Tag Archives: memory

Once I was 41 years old

In a wink of an eye. It truly is remarkable. It was the seasonal changes that reminded me. Four years ago, May 2012, the nights were getting darker and longer, the days more misty and gloomy in the autumn light. Working hard, probably too hard. WorkingIMG_1535 hours were stretched into the night and my commute home most often passed family homes where supper was served. And then it stopped. Out of the blue, out of the dark.

My brain tumour’s surprised arrival followed my first ever half marathon (a good one) and a second half marathon (a struggle) two weeks later. I was fit, healthy and our family was settling back into a routine following our return from England 18 months before. Life treated us well, with only run of the mill challenges. Nothing dramatic. Kids at school carving their own marks in discovering their identities in a South African lifestyle. Anneén and I  finding ways to integrate our learning curves from abroad back into systems familiar from long term memory. IMG_1604

And still with the good and the lovely came the unexpected. Loss of consciousness whilst driving on the highway. Waking up under hospital lights. First sight was Anneén’s tears. Comprehending her words, but it did not make sense. Seizure? Brought here by ambulance? Really? But it was true, despite my IMG_1582amnesia. And so the journey started. MRI Brain Scans, differential diagnosis. New differential diagnosis. MRI Brain Scan and craniotomy aka brain surgery. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

And in between I ran. Not away. Not in flight, even though at times in tears. But I found running as a way in between chemo sessions to find open spaces, open mind space. I ran to feel my heart beat, blood in muscles and a sense of moving forward, moving on. It was life affirming. Death denying. Even though “mortality” was suddenly written on a white wall.

When I was 41 years old, the seasons changed in our Wine-lands. The vines lost their green coats, changed into golden, red and brown outfits and were then blown apart by autumn winds. The bare vineyard fingers were exposed, like skeletons. Winter was coming, but so the knowledge that the seasons change. New life will return to the brown vines, crooked in in the morning light. New red and black fruit will return, plucked into baskets and transformed into wine. A new life, a different life. IMG_1436

I am turning 46 soon. The seasonal changes includes us, make us aware of life’s ongoing journey and routines. What will follow around the next corner, over the next hill or within the mountain forest. I am not able to tell – a true blessing.  But I can stand still on my way. Take a deep breath, close my eyes. Hear the wind in the pine trees, smell the dusty roads between the vineyards, see the excitement in our dogs eyes. Breath out. And run.

 

 

 

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A year on

Certain anniversaries are hollow. One year after your girlfriend dumped you. A year after your dog died. 12 months following your diagnosis of something that caused an epileptic seizure. There is a knowing that it is a significant date, but a need to avoid it. As with all significant dates, there is no escaping it. The calendar does not lie.

I decided well in advance of the 17th of May 2013 that I am taking the day off and will limit my driving. Just to be safe! On the day, a year before, leaving work on Thursday evening at about 6 pm was not out of the ordinary. Feeling tired was also expected as I was working hard and my working hours was often stretched to after 17:00. Waking up under bright lights on a hospital trolley was however unusual in the extreme. A first I can say in all confidence. A first since birth to be precise.

But there I was, dressed up in an angel white hospital gown. There was Anneén, in tears, describing an accident I was involved in on my way back from work. I was? I was. A tow-truck driver found me in my car next to the national highway after he spotted my car under a bridge against a guardrail. My car was not seriously damaged, but I don’t want to think that I might have ended up in the ongoing traffic if the barrier did not bring me to a slow stop. But thinking about all the scenarios remains vague and hazy as I have no memory of these events. Anneén could have told me that I was hit by a meteorite and I would be without any evidence to disprove it. Apparently I had two further seizures before the ambulance arrived. Apparently I was aggressive when they tried to rouse. Apparently so. All the things I just don’t know. It left me puzzled. And so were the doctors initially. Brain Scans done. Bloods taken. The initial diagnosis was Neurocysticercosis. This is described as, “Patients from an endemic areas presenting with seizures, a normal neurological examination and spontaneous resolution after therapy with albendazole”.

