Towards the end of the summer holidays I was able to hang around Rosamund’s daycare a little longer in the mornings when I dropped her off. It’s nice to have time. Some time to help her with her lunchbox – opening the raisin packet, or peeling a mandarin – and time to sit and put my shoes back on and listen to the kids chatter and barrel around the rooms. Next to the collapsed couch where I put on my shoes is a large old tank filled with water and stones and weeds where a turtle beats about. Something about the turtle makes it seem old. Not old aged, but ancient: the present descendant of something reaching far, far back. Its limbs move through a water that seems to have the consistency of a thickened gravy. Turtles have time. There is no hurry. Everything has been seen, everything will pass.
We spent a lesson looking at the culture of the Mentawai in Year 9 Social Studies. We investigated their appearance, their customs and beliefs, and compared them to our own. There is one section in the internet presentation that talks about how the Mentawai look after their sick, and the photos focus on a particular infant.
To cure him the shamans kill a chicken and consult the intestines, then they apply herbs from the jungle and chant to drive the bad spirits off.
I sometimes think that it would be nice to live in simpler times, but in so-called simpler times death and illness were a lot closer, and what we now attempt to avert through screening and genetics was then simply a part of life’s mystery. Not that science can halt death, but against the mystery of what comes after we can hold our x-rays and our genetic profiles. In the end though science merely better explains death. Our sense of injustice remains intact. Our loneliness endures.
In the BBC documentary called The Story of God, Robert Winston goes to a cave in the South of France to talk about the origins of religion. Inside the cave are paintings of animals and the hand prints of men and women from at least 28,000 years ago.
Paint was blown onto the hand so that – one expert speculates – the owner of the hand might reach through the rock to the world beyond and make contact. Religion is, Robert Winston tells us, the human being trying to break the barrier of its consciousness and come back into contact with what lies beyond, or perhaps deep within us. If the actions have changed the desire for this contact has not faltered across all the ages that have fallen between the man who pressed his hand to that cave wall, and my living room reading. The knowledge of death, the uncertainty of life, and the need to know. It goes on and on in us.
Every few years I get a letter telling me that I need to go and have a colonoscopy. I am on a screening programme. My father had cancer and died when I was five, and enough of his relatives have had cancer for me to be considered a risk. Today was the third time that I have had a colonoscopy which is pretty routine and straightforward but still unpleasant. Not hugely unpleasant, and not at all painful, but enough of a disruption to life that I don’t look forward to it.
You have to stop eating for a while. That’s ok. You also have to drink three litres of a “preparation” to clean out your system. The preparation comes in sachets and you mix it with water. It is lemon flavoured except its not really like drinking a refreshing lemon beverage, and a lot like drinking drinking bath water that someone has left a bar of lemon scented soap in. By the third litre it’s a matter of supressing the gag reflex and just getting the damn stuff down.
At the hospital the doctor asked me why I was having the procedure: a fact that the DHB had forgotten to tell Southern Cross – the private hospital they had sold their waiting list to. When he asked me this question I thought of an old family photo.
It is a picture of my Dad as a boy with his three sisters. The girl on the far left is Isobel. She had her 86th birthday last week. His other two sisters have died, and he – as I said – died when I was five in 1978. Isobel also had cancer, but survived. One of the other sisters died quite young, and the second oldest had alzheimers in the end. It’s not comforting for me to look at this photo. It reminds me that we all think, when we are young, that we will be fine, but that none of us know what is ahead.
The doctor today said he would refer me to a programme that profiles families who have a history of cancer to assess risk. He said that this was important not only for my health, but for the health of my children.
Even though I have been a Dad now for more than six years I am sometimes surprised to discover it again. My whole life I have thought of cancer as something that killed my father and was a threat to me, but today was the first day that I realised that my genes were a threat to my daughters. To Eleanor who had sat with me that morning on the spare bed and who had haltingly read her school book to me, and to Rosamund who I had dropped off at daycare and left happily eating her grapes, in her red dress, waving her legs back and forward sitting at her little chair at the little dining table.
The doctor took me to a room to change, and then I went into a theatre where a couple of nurses efficiently prepared me. They asked me about my name: something of my father and grandfathers that I carry about with me. Once the anesthetic was injected I felt light-headed and sleepy, but it was hard to ignore that fact of a video camera being shoved up my backside. Each of the three times this has happened I have marvelled how people can do things that they would never normally do if they feel the context is right. I would normally object quite strongly to having a camera shoved up my bottom by a man I had met for the first time only a few minutes earlier while a group of middle-aged women looked on, but tell me it’s a colonoscopy and I’m fine. One day, say in ten years time, I expect it will be revealed that there actually is no such thing as a colonoscopy, and it was all a big prank played by the worldwide medical profession at our expense.
Afterwards they gave me some tea and sandwiches and I nodded off in a lazy-boy.
Once I was dressed and slightly less sleepy the doctor showed me some photos of my colon – frankly they could have been of anything – and told me that I was healthy. As I shook his hand to leave I thought: “What an extremely odd job you have” and then I went back out to the waiting room and texted Cathy to tell her I was done. I waited in the lobby and listened to the radio. Prince William’s Kate is pregnant. We won or lost the cricket. The turtle at Rosamund’s daycare drifts through the water of its tank.
I am fine.
Everything will be alright.