Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death
Today, at 8.00am a dear friend died.
When nearing the end of life, it is impossible not to reflect on a life lived.
One of life’s truths – Life is difficult, more so for some than for others, “engaging in the full range of experience – living and dying, love and loss – is what we all get to do? Being human doesn’t happen despite suffering, it happens within it.” learning that living fully, requires accepting suffering, is a key factor for a productive life.
At some point in our lives, often triggered by trauma, we crave (become desperate) to believe, our life has been worthwhile. For the lucky ones, we might leave ‘something’ behind, memories, a legacy, something (anything) that we will be remembered for. The hope that we might leave our mark on the lives of the people who matter to us the most.
Facing mortality is something we will all have to do eventualy. Searching, to make sense of our lives, looking for purpose, looking for forgiveness, for affirmation, for hope, the hope that our life was worthwhile. Cancer, fucks this up! Suddenly it is all about learning to reshape your identity during an illness, learning to witness and accept ‘your lot’, to live the remainder of life in pain, to have to make difficult choices, to try and make the most of, precious, time whilst coping with the normal, day to day, mundane shit that ‘is life’ for the vast majority of us.
The realisation, that what makes (our life) worthwhile, is the giving (and receiving) of love. In the end love is the only meaning to life. Once you have accepted, you are going to die prematurely, the need for confirmation of love multiplies 10,000 fold. As does the desperation to live every minute of every day.
We are not alone. Death, living with death is happening to millions of us, every second, of every day. Death, mortality, is the truest of all truths. The only truth that fully unites mankind, the one single thing that we, irrefutably, have in common with each other, black, white Christian, Muslim, all mankind, we are all dying.
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day…. Whatever you want to do, do it now” – Pope Paul VI
Days ago, 13/01/2023 I returned home from a Holiday, a tour of Turkey. An incredible, informative, experience. The problem with knowledge though is that the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don’t (and will never), know. This becomes ever more poignant the older you get, the older you get the lesser the time you have left to try to remedy this.
That evening, we were looking for something to watch on TV, an attempt to stay awake for as long as possible, to jump back onto UK time, as quickly as possible. Gail suggested ‘Mayflies’, a two part BBC One drama with a great cast. She had no idea of the subject matter, cancer.
I have no problem with confronting cancer, dramatically or otherwise, in fact I prefer that to ignoring it, to pretending that cancer is not part of my life (and death). Just two minutes into the play, Gail apologised profusely. I assured her I did not mind, it has a great cast, lets watch it.
“The common mayfly has a life expectancy of just one day,” announced the voiceover in a memorable Vodafone advert from the early Noughties. “But is he miserable about it? Not one bit.”
This insect’s life, repurposed as metaphor, has come to represent the flickering flame that is human existence. Life, getting shorter with every passing minute.
Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan used “mayflies” as the title of his 2020 novel about two friends working through a lifetime of memories as the light fades on one of them, a story adapted as a BBC One two-part drama, Mayflies.
There are some, close to home, similarities between the BBC, Mayflies drama and my own situation. There are also many differences. However, this particular exploration of life, death, friendship and love and what that can mean to us is, at times, too powerful and difficult watch (for me). It confronts another tricky subject, head on, assisted death. It does this in a sentimental yet, thought provoking & balanced way.
The two principle characters, oldest of friends, one who has incurable cancer are faced with an enforced process of premature trauma, they confront the kids they were, and the men they’ve become. Mayflies is seriously sentimental and does evoke a certain degree of dramatic licence to make it’s heart rendering points and make them it does.
As somebody with a personal, vested, interest in the subject matter, some of the rose-tinted reflections on adolescence stretch credulity, but the soundtrack/score hammers home a welcome, melancholic atmosphere. If you are of a certain age this will evoke many a memory of your own ‘glory times’ now, times gone by.
It is true that over time we change, life, work, relationships, children, geography, our friends change with us, with our evolving situations. How many of us will have any friends that will last a lifetime?
