Nadja was my second wife, and I her second husband. We were very happy together for 30 years when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in India. We had gone there, as we did every year, for a three-month stay to avoid the rigours of the English winter, and we loved the climate, the friendliness and our band of friends who gathered around a spiritual teacher there. We rented a small house and left enough belongings there to live a simple meditative life, exploring the locality and our inner feelings as we examined our values and what we wanted out of life.
We found that what fulfilled us most was being in the company of like-minded souls and gradually discarding past and future to live as contentedly as possible. As anyone who has watched The Marigold Hotel will know, India has its own way of imposing alternative values on those who persevere long enough to become hooked.
After the initial operation came lockdown and no further treatment was possible for a while. But I have to say that our care in the hospital in Pondicherry was exemplary and the convalescence very smooth. However, it was a little alarming not to be able to book a flight home, and we were relieved when we finally were able to leave three months later. We spent the time examining our feelings towards death and talking about it openly, and it was clear that chemotherapy raised more forebodings of alarm than accepting the likelihood of dying, so we focused on celebrating our unity in love in spiritual surroundings. And here I should explain that I’m a retired GP so I had some awareness of what to expect, having dealt with end-of life scenarios for many years. I was determined that dying should happen at home if it came to that, and be in a loving environment.
Entering the complex protocols of the NHS was a little tricky but eventually we were seen by the consultant who sent us for a scan which indicated that the cancer was steadily spreading but we still had a year or so together. As Nadja had no symptoms our life was perfectly normal, until one day she realised she could not see out of her left eye.
It only took a few weeks before the brain metastases brought on confusion and confinement to a hospital bed which the nurse arranged to have placed in our front room. Shortly afterwards, the tubes appeared for pain relief and sedation. We were fortunate to have excellent nursing care, and over the ensuing three weeks I was able to look after her at home and administer the drugs as she required them.
I would lie next to her listening to her breathing, which became intermittent after a while and she stopped squeezing my hand. I waited for the breath to stop, and spoke to her quietly urging her to let go. But for days she persisted, lost in another world, until one night I went to make a cup of tea for myself. When I came back she had gone! I felt a flood of relief that I could now stop waiting and relax. There were no tears then, just emptiness.
After the funeral – which was a very moving ceremony during which we played clips from her experiences with her teacher in India and her feelings about dying – came the practicalities. My sons refused to leave me for several days, until eventually I had to tell them I needed to be alone to process my grief. When I was alone, I allowed the tears to flow, and was surprised at how many there were. In between I wrote poetry, which was an enormous emotional relief.
The Leaves of Autumn
The leaves of autumn sweep across my heart
To heap like memories against the outer wall
The wind that tears the empty trees apart
Lends but the echo of a life’s recall.
To set the match which will ignite their pyre,
Consign a lifetime’s story to its past,
The conflagration’s all-consuming fire
Incinerates the grief of love so vast
Converting it to ash and fading chatter
That smoulders in the courtyard of a time
When nothing but your presence seemed to matter
And now reduced to metaphor and rhyme.
The souvenirs we shared in summer’s sun
Slide into winter’s vision of decay
Where heavy-lidded skies weigh down upon
The now diminished remnants of a day.
The curling smoke contains our testament
To joyous life joined by a reckless chance
When destiny was but an accident
Of careless love deciding on the dance.
The Gardener comes to separate the embers
And spread the balm of distance on events
So time will come when no-one quite remembers
The dramas on the far side of the fence.
I went to stay with family, but the return to an empty house was worse. The tears seemed unending, but in between life was returning to normal. It took many weeks for the grief to subside, but eventually I was able to turn to face the future and felt as though that chapter of my life was over and a new one beginning. I had to make a real effort not to look back at the past and focus on where I was going and throw myself into new ideas and meeting new people.
Many years ago, before I met my wife, I had left London and moved to a small village in Devon as I had the urge to return to rural life. Now being a member of a small village community helped enormously, as I feel surrounded by friends and neighbours on whom I can call on for mutual support. Daily walks in the country around, meeting people and being part of a tribe, has meant that I even have to close the door on company sometimes to ensure I have enough solitude to gather my thoughts and write my poems.
Today I took the last of you to where we used to sit, upon that old stump facing north along the track.
You are not so heavy now, death has diminished your stature so your grainy remnants fit in this small sack.
A treasured intimacy strokes my hip beneath the pillars of nature’s tall cathedrals, urging
Their misty-fingered boughs to bend a last farewell and send you to your final merging,
While overhead the rooks give their assent to welcome you to their domaine and bid you sleep
In their harsh hands. No sadness now, the raging grief subsided into nature’s gentle keep,
And all emotion now dissolved in tranquil earth and sounds of wind and rain.
Your like will never stroke these fingers with their gentle touch or come this way again.
The weighted space within my breast contains your whispered sighs the trees repeat
In earnest of their promise to embrace you for safekeeping, as now you bend and gently touch their feet.