Two weeks ago I had one of those phonecalls that I dread receiving. A call to my mobile, in the middle of the day, from my mum – this leads me to jump to three immediate possible conclusions – Grandad is ill, Gran is ill, someone else is ill. Trust me this is a learned response, gloomy it might be but its the result of experience – my mum would never ring my mobile during the day unless it was something urgent. A fortnight ago I missed three calls from mum, she left no voicemail and didn’t text – it turned out that she had to tell me in person; they’d received a phonecall from the hospital asking Dad to see his consultant immediately. None of us knew what that meant at the time, Dad had been for a routine scan a few weeks before but he’d spent the intermediate few weeks laying a new tarmac driveway with my brother – hard manual labour, this isn’t a sick man.
Fast forward two weeks and today is the day that we get the results of Dad’s PET Scan and find out whether his cancer is back.
Two and a half years ago my dad turned yellow, proper Bart Simpson yellow, and started itching all over – what we thought was going to be an allergic reaction or a gall stone turned out to be obstructive jaundice caused by cholangiocarcinoma, or a tumour in his bile duct, cancer in other words. I’ve written about dad’s experience here before, the first nine months and the second nine months. For the last few months cancer has been long forgotten as dad concentrated on living his life, being a new grandad and generally getting on with it.
So there are roughly three things that the PET Scan might show but to be honest all we want to know is whether the cancer is back and if it is, what can be done about it. When dad was ill last time I attended nearly all his appointments with him and mum, it proved really useful as it seemed that each one of us picked up on different points that were made – in fact at times it felt like we’d all three sat in on a different conversation! I’m not sure exactly what we’ll all hear today but I suspect I know how the day will pan out. I’ve thought a lot about it, always good to be able to indulge in some visualisation. I imagine it’ll go as follows:
My parents have said they’ll be at mine 75mins before Dad’s appointment (it’s roughly a 40min drive so 75mins is quite conservative by their standards)….except the reality is they’ll be at mine two hours before, I know they will. I can even probably guess what they’ll be wearing – they’ll have gone for smart casual so dad will have smart dark jeans on with a shirt (my dad is usually more of a t-shirt and working trousers kinda guy). He’ll be a little uncomfortable in his attire and when he gets out the car he’ll make a big show of tucking his shirt in, pulling his trousers up, squaring himself up for what lies ahead – mum and I will exchange a glance, she’ll tell him his trousers are half mast, then pull his shirt out a little and smooth some invisible crease out of it. Meanwhile she will also be somewhat uncomfortable as she’ll have shoes not sandals on and she rarely wears proper shoes these days, preferring to live in the garden where there’s no need for tights and shoes with heels! I’ll no doubt succumb to the expected pressure of making an effort but it’ll still be jeans!
We’ll all have meaningless chat on the way down, until we get to the point where we can be positive know more and comfortable silence will descend. There’ll be a (pretend) mini-competition between me and my mum to see who can see the hospital chimney from the A38 first (the small things you do to amuse and distract yourselves when making regular journeys!!!), there’ll be nowhere to park when we get there and we’ll spend a good 20mins trying to find a parking space (never know, might be lucky on that front).
Then we’ll head in. The appointment letter will be consulted in the car park to see where we’re going (even though I’d bet my house on where it is and the fact it’s the same place every time – but the letter must be checked) and then as we walk through the hospital doors mum will pass said letter to dad who’ll present it to the person on the reception desk along with an obligatory comment about how nice the weather is, or a bad-dad joke, the half funny joke of a condemned man. The receptionist will either joke along with him or be painfully efficient. If there was no time to get a letter the scribbled piece of paper, or back of envelope from next to the phone will be clutched in mum’s hands and she’ll stand guard next to dad as he recalls the details to the receptionist.
The next bit is when I always hold my breath – this is the point when the receptionist checks on the system that they’re expecting us (not always the case even when we’ve been told they are) and then trundles off to pick dad’s file out of the ones hanging waiting….except more often than not the file or the x-rays or something is missing which leads to multiple phonecalls while we go sit in the waiting area.
Mum will pop off to use the facilities (nerves do that to you) and dad and I will go around the corner, down the corridor and take our places in the waiting area. At this point I do the same thing every time, can’t help it – I scan the room. Look around, applying some warped Darwinian approach to my thinking, who looks the fittest, who looks really poorly, which carers look the most exhausted. Some days you get in to chat with someone else waiting, if you’re lucky someone has brought an irreverent kid along who’ll brighten things up a bit, except usually it’s just more waiting. There’s something very unappealing about picking up months-old dog eared magazines in an area covered with warning posters about washing hands and infection control so at this point mum (and sometimes dad) will get a book out, I might have work with me and we’ll sit and wait. In fact I’ll always have work with me, or something to read, experience has taught that you never know how long you’re going to be there.
As we sit scanning the room, and waiting to see the silhouette of dad’s consultant – I’m sure he’s nearly seven foot tall; we reminisce inside our heads, sometimes out loud. Thankful that things aren’t as bad as the times when there were no outpatient appointments, just dad struggling straight up to a ward desperate for a lie down after the journey had exhausted him.
The final bit of visualisation has a nurse calling dad through, the obligatory weight check – cue mum straining to see what the scales say and an obligatory non-funny joke between them about how much cake dad’s been eating (my dad is not a big man but he does like the odd slice of cake). Then more waiting inside a consultation room, there will never be enough chairs (protocol says you bring one person with you – even though no-one ever complains about finding another chair, not allowed to sit on the bed you see). There will be more small talk between us as we listen to the muffled voices in the next room to see if we can recognise dad’s consultant’s voice, then at some point he’ll walk in, an incredibly tall yet in no way imposing man, younger than you’d probably expect (early 40s I’d say), he’ll shake each of us by hand and appear genuinely pleased to see us.
The conversation will start with him asking how dad’s been, dad responding ‘fine’ and then who knows….the rest is not yet visualised for me. We’ve never been here before.
I’m not sure what dad will be told, what we’ll hear and what we’ll feel comfortable asking. As is nearly always the case I’m sure there’ll be no firm odds or estimates, very little firm ideas just tentative plans – or if we’re really lucky the scan will not have found cancer, or anything to worry about. The reality I guess is that each and every one of us are dying, right now as you read this, all today really does is bring to the fore that reality and the reality of our own fragility.
Photo by woodleywonderworks
One who doesn’t throw the dice can never expect to score a six – Navjot Singh Sidhu
ps Can I use this opportunity to say a massive thank you to each and every one of you who has tweeted, texted, called or supported me in the past few weeks. Particular thanks to anyone who has read or commented on my blog – this week I’m hyper aware that blogging has become my new distraction therapy so it’s really brilliant when people engage and it feels like it’s more useful than just me ranting at life. Thank you all.