We watched the first doco ‘The Topic of Cancer’ ten years ago while our son David was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment. At the time we were certain that he would pull through and consequently found the program interesting but not particularly upsetting.
Even when the David in the program died between the first and second parts, we thought, nah, different cancer, our son was going to be all right, he was strong, he was good …. Unfortunately there must be something in that saying ‘Only the good die young’ …..
So it was with some trepidation that we watched the repeat of the show on Sunday night and even more concern that it would bring back awful memories when we switched on the ABC last night As soon as Denton said
“David, is the actual chemotherapy treatment, is that painful or is it just exhausting, or boring, or what?
David: None of the above, but it’s frightening, because you know this is powerful stuff. You know that it’s going to make you feel sick. You know that, um, it’ll make you feel a lot worse than the chemo you’ve had beforehand did. And so you’re frightened of how much worse.”
the tears started and they got worse during the program when we found out that besides David, Robyn, who suffered from the same cancer as our David, Ewing’s sarcoma, and Gavin had died during the last ten years.
All in all the reunion program lacked the immediacy of the first one. Those who were going to die had done so. Those who had been physically and/or emotionally scarred had learnt to cope but if one is the least bit sensitive to these things, there seemed to be much, much more to the feelings of each member of the group than was put on display.
All of them obviously had a different attitude to life than their peers. Mason gave us a glimpse when he said,
OK, well, I’ve spent the last 10 years doing a lot of travelling. And, um”¦ but I would say searching for experiences that make me feel alive, and to, you know, take the bull by the horns and jump on its back and ride sort of thing. And I guess when I finished school, and that was a sort of door to freedom for me and I saw that I’d been given this second chance at life, how I saw it, and I wanted to go and experience as much as I could and fit as much as I could in.
And it was obvious that they were more than usually comfortable around death;
Claire Williams: I think because adolescence is associated with life and living life and I think because we were adolescents dealing with illness, and we, um”¦ were exposed to death, I think you”¦ there’s a certain part of it that you just become comfortable with it. And, um”¦ I think, you know, speaking from my perspective, I’ve always been quite comfortable with it, and have worked in an area of health and have had to talk about it to the point that”¦ some”¦ I’ve been accused by the occasional friend of being obsessed with death. But it’s not. It’s just”¦ I’ve been around it, so I can openly talk about it. And if someone brings up the subject, I can just go, “Well, you know, these are my experiences.” I’ve been in a room where someone has died, where a friend has died. Um”¦ and, um”¦ that was tragic and that was extraordinary and it changed my life, but I’m comfortable with that and my own mortality and a lot of people, I suppose, our age still aren’t. And I suppose we’re just, like, you know, cool with it. A lot of people aren’t and are a bit freaked out by that.
The big problem I had with the show was that it didn’t shed any more light on why some people are afflicted and others not, and why the lucky one’s get through and the ‘good’ one’s die.
I’ll never see what could have been,
not even in my imagination,
because my memories are scarred by his death,
the smiling skeleton he became.
I’ll never know what he thought,
you see we couldn’t talk,
because my macho stupidity stifled him,
and he was too strong, too silent.
I’ll never forgive myself,
for not doing enough,
because when it was most important,
I’ll never forget, I promise
he will live as long as I do,
because courage and heroism demand,
WHY HIM ?
Sometime in March 94 I was standing in the newsagent reading the latest paperbacks when I noticed April Fools Day. The author, Bryce Courtenay, was popular at the time because the film of his first book, The Power of One, was showing. So I picked it up, not knowing anything about the subject. About three pages into it I started to cry because it was then that the certainty of David dying surged up, fully formed, into my consciousness. Until then I refused to let the idea enter my head. He WOULD NOT DIE ! I wouldn’t allow it.
All my life I had believed that if you wanted something hard enough then, with a little luck, you could get it. Only wimps and wusses blamed their misfortune on others – real men made their own fortune. And I wanted David to live. Just because the odds were against it didn’t matter. I had beat polio hadn’t I ? The odds against David ever contracting this kind of cancer in the first place were astronomically high so why couldn’t he be the exception and beat it – just him, nobody else need to know what Faustian deals I made, I didn’t really give a shit about anybody else. David is special, David deserves another chance at life, David never did anything wrong. Why him, why why why ?