But no, this was not accurate. Follow-up MRI Scans showed that rather than going away, the “part” in my left frontal lobe was gaining in size. “It’s a brain tumour” the kind neurosurgeon informed. And so the journey of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and worry started. I was operated on. Twice. A craniotomy was performed to remove the brain tumour on the 6th of August. Two weeks later I had a bit of leakage upstairs and another operation was performed to close the leak in the meninges. So, twice my skull was flapped open and twice the repairs were done. Treatment followed in the form of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and more chemotherapy. Not the journey I was expecting for 2012 and the start of 2013. But so I was.

Long Table RestaurantOne year on. It was not a bad day, it was just day. Anneén and I took the girls in the late afternoon for drinks at the Long Table restaurant that overlooks several wineries and scenic views towards Stellenbosch. It was beautiful, autumn colours painted the landscapes, the red wine was wonderful and we were thankful. Grateful that it is year on. Grateful that we completed the treatment journey, was blessed with a clear MRI Scan in March 2013 and that life reflected how it was prior to May 2012. We have both been working hard, keeping fit and keeping our focus on the immediate future.

But that night it suddenly grabbed me. It all suddenly felt too much. The memories were all too real and dragged me to the ground. It was just awful. Awful, awful, awful. No silver lining, no moment of meaning, no inspiration, no affirmation of life. Drained empty. Fragmented and hollow. I took a hiding and needed shelter. I believe it was grief. I was struck down by
grief of what I lost. Of course there are so much that I did not lose – my family, my life, ability to work and to be productive. And we were touched by the kindness of people who cared and prayed for us. But it robbed me of my illusions of invincibility and good health, my sense of self and being in control of my well-being and abilities, my delusions of immortality. Maybe it killed off those parts of me that I had to let go off, but never had to time or awareness to strangle.

It would not have been the route that I would have chosen, but maybe grief taught me that it is not always about my choices. My choice might only be in the ways that I come to terms with where my life took me. My choice in how I love my wife, my girls, my family and friends. How I engage with my colleagues, the people I consult with, the random strangers that I pass and the world around me. How I find my own path amidst the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumour and the emotional ripples it leaves. How I find my strength in faith, friendship, hardship and discipline. How I stand up when a wave mauls me into the sand. And that I will do.

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Incidents and Random Events (For Graham)

Ashburton Dads' Football ClubIt was a first outing to the Old Vic in Ashburton. I have only recently met Richard through his wife. She was working in the same NHS trust as me and as the 6 Nations started, it seemed like the ideal place to watch a bit of rugby. Wales played. I can’t remember against whom, possibly England or France. It was the start of the 2009 season and the Welsh were hungry to retain the title they won the previous year.

Although the details are slightly blurred, somewhere during the evening, we met Eilir, Stuart and Stuart’s dad. I wish I could say that the conversations were deeply intellectual, but I must confess that by that time voices were already harsh in the attempts to stay audible over the pub’s noise in between encouraging the team of your choice. I backed the Welsh, my adopted northern hemisphere team. My choice was before finding out that Eilir and Stuart were backing the boys in red. Although thinking back, it would have been obvious given their vocal support that was fuelled on by the Otter Ale. During half-time or possibly afterwards we discussed life in Devon and how my family and I ended up in the glorious part of South-West England. It was Stuart who in his inclusive manner invited us to join their Thursday Football group. Famously among those in the know as “The Ashburton Dad’s Football Club”.

I must admit that it took some courage to take on their offer. The idea was attractive. In the world of mental health, “boy time” is often limited and my profession tends to dwell on the emotional, the intuitive and the relational. But I managed to get some “kit” and some courage. At that point I have yet not admitted that my prior football experience consisted of about 60 minutes of chasing a football. Once.  I have played rugby union. I have played cricket and tennis (both badly) and have attempted several other activities that involved round shaped objects. But more often than not, I discovered that I had the passion, while the natural talent and skill were lacking. But then, why should that come in the way of a good time!

