Sheldonian Theatre – Lost Words Event
Diane and I met when she borrowed my guitar. A few weeks later I headed to Ethiopia and she headed for Indonesia and so, in those days before email, we spent two years writing letters back and forth.
I wrote stories of life in a mountain town – baboons in the garden and camels in the marketplace. I wrote about those nameless birds that queued to sip the last drip that collected on the tap behind the house through the long dry season.
Diane wrote letters about learning to swim in the warm sea, she wrote about the brightly coloured fish that populate the reef, just by the drop off. She wrote of a close encounter with a whale and of an old man called Sere who knew the sea. Sere paddled Diane in his boat through the swirling currents that sperate Alor from Pula Kepa. A storm plunged down – Diane cowered in the bottom of the boat but Sere stood and laughed at the storm and in a little while Diane laughed too while the white rain tore the ocean to shreds.
Sere told Diane that one time there had been no rain for months and months. The trees stopped giving fruit and the fish stopped biting. Sere gathered the last of his strength to take a final fishing trip and took his canoe out into the archipelago. A bite took his hook – a fish! Stronger than any Sere had hooked before. It pulled hard but Sere kept hold of the line and was towed, zig zagging hither and thither. Sere kept hold. The fish dived and with a heave the canoe capsized and the old man was dragged down, down into the deeps of the ocean. Down through greens and greens and deeper blues.
Sere holds the line. He’s pulled deeper. He sees beneath the island. He sees that the roots of the island don’t widen like a mountain reaching the ground. No, the island floats on the water and has a stalk like a waterlily that anchors it to the ocean’s floor. And in the shadow beneath the island Sere sees something gleaming. A golden mosque with ribbons and skeins of coloured fish passing through and through the arch topped windows.
Sere will awake on soft warm sand the next morning. He’ll find his canoe upturned beside him and a miraculous fish – perfect, sufficient to feed the village for not one but two whole weeks till the rains break. And under the island the mosque still gleams.
At the moment it feels like the story of Diane and me is a story about Cancer and how the marauding cells found purchase in her breast and armpit, then thigh and spine and from there colonised her body robbing her of mobility, function, ultimately speech and life itself.
And sometimes it did seem that cancer had bulldozed our lives together. Five years of treatment – radiotherapy, mastectomy, chemotherapy. Radiotherapy again. Chemotherapy again. Five years of appointments, clinics, hours and hours of queuing to park at the Churchill hospital.
It’s hard isn’t it? A story that starts with us jetting off and crossing continents. Climbing mountains and laughing in the face of the storm ends up in a bed in Headington. With a driver pushing drugs into an arm. A tube carrying away urine. Tiny sips from a straw. Sleep and an end. What a robbery. What a betrayal.
I want to remember sitting with Diane in the Portuguese café with a coffee and a custard tart and watching a family of deer roaming in the field across the road.
I want to remember fritillaries in the meadow, seals bobbing up to peer at a boat off the coast of Norfolk.
But you know, it’s true, Cancer did close us down. It did narrow our horizons. Towards the end there was our home, the stairs getting a little harder each day. Our garden. Not a great deal more. And there was Sobell House. Diane was picked up by the lovely volunteer drivers once a week and taken to Sobell where she’d spend a while in the day centre and a hour with the wonderful Tom Crook playing on his collection of instruments singing, writing and recording. A small thing perhaps but one which gave Diane such pleasure and satisfaction.
Sobell did other great things. Neal, the physiotherapist sorted a top quality wheelchair and I could take Diane away on trips which would have been out of reach – we went to see 42nd Street in London – what luxury.
Neal got Diane a walking frame on wheels, with a seat she could sit on if she got tired. She got herself from the car down to the botanical gardens. Such a big win. I have a photograph of Diane up in Wytham Woods taken not a month before she moved into the hospice. In my photograph she sits on the seat of that walker and looks towards the camera, towards me holding the camera.
I remember that day – the sun was shining (do you remember those long hot weeks in summer?) and stepping from the force of the sun and into the shade was like plunging into cool water. Diane pushed her walker – and herself – deeper into the woods. The sun danced on the canopy above and in the green, sub aquatic light ribbons and skeins of birdsong cascaded around us.
That walking frame got Diane down the garden to the decking. Tea in her favourite mug – the one that reminded her of my mum – a slice of cake or a couple of biscuits and the sun of that endless summer bearing down. Goldfinches brawling in the top of the silver birch, ancient newts cruising the pond. A Red Kite quartering above the rooftops it’s thin cry cutting through the hum of the cars. Time singing together on the decking. Visitors. Our son on his bicycle home at last from school.
In Diane’s room at Sobell house the endless summer went on – the golf course became tawny, the buddleia through the window started to bow. She lay on a bed cooled by a ring of humming fans. Taking breaks while others sat with Diane and took turns to hold her hand. I would go and swim in the river, kingfishers, a tern, fish darting away. The glitter of light through the alders. The glimmer of light on the willows. Back in Diane’s room I would tell her what I’d seen. Moments you hold like a smooth rounded pebble.
Diane lost her speech. She could no longer swallow nor sip from a straw. Diane slept and I lay beside her through a long, still, endless night.
One morning early in August my son held Diane’s hand, and I held his hand, and my sisters held and Steve held and then Diane’s hand again. And Diane took just one more breath and that was it. A circle. A chain. And ribbons and skeins of love.
Let’s listen to Diane singing a song she wrote with Tom Crook at Sobell, she called it ‘A little Fresh Air’.