My own Mayflies, my oldest friend Jeff, is struggling to the point of denial at my (cancer) demise, I have been friends with Jeff for all my life, or, at least, sixty years of it. I have a strong supporting cast of not quite so oldest friends, Razzer, Gerry, Fred and my other old band mates Jimmy, Roy, Richie. Then there are my longest, newest friends probably (currently) my closest, as I share much of my quality time with them, have the most in common with them, Franc, Darran & Minney and of course my, ever-present, wife Gail.
“And make death proud to take us.”
At a recent hospital appointment, I spent some time sharing a waiting room with a former specialist cancer nurse, now a cancer patient herself. She explained to me why she has refused chemotherapy. She cannot bare to die in the way she had witnessed, first hand, many of her cancer patients die. Cancer patients who had died in what she described as, total misery, humiliation, despair and often agony. Afterwards I myself considered the notion of assisted death and not for the first time. I am getting to the point with my cancer where those type of decisions have now become my own reality. Later that day, (night), I heard news that another old/new friend was undergoing end of life care.
I had last met with my old, new friend, Mark Davies Markham, at LIPA (my work) just a few weeks before Christmas. He was experiencing some discomfort, so much so we had previously postponed our meeting twice. He had persistent, pain in his lower back, near his tail bone. Despite this, he was his, normal, cheerful self throughout the night.
In a previous lifetime, Mark had battled, and defeated, a rare form of brain cancer. A life transforming situation which, afterwards he channelled into creativity, his writing of an acclaimed musical production, Eric’s. The work is, essentially, his autobiography. An inspiring story of a young man facing, and against the odds, defeating, cancer, the story of a young man who refused to die.
After cheating death, Mark became a successful, award winning, stage and screen writer with many, well known, credits to his name including, EastEnders, Band of Gold, This Life and a highly acclaimed, stage musical, Taboo, staring Boy George that played at the London Palladium.
Mark and I grew up together then lost touch in our early teens. 50 years later we have re-connected. I was meeting with him as I was liaising, on his behalf, with the head of the LIPA drama programme, with the aim of workshopping a new work of his, The Magic Bus, with our LIPA drama students.
We talked about life, his optimism and incessant energy for creativity. He was in a really early stage of a new relationship and was incredibly happy. We talked about his new romance, he was concerned it was all going ‘too’ well. He commented, ‘he had to pinch him self’, and asked, ‘was he punching above his weight’? I assured him, he definitely was not, he is a rare ‘catch’, for any woman, a funny, sensitive, interesting & caring gentleman.
Mark had decided to relocate back to his hometown, Liverpool. Much of his writing, channels his scouse, life experiences. He references, real-life characters, situations within his funny, sometimes tragic writing. We had already started to rekindle our childhood friendship and were both looking forward to continuing to do so. We spoke about future projects, new work, writing that was just in early development that he was really excited about. He was working on a production with the Liverpool Royal Court, to be played April/May 2023.
At the end of another enjoyable evening, we parted, him assuring me, he would seek medical advice. Soon afterwards, he updated me with the scary news that it might be very bad news, another, one in a million, rare cancer, this time of the spine. He was waiting for an urgent biopsy to confirm the worse.
He updated me during Christmas. He had decided to return to Guildford where he had been previously living for several years. His medical records and also his GP are located in Guildford. He decided this would be his best chance to access, more rapid, treatment options.
I spoke with him once again, after he had settled, just before I left the UK on a trip to Turkey.
He was comfortable, being well looked after, diagnostics and other tests had already began. He was awaiting some blood test results. He seemed in good spirts. I received a message from his phone, a WhatsApp message, a group he had created to inform all his concerned, friends and relatives of his progress.
It was Janet, (a recent relationship) she messaged me, within the group. Marks health had suddenly, deteriorated, drastically. He had been admitted to The Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice, Farnham. My connectivity in Turkey was limited. I called her the minute I got back to the UK, Friday the 13th January.
Janet told me Mark was comfortable, not in any pain, but very tired. He was at peace and had accepted the situation, due to the aggressiveness and severity of his cancer, there is no further treatment planned. He is able, and keen, to listen, for people to keep in touch. She did offer me an option to visit him. Instead, she invited me to write any memories, stories or anything else I wanted to tell or say to him and to pass those on to her. They had limited visitors to close relatives only, to conserve his strength. Sadly, he was receiving pain relief & palliative care only, to take him thru to the end of his life. I knew his situation was bad but the realisation of how bad is devastating.