Game TimeI managed to find the pitch on my first venture out. It was cold and rainy – typical. I was probably one of the early arrivals. Over-eager; as always. Nervous to arrive early; as always. The first person I met was Graham. Slightly over-conscious I introduced myself and made reference to Eilir and Stuart’s invitation. It was quite easy to speak to Graham. Hearing where I was from, he referred to his early years in Swaziland and that their family spend time in the northern parts of South Africa. The next hour involved middle aged men running about on the pitch, several claims of illegal play while I tried to gain to decipher what is allowed and what not. Dave quickly pointed out (aka shouting at me) that diving tackles were not part of the game, while it became clear from Tony’s game plan that the off side rule did not apply. It was great. I was a boy again among two teams of slightly overweight and ageing boys. And that was prior to the philosophical discussion back at the Old Vic afterwards.

And so it continued. Relationships grew. Often taking the mickey was a significant component of post match discussions while we enjoyed a few Otter Ales, some warm chips supplied by Nick and Gemma at the Old Vic and while on tour to Cardiff and Bath. In between the football, ale, laughs and scheming on changing the world, there were moments of seriousness. One point of reference was Grahams’ treatment for stomach cancer a few years before. But this did not deter from pulling his leg and his brush with death.

When our family returned from England, I knew that I would miss playing football every Thursday night. Well, saying football, I mean having a roaring time and occasionally running into a few guys (apologies to Joe, Marco, Nick). And defending like hell. Thursday night football became an integral part of my routine and from the first game that left me unable to climb stairs to becoming more fit and competitive over time. I missed it and was grateful for the kind farewell wishes after my last game and well-wishes on my transfer to the “African Ankle-bitters” (!). But a year after our return I heard that Graham became ill again. The cancer returned.

As I mentioned before, the post-football banter was mostly light hearted and full of jest. But underlying was a caring whenever an ADFC member was in need of it. So with Graham’s return to treatment, it came as no surprise that the football guys were planning to run the Rotterdam Marathon in support of Graham and his fight against Cancer. I could not be left out and declared my willingness to run the SAD half-marathon and a local trail run. My training went well. I noted from the http://www.just-dump-it.com/ site that my colleagues up north were training and received information on the finishing of the marathon on the 2nd of April 2012 and how they raised 4400 UK pounds for the Rowcroft Hospice.

But Graham died. He could not go to Rotterdam with the boys and passed away on the 25th of April 2012. It was while thinking about him that I completed my half marathon in Wellington South Africa on the 1st of May 2012. It is celebrating Graham’s life tonight and raising a drink a glass of red wine while the AFDC is raising a glass to him in Ashburton. It is looking at the picture of flowers that was put on his grave today and knowing that time is precious even though we are all fragile.

This one is for you Graham. Saluté!

Graham ADFC

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How Bad News Flows

Just a ringing telephone.
Just my mother’s voice on the other side.
Just another conversation about the week with a bit of this and bits of that.
Just good to speak to her, the same spread of topics. “How is everyone?
It was fine just like that.

But bad news infiltrates the normal flow of things. Unexpectedly. Unwanted. “Did I hear that Laurie has been diagnosed with lung cancer?” Out of the blue, into the cold.

Laurie was a classmate many years ago, a good friend and never a smoker. Despite little contact over the eight years while we lived abroad, he remains a dear friend. And I hate phrases like “good friend” being allowed in the same sentence as “bad news”. Even more when the bad news shadow push towards someone who lives in service of others and support their lives towards new meanings. Like my friend Laurie.But sometimes it merges into the same linguistic stream, creating a new reality that follows the telephone’s ring. In a few seconds the past is shattered with a new present.

