What is a Life?

Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. Pain. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. PeaceDeath.

Death

There is never a good time to die and dying is filled with many challenges and not only for the dying. Despite the certainty of it, we are really shit at it? Most of us acknowledge how vital it is to prepare for important events in life such as children, weddings, grandchildren. Why should it not be as important to prepare for dying?

Mostly, we ignore it, we definitely don’t like to talk about it therefore we avoid it and do not prepare for it until we have to.

Every man dies. Not every man really lives (William Wallace)

A fitting quote seeing as though I have recently discovered that, ancestrally, I am predominantly Scottish – a DNA Geno analysis, part of my personal mission to unravel the reasons for my cancer shows that John Reynolds is 29.7% Scottish. Who would have known?

Life is fragile and nothing is guaranteed.

The reality is that none of us can know what is going to happen tomorrow?

Sudden, surprising ‘out of the blue’ accidents happen? Based upon my own, initial frenzied thoughts (and actions) I try to imagine the mess I would leave behind? The hurt, left-hanging emotions and practicalities (messy finances) that would need to be resolved after a sudden death.

2015 Dec 23rd the day I found out I had cancer, the reality of an early death. Unsurprisingly? The thought process inevitably turns to ‘how long do I have left? A week, two weeks, two months, a year? Quickly followed by I need to do this, and this, and this, and….All entangled, together with seemingly insurmountable foreboding and absolute terror.

On discovery of my life is ending, there were many things I worried about, largely focused around (arrogant)? concerns and fears about how our surviving loved ones will cope financially, emotionally without me.

Death is permanent and anything left undone remains undone. Therefore there is a lot to do, to attend to. It is impossible to not be overwhelmed.  Honestly, at that moment in those few everlasting seconds of first, Ecstasy and then sheer blind Terror I would have bit your hand off for 12 months?

I am a planner. I like to make plans (I dont always stick to them but I still like to make them).

Five years on, still fighting, stil moaning and groaning, still ‘making moments’, still planning, controlling, trying to ‘make good’, trying to make sense of ‘a’ life, a most precious gift.

Making my plan.

I am sure that some (many?) would prefer not to know? I wanted, needed to know how long I had left on this planet? For me it was simple, once I knew how long I had I could plan for what needed to be done. If I could get what needed to be done ‘done’ then I could plan for what I ‘wanted’ to do (would like to do).

Step 1 – Prioritise my time;

have to,

want to and

it would be nice to.

Based upon mu own observations of a friends, recent (cancer) death, my health, condition would affect my ability to do things depending upon, inevitable, stages;

more or less, ‘normal’ followed by,

some ‘relatively normal’ time and then,

alive but not active and ultimately,

barely alive, only limited, sporadic consciousness (interaction).

First steps were clear, to establish ‘time’ The time I had left?

Sounds simple?

It is not.

It is, cannot be, an exact science as everybody is different, at different stages of ‘their’ cancer but the real barrier is that nobody (really) wants you to know and nobody wants to be the one to tell you? Even professionals (the experts), profess that they do not categorically know?

They don’t want to get it wrong? They do not want that awkward situation where they say to you “Mr Reynolds, you only have four weeks to live. Sorry, I forgot to tell you three weeks ago”!

Family and friends are reluctant to or simply cannot confront it?

If you want to know, really want to know then you have to find out for yourself.

Post initial diagnosis – prostate cancer with the view to a cure at this stage – The first few months were taken up by more tests, diagnosis leading to an appropriate treatment plan. I have discussed this process in detail in previous posts, there are several options, often leading to individual (informed), difficult choices. My informed choices led to my treatment plan. In my case, I chose surgery, radical proctectomy.

The World-wide-web.

We are consumed by some much information, we are living within the age of information. The Post Truth Era. You can find (detailed) information about everything and some of it will even be true! For example, you can perform a simple search, Google and easily find several versions of my Da Vinci robotic prostate surgery, now, this vey second, in several languages on YouTube.

I am a researcher. I teach it I do research everyday.

One of the first things I was strenuously ‘advised‘ (told) not to do was ‘don’t look it up on the internet’? Nurses, Doctors, Consultants, ‘Misters (posh(er) consultants), Close Family, oddly, not friends? The weirdest thing about that is that they tell YOU not to do this, yet they all do do it? It is ok for them to Google your disease but not you?

There is almost a ‘group think’ approach to your knowing how long you will survive.

A mixture of professional and personal, a collegiate thinking that somehow (you) wanting to know, actually finding out (establishing) a timeframe for your death will not have a ‘positive‘ affect but rather result in a negative affect on you, on your well being, your mental health?

Fucking bullshit.

The first step – a treatment plan, surgery, confirmed diagnosis, advanced metastatic prostate cancer. At the time of my surgery my frowned upon research suggested a (50%) 5 year survival and (10%) 10 year survival rate.

In my mind I had 5 – 10 years to live. A fairly wide margin but I was up for the challenge of reaching the exclusive 10 years club all day!

