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The Marathon

I still remember the effortless sensation I felt when I was running at speed. My legs seemed to bounce off the tarmac and propel me forward towards the finish line. When I was in form I felt an elation, a freedom of effort and a belief that I could be an Olympic champion.

I used to smile to myself when I saw the agony on the faces of other athletes, conscious that I could strike at will and leave them all for dust. I pitied those who plodded and struggled towards the finish of a race. For me, it wasn’t just good enough to run fast, I also had to maintain form and look the part of an athlete. Oh; the arrogance of youth!

It’s all a distant memory now. I sit at my hospital window and gaze enviously at the thousands of runners participating in the Dublin City marathon, I think of the talent I squandered as an athlete and I wish I had the energy to walk to the corner and cheer on my Daughter in Law who is attempting her first marathon.

Its day zero+3 of my Stem Cell transplant. I’ve been blasted once more with Chemotherapy and the Stem Cells harvested some weeks ago have been transfused back into me. Now it’s a waiting game. Every day my blood count will get lower and around day 7 I’ll reach the bottom of the curve.  That downward trajectory will bring sickness, infections, debilitating fatigue and mental challenges. It’s anticipated that I’ll be in hospital for a month, some of which will be restricted for visitors. After that it will be the long slow process of recovery.

The legs that floated over roads and pulled me to the top of mountains feel like jelly. My mind, which has always had clarity of thought, is in a fog. My eyes are blurry and I find it hard to read. The very thought of food makes me sick. The effort to have a shower is the equivalent of running a marathon. The thought of shaving makes me wince.  My instincts are to crawl into bed and curl up under covers but I know that would have a negative effect on me. Everything has to matter. My resolve must remain intact and I’m determined to maintain my standards.

An hour later I struggle from the bathroom. The effort to get ready has left me drained. I sit and watch the continuous stream of runners make their way towards their goal. I need rest but I resist the thought of bed. I open my laptop and start typing. The words come slowly but they help clear my head. Every sentence is a victory and my spirits start to rise. My body might be weak but I feel strong mentally and I won’t allow negative thoughts enter my mind.

I can hear the crowd cheering from my room. The main group of runners are going past and I wonder how Saragh is getting on. I watch this wave of runners and I feel envious. The door to my room opens. Its dinner time and my food has arrived. The smell hits me with a bang and I feel instantly nauseated. I rush for the bathroom and get sick. In the background the cheering seems to get louder. The sweat runs down my forehead and I feel cold and clammy. I lay prone on the bathroom floor and I take deep breaths to control my sickness. Eventually I struggle to my feet and make it to my bed. The cheering continues and the runners struggle on. I look out the window one more time. Many are running, some are plodding and a few are walking. Most will finish because determination and tenacity will drive them on. All marathons are completed one step at a time. Mine will be no different.

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A picture is worth more than a thousand words

Photography is a powerful tool. One image can stand in isolation and graphically illustrate the raw emotion and frailty of human life. Many of my photographs portray people enduring hardship at a vulnerable period of their lives. I have always possessed an innate obligation to depict sensitivity in a compassionate and respectful way. Now that I have reached a defining moment in my life, I don’t intend to apply double standards when it comes to depicting my own vulnerability.

My journey in battling cancer has been a roller coaster, with all the uncertainty that goes with such a diagnosis. During this period I have never witnessed fear, self pity or anger; just acceptance.

However I have experienced doubt and I’ve questioned my very contribution to society and reflected on what legacy I will leave behind for my grandchildren. I made this photograph when I was in severe pain and in a reflective mood. My memories came cascading back and many questions quickly followed. This photograph and poem illustrates the emotion and doubt I experienced while going through that self evaluating process. Both expose the vulnerable state I was in at that moment in time but they chronicle a fundamental part of my story.  As I re-evaluate my life and focus on my battle for survival, I must remain true to my core principles and overcome my inclination to suppress such thoughts and feelings. I must drop my protective shroud and reveal my own vulnerability.  Only then can I face my inner demons with honesty and courage and record the true extent of my journey in a meaningful way.

