data lies underneath an Iraqi marsh or a Damascus office block (even though we think cities were a pretty late development…).

Now I don’t mean to be all down and history or science, I love both, I even tentatively say I believe in both but I hope I have the sense and possibly even the humility to say that we’re not quite there yet.

As regards to something I actually have some experience in – the more I do medicine, the more it becomes clear that we haven’t a notion what’s going on in the human body. Yes, we give drugs and yes they seem to work, and we have lots of plausible theories as to why they work, but in reality we have no idea what they’re doing at a cellular or biochemical level. This is most clear when we come to the brain. We’re only at the tip of the ice berg with that one.

We used to remove the frontal lobes of people brains to make them better. We now know (we think) that that was a bad idea. We’re still electrocuting some people with severe depression or mania (and it still works sometimes).

We used to not wash our hands between delivering babies (it seems that some of us still don’t…) and couldn’t understand why they got fevers.

We used to drill holes in peoples heads after head injuries – the Egyptians did it to release demons, we do it for lack of knowing anything better to save badly battered brains. Occasionally it works. In 10 years time we may well be doing decompressive craniectomies on guys with head injuries and putting the top of their skulls in deep freezers for six months and then attaching them back on again.

Maybe we’ll just go back to the leeches?

Back to the book.

In his conclusion Peter Watson demonstrated that we seem to have made excellent progress with regards to understanding both nature and our universe and (a slightly optimistic) notion that we’ve progressed in our humanity and how we treat each other. Though I imagine it’s only white people like me who could write that. However he concludes that “man’s study of himself is the biggest intellectual failure in history”.

[He considers the idea of the soul a much more significant idea than the idea of GOD, who apparently died with the Renaissance. I must tell him that next time I’m talking to him, always enjoys a laugh so he does…]

He finishes off with an exhortation to abandon mankind’s search to understand himself through introspection and instead look “at our role and place as animals”. That leaves little room for art, music, literature, joy, pain or beauty and certainly none for the pursuit of truth. Mankind has barked up a lot of wrong trees no doubt but just because progress is kind of hard to define doesn’t mean we need to give up on it.

Last night I nearly died

Below is what I’d been writing about Dad being sick, since all this started back in August:

He’d been itchy for a week. And I’d not really been paying attention. I’m not a good quality of life doctor. All the minor things, that cause disruption to people’s everyday life I’m probably not that good with. If you’ve had a sore toe for 7 years, and you’ve no idea why, then not only do I not care, I won’t have a clue what’s causing it either. If you’re dying, if you’re blood pressure’s disappearing, if you’re heading towards that bright light, then I’m probably your man. (on reflection that sounds like the intro monologue to the A-team, that was not my intention).

So he was itchy, and I didn’t know why, and frankly I didn’t much care.

And then his eyes turned yellow, and he was itchy. And all of a sudden everything changed. When it’s your own father, everything’s different.

Painless jaundice is not a good diagnosis. For a start it’s not even a diagnosis at all. It’s more a sign of something else. But painless jaundice is also not a good sign, because the majority of people with painless jaundice will be dead in a year.

I got him to lie down on the sofa and I examined him, noticing his liver was bigger than it should have been. Noticing that no matter how hard I pushed on his gallbladder he wasn’t sore.

I’d agreed to do a few shifts in Craigavon A&E while I was back in the country. Mostly for social reasons, as working there was a good way to catch up with everyone. But also cause I just missed the place. I noticed dad was yellow at 7pm. I had him in A&E at 9pm. My shift began at 10pm. One of the other docs saw dad, for which I am eternally grateful. I took his blood and ordered the tests, but having someone else ‘in charge’ of your dad’s care makes all the difference even if it was only on paper.

I got offered the night off. I refused. I knew if I went home I would just worry. I was already trying not to worry Dad too much. I stayed and did my night shift, and worked myself into the ground, working as hard and as fast as I possibly could to avoid the thought that kept relentlessly forcing itself upon me. That my Dad probably had some form of horrible widespread cancer and that he’d be dead in six months.

