Friday, 25 January 2019

Unexpected consequences of being terminally ill - mainly, the number of "peak experiences" I've been enjoying

The first is that I don't appear to be at death's door quite yet. Yes, I'm distinctly thinner, weaker and I tire more rapidly than I used to - but I'm certainly no worse than I was when I left hospital last September (or was it August?). I had expected to be bedbound by now, at the very least - but while I'm pretty much housebound, I've only failed to get out of bed and get dressed on a handful of occasions so far. I know I'm tempting fate even mentioning this - I don't in the least take it for granted and I know it can't last much longer - but I'm immensely grateful for being allowed to maintain a semi-normal existence for this long. The other thing - and the one that I really wasn't expecting - is the number of moments...

...of what I can only describe as sheer bliss I've experienced in recent months.

I say "moments", but by that I only mean the time I'm actually aware of what's happening to me. As for the experiences themselves, they can last from a few seconds to several hours. They range from suddenly being transfixed by the beauty of a bowl of flowers (there's a particularly lovely one on the table in front of my bedroom window, which my wife replenishes every week) to hours spent watching old films with my family (watching The Graduate one Sunday afternoon a few weeks' ago was a particular delight).  It has happened while watching operas, old films I've never seen before, reading cards and emails from friends, feeling pain recede as I lie in an almost unbearably hot bath and painkillers start to take effect, medical folk being unexpectedly kind and helpful in an unobtrusive, undemonstrative way, reading detective fiction or biographies, writing a blog post, listening to a previously unheard piece of classical music, during visits by friends... or just staring out the window at the winter trees on rainy days.

Actually, I'm not sure I can describe what I've been feeling as "peak experiences". The term was invented (as far as I know) by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1964, and he characterised them as "rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter." Well, not really - what I've been experiencing isn't so much a new way of perceiving reality, as a sudden onset of bliss because everything seems perfect, unimproveable, right, i.e. this is how things should be. Or maybe it is a new way of perceiving reality - a realisation that life is full of grace, of which we're usually unaware. It's not that I haven't realised it before - it's just that my grasp of the fact is more intense these days, more intensely focussed. Perhaps it's just experiencing things in the knowledge that this may be the last time you'll have this particular experience. I know this is how New Age gurus are always telling us we should view life - but making the effort somehow spoils it: there's no effort, no intentionality involved in what I've been experiencing - it just happens.

In case anyone imagines these experiences are somehow chemically induced, they started well before I was prescribed fairly heavy-duty painkillers in November - they've been good at controlling pain, but useless when it comes to unlocking the door to Nirvana.

Not sure that any of the above makes any sense, but it's the best I can do. Whatever's going on, again, I'm deeply grateful for it.

Now go and walk in the way of peace, Grasshopper!


  1. Very Wordsworthian - the bowl of flowers bit.
    I'm always a trifle cautious about choosing and sending flowers to someone in case I inadvertently convey the wrong message.
    Great to read such positive thoughts.

  2. I remember Melvyn Bragg interviewing Dennis Potter shortly before he died and the writer making similar observations. He had an old cherry tree in his garden and he said how exquisite "and frothy" the blossom had been that year. And I recall taking my own father out in the car shortly before he died. It was a dismal late winter afternoon but he saw a muddy patch of grass and a few early daffodils were piercing the sod. They were obscured by litter and I don't think I'd have even noticed but they cheered him enormously.

  3. Spirits are always lifted by watching The Graduate and almost anything involving Mel Brooks. The Avengers with Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg should also be added to the list.(Linda Thorson never quite hit the mark).

  4. Isle of Dogs man
    Your courage, spirit are amazing as is your willingness so lucidly to share your experience.
    I first saw The Graduate in a packed Odeon High St. Ken ( when it was a proper cinema) and well remember the impact it had then. Norman Fell's landlord is alone worth the price of admission.

  5. I saw The Graduate for the fist of many times in the Rialto Cinema in Raynes Park with a school friend and his beautiful Italian mother. It was December or January ('67/'68).
    Watching a young man being seduced by such an attractive woman was most disturbing to a fifteen year old schoolboy and the shuffling in my seat did not go unnoticed.
    I recollect the ensuing fantasies to this day.

  6. Ah so that's what caused the entire row of seats to collapse when three large gentlemen (boys) unintentionally leaned back in unison during a later showing of probably another film entirely.
    You must have unhinged the moorings - not easily done I take my hat off to you.
    Was your pal a wickedly fast bowler by the way?

  7. I was one of those boys when the row of seats collapsed. Our blogmeister was there and I think it was film featuring Jerry Lewis.
    My Graduate pal was indeed a noted fast bowler. He has had a fine career as a cardiologist and made as great an impact in that field as he did with the ball, although at a much higher level. Hats off to him.