Living in darkness

After a week of hospital-bound radiotherapy Dee was allowed home. The numbness had gone but the pain had not. She was feeling a shadow of her normal, former self. A fortnight went by mostly upstairs in bed. Without being asked, one by one all four of the doctors in our local practice came knocking, I would show them upstairs, sit quietly in the background listening to what these very good people - who had so signally failed to diagnose the cancer - had to say to my wife. None of them said sorry. Then a letter arrived setting an appointment back in Raigmore Hospital with a consultant oncologist. All too familiar with the blank canvas outcome of such meetings Dee and I sat down together at home to compile a list of fifteen questions to which we would request answers - even if the answer had to be 'don't know'. Even after Delia's diagnosis and radiotherapy  neither of us felt sufficiently information equipped.

The consultant turned out to be a marginally interested lady aged perhaps thirty something who, for all her evident concern may have been running a touch late for something else.We already knew Dee was to be offered an extreme type of chemotherapy. By the way that was an offer that could have been made in the letter or even verbally a fortnight before, thus saving ourselves and the environment one hundred and sixty miles of fossil fuelled car miles plus an entire day of our time and a half hour of the NHS's much more expensive time. The last (double) question on our list was ....

Dee: If I do not accept chemotherapy what may be my chances of survival?

Consultant oncologist: (all obfuscation removed)  Zero.

Dee: If I do accept chemotherapy what then may be my chances?

Consultant oncologist: Impossible to say: perhaps thirty to fifty percent  

Of course we decided to opt in, although had we known the true downside and/or the true odds against I do not think we would have elected to go through it.

I drove us back home over the hills, stopping only at a friend's house in Achnasheen then diverting to the Badachro Inn  for some supper and the opportunity to consider things more fully, in as relaxed a manner as possible. This was the place where we had enjoyed so many happy occasions over the years, often with various members of our family on holidays long before we relocated north. How were we to best let our children know now about this awful turn of events? There is no best way. Only the only way. But there were no tears from her as we looked out over the bay with its moored yachts, its birdlife, the wild wilderness of Dry Island and the broad reaches of Gairloch itself. We were all right. Can an inanimate place really give you strength, I wonder? Why, yes it can!

Over the next six months as Dee attended Raigmore for her chemo plus R-chop (whatever that may be) sometimes needing to stay in hospital and sometimes there and back home in a day, I was backing and forthing like the proverbial yo-yo. I would joke that my car didn't need a driver - it knew the way all by itself. On one occasion after the doctors had apparently changed their mind I had only just arrived back home after leaving Dee as instructed when the phone rang. It was Raigmore: 'Oh, your wife can go home now, Mr Islip'. Wearily I got back into the car. A second 160 mile trip that day! Cheers!

After the first chemo session Dee asked me to take a photo of her 'before all my hair comes out'. Bear in mind that my wife had always taken great care of and not to say considerable pride in this hair of her's. The idea of losing it therefore would have been the piling of agony upon agony now that it was coming adrift in her hairbrush. With the picture safely in my PC she quietly asked me to 'call Fiona'; she wanted all her hair removed rather than have it fall out bit by patchy bit. Fiona was and still is my local lady hairdresser and Dee's good friend (even though she invariably went into Inverness on the bus to 'have her hair done'!) I took the photograph below then watched as Dee's long blonde pride and joy fell in clumps to the kitchen  floor

By an odd co-incidence a friend of Rudi's had purchased a hairpiece of an almost exact colour match to his mothers's. She no longer needed it. Without our foreknowledge it arrived in the post the following day. It was the first of three wigs, and my own everlasting favourite.

Dee wasn't eager for the children and their families to come all the way up here to see her when, after all, she might be free of lyphomatic cancers by Springtime after the course of six hard chemo sessions had concluded - and she knew her deteriorating physical condition would add worries to worries for them all. That winter was a very tough one for both of us and I'm not referring to the weather. Having said so, it was not without its lighter side and its humour and above all Dee was pretty well daily receiving visits from our friends as well as the inevitable family..

We would constantly talk about 'when I am / you are better' although always at the back of both our minds was that young lady oncologists' 'thirty to fifty percent'. Of course I was doing all the cooking and cleaning (as much / as best I could) and Dee spent most of all day every day in bed in between chemo sessions. But a month or so after the end of chemo we determined to begin testing - exactly how well (or not well) was she now? We were desperate to learn whether or not that awful chemotherapy had killed off the cancer. One of our favourite midday walks whilst we were busy with bed and breakfasts was just a mile or so along the edge of Loch Ewe to the NATO pier. By now we had not been able to do it for well over a year but were set on giving it a go. It was heartbreaking to see her efforts on that walk, aided by two walking sticks. This was a woman who had walked all her life and for the sheer pleasure of it, who had noticed things of nature, who had never been put off by adverse weather - indeed I sometimes thought had relished it. Delia Mary Smalley nee Perry nee Islip was for me the free spirit of the wilderness; she was indeed the free spirit, period.

In July came a summons to attend Aberdeen General hospital. Dee was to have a nuclear test of some kind presumably to determine if and how the chemotherapy had worked. The appointment was for ten in the morning. Aberdeen is a minimum four hours away. We made it on time and those long four hours back home again after ... won't bore you further with all that! Day by day we awaited some kind of message. Nothing. I called Raigmore. An appointment for us was made. No explanations of course and of course no apologies at being left swinging in the wind. We waited an inexorable time past the schedule for the consultant finally to let us in to his room and presumably know our fate. It at once became clear that he knew nothing - had not even spent a prior minute looking at his computer screen (with its computer graphics of Dee's Aberdeen scan) or at Delia's bulky paper files. So now he spent at least five silent minutes trying to get the picture on screen in focus. Both Dee and I could read the bloody red splodges around her pelvic girdle long before he opened his mouth. Perhaps that was his way of breaking the news gently, I don't know.

Finally he looked up, seeming as grave as did his well practiced nurse. He made some irrelevant noises and then announced that there was nothing more to be done. Even then she had to ask him, how long do I have? The answer; three months, Mrs Islip.

On being shown the way out the consultant shook my hand and told me quietly; she can have as many pain killers as she wants. I said, thank you, doctor.

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