The importance of memories

Sir Fred Holliday


I’ve been lucky with my health and as I sympathized with friends less lucky I often wondered how I would face serious illness; now I know for exactly a year ago lymphoma struck.

It was a run-of the mill lymphoma but troublesome enough and I was glad of the skill and knowledge in the NHS. My lymph glands were swollen and painful, my bone marrow and spleen not so good and my pleural cavities full of gunge which made breathing difficult. I was welcomed into Foresterhill where my pleural cavities were drained via tubes stuck into my chest. Trying to lasso my legs with clean pants and pyjamas whilst holding a large bottle of body fluids below waist level was hilarious! One feature of the cancer wards was the amount of laughter, a sense of humour was a feature of all my colleagues in surrounding beds. I had some surgery on my neck and was pleased to bid farewell to the lump that made a difference to my collar size. Mealtimes were important and the food in Foresterhill was excellent and plentiful. The kitchens responded well to scribbled notes on the choice forms (more juice with my prunes, please).

Chemotherapy has its tough side but it is effective. It is delivered over about six months and targets rapidly dividing cells: hair cells take time out and you lose all hair-but it returns and I now have a full head of it,eyebrows too. To my grandchildren the state of my hair (lack of it and then reappearance) marked my progress. My red-cell count was low and I was short of haemoglobin and spent a few months living as if I was half way up Everest: a blood transfusion gives instant but temporary relief. My immune system was down so I avoided people and ate as if I was pregnant!  Reactions from friends was interesting, most were hugely supportive (thanks folks-it really helped) a few viewed me as dead man walking!

Now that I am back to near normal I find myself being asked ”How did you cope, has it changed your outlook on life and death”? Complex questions with no easy answers. I had a `Plan A’ (recovery and a few more years) and a ‘Plan B’ (or not!!). I put my affairs in order as they say, shifted money to my wife, left instructions for when I was gone. I did not find a `new me` and dismayed a few friends by my attitude to end of life. I admired greatly the spirit and fortitude of the younger patients “hooked up” alongside me in the Anchor unit (Anchor is a great charity that eases treatment considerably).

Being confined to house for the past year has been easier than expected. I looked after my hens, fed the wild birds and squirrels and grew my veg. I read many books unread up till then e.g. Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire (all eight volumes). I spent hours at my microscope and rediscovered the beauties of histology, I made blood smears and watched the waxing and waning of my white cells.

The telephone and my laptop kept me in touch with the world. Memories were important especially in the long watches of the night. The spirits of Phil Orkin, David Gauld and many others kept me company. Lil de Koch’s laughter and Saida Symmons’ quiet presence were both welcome. So hang on to those memories of yours, they are more real and  important than you might imagine.