The next morning, I wrote (said) the following words for Janet to pass on to him. She, later told me, she had, he had “loved hearing from me”, but he was fading and she did not expect him to live past the night.
Picture this, a Saturday afternoon, not that long ago, a typical Scouse-male Saturday afternoon. I was social media flirting whilst, keeping an eye on the footy. Everton must have been playing away, as I was at home, listening to the TV and Radio commentary’s simultaneously. Either that or watching the game on a dodgy TV stream.
Out of nowhere, on FB messenger; ‘is that you John? John Reynolds from Downing Road?’ Me (tentatively), ‘yeah, who’s this?’ You, ‘it’s Mark Davies Markham here’! Me, ‘WTF’! We immediately, had a short, social media, phone/video call. A 50-year catch-up over five, short, minutes.
What struck me immediately was your scouse accent and your bald head! Last time I knew you, you (we), both had hair? I remember yours being, thick & dark, black? We made loose arrangements to meet next time you were in Liverpool. We had reconnected after all this time. You contacted me again a couple of weeks later and we arranged to meet in Ye Cracke, in the City centre, Liverpool.
After we had talked, I started thinking about our childhood, our growing up together in Boot Hill (Bootle). I recalled our ‘gang’, as a core of three or four kids, our, close-knit, friendship group. You, myself, David Perry, Phil Perry (not related) with a few others in the supporting cast, Les Hunt, Jimmy (James as in Tony/Anthony Wilson) Mealy. Working class kids growing up in a time, when to be creative, to want to become a creative professional, was not much more than an impulsive, a whim, a pointless pipe dream?
1975, Bootle Hugh Baird College, my careers guidance interview (School Leavers meeting) between the careers guidance officer myself and my dad, an exit interview before leaving school to find work.
Man in a grey suit ‘What is it you want to do when you leave school John?‘ 16 year old me, ‘I want to be in a band’ (to become a professional musician). I recall the embarrassed look on my poor dads face, The Suit, ‘oh, I see? I’ll put you down for local government (civil service), or hairdressing then, shall I? On reflection, what was most disturbing about that, critical, interview was the lack of any mention, not even a suggestion, of an FE or Higher Education option? I guess ‘kids from Bootle’ don’t get to go to University?
As you know, Nancy, my mum was ill, (she was permanently unwell). On this occasion she was recovering from surgery. She was advised to try and arrange ‘convalescing’ (there’s a word you don’t hear much nowadays)?
If you paid into something called, ‘Penny in the Pound’ you could get free (subsidised), access to ‘convalescing’. Mum & Dads membership had relapsed. We were not well off. Jack Ritson, my Dad’s, wealthy, boss, owned a second home, a holiday cottage, in Denbigh, North Wales. Jack kindly offered it to us for a week, for free.
That week in Wales is probably my clearest memory of our childhood times together. We have recounted it together recently? We, pretty much, had the same memories, I recall? The same recollections of our Welsh adventure?
I remember it raining a lot (of course), and it being remote, even when compared to Bootle! I recall us being bored shitless at times and wanting to go home, which led to a couple of squabbles? Towards the end of the week, the weather brightened up, we played one on one footy constantly. This resulted in a fantastic finish to our holiday, we really didn’t want to come home in the end?
We had bonded.
I have tried to identify exactly, when it was we separated.
It wasn’t a clean break, a fall out, a specific incident, it was circumstantial. Your family had moved to the Welsh Church in Baliol Road, opposite the swimming baths. Your dad had became the, live-in, caretaker? At that age you might as well have moved to Australia, as, let’s face it, we didn’t even cross from the bottom half of Downing Road to the top half, across Cambridge Road, on our own, back then?
In subsequent meetings (sadly, not enough of them), it has been fascinating hearing how our lives have ran in tandem in many aspects? We have both been teachers, both creatives, both huge music fans, both huge ‘Scousers’ (till we die) and both proud socialists. We own our identities, we are proud of our city, we both know, exactly, who we are?