Just imagine, this big ugly bloke standing there in public with tears running into his beard. Not a pretty sight because I grimace with my face all twisted up when I cry. At that time I was still reticent about weeping in public, tears were for the deepest night when no-one else could hear. Now I don’t care any more what other people think and now I sob out loud as well. I think it was me crying outside on the verandah after I saw all the blood from the bedsore on David’s back, that caused him to consider giving up. It was the description of the bedsores on Damon’s back in that book that has had a lasting impression. How undignified to die from a bedsore ! At least cancer has a degree of panache, especially a rare form of cancer like Ewing’s Sarcoma. But a lousy bedsore. Yet that was what killed David in the end. If only we had insisted that he move more. If only we had rubbed his back with alcohol. If only. These days when I lie in bed on my stomach I remember how David would have loved to be able to roll over on his stomach. He couldn’t even cry into his pillow. What did he think of, lying there alone on his bed, before he started taking the morphine ?
I attended a conference in Hobart in November 1992 at which Bryce Courtenay was a motivational speaker. I can remember him being quite emotional, particularly when relating his biographical details, which was unusual. Everybody there was typically cynical. I remarked to one of my colleagues that he seemed hypocritical because he invested a lot of emotion then debased it by twisting what he said to fit what the conference organizers wanted. Perhaps in hindsight that was unusually perceptive of me. But now I know how he felt if Damon’s death was fresh in his mind or if he was in the process of writing about it.
There is a painful contradiction between what is in my head and the facade I adopt for the public, my friends and family. Part of it stems from the guilt I feel for not being overwhelmed enough. There is always an impersonal detached Wayne cynically weighing up how much to show, looking at the whole scene objectively from another point of view and saying “Isn’t this an interesting experience.”
The reason is, I told Rosemary, is that we had a long time to practice how we would feel before David died. Maybe we started the grieving process before he died. I know I had composed the death notice in my mind before Easter. I never allowed those thoughts to show. Especially to David. What was the point of his struggle to stay alive if I had already given in.
So I made up conversations, soliloquies really, because David seldom responded – stuff like – “don’t worry about your body, it’s your mind that’s most important, while your mind is alive and you’re thinking, your body can turn to shit, it doesn’t matter. Look at Stephen Hawkins, one of the greatest intellects of our time.” I don’t know what he thought of what I said. I wish he could have made a comment even if it was “That’s bullshit Dad and you know it”.
We bought a camphorwood box to keep some of David’s things so that we could easily start the process of remembering. All of the cards we got, his posters and letters received from Phil Kearns, his representative rugby jerseys and his sports trophies, some of the stuff he did at school. Rosemary cried that it wasn’t much to show for nearly 18 years. The worst thing was not being able to take any photos or videotape while he was sick. He didn’t want any evidence of his sickness and we didn’t dare admit that we wanted photos in case he died. So for the last 18 months there is very little of David as the big strong boy he was. And of course there is nothing kept of him toward the end when he was at his most heroic. Just memories, and that’s why I’m writing about his last days before I forget.
No doubt he was afraid of death and yet he chose to die with dignity, not screaming at the unfairness of it, but quietly with a nobility of character that will guarantee that he will be respected by all who knew him. He has influenced the future of those he loved and so achieved immortality. He knew that he had changed some part of the world in which he lived and so all the futures of the all people who remember him would be altered. He is part of all the memories that drift unbidden into the minds of those who he touched, forever. Thus he lives forever, so long as those who live on, or leave a record of him, remember. Death is not the supreme terror, nor the most monstrous calamity, nor is life greatly prized by wise men.
It was Aristotle who said,
“There are circumstances and occasions when the reasonable man will prefer to die and not to live.”
Death is only the final stage of growth in this life. There is no total death. Only the body dies. The self or spirit, or whatever you may wish to label it, is eternal. You may interpret this in any way that make you feel comfortable. Unfortunately we were never able to discuss this with David and so I’ll never really know how he felt, but it makes me feel better. So remembering the credo of the 60’s “if it feels good, do it”.