I worked, and worked. I did not stop. I did my best with the lonely, and the suicidal, with the alcoholics, even with the girl who’d waited 3 and a half hours with a sore ear (which I confess I gave antibiotics for, even though she didn’t need them, just cause I felt sorry for her…) and the poor guy who waited 4 hours for me to put one stitch in his chin at 3.30am.

And at 6.30 there was no one left. And I went and sat down in the tea room. And I cried. I got up and went outside. I cried some more. My hands shook. I told the Sister about my Dad. She said did I mean the young, well-looking man she’d seen me with earlier and told me he looked far too well to be dead in 6 months. And for that I am eternally grateful.

I went back and drank tea and stared at the wall till 7.30am when a mum walked in with her ‘packed and ready to depart this world’ 9 month old baby, with patches of the meningitis rash all over it. Baby was awake but crying feebly. Funny how quickly you slip into the ‘calm and in control doctor’ mode. I find this works whether or not I am either calm or in control.

Within 2 minutes of arriving he had a drip and a dose of antibiotics and half a bag of fluid. In 30 minutes he was covered in the rash. By this stage he had 6 doctors huddled round his tiny frame. Within an hour he was on a breathing machine with ever increasing amounts of drugs to keep his blood pressure up. In two hours he was on his way to ICU in Belfast.

I realise I have learnt a few things in the past year. If nothing else how much I love this stuff.

From here it snowballs. Dad gets three different scans in five days – the queen doesn’t get this kind of treatment said the radiologist – and he wasn’t far wrong. For the first three days I cannot get the image of my Dad – my Dad dying – out of my head. I don’t sleep or eat. My stomach feels sick the whole time.

I wrote in my journal – how big is my god? Big enough  for me to realise that no one but him is in charge? To understand that he has not fallen asleep on the job? To come to terms with what it means to follow JESUS CHRIST? Is my god sufficient? Can I love a god this big? On whose terms do I trust GOD?

After three days he gets a CT scan done. And I breathe out a long held breath. That he does not have metastatic cancer. We still don’t know what is causing the obstruction to his liver. For that we must wait another week.

And in the meantime there is my daddy. My poor, itchy, yellow daddy. Who cannot sleep because of the itch, who would take his skin off with a potato peeler given the chance. Who paces the house at night and rubs the tops of his feet off the rims of the carpeted stairs for relief. Whose stomach is sick, because none of the bile can get out of his liver to break down his food.

Me and Dad come back from the CT scan and I tell Mum that it’s not the worst case scenario, that we still don’t know what it is, but that it’s not horrible. And she breaks down, and I suppose we all do. And it’s the first real family release of emotion. We huddle and pray and cry. We can do no other.

Two weeks after I notice he’s yellow, he has a camera test to look at his bile duct and there’s a tumour there. A small one no doubt but it’s there. And now we know. Now we know it’s not good (though could be worse), that I’m going to have to start using the ‘C word’, the word that every patient over the age of 60, admitted to hospital worries about.

I’ve told a few people they have cancer. A universally difficult thing to do. And every time, I know I have to say it. I have to say ‘the biopsy shows that it’s cancer’. I can’t use any nonsense about masses or tumours or growths. Unless I say cancer then no one gets it. It sticks in my throat like a dirty word. Like something in a foreign language that shouldn’t be coming out of my mouth.

I find it hard not to see horrible things round every corner. This is the kind of medicine I practice – and I do mean practice. I am paid to look for the worst diagnoses and test for those and if it’s nothing serious then to be frank – I don’t really care.

And so we leave Dad in hospital and me and Mum go home and watch Hot Fuzz, anything to keep our minds off things. But I can do nothing but picture a lonely future for Mum, watching DVDs of an evening, knowing Dad’s no longer there. Few things upset me more than to see loneliness in people’s lives.

So now we know it’s cancer, a word I find difficult even to type. Now I know he needs an operation, a fairly major one. Where he’ll lose half his pancreas, half his stomach, his gall bladder and a bit of bowel. This is major re-plumbing. This is a big deal. It is not easy to picture your own Dad on an operating table. To picture your own Dad in an ICU, with a line like a zipper across his belly. Through all this I have fluctuated between being glad that I know as much as I do and hating that I know too much.

