My blog was only a few months old and was only just starting to expand beyond its intended readership, when I suddenly had to start thinking of myself as a sick person, when I became a somewhat different person from the woman who had begun the blog. Moreover, I don't think I fully understood the nature of blogging; or rather, the engagement with readers that would follow.
So in addition to comments on the blog, I received many letters, emails and phone messages, because of course I have never been a pseudonymous blogger, and am easy to find. Most people who made contact were very sympathetic. Some were less so, especially after my criticisms of the schmaltzy, sentimental marketing of unhealthy or infantilising products to women in the name of "breast cancer awareness".
Most were simply heartfelt messages, from people who were similarly struggling with cancer, or who had nursed partners who had died, or were living in fear of the disease with mothers or sisters who had been ill. I am by nature, I think, a person who finds it very easy to empathise with others, and so I found these stories very moving. But I also found that being ill had shaken me up completely, so that I had very little emotional strength, many days, to hold myself together.
Going back to work last year, re-appearing in public, was immensely difficult. There was only one day when I got as far as the car-park, sat there for ten minutes then drove home again, but there were many other days when I felt the same way.
So while I might have wanted to help others, I felt pretty much unable to do so.
One of the things about sickness is that one develops a very sensitive antenna to one's disease. You see it everywhere. And when that disease is a very common and highly publicised one, like breast cancer, the problem is magnified. So the death of people like Jane McGrath and Belinda Emmett strikes hard. And you know pretty clearly that other people with cancer will be feeling the same shudder, asking the same question of how much time we'll have left, and what will be the nature, and the hour of our death. And yes, even people like me, in (relatively) excellent health.
But today I heard of the death, earlier this month, of Graham, from another faculty at Melbourne. He had written to me after one of the pieces I wrote in The Age, and we exchanged a few emails. Graham was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour; and seemed to be doing ok, until he collapsed with another inoperable one. He wrote to me in April:
After a couple of days they moved me down to a general ward, as the risk of another seizure diminished, but I'll probably not be allowed to drive for the rest of my life. I'm currently having daily radiation therapy to my brain to try and slow these down a bit, but it looks like I have only months to go. This is upsetting, obviously, but I'm ok - I'm cherishing every day with my family, as much as they'll let me, you know how it is! ;-) I'm still enjoying a bit of work, you know, replanning the entire university's strategy, solving all the world's environmental problems, that sort of thing! ;-)
I'm going to fight this hard - I believe in benefits of faith, and have it by the truckload. Sometimes I get weak, and falter, but most of the time I'm strong. You know, its about being there for the kids, being strong for the kids, so they remember me that way. I don't want to falter too much in front of them - they need to learn something from this about life, but sometimes its inevitable to break down and look weak.
I never met this man, but his death reminds me that in addition to the high profile deaths around us, there are hundreds of people like Graham who face death with quiet dignity and courage, still teaching, even in their dying. I couldn't do anything for Graham. I could have made an effort and gone to visit him, but I didn't. There was an instant ease and camaraderie about our correspondence, an instant recognition, if you like, but there were also huge limits to what I felt I could do, by way of reaching out. Tonight, though, I'm holding his spirit here for a moment.