I went the doctor’s on Friday. We had a conversation about you and it seems I just can’t let you go. I’m old now. How funny is it that I still have these feeling for you as though I am a teenager again. My sister persuaded me to write to you. She told me I should. They told me it was cancer. If it was a case of pissing ones pants then that’s a completely normal reaction, but I was being metaphorical.
My friend gave me a Bob Dylan album. He sounds so religious in these songs as if his life was ending too. His calmness frightened me. I listened to it over and over. The church organ calling to me in some strange mystic way, and I felt that I was dying at that moment but just like writing this letter I felt nothing. I told my sister I felt nothing. She told me I must feel at least something because why otherwise would I be talking to her about you? Why would I be writing this? She went with me to the doctor. I felt like a child. I’ve not felt like a child for over seventy years. I remember perfectly being a child. I remember the days as endless summers and being with my friends in unusual dream-like worlds. I remember my father and my mother when they were alive, when they were young, and they spoke confidently and strongly and told me what to do and where to go. I miss that. I miss the sounds. My father worked on the ships and when I was a child I used to go near the docks and hear the horn of the ship he was on as if this man’s most powerful voice were calling to me in the sound of some unnatural thunder. I used to imagine my father was Neptune, the Roman God of the sea. He was the first example of death I had in my life. I was only young when he died. I used to sit on the coast and look out at the sea and think of him and imagine he’d crash out of the water, a giant, a behemoth, a monster, a titan. He would cause tsunamis and storms. He’d point his trident to the blackening sky and lightening would rain down on the earth. I often sat in silence on the coast. Waiting until I got in trouble for going missing again.
When I sat with my sister in the surgery, waiting for the doctor, my sister said to me she’d been thinking about our parents. She’d not mentioned them in many years. She seemed to have taken an oath of silence about them since mother died thirty years ago. We talked in the waiting room. It was interesting. She seemed to want to talk to me about them as if the doctor’s waiting room was her confessional. She reminisced and we talked to each other, even laughing at times, as though we were children again. I felt like a child. I didn’t feel old. I forgot I was old. My skin tightened and my hair thickened and regained its colour. My bones grew stronger and my back straighter and my muscles bigger. There was a mirror on the wall. In it I saw my sister and I as children. I laughed. I felt so happy. We smiled at each other in the mirror and laughed and it was like we were just waiting to get a check-up and then we’d go play in the park and climb trees and throw flat rocks in the lake to make them bounce on the surface of the water. But the nurse came in and called my name and I was old again. They told me I had cancer. They told me I was dying.
I wanted to tell you I was on TV on 14th March 2013. The program was called Horizon on the BBC. It was about how the creative brain works. Did you see me? I hope you did. I would have told you about it but we just haven’t spoken in years. They interviewed me and talked about my study on Neuropsychology and the Creative Mind. A young girl interviewed me. She never took her eyes off me during the interview. She asked me, ‘What are your thoughts on the creative mind during terminal illness?’ I found it interesting she should ask me this due to my own illness and I’d not told anyone about it.
I responded: ‘The creative mind consists of very small electrical impulses that only differ from everyday, mundane experiences by only a fraction. In my studies I’ve found that the human brain is on a kind of edge, constantly tense and uneasy with the immediate threat of death. The ultimate self-awareness of death hardly exists, though, until, say, you’re close to death. Here we can see now that it’s not that the world’s coming to an end, but that the human mind feels different, disconnected from the body. Here the creative mind is able to make something up. But it’s hardly rock and roll. It’s more clinging onto the reality. Once the reality slips away there is no creative mind, and that’s the terrifying part.’
The young girl smiled and turned away, talking to the camera, and I realised my interview was over. I didn’t know it was going to be over so quick. I thought I’d be there for at least an hour but it was less than a minute. The crew shook my hand and I watched as they interviewed my colleague next to me. She asked a similar question but his answer wasn’t very good. I became bored and I didn’t want to be there any more so I got up and left. I walked home. Left my car there. My car got stolen after that, can you believe it?
I still do not felt like I am dying so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not dying. It only makes sense. All this time my life has been passing by my ears and I’ve never noticed it, and now it’s going away faster than a Boeing 747 and I’m supposed to notice it. But it feels exactly the same.
I hope you saw me on TV. I thought of you when they were filming the segment and I wanted to say your name, to speak to you through the camera, but I didn’t. I wondered what you’d think. It happened over many years. All of those years without you. I just wondered calling you. And never did. The thought of you and the thought of your reaction to me, I couldn’t bear it. It was like a fifty year song in my head that wouldn’t subside. If I could only switch it off.