The Chinese whispers of inter-hospital transfers (Dad needs to go to Belfast for the op), leaves us with possibility he might have the surgery done on Friday, two days after we’ve found out it’s cancer. Everything seems too quick. They talk about stages in acceptance of bad news. And I see now it takes time. The enormity of what is happening to our small family unit is slowly dawning. That from now on everything will be different.

When we leave for Belfast on Thursday I look at my Dad – who apart from looking like Homer with a bad case of fleas – is the picture of health. He is not sick. Now of course I know he’s sick, but he’s not sick in the way I think of sick. And on Thursday I think – is this the last time I’m gonna see my Dad healthy? Thursday is a big deal and there are a lot of tears.

When we get there we realise the operation won’t be until the Monday. A last minute reprieve – in our minds anyhow. Dad rings a guy from church to let him know and gets a ‘oh it’s a voice from beyond the grave’ response.

Of note, we could not get through this without being able to take the piss along the way. Our family exists on banter and sarcasm and taking the hand out of each other. If we could not laugh then it would be a thousand times more difficult.

So we all go home for the weekend. Two days reprieve, two days for the slow dawning of what might lie ahead. I’m so glad he came home. That he didn’t spend a pointless weekend in a Belfast hospital, alone. With half crazy men in the beds beside him and nurses who don’t acknowledge his even existence never mind his pain.

Brief note, we have had almost without exception, fantastic care, from truly dedicated people, just the odd bad apple…

I left mum and dad alone for the weekend and went to Donegal for a weekend with almost 20 of my best mates. To sit in a cottage and play silly games on the beach and sit up till the wee small hours of the morning putting the world to rights. I needed that. I needed their ‘tears and sweet amens‘, I needed to know they were with me.

Me, Mum and Si went up on Monday morning to see Da before the operation. That was not easy. We left before the porter arrived to take him down. There would be no painful family processions behind the bed. As if there was something to be mourned.

When someone has surgery, the relatives are always most concerned and worried while the patient is ‘under the knife‘ so to speak (when in fact the ‘knife‘ is only really used for skin incisions and all the ‘real’ surgery is done with fingers and ‘blunt dissection’). Their biggest concern is that they might die ‘on the table‘. (which is more of a bed anyhow…)

This is another fallacy. People do not die during surgery, well of course some do, people who bleed out for example, but percentage wise it’s tiny. Medically I know this. I know that the worrying time is the time after surgery, not the surgery itself.

I know this. It matters not a jot. I worry I might never see my dad again. I worry that he won’t make it. I can think of nothing else.

We go home (it’s a five hour operation) and try to watch the Two Towers to take our minds off things. Anything except to brood. Where the disaster that is only ‘vaguely possible’, moves to the ‘just might happen’ into the ‘more than likely’ before becoming the ‘almost certain’.

It doesn’t really work but it’s a valiant effort. Dad sleeps through all of this. Some people…

That night we drive up and see him in the intensive care unit. Still regaled in his blue paper gown and with pin point pupils from the morphine, he just keeps telling us again and again how much he loves us and how lucky he’s been to have the life he’s had. And I wish he wouldn’t cause it just makes me cry all the more.

Three days later and he’s in trouble. Cause what was left of his pancreas has rotted and gone gangrenous and then he bled into it. No one expected this. Not even the surgeon who’s been doing these for 15 years. He goes for another major operation.

For the first time I really panic. I really go to pieces. I had this all thought out – I suppose. I’d been through it all with dad and mum, of what might happen of what could go wrong. And I was prepared for that. But not this.

Now watching my dad, now on a ventilator (the fictitiously named ‘life support machine‘ – there being no such thing) with tubes and wires everywhere, with bags of blood and plasma dripping in. With no response from him but a drunken looking grimace on occasion.

People on ventilators generally look like they’re dying. Whether they are or not. I have been working in an intensive care unit for 15 months in a row. I can think of few things worse than seeing my dad on a ventilator with a dropping blood pressure (again why ‘What Sarah said‘ is such a good song) and fighting to believe what I know. That he can get through this. That yes this is a big deal, but he can get through this.

This was all the nightmares I’d had about being on ‘the other side’. The nurses bringing you into the ‘relatives room’ with comforting lighting and the nice sofa. Being the one receiving the bad news.

