A serialized novella in weekly chapters:

July 30, 2010 at 7:22 am (Fiction) ()

“Because I could not stop for Death” Emily Dickinson

A Novella  by David Wall

CHAPTER  1

A medical diagnosis                                       

Jack Mason came out of the doctor’s surgery with a piece of shattering news. Dr David Campbell, his GP and his old friend, had just informed him that he strongly suspected his recently deteriorating health was due to pancreatic cancer. He’d done a number of  preliminary tests and what with his symptoms of abdominal pain, anaemia, fever, vomiting and stool discolouration, he could only come to one conclusion. But he would have to refer him to an oncologist for confirmation and treatment.

On being told of David’s diagnosis Jack said: “what does that mean and what is the prognosis?” David told him that things were not good but he did not want to go into details until the oncologist makes a diagnosis and anyhow his findings could be wrong. To which Jack replied: “don’t give me that bullshit, I know you David and your opinion is as good as any specialist and I want no goddamn referrals, so tell me what you think. “Well Jack, just remember we are no longer living in Papua New Guinea and what I can do for you as a GP in Sydney is very limited except pass you on for treatment. Which is exactly what I should do but you were always a stubborn and an opinioned bastard and I suppose if I give you a referral I don’t suppose you would go, anyhow. I’ll talk to you as I wouldn’t to my other patients. At the best you have about a year to live, but please, Jack, go to a specialist, I want you to have every chance. It could be that the cancer is confined to the pancreas and the tumour could be removed. People do recover after a Whipple procedure, which this type of operation is called.” “David you don’t believe it is, do you?” “I won’t answer that, Jack.”

This gave Jack all the truth he needed and he told David, he didn’t want to subject himself to a lot of useless operations and chemotherapy. At this stage he felt sick but not too bad and anyhow he knew that David would see that he did not suffer too much. By this he did not mean that David would assist him to end his life. David like Jack, were both still Catholics of a certain type but David as a physician was a master of pain control. And he would see that he didn’t suffer.

“Whatever you do don’t tell Mary about this.” Jack said to David. Mary was Jack’s wife and they both lived together in the Sydney inner suburb of Newtown. David told him he should inform his wife but he would respect his request. David knew in the normal course of events Mary would find out anyhow.

What goes a person do when faced with a death sentence? Jack thought to himself, everyone is faced with death. It’s when it’s going to happen is the important thing. If it was to be tomorrow he would probably be shitting himself but from his point of view things weren’t too bad. He went through his situation. He was sick but didn’t feel too bad. He was in the parlance of the day a man of a certain age. That is in his seventies. He had no dependants and Mary would have no trouble coping without him. In fact throughout their marriage she had always been able to stand on her own feet both psychologically and financially. Their two sons were employed and living away from home. So they would be OK. The big question for Jack was, what was he going to? He had some ideas.

He was recently retired from his job as a school librarian and had a good pension coming in. Mary was a recently retired university lecturer and now fully involved in social action groups. She also had a good pension. David had given him about a year or this was his interpretation of what had been said. There was no way he was going to sit around and gradually die. To employ the old saying he would die with his boots on, but then again, what were his options?

To hide his ill health as long as possible and live a normal life. He could take his doctor’s advice and be referred to a specialist or he could travel somewhere. But then again he could just stay at home and hope for the best.

It has been said that a drowning person is presented with images of his past life just before death. Jack could identify with this. On his way home after hearing David’s diagnosis his past flooded his mind. Things that he had done and things he hadn’t done haunted him. Theologians tell us that faith, hope and charity are the virtues most associated with salvation. The third one is said to be the greatest and Jack could well believe this as it was uncharitable acts of commission and omission that haunted him now.

He convinced himself that death itself didn’t worry him. In his youth he’d been half killed in a rubber plantation in Papua New Guinea after being set upon by a group of labourers. This from what he remembers was something that just happened. In a way a bit like the cancer he now had. He was carried to an adjoining plantation by Chimbu workers and cared for by a plantation manager who had picked up considerable medical skills while in the army during the Korean War. From this he recovered and he asked himself why not from cancer? But life was simple and complicated. Simple if you didn’t analyze it but complicated if you did. The plantation manager who treated him was something like life, simple on the surface, but complex and strange in many ways. Skilled in his practical medical knowledge, a good mechanic, illiterate in office skills, a fluent Pidgin English and Police Motu speaker, a closet homosexual and an unusual but kindly man.

Jack sought to explain to himself the meaning of life. In his younger years he had all the answers, or at least he thought he did or should’ve, as a believing Catholic. But time erodes certainty. The praxis of living confronts most theories of life. The obsessive bedroom morality of Catholicism he eventually concluded was far from the meaning of life. The movements of his privates in whatever direction were he concluded of little concern to the Almighty.

When he got home to their Victorian terrace house, Mary met him at the door. “Jack, where have you been?” “Oh, I’ve only been to the city and met up with Ernest Spender, we had lunch at Woolworths.” This he considered a good alibi as Mary had little contact with Ernest, a friend from his former Papua New Guinea days. Mary asked him how he was feeling and he said fine. “You should go to see the doctor as I don’t like that cough you have.” Jack brushed off this remark.

Would Jack, consult a well-known clairvoyant, Violet, a friend of Mary’s? She lived in Newtown and was said to have mystical powers, a vision healer who could dispel harmful entities from one’s body. He thought to himself that he must be desperate to be thinking of a New-Age remedy to his physical problems. His early indoctrination into Catholicism had left him with a spiritual exclusiveness and very little openness to other paths, even if he had come to doubt his Catholic beliefs. Prayer in the traditional sense still had some meaning for him and he was reminded of Tennyson’s words: “More things are wrought by prayer Than this world dreams of.”