It reminds of what Douglas Adams wrote in Mostly Harmless:

One of the problems has to do with the speed of light and the difficulties involved in trying to exceed it. You can’t. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws”

Bad news with its own special laws bends the rules and does not read the policy document. Like an outlaw, a deceitful prophet, or the fraudulent official. Bad news carries its own load of heartache and pop songs. Maybe a positive take on it, is that it can override the previous bad news edition. It makes the mouse we caught in our bedroom on Monday night, the power failure Wednesday and the 15 cm drop in swimming pool water on Friday appear like an eventful week, but its only humorous samples to be served at a next social event. Nothing more. But a friend’s diagnosis touches deeper. It wakes the existential me that wants good will, for good to triumph over evil, even world peace. It stirs those emotional places that I visit after dark, the memories where tears and fears frequent, and the heartaches that left scars.

British Library Gate ShadowBut the bad news shadow man can serve other functions. It waves a flag with a red question mark. Where am I? What is my focus? Who is important in my life? What am I suppose to do where I am now? It wakes us from our slumber and pokes us in the side. It raises the shadows that we have forgotten to confront. It is not the niceties of life that gets us through these times. It asks of us, like Job, what remains when I am stripped of everything?

Bad news in essence presents the question of meaning.

Bad news is not about what we have or what possession we might have lost. It does not deal with the fantasy of acquisition or our standing in the world. It takes us inwards, towards facing the mirror with our history and present portrayed in full detail and full colour. It takes us towards our relationship with all the parts of ourselves that developed throughout our journey through different times and places. It takes us towards what we love and loath about whom we are.

And it takes us outwards towards those whom we love. Those for whom we hope that they will take their cancer, their loss, their heartache, their heart attack, their unfaithful partner and that it will confront them with the totality of whom they are. Wake up the shadows that they have to confront, bring them closer to the meanings they have to find for their life. Be that psychological, spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, existential or within whatever framework you define your journeys. It requires the relinquishment of what is unnecessary, what holds us back and what allow the shadows to anchor us in a false reality. It might be status, it might be the drive for success, or it might be materialistic. Or it might be to give up the hope that the world is manageable and predictable. We run into bad news and it breaks our hearts. It takes the solid earth from under our feet and grabs the soft pillow from under our sleeping heads.

Being lucky might not mean the bad news will go away or fit into our fantasy that everything will be all right. Being lucky might mean that we meet ourselves outside the constraints placed upon us by our parents, our teachers, our culture or our fantasies about how life should be. Being lucky means becoming authentic, facing our shadows and watering our inner beauty. It might take us to showing love to ourselves and those we love. Then, to quote James Hollis*, we learn “that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible” and that the “world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young”.

*From “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

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42/2012

I blame my teachers. Especially my maths teachers. Yes, the guilty should be named and charged. They have left me with a love for numbers for which I am eternally grateful. In a way, they saved me. Well not physically; that would have been weird. But their dedication and motivation opened a door to something I was good at. And at times I needed to be good at something.

We moved about quite a bit as a family when I was growing up. After 7 years in a small town called Harrismith in the Eastern Free State (South Africa), we moved about between towns for the next 6 years. I therefore attended 4 different primary schools. Needless to say, I often felt like an outsider as I had to make new friends, get use to a new school and teachers. In addition, I was not good at sport then – something that a young boy can usually fall back on. Then Mr Wright entered the scene when I was age 11. For the next 2 years he was my maths teacher at Willem Postma Primary School (Bloemfontein). With a patient and calm approach he made the world of numbers accessible. I can’t recall how good my marks were, but I found confidence in it. Mr Wright was an older teacher and he made time to teach us about life and history. I was mesmerised when he told us about Napoleon and wrote in chalk on the black board, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”.

