Anna Donald: When I wish I didn’t have cancer

Anna Donald I am lying in bed, propped up with a silly number of pillows. I’ve stolen my husband’s, who is spending the night in Taree, a small country town about four hours away, where he is arguing a case about termite control. I’ve always wondered how he knows so much about such an esoteric range of subjects. Now I’ve figured it out.

When you are a barrister and have to argue the ins and outs of your client’s business to a judge, often at short notice, you must quickly come to grips with that business, whether it be termite control, leaking petrol stations, dodgy forensic tests, the rights of refugees who have broken the law, or artists’ fees under new copyright laws.

I, on the other hand, am listening to my mad music collection, coughing quite a lot, and feeling very sad that we aren’t getting on a plane tomorrow morning for London.

We had return tickets which had to be used within 12 months. A combination of my husband’s workload coupled with my concern about the tolerable but persistent cough made us cancel them, even though we got nothing back for them – it was a cheap deal to start with, with no refunds or transfers allowed.

Even so, last night I found myself obsessively pulling out an unopened jigsaw of London and laying out the 1000 pieces in neat little piles as my grandmother showed me to do 38 years ago. If I can’t go to London then I’m jolly well going to reconstruct it. Not exactly the same thing, but comforting in an odd sort of way nonetheless. For ten years I lived in Bloomsbury. Central London was my backyard. I could stroll to Trafalgar Square, where, during the war, my great uncle was vicar at St Martins in the Fields, and all the surrounding areas. I came to know intimately the ins and outs of London’s ‘main drags’ as an Aussie might put it, including back street short cuts; little tunnels connecting streets full of piss and beer, and beautiful old houses wedged between concrete monstrosities. Central London is too pockmarked by war and inadequate planning to be beautiful but it was a fantastic place to live, despite the constant in-your-face noise and bustle. Although it was my backyard, it is, of course, the world’s backyard too. Sharing it with the world every morning was both invigorating and a constant struggle.

So, sitting in my quiet apartment in one of Sydney’s leafy suburbs, it was nice to know I can still recognise practically all the main buildings, suburbs, and landmarks – which meant that the jigsaw didn’t take long to complete (when he got home, my husband immediately joined in, not bothering to shed his suit).

To add salt to the wound, as it were, however, of cancelling our flight was yesterday’s arrival of our new niece to my brother and his wife at the Homerton hospital in Hackney (apparently fabulous for maternity services, according to my sister-in-law, who is American, and was astounded at the superiority of the NHS over the for-profit hospital in New York she attended for their first baby). Problem is, we won’t be there to see her or the baby (or my brother for that matter). Not for a while, anyway. The baby is absolutely beautiful (from my brother’s mobile phone picture, which he surreptitiously took, as the Homerton still has the insane rule that you can’t use a mobile on the wards, which UCH sensibly abandoned some time ago. It’s very hard on family members whose only contact is phone). I am so, so sad not to be flying tomorrow.

So I’m playing the Messiah as solace and trying to think of something to send my new niece that will tell her she was loved from birth, not just by her parents. We sent our first niece a silver christening cup with her name engraved in it. I know that such things more or less collect dust until adolescence is well and truly over, but later, when life has its ups and downs, they can be talismans, emitting a message of love that won’t go away, no matter what life throws at you. My beautiful old copy of Winnie-The-Pooh from my father on the day I was born is one such item.

This is when I really wish I didn’t have cancer. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me that much; sometimes I’m even grateful for the changes in my life it’s brought about. But when it’s an obstacle to doing things you really care about, it tests my meditative practice of non-attachment and trust-in-the-Divine to the limit. I want to shake God and say hey, what about this cough then? Can’t you just get rid of it for a couple of weeks so I can see my new little niece? What’s wrong with you?

I don’t do this because, once you’ve got a line to the awesome divinity that I dimly and occasionally clearly perceive much of the time now, I know it’s all OK anyway. Yelling about what is not won’t help. And anyway I’m not really mad at anyone. Just frustrated.

I had better go to bed as it is well past midnight but a word of advice – try not to get cancer. If you smoke, just stop. Do what you have to – hang upside on the banister, dress up in your wife’s clothes, try ceramics. And there’s always nicotine patches. Whatever it takes. Having lungs full of cancer is a complete pest. Don’t go there. No need.

And have a great week.

Anna Donald, Blog 18, 17 September