Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Always look on the bright side of life (Revised November 2011)

I have often been impressed by the quiet stoicism of people facing serious illness. When Ruth first told me she had been diagnosed with cancer I was stunned both at the news and her fortitude. Usually she displayed a highly strung disposition. Tragically, despite her firm resolve to the contrary Ruth succumbed to her illness. Her death brought to mind the lines from Macbeth: ”Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Helen was also faced with a life threatening illness only a year or so back. Fortunately she is now in remission. We met up for dinner yesterday. As she was working nearby, I suggested we go to the Andaz Hotel in Liverpool Street as it housed a number of different restaurants, all of which seemed to be reasonably priced and had received good reviews. Having looked at the menus we chose to dine at the Grade II listed 1901 restaurant. As the restaurant area did not officially open for another 30 minutes, I asked if we could sit at our seats and order from the wine bar until it did, saving us from having to change seats later. It also gave us an opportunity to go through some administrative matters relating to her proposed academic studies before we dined.

Helen’s brush with death has made her reappraise her life. She has decided to embark on two very different paths: she plans to undertake a MBA, a task daunting in itself for someone who has recently been so gravely ill. I believe studying for a MBA is an excellent idea. It is something I did myself. When I thought I was going to be relocated to the North East on a permanent basis, I was concerned about the prospect of not knowing anyone there. At least if I were studying for a MBA, I would come into contact with fellow students. When the relocation fell through as a result of a corporate merger and I returned to the London HQ, I decided to still go ahead with my MBA studies. I chose the Open University as it meant that my studies would not be adversely affected if I was obliged to move house. Similarly, I liked the idea of being able to attend my graduation ceremony at a location outside of the UK. As I had already been to Singapore, I chose to graduate within the Palais des Congrès in Brussels, part of a complex housing the buildings and gardens of the Albertine, the Musées des Beaux Arts and the Musée des Instruments de Musique. Mandip accompanied me and we spent the weekend wining and dining in the Belgian capital before returning home by Eurostar. At the time, I had thought it a pity that my late mother had not been alive to attend this second graduation ceremony. The bald truth was even when she had the chance she chose not to amend her holiday plans and come to the ceremony when I had first graduated in England. My mother’s actions were not out of character. When I was still only a child she had left me on my own, despite the fact that I was desperately ill with quinsy, so that she could go away on holiday. Some people are just not cut out to be parents.From Russia with love

By contrast, Helen is keen to raise a family with her husband and has been looking into the possibility of adopting a child. They would prefer to adopt a baby but as she is closer to 50 than 40 it seems highly unlikely she would achieve her goal in this country at least. She is also considering surrogacy using her own eggs. Again, her age and the toll taken on her body by her cancer treatment conspire against her.  In the same edition of the Guardian magazine that my article appeared in, the artist and film director Sam Taylor Wood, then 42, described her own experience of surviving cancer. She explained that she had developed a core of steel to cope with her illness and that the steeliness remained even after she had gone into remission. Helen echoed these sentiments last night. Sam Taylor-Wood also talked about dating her 19 year old partner Aaron Johnson, the star of her film.Sam Taylor Wood interview Since that article was first published, it has been announced that Sam is expecting a baby by Johnson which perhaps gives a glimmer of hope that Helen might be able to do the same, albeit using a surrogate.

I wish Helen well in her plans. Whether adopting from abroad or from this country she will need to go through UK adoption agencies. I was aghast when she used a contentious term to describe a mixed race child.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t use that word when you meet up with social workers. It is considered highly pejorative and borderline racist.” I counselled
I also had to warn Helen not to talk of using corporal punishment on any child she adopted. Helen was born in Africa and despite living in this country for many years still retains the more robust attitudes of her homeland rather than the politically correct values of this country. To her credit, Helen is not a hypocrite. As I have mentioned before, having worked in HR I became somewhat jaded with the number of people who were quick to seek official redress when non-pc language was directed at them but remained blithely indifferent to their own use of inflammatory terms.Let he who is without prejudice cast

Once we had sorted out some paperwork, we were able to sit back and enjoy our surroundings and meal at 1901. The building dates back to 1884 and was once the Great Eastern Hotel. (I realised later that Mandip and I had originally dined at the restaurant when it had different owners and was called the Terminus). Being Grade II listed the interior combined contemporary décor with original classical pillars and a magnificent stained-glass dome in the ceiling. Its menu focusses on dishes made with British-grown produce I had wood-pigeon for my starter and Helen had smoked salmon. She had not realised that the fish was cured rather than cooked and could not eat it. By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my wood- pigeon. We both had sea bass for our main course and I chose a mint parfait for my dessert. Used to peppermint oil in such dishes as opposed to what seemed to be fresh garden mint, I found the taste interesting though somewhat overpowering. Nevertheless, all in all it was a delightful meal, the more so when Helen insisted on picking up the bill. I offered to pay my share but as she insisted, I demurred with good grace. I jokingly said that if I knew she was going to pay I would have ordered vintage champagne. Once, when I was similarly short of funds, I decided to treat a male friend to dinner at an upmarket restaurant as it was his birthday. The three-course set menu was reasonably priced and came with a suitably diverse range of options. To my consternation, given that I had just explained how I was living off an overdraft, my male friend opted for the most expensive item on the menu: the lobster.
“What are you having?” he asked, having thrown my finances into complete disarray with his  choice.
“The stale bread looks good,“ I replied lugubriously.

Since writing this Helen discovered she had fallen pregnant at the age of 48 without medical intervention. Given her age and her illness it is a true miracle. I congratulate her and her husband and send them my heartfelt wishes. Life can prove very unexpected at times.

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