Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Unforgettable March evening in the evening of our lives
My professional life ended in April 2007 with my retirement. I wanted some peace and quiet and time to travel the world before old age caught up with me. I achieved my objectives to reach where I am today. Society encourages us to extend our youth until at some stage our body and mind tell us otherwise.
On February 15, 2016 when I was spending time with our elder son in Birmingham I noticed a bit of ‘red confetti’ on the toilet pan which I assumed was the work of my grandkids playing with coloured paper. This happened again in my own home. I went to see my GP who confirmed there was blood in my urine. Now the clock started to tick and my journey into the unknown began.
Urologists got involved with a gamut of investigations. The cystoscopy showed a red patch in the bladder and they wanted to arrange a biopsy. By now I had signed the legal papers to move house to a flat in London 50 miles south. I was to stay with my son until our own flat was ready. The Urologist said it was urgent but I told him I was not ready and would get it done after the house move was completed. He wasn’t pleased. If it is cancer this has to be dealt with swiftly. I have passed the biblical age of three score years and ten, my obligations were done and I felt I am ready to unfurl my sails to see the world beyond.
Cystoscopy is a procedure that requires great care by the urologist. There is a tendency nowadays to be blasé about sterility because of the plethora of antibiotics available. Still there are many who die of septicaemia and infections caused by resistant strains of bacteria. After the cystoscopy I developed the most severe attack of cystitis with a fever, rigors and a painful dysuria of the worst kind. I was in a wilderness of confusion. At no time have I felt closer to death. Passing urine was like cutting the urine passage with a knife. Luckily the doctor had given me some antibiotics which took 48 hours to take effect.
First we moved in with our son. It was more than a month later that we were able to move to our own flat. If I was harbouring a tumour, the time bomb was ticking. I managed to see a GP and get a referral to an Urologist at a Teaching Hospital in London. I was seen on the 26th of May when they repeated the cystoscopy. There was no change.
Further investigations took a great deal of time and effort. Finally a biopsy was done under a general anaesthetic on the 24th of June. I cannot fault their professionalism, care and expertise. Discussions with doctors about one’s health are never easy. The advice is coloured by guidelines, dictates and disclaimers. This makes it all convoluted and cumbersome for the patient to comprehend. After the procedure they told me it would take 2-3 weeks for the report. I awaited the results of the biopsy with some trepidation and also surprising calm.
Looking back it is strange to be a patient sitting on the wrong side of the table after being a doctor for 40 years. Diseases only happened to others!! An interest in what lies beneath the skin and behind the symptom has been my concern and now I am the symptom. I have often wondered when one is a patient if that medical knowledge is a help or a hindrance. On the one hand one worries about the rare complications and unlikely side effects and on the other, one is aware of the endless possibilities and how to make best use of the situation and the advice.
The continuous news of death and disease of family and friends are a reminder of one’s own mortality. Awaiting the biopsy results was at times a nightmare. A lot of the time I felt strong and was able to put those negative thoughts behind me. Occasionally I was overcome by darkness: why me and why now? What if it is malignant and required further sur- gery radiotherapy/chemotherapy? This requires regular visits to clinics with countless blood tests and investigations. Such a restrictive life would never be pleasant and may not be acceptable or worthwhile. What if it all has spread beyond the bladder and was terminal? Such thoughts did cross my mind. Fear took me to a terrifying place located at the outer edges of human tolerance. During those times of despair life turns round 180 degrees. Habits of a lifetime of acquiring wealth, gloating on achievements, avarice, hatred and pride – all these just fall away in the face of death. What remains is what is truly simple and basic. Even current affairs and news items somehow seem irrelevant. The future, the next year and even the next month seem distant, elusive and unreachable. The deep and gnawing pain and sadness of separation from my immediate family was heart breaking and always foremost in my mind.
Why can’t there be a better way to exit this world without all this torment, grief and anguish? I also discovered that eventually one learns how to incorporate death into one’s life. It becomes an unwanted travelling companion that stalks you day and night. At times I couldn’t hide my feelings of utter grief, distress and wretchedness. This must have been hard for my wife to bear. I think finally human beings are programmed to accept the end of life when things fall into place and serenity and calmness prevails.
On a fine summer’s day in July I received a call from the hospital to attend their Urology Clinic the following week. This heightened my awareness of the possibilities but I was able to remain calm. Being in the waiting room to be called by the Urologist was the longest half hour of my life. I resorted to meditation and mindfulness to bring some peace and serenity to my soul. We shook hands when he gave me the allclear. Immediately I was transported to a blissful paradise and felt young, elated and energetic once more.
