What would you do?

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When I think of Death

‘When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humours.
I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else.
I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return.
Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake.
I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’

(Maya Angelou, poet, singer, author, civil rights activist, 1928-2014)

Those of you who read my blogs know that I often spontaneously write them in response to life events.  I have a list of potential blog content to ‘fall back on’, but as yet I have not needed this list as something always prompts the need to write, share and hopefully help others.  This week has been no exception, but the words are difficult to find as I try to negotiate the emotions triggered by the sudden loss of a friend last week.  I wasn’t having the best week as it was as life has been ‘throwing me lemons’ lately.  It had been on my mind to ring this friend, who was also my family solicitor of approximately 40 years, and therefore had been a presence throughout my entire life.  However, the happy occasion of my mum’s 83rd Birthday was also occurring and I decided to set life’s trials and tribulations to one side and enjoy a few days off work and spend time with my family.  In all honesty, I thought this celebration would trigger the theme of this week’s blog.  I did not expect the sad news that cancer had yet again taken another presence and support from my life.

A couple of weeks ago I had written about decluttering my study and finding items relating to my dad; this had also triggered remnants of unprocessed grief.  At the time of sorting through old box files I also found letters from my good friend who I affectionately called ‘Cheeky’ as I grew up.  Cheeky was my mum’s boss and close family friend.  I don’t know how to describe our relationship other than he was my ‘best friend’ and ‘my number 1 fan’.  We were completely inseparable and as a little girl I went everywhere with him including the local pub and business meetings!  Cheeky passed away shortly after a lung cancer diagnosis in 1995; he had been a heavy smoker until I told him off at age 11 when I had gained an understanding of the dangers of smoking and he instantly quit!  Sadly the damage had already been done and his health deteriorated significantly over the years.  He was a flamboyant and extrovert character, hard working and the kindest most generous person you could possibly meet.  He gave to charity and helped those in need on a scale I truly only appreciated after his passing as I started to then be told stories and receive letters of gratitude relating to this generosity.

Cheeky was diagnosed as I sat my final year exams in pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast.  He and my parents managed to keep the news from me for a few weeks until I completed the tests. He made it to my graduation and died during the first week of what I regard as my first ‘proper’ job as a pre-registration pharmacist with Boots the Chemist.

History repeated itself in a very cruel manner when my dad, who never smoked and lived a very healthy lifestyle, was also diagnosed with lung cancer whilst I was writing up my PhD.  I knew my dad would now never see me married, meet his grandchildren or witness any other big moments in my life so I threw myself into my thesis to ensure it was done in time; this was perhaps the opposite to what people expected as I was devastated by the news.  I needed him to know I was going to be ‘OK’ and this was one last thing we could share if I could complete it on time.   Dad was too ill to make it to my graduation and he passed away on the first day of my position as a postdoctoral research fellow at Queen’s.

The similarities between what happened my dad and Cheeky, two key male figures in my life, were stark and left me in a wilderness of questions and pain that I believe now I ‘boxed up’ and put away in a compartment deep within my heart.  Too much to bear and too much to process, I was back at work the following Monday after my dad’s funeral.

The death of my friend last week has prompted my memories into overdrive and seems to have opened the lid on my box of grief.  I know both my dad and Cheeky left instruction for this friend to look out for me and protect my interests…..  and my goodness, did I frequently give him work to do (?), and challenge him with looking out for me as I delved into one business and passion after another.  I took advice and counsel on a regular basis and had to admit last week that when I ignored any of his sound advice, things didn’t always turn out for the best.  He was a private person and therefore I will not mention his name here but I want to dedicate my thoughts today to his memory and thank him for always  being there at the end of the phone or email with a calmness, reassurance and dedication that can only be encountered from someone you describe as ‘one in a million.’  The support rug has been pulled from under my feet and I feel bereft, a little lost and almost frozen with fear.  I admit that these are selfish feelings, but they are acute and presently very real and painful.

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’ C S Lewis

I recently committed to consistently writing one blog article from ‘The Swan Doctor’ every week.  I therefore should have had this written already but  I started questioning why I am doing this and very nearly ‘downed tools’ completely this week.  I opened up one of Cheeky’s letters today just prior to sitting down at my laptop seeking some solace or advice with tears streaming down my face yet again.  You remember I said he was my number 1 fan?  He truly was.  I used to get so very embarrassed as he bragged to people about my latest achievements, especially academically as I did find my calling when I went into pharmacy.  The

A snapshot of Cheeky’s letter to me, Jan 1995

last paragraphs of one letter dated 14th January, 1995 read,

“How are yourself sweetheart; doing your best and nothing else, that’s all Cheeky wants sweetheart…..Sounds like a silly old man doesn’t it?  Yes, I am an old man but Cheeky thinks the world of you and wants you to do well for yourself.  Nobody else.  Just you sweetheart.”

How can I read this letter filled to the brim with love and encouragement, and then not continue doing something I enjoy and have a passion for whilst also helping other people?  It would be wrong to stop, to wallow, feel sorry for myself and not achieve the goals I am setting and working towards.  So here I am writing, and yes this is therapy for me right now, but I still want to help you as I work through these feelings.

I therefore  want to ask you a question today.  It is a common question used by coaches when trying to identify what their clients truly want in life.

“What would you do if you only had six months to live?”

Would you be in the same job?  Would you still run the same business?  Would you live in the same place?  Would you still want to be in the same relationship?  Would you travel?  Would you spend time with friends?  Would you drive the same car or go and splash out on your dream sports car?

The sad fact is that the reality of being told we only have a short time left is usually due to illness which will actually prevent us from getting to work on our bucket list.  Instead, we may be faced with hospital appointments, medical procedures and treatments that will leave us unable to live the dream and fulfil long held ambitions and desires.

So the importance of the question is lost, and should really be reworded to something like, “given good health in the meantime, but knowing you only have six months to live, what would you do?”

I am 44 years old.  It is not ‘old’ when present life expectancy for females in the UK is 83 years, but this figure is not promised.  Tomorrow is not promised to anyone.  In light of recent events, I now want to sit down and ponder this question in some depth and I urge you to do the same.  If there has been something ‘niggling’ away at you that you want to do or should do, what do you need to do to make that happen?  Please tell me “what would you do?”


The Swan Doctor