Not being the doctor that opens the door of the relatives room, introducing himself delicately, politely and gravely. With a family’s collective gaze fixed on every gesture, expression and word that you make. Not being the one that says ‘I can’t begin to imagine how hard this is for you‘, not being the one that says ‘we have to take one day at a time‘. Not being the one that gets to say all the kind, compassionate words of encouragement – sleeping at night only because I get to say them and not receive them.

So this is what it’s like then.

We leave the ICU eventually. When it seems clear he’s ‘stable’. I have seen too many 24hr bedside vigils. With relatives wearing themselves to pieces just to ‘be there‘. Part of me doesn’t want to leave. Part of me has more sense. Another part of me screams ‘give him some norad you fools… can’t you see he needs more fluid… if you lose his kidneys he’s stuffed, can’t you see this…’ but I stifle the screams. This is not my ICU, this is not my job, this is not my patient.
I ring up the next morning at 6am. Dad has been very ‘naughty’ according to his nurse. Having ‘surfaced’ from his sedation at 4am and not liking the breathing tube in his throat, he pulled it out. This is quite impressive. His first words, as they prepare to put him to sleep to put it back in, are ‘it’s good to be back’. In the end they leave him be.

At 6am on the phone I get to speak to him. To hear a weak, slightly horse voice tell me he loves me. Maybe the ‘voice beyond the grave‘ wasn’t such a facile comment after all…

Everything changes. We all smile. We laugh. We make jokes. Clinically, medically, not much has changed. In our lives everything has changed. ‘rollercoaster’ is too twee a word to describe it but it’s the best I have.

Four days later we get the pathology back. This is the results of some tests on what they cut out. Where they make slides of the cancer ’tissue’ and look at them under microscopes, and put funny dye on them to work out which cells are which. I’m glad someone does this job. I’m glad it’s not me.

To know exactly what type of cancer it is is important. People can be cured with certain types of cancer and not with others. They talk of 5 year survival rates. That if you’re still alive five years later then it’s probably not gonna come back and you’re probably ‘cured‘.

Brief note on ‘cured‘. No one is ever cured. Mortality rates among human beings remain rather high at just under 100%, taking into account some rather exceptional circumstances over 2000 years ago. Indeed the ‘human condition’ itself is to die. ‘Please don’t cry, we’re designed to die‘ sings Jeff Tweedy. My boss in NZ describes oxygen as a toxic substance that causes pain, misery, suffering and occasional euphoria, that eventually brings about decay, decline and death over a period of roughly 70 years.

We knew dad had one of two types of cancer: pancreatic or ampullary (an area of the bile duct). The difference was (roughly) 10% versus 70% 5 year survival. So now you see why it matters. The poor wee first year doctor who they dragged down to tell me was smiling (and no this is not darling lorraine) when she came in. I prayed this meant it was good news and not naievity on her part.

When she told me it was ampullary and that there was no spread to the lymph nodes, I could have hugged her, even though I didn’t know her from eve. I told her this, though in the end I still just shook her hand.

I never thought being told your dad had cancer could be such good news. I went back to the bed smiling and told dad it was the cancer we were hoping for. And he prayed and thanked GOD. And we cried. Tears need not always be bitter.

We needed that. Needed to know that the fight was worth winning. When you’ve been through two major operations in a week, lost half your blood volume, lost an organ or two and had your insides replumbed, then you need the prospect of light at the end of the tunnel. When you haven’t slept for weeks thinking that maybe all this is a bit pointless, maybe I’m going through all these horrible things for no good reason. You need a bit of good news.

After two weeks in ICU he got moved to the ward. And the change in him was noticeable. The freedom and independence he now had in being able to get up and walk around himself, the fact that he could finally sleep changed everything. He was weak and tired, but there was joy and hope in his face. That yes we’re going to get through this. He’s gonna come home soon.

Each day seemed busier than the last. With seemingly queues of staff waiting to speak to him each morning. Between surgeons, doctors, nurses, physios, dieticians. A lot of information to take in. And then there was (is) the diabetes to get used to. With no pancreas, Dad has no insulin and therefore has very high sugar levels in his blood. So now he has to poke and inject himself with various needles to keep the sugars under control. He took to it like a duck to water.