And then we moved again. At least by age 13 I was of bigger build and as part of the next transformation I gave up a heavy burden I was carrying since age 2 and a 1/2. I stopped wearing glasses. Before, everywhere we moved, I was taunted. Often I was the only spectacled child in class. I  Harrismith 1970'sfelt like a kid in glass. As if everyone looked through me. Fragile. At that point I have broken so many pairs (all by accident, I promise!) our medical aid stopped paying for them. So, I stopped, I just quit. I t was a win-win situation. And it worked for me. No more outer burden that automatically uploaded silly nicknames. No more the outsider for looking different. No more looking from the outside through lenses to what everyone else saw.

I don’t know if this helped, but suddenly I was selected for the first rugby team. I was also picked as flank and no more hard labour position as prop. Freedom at last! Did I change so much over one summer holiday? Did I suddenly lost weight with the glasses and increased my running speed? Who knows, but I was in a better space and this continued when I went to Kroonstad High (or secondary) School. Here over the next 5 years I had teachers that I will always remember (for various reasons). Mrs van der Merwe who somehow moulded our Afrikaans cerebrals into an appreciation for the English language. Mr Rossouw who kept our Afrikaans roots solid with poetry and essays, while Mrs Rossouw created a melody from our voices in choir practice. My dad’s science laboratory often filled with smells and sparks (were they all intentional?) and Mrs “Krappie” de Villiers’ attempts to bring Biology alive to me. And Mr Fourie’s hotdog sales during break were as popular as his Technical Drawing classes. He also coached our rugby team at the start of high school and we were a pretty decent outfit despite the hotdogs!

And then Mrs Gerber, later Mrs Sim, who shaped our mathematical skills. Looking back at all my schooling, she must win the price for giving the most homework. And that is apart from her extra classes prior to major exams. In retrospect I am grateful to her. Not only did it provide me with something that I could be good at and motivated a dedication to what is important. I believe that it shaped my mind in a way of thinking that is interested in patterns, in what is sensible and meaningful. At the time it influenced the suggestion that I should go into engineering, but I could never exclude the humanities and working with people. It must be great to design a bridge, but building relationships between people is much more satisfying. Working with people who suffered head injuries, might have difficulty with memory and translating the numbers from neuropsychology into meaningful constructs for their daily lives tick my own meaning box.

I do acknowledge the limitations of numbers and don’t regard myself as a numerologist of some sorts. I did not believe the Mayan prophecy that the world would end on the 21st of December 2012, although my world dramatically changed in 2012. Still, there is something interesting about specific numbers in one’s history and possible numerical intervals. But should I read more into it? Someone said that the average age for a diagnosis of a glioma for a male is 42 (or between late 30’s and mid 40’s). I had my first seizure a month prior to my 42nd birthday. Half this number and it takes my back to my age of 21 when my brother died. My grandfather, whom I am named after, passed away at age 85 (21 times 4 plus 1). Should I read something into these numbers and the possible repetition of 21? Should I be weary of age 63 when the next 21 year cycle comes to an end?

I don’t think so.

For now, I am with Douglas Adams. Maybe the amazingly accurate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. Nothing more. Just that. Where I am at.

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And so the Mayan cookie crumbled

After a moment of uncertainty, my girls were in the safety of my arms.
“Again! Again!” they shouted.

Hartenbos Waterworld

Hartenbos Waterworld

Earlier this year, prior to my brain tumour issues, they sat on my lap when we went down the “big supertube” slide. However at the time they were not so keen on it and prefer to enjoy the smaller tube and more “subdued” waterslides.

Now, 9 months on, we were back for our summer holidays in Hartenbos. After plenty of rides on the “Junior Supertube” and with the new confidence they found playing in the waves, I thought we may try the bigger ride again. However this time, with life jackets on and daddy going first. I left them at the top with a bit of uncertainty and some anxiety to take on the new challenge. My 7 year old (nearly 8) came flying out from the tunnel first, unable to hide her anxiety, her eyes trying to find me in the pool and tears swelling up. My five year old found a moment to grab her nose before been flung into the white stream of water. Both of them were in my arms within seconds given the strength of the water pushing them towards me. The tears quickly vanished and screams of pleasure replaced all signs of fear and apprehension. “Again! Again!” rang out as a war cry against those feelings of uncertainty, as a spontaneous team credo to take them to similar heights of excitement.

