I took my car in for a service in the first week of the year. I always look forward to seeing John at the service desk. He is a cheerful man and loves a chat, so I was slightly shocked to see him looking unusually pale and asked if he was OK.
No, he was not OK. He had turned 50 and received, as all Australians receive, a bowel cancer testing kit in the post. He thought he’d do the test, ‘for a laugh’ because after all, he felt wonderful and was so obviously in good health. He then received a message to have more tests, without delay. Still full of optimism, his first reaction was that they had surely made a mistake. This was not the case and his cancer had so advanced, it had spread to his liver. On the day I saw him, he was struggling with the first round of chemotherapy. And one of my thoughts on the way home was ‘not another John.’
I thought about a man I worked with in London called John Cook. He dreamed of travel in his retirement years but as it turned out, there were none. His wife went first to cancer and John went a few short years later.
Every man dies, but not every man lives. This quote is attributed to William Wallace, and I know that John Cook, fellow Scot, approved of those words when he told me not to put anything off that I really wanted to do in life.
I only heard my father, also a John, use the word retire once. He talked about selling out of a business and I asked what he would do instead. He surprised me by saying ‘travel.’ I think he would have been a good traveller. He liked talking to strangers and he would have taken one set of clothes and cared very little for creature comforts. He ate anything put in front of him, because, as a chain smoker, he couldn’t taste very much anyway. It was not to be, and he died of a brain tumour at 56.
John Diamond, the husband of Nigella Lawson, wrote honestly and movingly about his slow death from cancer in a book called C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. “You aren’t happy?” He wrote to his readers. “Yes you are: this, here, now is what happiness is. Enjoy it.” I had that quote on my pin up board for years.
At the start of this year I also came across the obituary of Charlotte Fox in an article titled, ‘Who We Lost in 2018.’ Charlotte Fox was born in 1957 and was the first American woman to climb three 8000 metre peaks. She survived the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster. She died last year at 61 after falling down the stairs in her home. I wonder how many people tried to talk her out of her adventurous life.
What have I learned from the four Johns and now, this particular Charlotte? Life can be wonderful, but it can also be suddenly curtailed. Not everyone will get their 1000 months. We might as well go for it, like Charlotte Fox, and build a life rather than submitting to one.
I leave the last word to Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australian Poet;
Life is mostly froth and bubble
Two things stand alone
Kindness in another’s trouble
Courage in your own.