On Monday we think we might be getting him home by Friday. On Thursday it turns out it won’t be till Monday. On Friday it turns out it might be six weeks. On Friday it might be not at all.

On Friday he had a scan (an ultrtasound of his heart) to look for an infection and on it they see what is described technically as a ‘vegetation’. A little clump of bacteria and platelets attached to his aortic valve in his heart. This is again, kind of a big deal.

This is like having a knife plunged into your stomach. The rug pulled out from under you. 2 steps forward and 8 back. In my head I know that this is it. That this is not going to end well. All I can picture is poor sweet Herbie, the Maori with the Bono glasses and the exquistie giggle, like he was being tickled, who became our most frequent flyer in ICU till his dialysis line got infected (he’d been through five lines, two of which were mine…) and his heart valves got infected and quickly rotted away. And that was all she wrote. I know too much sometimes.

This feels worse than realising he had cancer. Whether or not it is worse is another question.
I think I’d just got used to the idea of my Dad living through all this. I’d just got used to the idea of him being alive. And then I was thrust back into the awful visions of my Dad lying there, colour fading from his cheeks, his chest no longer rising and falling, the pulse in his neck no longer throbbing. The painful, miserable finality of it all.

Left thinking of funerals and kind words and of the pain and anger I would carry with me and nurture and water until my self-pity is fully grown into bitterness. Till GOD eventually gets fed up with me and takes me home.

Why the up and down? Why bring him this far, why make it so hard, why make it so $%^&*() hard?

I’m just left angry. At what I don’t know, my thoughts aren’t organised to find an appropriate target. Truth will not let me stick it on GOD.

It was a horrible weekend. Waiting for another test on Monday that we all believed was merely to confirm what we already knew. He spiked high temperatures, he felt woeful, his blood pressure dropped. I found it hard to watch my Dad get sicker. To watch and not to do something about it.

Sunday evening I had a quick word with one of the junior docs, desperately not trying to seem to be telling them their job but needing to know that they knew he was getting sick again. It is an awkward position to be in. Doctor’s relatives are often the hardest to treat, I have no desire to be a difficult relative, but when it’s your own Dad then the great Kiwi maxim ‘She’ll be right’ is simply not good enough.

I graduated from baby doctor to grown up doctor (well maybe pre-school doctor…) by getting things wrong, by making bad decisions, by screwing up. Rarely resulting in any significant consequence. Perhaps sailing a little close to the wind is more appropriate. This is how you become a better doctor. By making lots of silly mistakes. It was fine for me but when it’s your own Dad then I’m having none of it. This makes me no more self-centred than the next person, merely someone in a position to do something about it.

At some point in the weekend I let go. Let go of diagnoses and drugs and numbers and survival rates and just repeat ‘Thy will be done’ over and over to myself. I realise that Dad not making it would still be grace – he gets away from sickness and into eternal joy he does not deserve. That the pain we would go through would still be grace – each of us desperate sinners, deserving of punishment for our neglect and rejection of GOD as the whole point of the universe.

As a brief aside I find myself unable to reconcile these two aspects of prayer: 1) thy will be done, and 2) if you have faith as small as a mustard seed… I don’t know which to pray and find myself unable to pray both. Never have I once doubted that GOD could simply and quickly heal him. I have doubted every day whether or not he will. When I first noticed Dad was jaundiced, I knew what that meant. My first thought was not ‘GOD heal him’, but ‘Thy will be done’. I instantly gravitate to 1). Perhaps this makes me fatalistic. I’m not sure that’s a good or a bad thing. When I say ‘thy will be done’ it is with gritted teeth, with a clenched fist.

On Monday, about lunch time, Dad rings. Telling us he’s had the test. Telling us that the doctor told him that they could find no infection on his heart valves and that the ‘vegetation’ on the first test was something called ‘artefact’ (an image on the screen to do with funny reflections of ultrasonic signals). All of a sudden the sun comes out, the room warms up and everything changes. Again.

What this means is the infection is not in his heart but coming from an abscess in his belly. This is wonderful news. In the way that finding out what type of cancer Dad had was good news. Everything is relative.