It is moments like this that all the uncertainty, fears and times of darkness get washed away and their young voices conquer and replace the voice of anxiety that occasionally haunts my mind. The past year’s memories were recycled. It is the pure joy and excitement in their eyes. Not only from the adrenaline rush from the water and speed sliding down, but from conquering a challenge they didn’t know they were able to do in March of this year. It adds to my life.

Vigo and I enjoying the waves

Vigo and I enjoying the waves

It is similar to the joy and exuberance I get from facing the challenges that the ocean roles towards me. To dive underneath or through a white rolling wave. To jump over a crumbling triangle of water moving towards you. On the lookout for the one that will grab hold of you, embrace you and run you towards the white sand.Those experiences fill my senses and consume mind to the extent that no other thoughts can enter.

Life is present in these moments. In the water’s power, the saltiness in your mouth and nose, the moment of lifting your head for air gasping for air and the moment of pure happiness in my daughters’ eyes. Again! Again! I shout.In between these life affirming events and today (23rd of December), the Mayan’s prophecy about the proposed “End of the World” came and went. With all respect to the Mayans and all that they have achieved, it was not very apocalyptic or a very unusual day. Apart off course from us folk in the Southern hemisphere experiencing the shortest night, as we do ever year with the summer solace.

As a teenager the final chapter of history of mankind and the signs of the last days (eschatology) as well as the “uncovering of knowledge” about the final days (apocalypse) held me captive. I have however since shifted in my thinking and beliefs about this and cannot find any other word to describe my position about these things, be it Mayan, Nostradamus or from any fundamentalist position, as “vaguely amusing”. [I could write more on this, but in order to not venture too far away from my original script, not today!]. I find comfort in the concept that we may see the end of an era or the end of a rule (of say an empire), but that this world will only come to an end when the sun finally gives up the ghost.

Thus, the moments that we have with each other, the times that we capture with our senses, the wave that we ride onto the sand, the Eureka moment, when we conquer our fear, the first time we go down the big one. That moment that is present. Don’t I care about the future? Of course I do. My biggest anxieties (especially post diagnosis) relate to future. As do my dreams. I firmly believe in the power of our dreams, in becoming and growing into who we are meant to be. All of that relate to the future. But I don’t believe that all of a sudden the world will be without electricity or mobile phone signals. That we will be hurled into darkness and mankind be wiped off the planet. Not this week anyway.

The future is import, but it’s not under our control. The past is precious, but it does not pre-determine who we are or our future. We have the present moment that the past has given us and of which the future is expecting a response. We have moments that take us on an exciting water ride and moments like yesterday when I was attacked by bees while mowing the lawn (I am typing this with one swollen eye!) and then putting up the Christmas tree as a family. We have this and we can choose what to make of it. Even with one eye half closed, I will shout out, “Again! Again!”

So the end of the world passed us by and everyone that I love are accounted for. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but I am planning to give Christmas gifts to my wife, my daughters and my parents who are visiting. I am hoping to hear their laughter and to see the surprise in their eyes when opening their presents. I am hoping on and planning for a healthier 2013, but before then to enjoy the remaining moments of 2012. May you enjoy and be blessed with the same!

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Can Whales get Tumours?

Off the coast of South Africa, at least 37 species of whales and dolphins can be found. This fact blows me away. 37 species?  Most of these (especially the whales) are found in the about 500 kilometre stretch between Cape Town and the Garden Route. Tthe most famous are the southern right whales, humpback whales, and several coastal dolphin species. These are joined by African penguins and Cape fur seals, with the obvious big and small human shapes enjoying the seawater and surf.