 


 

 

My Life – A Reflection

What mark have I achieved in my transitory life?

By diminishing strength my frailty has been unmasked
My infirmity is etched upon a brow new to pain
Through solitary thoughts, I reflect on my mortality
With the wisdom of a sage.

Have I enriched another’s life or influenced a soul?
What benefits have I rendered to those who sought my help?
What overarching creed has been my navigator through tempest?
My intellect seeks peace, my faith seeks reassurance

What words should I entrust to the children of my son?
What deeds should I discharge before my final chapter’s done?
What memories will unfold when future tales are told?
What attributes will mark my presence on this earth?

What measure should apply when reflecting on the past?
A tranquil heart, an inner calm, serenity of mind
If such is the degree and the magnitude of my virtue
If God is love and love is all there is
Then my life has been fulfilled.

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Just Another Journey

“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll;
I am the master of my faith; I am the captain of my soul”.   William Ernest Henley

In my youth I was an oarsman, pursued adventure sports and had the potential to become an Olympic athlete. In later life I hiked in the Himalayas, trekked through the Amazon rain forrest and camped with the vanishing tribes in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. I had never suffered a day’s illness is my sixty-one years on this earth and I never smoked or drank. I was the epitome of good health. Then suddenly; a short time after I returned from a photographic trip to Burma, everything went wrong! 

Twelve months ago, I was diagnosed with a very rare blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma. It manifested itself as a Plasmacytoma, which in layman terms is a tumour on the spine. If it remained undetected I would have been paralysed within a matter of months. Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, my kidneys failed and a few months later I was only able to walk with the aid of crutches. In the intervening period I had spent months in hospital, been through countless medical tests and had numerous biopsies. I received Chemotheraphy, Radiotheraphy, Kidney Dialysis and in excess of thirty blood transfusions; and this all happened in a very short space of time. This photograph was taken after I finished a second round of very aggressive Chemotheraphy and just as I started an arduous program for a Stem Cell transplant. Further Chemotheraphy was scheduled before that transplant. The next phase of treatment would require a month’s isolation in hospital and many difficult months of illness were envisaged before I recovered from that ordeal. 

To photograph a patient undergoing such treatment is a delicate and challenging task. The photographer is constrained by the environment and restrictions imposed by medical priorities. There is a very fine line between the subtlety of a narrator and the jackboot of an intruder. A photographer is obliged to tread carefully to achieve an equilibrium and significant sensitivity is a prerequisite in such fragile circumstances. It’s difficult to achieve balance and remain emotionally detached when the subject is enduring pain and hardship. The photographer must remain objective and dispassionate in order to render an image that has impact and meaning. The main ingredients of a successful photograph are light, composition and form. It’s difficult for a photographer to be creative when working in a challenging environment and limited by key elements such as light and location. It’s even harder to achieve these fundamental requirements when the patient and the photographer are one of the same person.

Encouraged by my consultant, I decided to produce a photo essay of my journey through the various phases of my treatment for this rare blood cancer. While the project appealed to me initially, I was very reluctant to take photographs during the early stages of my diagnosis.  As a photographer, I wanted to capture images that told a story of resilience and fortitude. I wanted to make pictures that were dramatic and symbolic and which reflected the defiance required to overcome adversity. I wanted to make photographs that depicted a man who faced a solitary journey and revealed both his strength and vulnerability. Initially I thought that I could only achieve this objective if I photographed an independent subject. It took me a while to realise that I had to be my own subject if I was to be unconstrained by the ethos and etiquette of such a situation. It’s difficult to photograph emotion and pain. But it’s very challenging to capture images that have impact and meaning when you are in pain and fighting for your life. This venture has been the most testing project I have ever embarked upon and represents a work in progress. In truth, I don’t know how this is going to end but it’s that uncertainty that challenges my mental strength and creative ability. The only thing I’m certain about is that this self assignment will help define me  as a photographer and as a man and it was that challenge which attracted me to the project in the first case.

Time will tell if I succeed as both.