 “Oh, hell I’ve had a pretty good life and I’m old. What am I complaining of? Mary and my boys I’m lucky to have. Of course, I’ve got regrets about stupid things I’ve done. In my younger days booze was a problem but I suppose the thing I most regret is something I’d not admit to others, I didn’t get enough sex when I was younger. Lost opportunities are always painful.”

Jack was involved with his thoughts and he was reminded of what an old friend from his PNG days said to him recently about returning to PNG. “You can never recapture what is past.” But you can see old places if not too many old friends.

Cancer isn’t the worst thing in the world. This is what Jack said to himself without much conviction. He decided to do a Google search, and this came up: “Pancreatic cancer life expectancy is very low. Once a person has been diagnosed with the condition, general pancreatic life expectancy is only 5 to 8 months.”

But this didn’t discourage him too much, strange as this might seem. He felt if he didn’t let the doctors loose on himself his prognoses would be much better. Hell, he meant to be around a lot longer than five months and he was sure he would be. This sturdy approach was perhaps more bravado, on his part, than his true mental feelings. His rational mind was at work more than he would admit. The silly, the scandalous and the misfortunes of his past came back to haunt him. Why did he burn family photos of nineteenth century Mason relations, taken at Shepherd’s Bush, London, after his father died? Why did he allow the family to hand into the police his father’s First World War revolver? That full bottle of whisky he consumed many years ago in an island in Papua New Guinea, and the subsequent totally inappropriate behaviour on his part. His youthful racism in his dealings with the natives of PNG was something that made him sink his head in shame. Why didn’t he walk ten miles to render medical aid to a pneumonia sufferer, one night many years ago while serving as a field officer with the health department in the Sepik District, when he knew that an injection of penicillin may have saved a life? With these thoughts, and others, poor Jack felt depressed and unable to comfort himself with the good things he had done in the past.

He asked himself, what should he do?

CHAPTER 2

                                       Jack turns to the New Age 

 

The day after his visit to the doctor, Jack was at home by himself. Mary told him she was attending an Amnesty International meeting in the city.

Jack saw the shortcomings in his life as a consequence of circumstances. Such a thing happened because he had too much to drink. If he had turned right instead of left there would have been no trouble. If he had remembered something in an exam he would have passed and eventually got himself a better position. His failure to pass a medical examination was because of his honesty in filling out a questionnaire about the health of family relations. He mentioned that his grandmother had died of TB. This heredity malady, according to the examining doctor, disqualified him from service in the tropics. The rationale for his cancer he blamed on mortality. “We all had to go because of something.”

In his present state of ill health and with the certainties of life under question, he became like a drowning man gasping for breath in need of respiration.

Surfing the net one day he came across a site offering psychic readings by email. All he had to do was send a digital photo and ask questions to receive an accurate and honest reading. This would cost him about $50.

He reasoned, why not try, what except $50 had he to lose, so he scanned a picture of himself and got away the text of an email:

“I’m a seventy-plus- year- old man who has recently been diagnosed with cance. From what I’ve heard from my doctor the cancer is terminal. I don’t feel too sick but it appears I’ve about six months to live. And should I travel to Papua New Guinea, a place I spent a lot of time in when I was young? If you can’t give me an answer, tell me. I don’t want a lot of bullshit but just a bit of honest advice. I’ve transferred $50 to your bank account”. 

A week after he got his reply:

“Jack, I know that you are an honest man. Your photo tells me a lot and I know that you will fight the cancer and I know that you will succeed if you continue to trust your own intuition. You must make a trip to PNG. I know you are a very lucky man but your star is not just now shining. Just go with the flow. You need to make an appointment to come in to see me. What I’ve told you so far is spot on but a fuller and more insightful assessment can only be made if I see you”. 

Jack thought to himself, what a load of bullshit that was, so much for psychic readings, and what a waste of $50 that little idea was. He may as well go off and learn to play the African drums. But on second thoughts the psychic reading was at least positive and said exactly what he wanted to do anyhow, thus proving that ‘psychics’ know quite a lot about pleasing their customers and marketing their wares.

Whatever stage of life one is in meaning is so important. Jack considered that he still had a lot of meaning left in his life. The psychic advised him to return to PNG and he couldn’t deny that there was a powerful force impelling him to do this. He was reminded of an old friend he had known in his days in PNG who was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition and instead of settling down to as it were to die he rushed off to the Sydney office of Air Niugini and booked a flight to Rabaul. The story did not have a happy ending as he died before boarding the plane. But at least he was following his dreams and Jack considered this to be important.

So many of his friends had dropped off the perch and this, he was sure, influenced the way he looked at life. There was death and corruption all around him. The Church had gone to the pack with the sexual abuse scandals. Politics and politicians seemed little different from gangs and criminals. They lied and sent people to meaningless wars. Jack wondered if his cancerous body was just a sign of the times.

With these despondent and dejected thoughts, Jack decided to leave Sydney and escape to Papua New Guinea. He was a realist enough to know that he was probably following an illusion but a mirage would take his mind off his imminent death and he would travel hopefully.

Was this a running away from reality? He had often said in the past that death when it comes would be better faced in the jungle than in institutionalized care. The freedom of fading away like that of an old soldier was perhaps a dream but an appealing one.

Chapter 3

Jack returns to PNG

An old mate of his, Peter Smith, still lives in Wewak, a town in the East Sepik Province, and he’s sure he won’t mind putting him up for a few weeks or even more.

A phone call to Peter and a booking with Qantas and a few immigration preliminaries and he’s off to Wewak.

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Pip Griffin said,

    A convincing and intriguing start. I await developments!

  2. Becks said,

    I was expecting perhaps a bit more of an intriguing response from the Psychic which would trigger Jack’s curiosity of a past event in PNG. This could keep the readers hanging on the end, wanting more from the writer.

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