This ordeal has changed my life forever. It has concentrated my mind on what is important. Religion has never played a dominant role in my existence except when I was growing up in Nugegoda, living a Christian life. The ten commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ gave me a good grounding on how to live my life. As a teenager and later a medical student I drifted away from all this and became an agnostic. This remained with me almost the whole of my adult life. This last episode has brought me closer to the merits of meditation, the benefit of mindfulness and the virtue of the five moral precepts. The 5th precept however is harder to keep as I love a glass of wine!! I will try to follow the four noble truths. “Nirvana” the elusive state of final liberation from the cycle of birth and death still seems so far away.
I must emphasise the part played by the “Mozart Effect”. Classical music is tremendously helpful in bringing about peace to one’s soul in stressful situations. Listening to the classics is something that can be done in the confines of your own home. The music of Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart was immensely helpful all through my ordeal.
I am the beneficiary of hard work in my youth and have had a life well and fully lived. Despite some disappointments along the way, much to my surprise, I am happy, and often sublimely so. The fine lyrics of that famous song “My Way” does echo my feelings overall. I prefer that Edith Piaf favourite “Non, je ne regrette rien”, NO REGRETS. Shirley Bassey belts it in English with much gusto and feeling. Well actually, I do have just the one despairing regret – not being with my parents in their hour of need at the end of their lives. I am confident they will forgive me that huge dereliction of duty.
There are a few more delicious little Swiss Alprose chocolates left in the fridge even after we had relished them two at a time over the last eight weeks. The cakes of Dove beauty cream bars will be there for a long, long time in the bathroom. The expensive bottles of Davidoff perfumes and colognes and other valuable gifts showered on us in capacious tote bags will remain with us for the remainder of our days. And, the memory of the occasion at the Royal Golf Club in Colombo on a Wednesday evening in March shall be indelible, everlasting.
Chatura drove us there in air-conditioned comfort. There were 30 of us, all octogenarians, at the event, one or two in wheelchairs, one with a walker, and a few too feeble to manage without a caregiver in attendance. All the others present were grown men in their fifties and their wives. The men were members of the Class of 1974 at Royal College, now occupying important positions in various spheres of work -medicine, engineering, architecture, business, banking, accountancy, the armed services and other fieldssome working here and quite a few in foreign lands.
They were gathered together at the Golf Club to pay tribute to us their parents who took them to school, watched them grow year-by-year and from grade to grade until they stood on their feet, left school and began life as adults. They had learnt before they departed from their school, grown into manhood, got married, raised their families and served and continue to serve their motherland in their chosen vocations.
Colonel (Dr.) Tamara Wickremasekera (wife of a member of the Class of 74 Dr. Venura Ranasinghe) had an inspiring message to share with us in her charming manner and Yogi Nigamji from India told us about the ancient art of yoga and meditation interspersed with wit and humour.
Cameras clicked, countless photos taken and delicious snacks and drinks served as Nedra, Dushan’s wife, held us spell-bound as she played her role as emcee at the event.
A mother paid her tribute to her son and his friends in these words: Thank you for being our children, Thank you for the privilege of moulding you,
Thank you for resting your heads on our shoulders,
For the daily dose of ‘huggy buggy’. Learning came easy to some, To others a daily struggle,
BUT, you “learnt of books and learnt of men And learnt to play the game”. Men of Gold and Blue, Our Blessings upon you, Lift your flag high, For the limit is the sky. Saroj emailed the above to his friends and they responded as follows:
Good morning to you all! and especially to Saroj!Vidya Thewarapperuma - UK
Thanks and I am blessed and privileged to have a good friend like you who was brought up by amazing parents. Please say a big thank you and a big hug from me, buddy!
Once again thank you all and this will be in my memory for ever until one day I close my eyes! Love you all dearly. Hi, Saroj. Thank your mom for the wonderful message. Suren Abeysuriya - Sri Lanka
Wow! Vijitha Wijeratne - Switzerland Nice! Dr. Miran Salgado - USA WOW again! Thank you, Aunty Suji, and thank you, Saroj for sharing it with us. Cheers to Vidya and the rest of the team. Sorry for not mentioning names for fear of leaving out a few. Chatura Wickramanayake - Sri Lanka
That was beautiful. Again, thanks to Vidya for initiating and seeing this through! Kumar Guneratne - USA
Beautiful message from a beautiful lady. Thanks, Saroj. You Lucky. Iqbal Hassen - Sri Lanka
Very nice. Please thank your Mom on behalf of all of us.Lucky Jayaratne - Nigeria
The elegant brochure titled Tribute to Our Parents in (blue) and gold with the names of the old Royalists of the Class of 1974 and of their parents together with addresses and contact numbers and the touching words “Nobody on earth can ever love you more than your parents” is a keepsake as are the remembrances of an unforgettable and moving March evening that enriched and inspired us in the evening of our lives. This little tribute is a reciprocal one on behalf of the parents to their sons; their acts of kindness and love, gestures of generosity and gratitude, all show what Wordsworth called “the human heart by which we live”.