A few blogs ago I mentioned a visit to a small town called Betty’s Bay (not far from Hermanus, the whale capital of South Africa). It was here that I experienced one of those amazing life affirming whale moments. I was standing outside on the stoep (our local word for porch) when I suddenly saw a black movement in the water. I just yelled, “Whale!” to get my family’s attention, grabbed my camera and run down towards the sea for a close-up shot. Now, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I leave you with 2 recommendations. (1) Familiarise yourself with the territory and (2) Footwear, footwear, footwear. Unbeknown to me was that the 50 meter between me and the shoreline included a gravel road (the easy bit), thick undergrowth of fijnbos and surprisingly a stream (due to a lot of recent rain). That was even before the rocks that provided the soundtrack to the experience and lifted a salty taste and smell into the air. This short, but tricky, distance was made complicated by my foot attire. The old faithful pair of Fatface flip-flops was getting slippery and muddy, making my rock scramble probably amusing to look at, but not fun when trying to run in a whale.

My guide in all this was Anneén standing on the stoep lookout. Shouting directions and pointing to where to scramble. I then realised that “nearer” does not translate into “better view”. Every now and then I would see water spurting out, a black back or bit of tail. It was a truly amazing experience that I tried to capture on camera. However, each photo appeared like an ocean still-life, with no evidence of whale. To make matters worse, when I returned home, I was informed that there were 2 whales … I did even not notice the second.

The next day in Hermanus, we had breakfast with the most amazing backdrop. Not only did we have a 180 degree ocean view, but we could see several whales (or bits of them) in the bay. Some swimming with new offspring; showing of their tails and playfulness. Luckily they were far enough away for me to even attempt to catch them on film!

Do whales get ill, do they get tumours?

I do not know. I have heard that they can get (oddly enough) dolphin pox and arthritis. Elsewhere I read that a whale stranding might be due to a boat injury or brain parasitism. However, the appearance of a very young whale on the beach with no sign of disease might be due to separation from its mother.

In the 1978 a book called “The Tumor in the Whale” was published. Rather than it being a collection of medical or marine scientific facts, it is about urban myths and legends. Its author Rodney Dale, a collector of mythical stories, referred to whale meat being sold in wartime England when other meats were scarce. The details of a “specific” person finding a tumour in his meat are quite gross (I would rather not repeat it ) and might be behind the rhyme, “Whale meat again; Don’t know where, don’t know when …” This is referred to as a ‘whale-tumor story’. In essence it’s a wild story with no truth behind it. The type of thing that happens to a friend of a friend of a friend.

A true whale story happened to us in 2008 while we were visiting my in-laws (we were still living in the UK at the time). Early one morning the local radio station reported that a whale beached nearby overnight. We took the kids and set off to witness this first hand. It was a truly amazing experience, obviously filled with sadness. The gentle giant looked healthy, almost as if sleeping. The only sign of injury or trauma was a small wound next to his right eye. Local fishery experts did not feel that it could have been the cause for its demise.

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From the outside, nothing else appeared out of place. Apart from it being a whale on the sand. And it not sleeping. It was still a memorable experience, to be able to touch a whale’s skin, to get a perspective on how small we are next to him/her and how these giants of the sea can be so vulnerable.

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Moments like these tend to draw us away from, out of ourselves. The moment that we encounter something different, unusual or beautiful. Events that place things in a new context or perspective. How we are small insignificant particles or how we can be instrumental in change and something bigger. These experiences can be quite mundane, like watching a gecko climbing up a wall. Someone walking past you smiling while listening to their iPod or the early morning sunrays reflecting off the dewdrops of vineyard leaves. It can be as life changing as the news that a healthy baby is coming. The beauty in these moments, even if they contain an element of sadness, touches something deep inside me. Feeling removed and connected with something so different. While knowing they must have their own moments of joy and suffering, their own experiences of anxiety or encounters with beauty.

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