Sad coffee break

Sitting down to have a coffee with my partner this morning, I saw a colleague from the past coming to the next table. He was and is a striking-looking man, tall, strongly built, blessed with good looks and a charming open-smiling face. I’m guessing he is about 65 now.

We started off in the usual way, with him asking if I was still working. After I spoke for a few minutes about my volunteer activities in retirement, I introduced him to Charmaine. Then came from me, ‘So what are you up to?’ ‘Well, I’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma. I’ve had two good years since then, but time is running out’. How conversations can veer off so far in one sentence.

He explained in some detail what has happened so far, including the initial surgical procedure to empty 600 mm of fluid from his lungs. This was very successful, but it can only be done once, so chemotherapy is the remaining intervention, and he is not at all sure he wants to go down that path, just to gain a bit more time. ‘There’s four tumours, they are growing near my heart, and my lung walls are beginning to leak again.’

His quality of life has been good up to now, although he is starting to tire after even short bursts of activity. His days of golf and sailing are nearly over. He and his wife have moved house, to be closer to their grandchildren. This time, it is a smaller house and garden that she will be able to manage later, on her own. It is also close to where they lived as young parents, where their children went to the same school as mine. That brought back a memory of getting several dads together to get organised football underway for the boys, because ‘It was ridiculous that there wasn’t a team.’ He was a noted footballer in his day, and had some famous mates (I use the word ‘famous’ to mean star players in one code of football in one small state of Australia) to help them.

A little more of this, then Charmaine asked if he knew about her bookshop, which is the in next suburb to their new home. He knows it well in fact, and had been in a couple of days ago. The discussion then easily segued to shared colleagues from the health system where we had all worked at some time. He talked animatedly about the job he had for about thirty years, working as a team with a close friend to build up a widely-respected service from very humble beginnings. It is obviously still a source of great pride and satisfaction.

The discussion lasted a few more minutes, all of us I guess digesting the fact of his tenuous grasp on time to savour such common experiences as these. We shook hands and walked away, with me thinking this was very likely our last meeting.

I feel heavy now, a few hours later, reflecting on the fragility of it all. He has no idea how he came into contact with asbestos, the most likely cause of mesothelioma, but doesn’t seem very upset about that. I guess the lack of some plausible route to ill-health leaves those of us in good health more rattled because we can’t adopt preventive measures even if we wanted to. That scary possibility that doing all the right things might not make any difference. Like a cartoon in the New Yorker where a gravestone reads ‘Even though I ate so much kale’.

All of us face these fears up close from time to time; increasingly often with late middle age. The usual thing is to say that we need to make every day count; to stop putting off life experiences we’ve been thinking about for ages, etc, etc, etc. I feel like I’m well down that path anyway, but maybe each reminder/scare/loss gets us a bit closer to living a fuller life while we can–whether it’s loving, giving, learning or just enjoying. It just feels as if there ought to be something more to make of such existential angst; some exciting new insight that will make sense of it all, even for a rational (well, most days) humanist like myself. Something like the sharp detail that shows up in the light before an approaching storm. That would be so much better than the possibility that these are just bullets that graze you from time to time until it’s your turn.

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