Honestly, if on the 23rd December 2015, Dr Brooks, had told me “you have cancer and you have five years to get your affairs in order”, In that second, 5 years? Yes, I would have bitten your hand off.

The undeniable truth, the only unequivocal truth, the only certainty in life other than Manchester City will win the 2021 Premier League, is death? My death, your death? It happens to us all.

Why the fuck is it so hard?

Gaining the courage to overcome our fear of dying is one of the most challenging things I have ever faced. Overcoming and understanding my fear of death, accepting that death occurs every day, that is is just part of life, is part of how I could be able to live freely and fully for the time I have left (is) one of my life’s most challenging experiences.

At least now, I believed I had (enough) time to, at least, ‘put my affairs in order’.

Priorities, personal, emotional and financial. One step at a time.

So much to do, to sort out, where do I start. I (naturally)? wanted to do everything all at once, just in case they got it wrong, I died sooner, within less than 5-10 years.

I set out to decomplicate our finances.

Sell some (all) my amazing cars, sell a house, confirm C&C’s for insurance policies (work & personal), confirm work pensions and death in service arrangements. To try my best to ensure that Gail would be (at least) financially ok preferably better. Truth is she will be. I am worth more money dead.

I have many regrets. I have made many mistakes. I abused the greatest gift of all, unconditional love. I cannot change the past but I wanted to at least acknowledge that I should have been a better man, a better husband (and father). I cannot change that but if I could die knowing that she would be (reasonably) financially secure, which would allow her choices, so that Gail could enjoy the remainder of her life without financial worries, for her to be able to visit our children our grandchildren if and whenever she chose to, would be an incredible comfort for me.

We quickly, freed some cash. Cashing in my teachers pension. Sold a few cars. Transitioning from working full-time to part-time for us both. We made plans to fully and freely best use the time I had left. This mainly involved (more) travel one of our favourite ‘together’ activities.

As a couple we have had our ups and downs however, one thing we love to do together, have always loved to do together, have shared, successfully despite any problems, is travelling. Sharing amazing new cultures, places, people, art, adventure together. During our 45 years we have travelled extensively. Now, the intension was to supercharge that and we did. For two years we travelled.

Covid. Lockdown. Hands tied.

Plan B.

Can’t travel, what ‘can’ I do?

Death is normal and a part of life. Yes, it (eventually) happens to us all.  When you find out you are going to die part of the making sense of it all is measuring the life you had and will leave behind. This permeates powerful, (uncontrollable) feelings and emotions. Death is permanent and anything left undone remains undone. There is a lot to do and it is impossible to not be overwhelmed. 

I thought about starting a blog. A reflective account of some aspects of a life. Part confession. Part self-analysis self help exercise. In addition, a potential (mini) resource for others on their own cancer trips and maybe even An opportunity, in the future, for my grandchildren to get to read and know me, a tiny bit more.

Dying, death is hard. Living is hard, living knowing you are dying is hard(er)?

Our preference for fairness in life causes us to object to injustices, even if we weren’t the victims. … The amygdala, a tiny brain structure that registers emotions, particularly fear and anxiety becomes activated in response to injustice, triggering feelings of anger.

Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor (Sholom Aleichem).

Since learning of my incurable cancer I find myself becoming increasingly angry with life’s many injustices, their causes and those responsible. I consider myself a socialist as such I have always been aware and concerned about inequality, of fairness, of opportunity for everybody and I despise abject rampant greed and capitalism which I believe to be at the core of the demise of democracy and humanity.

My increased anger is fuelled by my own finite time, fear and regret?

Regret, that I did not do more to prevent our demise within the knowledge that I do not have time to put this right. Fear, that I will not be around to act? I will no longer be able to protect or limit harm to my loved ones and future loved ones. I fear for my children and my grandchildren. The world is in such a terrible state. I am, by default, partly responsible and I genuinely fear for the future. 

We are all here for a purpose?

As a person without religion or religious beliefs I do not agree that we have (or should have) a predestined religious based purpose. I do believe a passion and a purpose in life is essential. Having spent much of my earlier life, my childhood and early teens with religion, moderately, imposed upon me, I managed to work out my own simple life code.

I was Christened, as a baby, Church of England (Protestant) however, for convenience I attended a church, literally, at the top of my street, The Bethal Baptist Church. like many of the local kids I would attend ‘Sunday School’ exclusively for the social aspects. The opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. I could sing and I was eventually invited to sing in the adult evening services. Aged 6-8? I looked very cute. Blond her, blue eyes, little round John Lennon glasses, I was the ‘Milky Bar Kid incarnate.

Singing solo, rejigged Bob Dylan songs with alternative (religious) lyrics, accompanied on acoustic guitar by ‘Col’ the Scout (Cub) Master (Akela), I would sing like ‘a little angel’ and regularly ‘bring the house down’. Truth, I loved it, I loved the attention.

The other truth. The same (older) congregation loved me when I sung but they only loved me on a Sunday.

Through the week, as (not privileged) kids we would routinely ‘playout‘ outdoors, in the local streets. Normal practice, pre internet, social media, digital technology. The only play opportunities readily available. Those same adoring Christian folks who had loved me the day before, come Monday, now suddenly despised me?