I sat at my desk and cried, no wept. For a good 15 minutes. Something I haven’t done since all this started.

Thinking about it I’m really not that sure how much more bad news I can take. The thumping of the adrenaline as the phone rings when it’s not meant to, or a blood test or a scan result. Each one like losing him all over again. I’m not sure how much we can take of all this.

And so began the slow windy, hilly road to ‘recovery’, whatever that means. It means eating, and blood sugars, and insulin, and wounds healing, and 5 laps a day round the ward.

It means starting to get on with all the other things in our lives, thinking about jobs and cars and other people. All the people I neglected and turned away from to be with Dad. So it goes. I have no regrets on that.

It means, not worrying about him, not sleeping with the phone beside me so that if it rings with bad news at 3am then mum won’t have to hear it first.

At one point shortly after the operation, the phone kept ringing, good, kind-hearted people ringing to give support and prayers and find out things were going. And I was frequently terse and brief in my replies because I had neither the energy or (to my shame) the inclination to talk to that many people. At the time I came up with the idea of Ronniewatch, a nightly five minute TV program, perhaps just before the ten o-clock news, possibly presented by Huw Edwards or the lovely Sarah Travers. They could have the guy from Big Brother say “Day 7 in the ICU, Ronnie takes his first steps…” and that kind of thing. Just so that everyone would know he was getting better.

And he is getting better, and I know he will. Though I debate in my head whether this is faith in GOD, or faith in modern medicine, or (much more likely) faith in the fact that there comes a point when human beings will just get better, no matter what you do or how you feel about it.

But oh what it would mean to get him home. Days become weeks and all of a sudden 2 months have passed. The word home comes out of my mouth with a tremble and a sigh, my lungs emptied so I need to breathe before I can make another sentence. Like it does when Luke Skywalker says, “but that will lead them straight… home” in the first Star Wars, just after they find the slaughtered Jawas in the desert. Home in the way Sam means when he says, “well, I’m back” at the end of the Lord of the Rings. Home in the way Paul Simon meant when he sang, “I’m sittin in a railway station, got a ticket for a destination… I wish I was homeward bound…

We never change (do we…)

This has taken me a while to write. Not for want of trying. Not for some emotional barrier. More a kind of blogger’s block. I’m sure it’s not contagious, nasty rash though…

So the lads are gone. Quite obviously, many of you have probably seen Phil since he returned (without camera and fleece, tut, tut. Thou shalt not leave stuff on Air New Zealand Flight 2 while I have a kip in LAX…). Spud is not quite home yet. And if all goes according to (his) plan he should be adrift in a yacht somewhere off the NE coast of Australia.

They are conspicuous in their absence. Indeed I can see the carpet for the first time in two weeks, not covered in sleeping bags, air mattresses, odd socks and bodies. There’s an extra 3 books on the sideboard, deposited as used reading material by my guests (El Diego – Maradonna’s autobiography – Spud, The gathering storm – Winston Churchill – Spud and You don’t know me – Phil).

I miss them. In that for a while it felt like home. Or maybe that I was at home. Or that maybe I never left. Not all of those are positive. Comforting at least, if not positive. I had a similar thing when Simon and Ruth (my brother and his boss… wife, I mean…) left. That you spend all the time getting used to them being there and then they go. Maybe it just seems a bit more pronounced cause I know that in two weeks I will be home. And I know I’ve been thinking about that more and more as time passes. Not just cause winter has finally landed with a grey and sodden squelch.

People are hard work. In general. Some more than others. I have a hermit fantasy (steady…) that life would be much more straight forward if I lived in a cabin in the forest and hunted deer and grew a beard (ha!) and read old dusty leather bound books and scared off young children. My fear is that maybe I’ve come far too close to that already.

Some people struggle with their own company, that the thought of a day on their own, with no one to talk to, no one to waste time with, that this would scare the life out of them. I am of the opposite disposition that a day on my own is to be savoured, to be enjoyed, to think, to read and (by GOD’s sweet grace) to rejoice in GOD’s glory. I have sneaking suspicions that my disposition is perhaps more the disposition of those who think that really they’re rather worth a lot more than can they are.

