Thanks, Hindsight

How is the year shaping up for you so far? Have your predictions come true, or did you have to face a curve ball or two?

I didn’t expect my brother-in-law to be dying. That’s the curve ball.

He’s younger than me. When they came over from Canada after Labor Day (always after Labor Day, when air tickets are cheaper) he spent two days painting my bathroom green. Except to him it looked yellow, because he’s colour blind. He did a really good job – not sloppy, like I would have done. Two days of sanding, masking and painting while my sister and I sat downstairs catching up on old times. She said he was tired a lot nowadays, but neither of us thought. He was waiting for a test. The test took a whole year to come round, and by then it was too late. He’s got about a year; maybe longer, with treatment.

I never thought I’d miss him in advance. I mean – he’s not my husband. And I suppose that’s what’s always been the trouble – such similar men, such spookily similar personalities – he’s always reminded me. I wasn’t nice, sometimes; I was prickly; I just daren’t let him take me over, start telling me what to think and do. I’d had twenty-two years of it. Twenty-two years of looking for the strength to leave, and more than that since, of paying the price. I escaped. Except you drag it all along with you, trailing clouds of resentment; clouds of mistrust; all men to be tarred with the same brush.

I was distracted: bound up in Mum and her problems. Mum with her dementia – and even before the dementia, that genius she’s got for sucking everybody in, bending all the attention in her direction. Being deaf will do that, of course. Everybody needs to face you; everybody has to focus on you, mime to you, repeat for you. Nowadays, when you don’t want to listen you screw up your eyes: so everybody writes you notes. When you don’t want to read the notes you screw them up and throw them on the floor. We haven’t told you, and we won’t. By the next day you’d have forgotten.

In the midst of all this it was spreading, this thing you have, and none of us knew. As always you flew over, and as always you did stuff for people. You keep a set of overalls in a cupboard at your Mum’s house. You bring your own drill and all the bits to go with it in a heavy-duty plastic case. A place for everything. You painted my bathroom green and thought it was yellow. Then you drove up North and did stuff for your Mum and your sister. You sorted us all out, like you always do. You did that stuff, flew home, and found out you were dying.

So that’s the curve ball.

My sister phones me most nights. She doesn’t know what to do. I just looked it up – we’re precisely 6,793 kilometres apart. What can I do? Only sit in that uncomfortable chair and listen. Only refer back to my own life, only repeat half-remembered stories from books I half-remember reading. What good is that?

I shall be glad to get out of this house.

Glad not to see those newly-painted walls.

Glad to be somewhere else entirely.

READING MONTAIGNE IN THE BATH

I was reading Michel de Montaigne in the bath (as you do) and thought to check back over the various pink postit-notes I had attached to him.

‘A dog one knows’ said one postit.

‘Cat in a pasty’ said another.

‘Cat and bird’ said the third.

‘A dog one knows’ is Montaigne quoting St Augustine (‘an ancient father’) who apparently said:

‘We are better off in the company of a dog we know than in that of a man whose language we do not understand’. Montaigne goes on to say ‘Therefore those of different nations do not regard one another as men.’

I agree with him (or rather St Augustine) about the dog we know; I also agree that not knowing someone’s language makes it more of a stretch to see them as real or human in the sense that you yourself are real and human. What I’m not sure about is how Montaigne is making the second the consequence of the first.

In researching Montaigne on the internet I kept coming across the famous quotation about Montaigne and his cat. You may have seen it yourself – when I play with my cat, am I amusing myself with her or is she amusing herself with me? Which reminds me of Lao Tzu asking, on waking from sleep, having had a dream in which he was a butterfly: Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?

Even before that first cat quotation I guessed that Montaigne would be a cat person – how could he not be since we were kindred spirits? – but quickly became tired of reading the same quote over and over again. Surely he must have made other moggie-mentions? I decided to postit them as I went along.

I’ve only found two so far but have such a lot of Montaigne ahead of me that I’m confident there are more to come. The first, ‘Cat and bird’, links back to my first ever post (Felix brought me a mouse) in which Felix rescues me from a dying mouse. Montaigne is interested in the connection between mind and body – not just our own mind influencing our own body, but other minds influencing bodies not even their own. He starts with a rather suspect list of examples – ostriches hatching their eggs merely by looking at them, hares and partridges turned white by the snow on the mountains and so forth – but goes on to tell this little story:

Someone in my house recently saw a cat watching a bird at the top of a tree. After they had gazed fixedly at one another for some time, the bird dropped, apparently dead, between the cat’s paws, either stupefied by its own imagination or drawn by some power of attraction of the cat.

Didn’t I tell you? Felix rescued me from a mouse.

The second, ‘Cat in pasty’, is my favourite:

I know of a gentleman too who, three or four days after having entertained a large party in his house, bragged, by way of a joke – for there was nothing in it – that he had made them eat cat in a pasty. One young lady in the company was thereupon so horrified that she was seized with a severe dysentery and fever, and nothing could be done to save her.

Which, being an example of mind over matter, prompts me to mention the other book that I happen to be reading at the moment: ‘Getting Well Again’ by Simonton, Simonton and Creighton (1978).

Carl Simonton was a cancer specialist who demonstrated a link between certain typical mind-sets and both the likelihood of getting cancer and the likelihood of dying from it. He demonstrated that a person may unconsciously be choosing to die, that even if they don’t realise it their death is solving a problem for them. He and his wife also found various ways of helping cancer patients, through relaxation and visualisation, to take control of their illness and often affect its outcome.

This is such a clearly-written and inspiring little book that if you know someone who has cancer or have recently been diagnosed with it yourself, it’s worth getting hold of a second-hand copy. As it happens, thankfully and fingers crossed, that wasn’t why I was reading it ; in spite of the usual ‘getting older’ problems – sore knees, sore eyes, sore back – I’m OK.

I was interested in finding out whether some of us might unconsciously be choosing to end our days with dementia / Alzheimer’s. I know, whoever would choose the scenario everyone’s terrified of? But then who would choose cancer? If the principle – that people’s minds have the power to destroy their bodies – applies to cancer, why wouldn’t it apply to any other illness?