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A consequence of living with illness, for me, has been an - I wouldn’t say obsessive but certainly heightened - interest in reading about others who have faced similar life challenges. I imagine this is a fairly normal response to exceptional life changes, helping us to understand, allay personal fears and speed up the learning curve of dealing. It is also a seeking of connection with others like us, at a time when we might feel isolated from those we know personally, and an assurance that, in this strange, unwelcome landscape of our life, we are not entirely alone in our circumstance or our reaponses to it.

Some of the most memorable and moving narratives dealing with life changing illness that I have read come from professional writers - not entirely unexpected, I guess, given that words are their profession. I’d recommend Ruth Picardie, John Diamond, Marisa Acocella Marchetto. Should you follow my recommendations, be aware that I always like my tragedy laced with humour .

Of late, I have been touched by the writing of Clive James as he attempts to come to terms with his illness, life change and mortality. I read this poem by him at the weekend and so much of it resonates with me. I hope it speaks to you too:

Holding Court
Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.
I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.
My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.
Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.
(First published in the Times Literary Supplement)
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Arts - March 2013
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