Skinny legs pumping a wild bicycle

I presented this prostate cancer case study reflection at the World Prostate Cancer Congress, Melbourne, August 2013.

Skinny legs pumping a wild bicycle
 

    

i.

 

Once upon a time,
not so very long ago
and not far from here,
the wandering thread of one
man’s life curled itself, without
thought, around a job,
a family, a bank account,
a car, a partner;
around a far-flung future;
around a body that was
careless, bullet-proof.

 

ii.

 

The thread had begun
more than fifty years before,
in the simple way
lives do, a new boy slipping
into the world to take up
the art of being
himself, finding his place in
a family, to
shape and be shaped by parents,
three brothers, and the business
of a river town.

 

iii.

 

Quite invisible
to itself, the thread unfurled
around camp fires
and lazy fishing trips; it
spooled from skinny legs pumping
a wild bicycle;
it looped reluctantly to
school, where it did its
homework and found itself drawn
to the family business.
It found its first love.

 

iv.

 

And so the boy grew
into a man, carrying
whatever this meant
into his boundless future.
He pulled the thread of his life
through a diploma,
then stretched it across the world
for two years. Later,
without learning the words for
the doings of his heart, he
married, had children.

 

v.

 

Years on, he would see
the cost of living without
reflection, but for
now the thread of his life ran
straight through the valley of hard
work, bigger houses,
business success. The sun shone
on his endeavours.
What went on inside himself
stayed in the realm of darkness,
alien to words.

 

vi.

 

Then one day the thread
snagged, stopped in its tracks
for a while. That world
he’d skated on proved to be
thin ice. His marriage ended—
a cold hard lesson.
He moved, he grew, he unearthed
some of the darkness.
The snagged thread disentangled,
found a new path to travel,
fell in love again.

 

vii.

 

Eleven years on,
here is the scene in which the
thread comes unravelled.
Picture this—packing boxes
stacked, Christmas carols on the
radio; a new
city, house, job are waiting.
They are to marry.
The phone rings. He has cancer.
There’s someone standing at the
window with a scythe
.

 

viii.

 

It seems a nightmare,
like Christmas among the doomed.
Deep in his body
a vicious mystery has
taken over. Surgery
is booked and cancelled.
His neck pain isn’t tension.
It is in his bones.
They move house; find themselves on
a new planet. He tries to
write letters of hope.

 

ix.

 

The letters do help.
The doctors wheel in their guns—
oral castration
and a fierce battle plan.
The thread of his life seems frail,
then sturdy, then frail
again. He takes up talking,
starts meditating.
He has no time for whingers,
so whose are those tears he
sees in the mirror?

 

x.

 

Across town, the thread
of another life waits to
meet his. He has made
an appointment. She wonders
what he will bring, how she will
help. This is her work.
He comes in with his cape on—
the cape of coping.
Kind of superman, she thinks.
She sees he is not ready
yet to take it off.

 

xi.

 

He doesn’t take it
off, but he fiddles with it.
He is still working,
doing laps of the cosmos,
constructing all the castles
he wants to live in
forever with his sweetheart.
The castles become
urgent. He will build them with
the sheer force of his desire
to go on living.

 

xii.

 

He visits again.
The doctors’ guns aren’t working
but they have reserves.
Next stop, chemotherapy.
This time, they talk about the
cape, but he still can’t
take it off. He’s always worn
it; people admire
him in it. She says she’d like
him to leave it at the door
when he visits her.

 

xiii.

 

The next few months are
conducted off-stage. He calls—
his blood tests are clear.
Weeks later, his sweetheart calls.
He’s disappeared. It’s frightening.
The woman rings him.
He’s not answering his phone.
Afterwards she learns
he’d taken off the cape, had
to be treated for extreme
identity loss.

 

xiv.

 

She rings him again.
He’s out of hospital; he’s
on the road to a
ten-day retreat. They’ve called the
artillery—he’s having
radiation, and
is now on his way to find
what the peace movement
can offer as a back-up.
In the face of all this, he’s
married his sweetheart.

 

xv.

 

Six months later, he’s
back. The war for his body
goes on. He’s weary.
His memory is dicey.
And as for sex—it’s vanished.
Just like menopause,
she thinks. She’s pleased to see he’s
taken off the cape.
What does he need? A place to
cry, he says. His eyes leak tears.
They float in the room.

 

xvi.

 

How is he doing?
Strangely well. The war has knocked
down the wall between
him and the grace of the world.
Here’s what matters—his sweetheart,
his children, all those
lives that thread themselves through his.
Would he go back, she
asks? No, in spite of it all.
And now there is Zytiga.
He is full of light.

 

Latest blog

I would love a dollar for every time someone has said to me that her/his depression has been caused by a “chemical imbalance in the brain,” as if this explained everything, including the necessary treatment (corrective chemicals in the form of antidepressants).

I have long been troubled by the ways we sometimes talk about depression—particularly when we describe it as a “disease,” as if it were as clearly identifiable and discrete a condition as chicken pox, or diabetes.

Yes, we need an...