Finding the Truth in the Bad News

If this blog ever had a subtitle I think it might be something like, “Writing Really Obvious Things in a Roundabout Sort of a Way”

That’s what I do here mostly: I write things that people rarely bother to disagree with, mostly because those things I write are so very bloody obvious.

I’ll be doing it again this week.

Writing really obvious things in a roundabout sort of a way.

So… fair warning. 

On Friday, a very good friend of mine announced on Social Media that he had been given only a couple of years to live. The reaction to this was predictable. ‘The Best’ is a mere handful of people and this guy is definitely one of ‘The Best’. I won’t write his name. Ninety per cent of the people who read this will know who I mean and, for the other ten percent, well…

I’m not here to break the bad news. 

I’m just here to say obvious things about it, in a roundabout sort of a way. 

In talking about this news, I’m going to persist in relating it to me rather than to anybody else. I think that’s best. But please keep in mind that I could just as easily be talking about you. I want this to be a subliminal paragraph. I want you to note it in the back of your mind but then immediately forget it. Snap. Done. 

When I heard the news (oh, boy) I reacted with much sadness and some disbelief. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good and the person in question deserved so-much-better. 

Here’s the point though.

I subconsciously assigned myself a role in this story as ‘The Person who Stays Behind’. The person who has to live on for a long time without the comfort of knowing that my friend will be out there in the world. In my version of events, I would have to live out all my many years without my friend. I would miss him and I would be very sad to see him go. 

I was so taken up with my naturally-assumed role as Spectator in the story that I missed the truth of the matter almost entirely. It took me a little while to come to it. In writing about his illness as he so wonderfully did, my friend wasn’t just giving me his bad news,. He was giving me a little truth as well, if I only cared to see it. 

He has, all going well, a couple of years to live and I know for sure that he’s going to live it to the full. I know he is because that’s just how he rolls. And what did I think I was going to do? Watch and be sad?

Wake Up, Ken.

When I was very young, a nice man on our street brought his wife a cup of tea in bed one morning, just before he set out for work. The way I heard it, he left the cup on the bedside table, drew the curtains, and, looking out, gently affirmed to his wife what a lovely morning it was. Then he died. He dropped down right there and died. 

We all know a story like this. A person who just dies. No warning, no nothing.  That’s it. Gone.

I could very easily be that person.

Who am I to know for sure that I will be here to witness whatever happens to anyone in coming years? 

Who am I to know that?

I could go out the front door this morning and get hit by a bus. I could be attacked and murdered. Much more likely, I could draw the curtains, look out on the misty dawn, and fall down dead where I stand. It’s not even far-fetched. It could easily, easily happen. 

Whenever I picture death coming like that big bus, I tend to see it gliding past me and I get ready to feel sad for whatever person it pulls up for. 

That’s not right and it’s not true.

I need to start to learn the lesson in the bad news I’ve just received. That ‘obvious roundabout’ truth is that the next bus along could very well stop for me.

My friend is going to die but so am I. Nobody knows that I won’t die sooner than him. Nobody knows that. In my ‘Roundabout’ way, I have finally come to the most obvious of truths. The lesson for me that lies in this sad news.

My friend will face up to his future with fortitude, great good-humour and love. He will treasure each day, knowing that there are a finite number of days to come and that each one is a precious thing.

And I need to do the same. 


Anonymous said...

One of the things that it is important to accept, when bad news is visited upon someone you know and love, is that it is NOT selfish to take it personally. It is NOT wrong to make it about your life, your situation, your mortality, your family.

After all, the person who is dying will die. They are one person. All of the many left behind will grieve, will howl, will rail and rant. And they are the ones who will be hurting and bereft. The person who dies will be at peace.

And one of the small, tangible good things that an impending death of a friend can bring is this: It makes you taste the friendship, evaluate and appreciate the life, remember and treasure the good times, smile and laugh and cry. The very things that make life so very special.

It may also make a tiny deviation in your course. You may adjust imperceptibly, subconciously, internally - to take a deeper breath in every now and then. To close your eyes and smell whatever is around you, to hear whatever is in the distance. And to savour it all just a little bit more.

As ever, Ken, you write with a lyrical voice, a genuine warmth and a fine eye for the biggest pictures. Proud to call you my friend.

Simon Ricketts

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you. K

Rufous said...

I'm so tired. Emotionally numb. This year, amongst the endless obituaries and countless upheavals and uncertainties, there have been three terminal cancer diagnoses. None close to me - but all significant in their way. My wife's cousin - a year younger than I am, a colleague I've worked with for 18 years, and now someone I barely know thru social media, but is one of the reasons I stick with twitter.