After the doctor I met with Kim and had coffee. You’ve never met Kim. I’m sure you’d like her, she has a good sense of humour and she’s very intelligent. She got drunk one night and fell down a flight of stairs and broke a tooth and now she can’t wait until she gets the tooth capped. It’s all she talks about these days, her broken tooth and how ugly she looks with one broken tooth and it made me wonder how insecure I’d be if I knew I wasn’t going to die. I imagined telling Kim she was dying of cancer and wanted to see how her vanity would play out. I betted to myself she’d still be vane and call herself unattractive despite the imminent throws of deaths.
It’s funny when you’re trying hard not to look depressed and even then someone will find out you’re feeling depressed. Kim noticed something was wrong and said, ‘You seem down,’ which made me laugh and I told her that I was dying and she cried and I saw her broken tooth when she cried and I laughed because of how strange she looked, and she hit me for laughing at her and I told her I was sorry. We went and got breakfast together and we ate silently and now and again she made unobtrusive conversation but I could tell she was upset and so I took her for a walk in the park and we sat under this giant tree and I told her that I’d sat under this tree when I was a child with my mother and she’d brought me to the tree because when she was a child her father told her, while sitting under the tree, this story about a man from the middle ages, probably a knight or something, and he was in love with this girl who never loved him back because she was of royal heritage and not only couldn’t love him but actually didn’t love him, and so he told the princess that he would prove his love for her by killing the next man to fall in love with her, and so he did and he killed this man and but they fought to a bloody end and once he did this the princess still did not love him and he was later caught and arrested and was hung before the townspeople and subsequently buried in an empty field and later the princess was accused of assisting the man and she denied it but the king wouldn’t believe his own daughter and she was put before the townspeople and she screamed out for mercy but she received none and she had a noose placed over her head and then she screamed out her love for the man which she had denied for so long, which she had regretted not expressing while he was alive and while he loved her, and then she was hanged and she was buried in the same spot as the man in the empty field and there, on their burial spot, grew a tree and it grew for hundreds of years until my grandfather told his daughter this story, until that little girl became my mother and told me and I grew old and told Kim.
Kim cried and put her hands to her face. She had long fingers that covered her whole face and when she moved them away her face and eyes were red and I asked her why she was crying and she said it was because I was dying and I said ‘Oh yeah’ because I’d forgot I was dying and I thought to myself Am I dying? I didn’t know. It didn’t feel like dying. It just confused me. I said goodbye to Kim and went home. She started to bother me because she kept crying after everything either I or she said. I lied down on my bed and listened to that Bob Dylan album. It made me feel better. I felt alive listening to it. The passing thought of dying like a memo, like something I had to do but I’d do it later.
I switched on the TV and Horizon was on and I waited for my bit. I recognised the blonde girl with the microphone and I knew it was my bit was coming up. And there I was. I looked old and sick. I forgot how old I was. Somehow I’d lost track of time and believed I was a young man, how funny, how funny the tricks the mind plays on you when you experience such stresses as a diagnosis of death. I wished it wasn’t true. I wished aloud and in my bedroom, black and a crisp blue television light lighting the clutter of many lonely years, clothes, shoes, books, papers, cigarette butts with the stink of both old ashy tobacco and of stale spit, the chair, unused at the dresser. How old is Kim? She is young but I can’t remember her age. The phone just rang. It was Kim. She saw me on TV. I asked her how old she was and she said she was thirty. She then told me I was seventy-nine. I thought I was thirty. No. Kim is one of my students. I forgot to tell you that. She’s a nice girl, smart, she scores the highest on her papers. I’d probably say, off the record, she’s my best student. I talk to her more than anyone, you know, unless I have to talk to the doctor. My sister and I don’t say much to each other any more, we’re just too old, we’ve known each other too long, we’ve ran out of things to say.
Kim listens to me. I remember when you used to listen to me. I’d listen to you, too. I always did listen. I loved your voice. You’d talk for ages about one thing. I hated your opinions and I’d shut up and just let you win the argument. I told the doctor the same things I told Kim. About you. That I miss you. That I can’t let you go. I remember you so well. When we were young. I remember the feel of your skin on your arms and your neck, your face.
I can’t be young forever, everyone has to die, I suppose. I drank my tea. I finished speaking in my interview on TV and I thought to myself what I would be doing as soon as the camera moved away from me and it felt good like I was a celebrity and the blonde with the microphone was young, probably twenty-something, and she was very attractive and I wasn’t at all and I thought about dying and the thought was similar to the word ‘ending’ and that word got me worried, that everything was coming to an end, and it’s not that I want things to end but that I’m scared things will end, because of how real it is, how fast time moves and that time has to move and it’s not fair because I wanted to live forever, and I always thought I would live forever. But the doctor told me I would die. So now I know for sure that I’m human and life is just a passing thing, like a breeze past my ear.
The programme ended and the credits rolled up the screen. A voice said, ‘Next up on BBC Two … ’ I wondered what would be next for me after I end and the credits roll up. I don’t know.
Anyway, that’s me rambling on as I always did. I hope you’re well.
© Michael Holloway