“Why can’t you fuck off with your ball and play by your own house”?

I concluded, aged 7? That Christians, being a Christian meant being nice on a Sunday only?

My life-code.

For me, life is about ‘people’, connections to and with people. Our interactions, relationships with people. People fascinate me – life fascinates me? I love it when life (positively) surprises me. Just when you believe ‘you have seen it all’ along comes ….

As a species (human) we are capable of the most incredible feats of kindness, brilliance, goodness. Sadly, often balanced by the most heinous acts of cruelty, greed, selfishness. This is clear to see throughout time. We are flawed. Imperfect but also, within moments, perfect.

I couldn’t understand the attitude differences – Sunday to Monday but I knew I didn’t enjoy being treated (unkindly) on any day?

Subconsciously, at first, I tried to treat people in the way I would like to be treated myself (every day).

Life, living has its own rules, it is complicated and not the same for everyone. Truth is, living for many people is harder than death. Many, too many, are born into a life of incredible injustice. Often with no choice and no way affecting change. Circumstantial, political, financial, situational even theological (religion) controlled. Conditions imposed upon them, making them life’s victims of extreme pain, even torture. It is there to see, in plan sight, if you choose to look. Sadly, we often choose to look the other way.

Others, not so many, are born into a life of unlimited Wealth. Privilege. Entitlement.

Most of us are born into a fluctuating mixture of both combined with the reality that nothing is guaranteed. To survive and thrive we have to learn to expect the unexpected.

I am lucky. At 62 I have lived a life.

Have I lived a ‘good’ life?

Life is given to us. We had no choice in this. In the strictest sense it is a gift.

There are billions of us sharing a planet who are simply trying to make it in life, so immersed in our own goals (or problems) that we never actually stop to realize that we’re alive right now.

life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” (Jackie Robinson).

When we hinge our happiness on the mercy of others. Even worse, when that person makes your life more difficult it must be incredibly difficult to consider that you have had a ‘good life’? I have been guilty of that with important people in my life, those that love me. I deeply regret this. I had no right.

There are things in life you can change and there are things you cannot. You cannot change the past. There are things in life you can do and things you cannot. It is more satisfying to focus on things things you can do. Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate on the present moment.

There are two common aspects:

A global acceptance that we need to understand our own life and the belief that life itself is meaningful? For me it is simple to say but not so simple to enact and was triggered by the acceptance of my death. To be brutally honest with yourself about your life’s failures is difficult. To live is to make the most of your time on Earth but everybody’s ‘most’ will be different? We all make our own choices and sometimes selfish choices.

Regardless of who and where you are in the world the following are suggestions for your life-trip (in no particular priority).

Health – Being healthy is the single, most important part of our existence, without good health, our lives can be cut short, try to make positive heath choices

Family – they love you already, it is only you that can fuck this up, don’t fuck it up

Friends – We choose them, they choose us. Magic

Love – unrequited or otherwise, there is no other feeling as good as it or like it, it can be free but it isn’t easy, do it, or learn how to do it and do it

Purpose – aim high and go even higher but try not to hurt anybody along the way

Passion – do it and show it in everything you do otherwise ‘it’ is not worth doing

Moderation – Life has so much to offer, try ‘everything‘ (with moderation) but try not to hurt anybody along the way

Education (learning) – never stop learning, the only bad thing about learning is, the more you learn the more you realise how little you know.

Doing things that only bring temporary happiness often bring only part fulfilment. Material things are often merely temporary – Love is for ever, if you can’t love, don’t know how to love then learn? Learn to love and be loved.

Easy said.

It’s not just about the things it is also about small things.

Kindness.

Smiling.

Laughing.

When you laugh, you release happy hormones called oxytocin and endorphins. These are hormones that uplift us as we share experiences with others. How fantastic is it to share a ‘moment’ with others?

A ‘good’ life is about your ‘moments’ and often the most precious moments are shared.

The state of being dead: to lie still in death. extinction; destruction: It will mean the death of our hopes.

My greatest fear is that I might not done enough, given enough love in my own lifetime to be remembered as John, yes, ‘he had a good life’. I fear the most that some might be glad I am gone? Truth is? I will never know? I will be dead. I will be gone.

Selfishly? I would like to die believing that Gail, Aubrey and Perri (even Hendy, my little champ) will, occasionally, remember me, recall something I did, (good or bad), hopefully a shared ‘moment’ and tell my little champ Hendy, who has brought so much happiness into my life, and my other grandchildren to come who I will never know, a kind story about their grandar.

Make plenty of moments people.

Thanks for reading.

Peace

What To Do If You Are Dying | Dying to Understand

Published by Riff

Husband to my inspirational, (long suffering) wife, father of two amazing (adult) children, teacher, former guitarist (now guitar owner), recent 'granda(r) to my beautiful grandson who I am yet to meet. I Love people. I love my family, my friends, I love(d) what I do (my Job), I love Music, Cars, Everton .... I love many things, most of all I fucking love 'life'.

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