I want to be pointlessly ANGRY. But I've no more anger to give.

And yet every so often the year has offered a moment of hope - a raft to cling to. The Armstrongs' adventures with Death Grips. Mr R's knack of cutting thru the bullshit and hot-takes. Friends' excitement at Gibzer's screenwriting success... Mine is the small, unregarded blue-green planet on the eastern spiral arm of your social galaxy, through which I'm accidentally hitch-hiking in my dressing gown.

Or maybe you're all the raw albatross sustaining my Salvador Alvarenga at sea.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone, anyway.

I think somewhere I momentarily grasped a point to this, but it's gone again.

Thank you, anyway.

Ken Armstrong said...

Raw Albatross? I've been called Waaayyy Worse than that. :)

Thanks for the lovely comment.


Nigel Fathers said...

Strangely, I came to the same conclusion myself, although with your wonderful gift of writing, it is put more eloquently.
After the initial shock had quelled, I was drawn again to the wonderful piece you wrote a few years ago; 'What Did You Do This Weekend?'
I have commented on that before, so will not rehash my thoughts now. Except to say, a lot of us following yourself or Simon, have never met either of you. Our perception of your characters comes purely from your Twitter selves. But how we feel we are your friend, and our emotions at this time are no less felt because of this.
Your blog, is as ever, a joy.

Cherrymorello said...

I concur with Ruf (you've got it in writing as well, Harford) I am so ANGRY at the unfairness of 2016. My beautiful mum suffering two consecutive strokes and losing our inspirational owner of my rescue so suddenly, never mind the famous icons we have lost and the unfathomable politics. Simon's post just tipped me over the edge and I don't know who to be angry at any more, so I'm just sad at the hurt I keep seeing around me. Yet still I'm determined to be the irritating optimist I've always been:a trait inherited from my granda Frankie, who said "you've been blessed with contentment our Kes, and that's the best thing to have in life". I absorb the good in every day and it recharges my happiness battery. A frosty morning, a dog walk or listening to the birds. When Ros our patron was diagnosed with cancer in August, she was given a matter of months. In that time she didn't change a thing, because she said her life made her as happy as she could be and she couldn't imagine changing anything to make it better. She chose Queen's The Show Must Go On for her funeral and we remembered her with a great deal of funny stories (over a great deal of wine). None of us know where our story ends, so I'm going to carry on enjoying each chapter as best I can. I'll just be glad when I finish chapter 2016,and hope the next one's a bit more jolly. X

Lucy V said...

This is so true. I had cancer but mercifully recovered yet found people saying to me all the time, 'Oh five years to go before you're out of the woods for real'. Erm fuck that. I could die at any point. I didn't from cancer tho ironically I almost died 2 years later from something else. Except it's not ironic. It's life. And it might stop at any given point. So use it.

HelenSparkles said...

I have cancer and for whatever reason, my own assessment is that my risks are quite high. There is no such thing of being clear of cancer, the only thing that stops you dying of cancer, is dying of something else first. The treatment I am having could cause that thing, it is risky.

Enough of me me me though, I was too tired to do anything last night but I dozed off thinking about 2 people I don't know at all IRL but somehow I found on Twitter at some point after I joined in 2007. Twitter was a bit nicer then, I followed people whose writing I liked, then found people they liked, and I am glad I found you both. x

Jim Murdoch said...

Is it better to know or not to know? There're arguments, good arguments, to support either point of view. The thing about no knowing is you think you have time and so things lacks urgency. I should've spent this year working on my novel Left. Instead I read. My time wasn't wasted but that wasn't what I'd planned. After Left I've the two novellas and the second book of short stories and anything else I happen to write. They all need a throrough editing and we're probably looking at three years' work. Which is fine if I've got another three years in me. My parents died in their mid-seventies and so, in my head, I have until seventy-five which is plenty of time but, as I'm fond of saying, time and unforseen occurance befall all men. I could get knocked down tomorrow but it would have to be by a low flying plane or helicopter as I've no plans of leaving the house tomorrow.

I don't fear death. I write quite a lot about it actually. Every novel I've written has a death in it and three books have dead protagonists. So on paper at least death isn't a problem for me; life (or existence shall we say) goes on.

When I think of people who knew they were going to die the two that jump to mind are Béla Bartók and Dennis Potter both of whom knew their time was limited and who worked right to the end desperate to finish what would be their final works. In both cases they worked on two pieces: Bartók failed to complete his Viola Concerto and his Third Piano Concerto but Potter did finish Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. If you've never seen it you should watch Potter's final television interview with Melvyn Bragg. Moving and inspiring.