To be more realistic, people are a lot more complicated than this, and this is only scratching the surface. Which is kind of the point. People are complicated. We all have our own souls, joys, passions, gifts, fears and dreams. And somehow we expect to get on.

Or to rephrase, we expect to get on effortlessly. Because we, or rather I, am at the centre of my own little Andy-centred universe, it confuses me that the people around me aren’t quite how I would have made them. And given that I am the boss of this little shrunken world then this comes as a surprise.

Distance helps. Being 15000 miles away helps you listen better. If only cause you get more emails, and it’s hard to interrupt half way through an email. It helps you confess. It is easier for me to ‘glory in my weakness’ here than it is at home. I can write things in emails or blogs or songs that mere proximity may have kept me from. I suppose it’s the basic principle that if you shut your eyes tight and you can’t see all the people then it ain’t nearly as scary.

There are people who I have ‘seen’ only in wonderful emails over the past year. People who I feel closer to now than I did before I left. There are people who I have barely ‘seen’ in the past year. Most of whom I think will slip back into my life as if I merely nipped out for a pint of milk.

I got an email saying how it would good to see me when I get back to see how I changed. And it struck me that perhaps I hadn’t expected that. I’d expected others to change without me. For me to miss out a year of their life could only mean I miss out on what would have been shared experience. But I never thought that the awkward silence between two friends reunited could have anything to do with me. That the reflective pause could be someone noting, ‘yes, you’re different’. Simon says people don’t change. I argue with him, but deep down maybe I agree. There is truth and there is falsehood in that statement. Another long blog in itself.

I miss people who know me. Who know me as an idiot and a selfish prick, and despite how they would have me different, they still love me. I know lots of people here, but I know none of them so that they know me. I miss the family of GOD. We fight and spit and kick but they will never let me stray too far.

Listening to mood

In blogs the done thing is to put in your ‘mood’ and ‘currently listening to’. At least in proper blogs they do. So I think I might combine the two, and try to say something coherent (that’ll be a first) with it. They used to do this on ‘whose line is it anyway, except they were better. I’ll maybe just stick to the lyrics and let you work out the artists. It’ll give Dave Knowles something to do anyhow…

one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, two can be as bad as one, it’s loneliest number since the number one’  ‘all the lonely people, where do they all come from’ ‘is it special when you’re lonely, will you spend your life in a studio apartment with a cat for a wife.’ ‘I remember something Sarah said, that love is watching someone die’ ‘and when we die, will we be that disappointed or sad, if heaven doesn’t exist, what will we have missed, this life is the best we’ll ever have.’ ‘My old man swore that hell would have no flames, just a front row seat, to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.’ ‘Woke up way too late feeling hung over and old, and the sun was shining bright I walked bare foot down the road, started thinking about my old man, seems that all men just want to get into a car and go.’ ‘Woke up with a bang and a bug on your face, it crawled in your mouth and gave you a taste of the good life that you left behind, but I think you’re gonna be fine. Somebody loves you, and you’re gonna make it through’ ‘gotta meet you face to face, got to convince you that I’m not so strange. I’m happy sad, it comes easy to me.’ ‘But I’ve got too many secrets to tell a single soul, too many secrets to convince anyone I’m any good. I won’t let you down, even if you believe that I would’ ‘Our story works as long as you, don’t settle for the best, choose me above the rest’ ‘cause if you’ll let me be, I’ll be your pretender to the throne’ ‘after all, in the end, just pretend.’ ‘I juggle one handed, do some magic tricks and, the best imitation of myself.’ ‘I don’t want to believe that all of the above is true’ ‘I find it so hard to be true and all these lies I’m telling you, are little anchors in my chest, that pull us down into this mess’ ‘i don’t feel like I’m falling down, just say hello to the ground’ ‘I always fall and you pick up the pieces’ ‘it feels like I’m falling down, I’m cold as the coldest ground’  ‘just don’t stumble through tonight, have no fear of falling’ ‘hey kids look at this, it’s the fall of the world’s own optimist, I could get back up if you insist, but you’ll have to ask politely’ ‘and if the sky starts falling on the street outside, the only thing that satisfies’ ‘the story of sinners ransomed from the fall’ ‘but I’ve still not got my sky blue feeling back…’


July 2022