Oddly we have a similar look? Cool for men of a certain of age, who think they are cool? A bald creatives look? An, ‘I want to be, (used) to be, in a cool band from Liverpool look’?
Mark you are a cool dude.
When we met (again) for the first time it was an instant (re)connection, a renewed bond separated by 50 years but still, as palpable as it was back then. Since, we have spent more time, more catching up. Clearly we believed we had much more time still, to explore our memories, our childhood, our past, the things that have helped shape us, informed our creativity, that have made us who we are now.
My throwing a boomerang thru your front window? My being blamed for throwing a ball thru the house window, opposite ‘The Dairy’? (It was Pat Lawsons brother, Eric by the way, 7, Downing Road, not me)! My first real experience of ‘injustice’ that has stayed with me all of my life!
It was incredible to meet with your mum, Betty at the Royal Court. What a character she is. Her history, her story, your story. Betty knows Boy George! Fabulous! Thanks for sharing that intimacy with me, it was a privilege to get to ‘understand’ you, more.
I was so happy to hear that you were moving back to Liverpool, I was looking forward to where we might be going together next? Our rekindled friendship that had been given a second chance. We planned to go see Everton at the new dockside stadium, by your house! We would get to watch bands together, we would/could have even worked together somehow? I secretly, hoped you might characterise me within one of your future works, I would have been so grateful for that.
Now the hard bit.
The last time we met, not that long ago, (it’s hard to believe it was really just weeks ago)? So much has changed. It is very difficult to understand, to come to terms with, the reality that I will never ever get to see you, to meet with you, again?
We were in LIPA, you were in pain, uncomfortable but still engaging, interesting, still Mark. You said to me ‘you are a good man, John Reynolds’? I can’t recall the specific context, but It made me so happy for you to say that about me Mark.
I would love to believe that you consider me a long-term friend but by pure definition that is kind of impossible. However, know this, in the short time I have re-known you, I have developed such a deep regard and respect for you Mark. I have no issue saying that I love you mate. It is obvious you are one of the good guys, a genuine lovely, talented, bloke. I am proud to have you as a friend. To be able to say that, ‘the super talented, Mark Davies Markham is a friend of mine’?
Facing your mortality as it hits you square in the face is something all of us have to do at some point? However, only if you have walked in those shoes do you really understand what it means to know what it feels like coming to terms with the fact, you are going to die prematurely? Mark, you have had to face this twice. Man, this is so fucked up!
I cannot speak for you, or for everyone else but, for me, one of my (shit I’m going to die) worse fears is that those who I love, those who love me, will forget about me as soon as I’m gone? That my beautiful grandkids will not remember me? I can assure you bud. I, your loved ones, anybody who has ever known or met you, anybody who has ever enjoyed any of your work will remember you for ever.
If there is anything, and I mean anything? That I can do, for you, or that you want me to do for you or for anybody else, your mum, anything at all I can help with? While this is still possible, please, please shout me?
Love you brother, rest in power my man,
Love and peace,
John R x
As I edge ever closer to the point where my cancer has advanced to the stage of full-on, palliative care it is important that while I still can (now) to work out my priorities and worries in terms of treatment and beyond, death. Are there any trade-offs I am willing to make? Comfort (pain) versus Corpus Mentos? For example, I might have a doctor prescribe a stimulant medication so I can remain more focused towards the end?
Those conversations, are the best way to ensure that your health care matches your values. Make friends with your oncologist. Make them like you, if they like you they will be more likely to listen to you, then they will be prepared to follow your wishes?
A ‘good’ doctor, will understand and support your goals and help you make informed, choices. They will understand that living means more (to you) than just staying alive.
I have learned to accept both joy (my beautiful grandchildren, that at one point I thought I would never get to experience) and sadness at the same time (my beautiful grandchildren who I will never get to see grow up); to uncover beauty and purpose both, despite and because, we are all born and we all die?
And for all the sadness and sleepless nights, it turns out there is joy.
Approach and accept that life is also about suffering, if you choose not to hide from suffering, our lives don’t diminish, they expand.
Mark died peacefully, this morning, 16/1/23, at 8.00AM – He was not alone.
Thanks for Reading