Just to become unfashionable and temporarily ignore the horrors of COVID-19, allow me to take you back approximately 18 months and share the personal chaos engendered by another potentially fatal disease.
The prostate cancer that I had fought since 2008 and had learned to loathe with a great intensity, suddenly selected an inevitable overdrive gear. The radical prostatectomy and multiple radiation sessions were forgotten as I sat facing the consultant. I prepared for the worst. It did not disappoint.
With perhaps a lesser degree of empathy than I might have expected from someone who was picking up a veritable fortune for a 10-minute chat, he was delivering a terminal prognosis. Mind you, I also had much for which to thank him. Fortuitously, I had retained my BUPA registration and, therefore, had been sent from Glasgow to London for the second of two PSMA scans (these are inordinately expensive pieces of kit that pick up the tiniest particles of the disease. The arrival of this scanner has been much promised in Scotland, but is still not available for a reason that perhaps only Nicola Sturgeon can explain).
Back in that consulting room, the oncologist announced that the disease had entered my bones and also was attacking the lymph nodes. A debilitating double whammy, then, which had a seriously deleterious effect on my Adam's Apple.
Death, inexplicably, had not laid siege to my mind up until then, but here it was crashing through my front door without waiting to knock. But, hey, it's scarcely permissible for old boys to cry in public, so why should a 75-year-old be granted any special privileges? I have generally had a fabulous and privileged existence in rising from a young (clueless) sports journalist from Aberdeen to the rank of head of sport of the Daily Mail
national newspaper in London.
Trying to subdue my fear, I asked the oncologist to place a forecast on my demise. Hereabouts, there was more than a trickle of emollience. Who could tell? Eighteen months, perhaps? But he asked to be forgiven for the lack of fine detail: dealing with the inexactitudes of death was a difficult matter, he explained.
And so we move on, just over 18 months on, in fact. I cannot believe it. I'm still here, hopefully still trying to punch my weight, albeit with a loss of perhaps a much-needed four stone. As I said, I've had more than a great life, but please permit me a small consideration for self-obsession hereabouts. The past few months have been more than difficult, my body experiencing an enervation never experienced before. And this includes an almost fatal cardiomyopathy back in 1985, and another flirtation with death in 2000 when I overdosed on potassium and was obliged to take early retirement from the Daily Mail
Away from the clinic, the tears eventually flowed. Yeah, this old boy cried, certainly in private, or under the sympathetic gaze of Margaret – my beloved wife of 44 years.
There were times that my home was besieged by selfless doctors (one of whom was particularly helpful in recommending two blood transfusions), district nurses, carers, representatives from the local hospice, a special hospital bed, a walker, an old walking stick and finally a wheelchair. Oh, and a tentative suggestion that Carol Smillie might conduct my humanist funeral service. The hospice intervention really had me initially spooked before I visited it, and I was in awe of not only its enlightened approach to end-of-life treatment but to the impressively bespoke building and myriad facilities.
I was more than grateful, for everything contributed massively to my well-being, but the well-being factor was proving difficult to pin down. As the weight tumbled from my legs and arms, I found it almost impossible to walk without my walker and had to be helped into the shower. The simple act of being showered left me bereft of any energy. Even with assistance, on one occasion I managed to fall heavily, and reduce confidence in an already depleted body.
Everything that was dear, it seemed, was shutting down; particularly when I tried – and almost failed – to summon the strength to clean my teeth.
Fortunately, there was little pain, owing to the fact that I was fitted with a syringe driver that distributed the various panaceas around my system. Added to that was the fact that, at one juncture, I was swallowing 22 pills a day, but no amount of these, it seemed, could repel the sickness that suddenly announced a malevolent presence. This sickness, more than anything else, relegated me to an area previously unvisited, as the medical profession juggled with various combination of drugs amid reluctant admissions that my survival quotient rated between weeks and maybe months.
The drugs, however, were representing an unexpected roadblock. Call it psychological resistance. I began to hate the sight of them, and, consequently, began to retch when they were laid before me. My appetite vanished almost overnight. A sick bucket became my closest companion and accompanied every stilted movement.
Time for an admission – an admission of which I can no way be proud. In my deluded mind, I was experiencing life in rock-bottom mode. Initially, I prayed for the luxury of life – of course I did, but at two critical points in those last few weeks I wanted – nay, prayed – for death, for a release from this purgatory that did not affect only myself but also my dear wife. How do you tell the woman you love that you want to leave her? How is that for ingratitude?
So, where am I now? It's difficult to believe, but I am feeling better now than I have for months. There are no promises, no guarantee in this game that swings vicariously and mysteriously between here and the great beyond, and maybe I'm glimpsing a false horizon. I can only present hard fact. And, in this hopefully real world, I can report that last Friday I walked 500 yards, unaided by my walking stick or, indeed, my wheelchair. Mind you, the rehab took a couple of days!
I've almost forgotten the prohibitions of ill-health. I walk around our flat, unaided. The carers have been dismissed, politely, of course. As a result of COVID-19, the district nurses now phone instead of calling in person; my favourite doctor necessarily now phones instead of visiting me. And I am relieved to report that he is talking cautiously about my life, measuring in months rather than weeks.
No matter the eventual lifespan, it is time to be grateful to everyone who has helped an old man who finds himself with his head pressed up against a wall that represents a barrier as formidable as any prison.
How has this metamorphosis come about? It's the devotion of the medical profession, the blood transfusions and the unswerving devotion of a wife who must have qualified as a Madonna (I'm referring to the Biblical one, of course). Yet here's a thing: unexpected assistance is coming from the fall-out of COVID-19 and the madness of men who should know better.
I sit in front of the television and cringe at their antics; this includes watching Stephen Fry pontificating on the disease from his Norfolk home, whilst conveniently forgetting that perhaps he should have remained in London rather than travelled to the country.
I've seen holes being picked in the performances of a succession of Government ministers who have palpably failed to read their briefs; and I've seen droves of mindless people frolicking around in ignorance of the advice of safe distancing. Yesterday, I watched some moron, caught on camera, licking the goods on the shelves of a supermarket.
Don't these people want to live? Don't they understand the value of life? I have begun to realise that value over the last few months and found it to be incalculable. I'm ashamed of those awful, self-regarding times when I wished the Grim Reaper was only a handshake away.
But I am here, living a life that admittedly still mainlines on the rules of prohibition. For how long, God only knows. The temptation is to be a bit pleased with myself, but it's only an empty temptation. I came within a hairsbreadth of surrender and it would have been a mistake of gargantuan proportions.
Life is the most precious jewel we have. The people of Britain should remember things like this when they are tempted to poke COVID-19 in the eye.