May has been glorious. I love my garden at this time of the year – it’s so green, so overgrown, so soothing. I am reminded of Andrew Marvell’s wonderful poem: ‘The Garden’. Here is my favourite stanza which echos my own experience in nature when imagination and sensation collide and the result is a fresh and perfect thought. A blissful disconnect from the troubled world – a brief moment of simplicity. Green is good for you!
I have recently returned from a short holiday in ‘Paradise’ – or to be more accurate a tiny island in an isolated atoll in a wide ocean – or to be more precise: Fonimagoodhoo Island in Baa Atoll in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. We spent a week on this delightful island, which measures approx 600m x 200m, encircled by a white sand beach and surrounded by a coral reefs dropping off into the deep blue ocean. The temperature was balmy, the sun beamed, the translucent water sparkled. Stunning! Attractive restaurants and beach bars supplied delicious food and enticing cocktails and we walked everywhere in bare feet on tiny sandy paths beneath luxuriant green vegetation and trees. Glorious!
There was little else to do other than lie in the sun or retreat to the shade, doze, read books and swim. Bliss! In the clear water we found the way through to the edge of the reef where we snorkelled and watched the tropical fish as they swam around the coral. Wonderful! I am a very competent swimmer and an enthusiastic watcher of fish. I do not like to wear fins or wetsuits, and can swim happily for hours with just a snorkel and breathing tube. There were three gaps through the inner reef which was shallow, which gave access to the outer reef edge where more and larger fish were to be found – including rays and reef sharks (Apparently they are harmless, although a few days before, I had seen one larger than myself swimming alongside me and my heart did beat a bit faster, but he lazily turned and meandered off.)
One morning, on our third day there, I was swimming along the outer reef from one end to the other in company with two others. After about an hour, I was two thirds of the way along, when I suddenly had a sharp pain in my leg. I realised I’d been bitten when I saw blood clouding the clear water. Then I saw this large yellow and grey fish (about 2½ft x 1ft in size) swim straight at me again, like an exocet, and this time he only managed a small bite, by which time I was flailing around and kicking trying to ward him off. Panic! My fellow snorkeller watched it all happen and wisely kept clear. The big fish made three more runs at me, by which time I was swimming in the opposite direction towards the shore. Fear made me move fast. I soon saw that I was getting closer to the coral as the water became shallower (I had not come through the gap), so I had to slow down and swim carefully as the coral was a few inches below my body.
Back on the beach, I was taken to the doctor on the island, and he told me that the culprit was a giant triggerfish, which is known to be aggressive and occasionally bites swimmers. Usually they just nibble away at coral with their sharp teeth. Mine was the worse bite he’d seen for a year, he cheerfully told me, as he stitched the wound. Painful! No more swimming, he said, and I should go onto antibiotics immediately. So no more alcohol either. Dismal! But he was kind and changed the dressing each day. I didn’t let the incident spoil my holiday – I read lots of books and sampled every single non-alcoholic cocktail on the island! The wound was sore and became infected, red and swollen. But its alright now and there’s an impressive scab!
I discovered that Titan Triggerfish are often more aggressive than sharks, especially when you swim into their ‘cone’ – the space above their ‘nest’. They patrol it and when they see an intruder, they raise up their top fin (the ‘trigger’) and attack. I found numbers of videos on YouTube of triggerfish attacking snorkellers and nipping their fins. But none showed a triggerfish sinking its sharp teeth into someone’s leg! I’m told I must not blame the fish – it’s in their nature. Their nasty nature!
Needless to say, back in the UK, the staff at my doctors surgery found the idea of my being bitten by a giant fish hugely amusing. I’ve found it raises a few laughs (but little sympathy) in the local pub. Why should it be so dreadful when a dog bites someone, and so very entertaining when a fish does? I’ve been snorkelling for years in many different places and successfully avoided stingrays, sharks, sea urchins, poisonous pufferfish and stinging coral. I’d never before encountered big triggerfish with their pointed teeth, but I shall keep well clear of them the future! I shall flaunt an elegant scar on my leg. Every scar tells a story. And I’m a storyteller.
January 2018 is memorable (or rather unmemorable) for having the longest number of sunless days and hours of any January since records began, so I’m told. It was a dark, dismal, dank month – and – to add adverbs (now very unfashionable) to adjectives – it was dolefully dreary, dreadfully dire and deeply depressing. But it’s over now! February has blasted in with cold clarity, clear skies and a stunning super blue moon. I woke in the early hours when the full moon was low in the sky gleaming slyly through the jet black spidery branches of a tree and saw a carpet of white snowdrops glimmering beneath. The lunar phenomenon was ghostly enough to haunt the imagination. Such things have been known to send one mad. As the moon sank lower into a pallid mist and I crept back to my snug bed, I realised with elation that January had fled and February had dawned. It will get colder before it gets warmer. But, as the poet, Shelley, says: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”
A quarter of a century has passed since my reprieve. I was lying on my back under a searingly bright light, alone. I had been dreaming of freedom and fervently hoping that I would outwit my enemy and come through unscathed. Doubt suddenly dispelled and I knew in that moment that my foe was dead.
That’s what radiation does to cancer cells – it kills them. It can also damage healthy cells, but I was unaware of that at the time, and have had to live ever since with the side-effects. But I have lived! Three months before this moment of revelation, I had been told I had the dreaded big C, and needed a major operation without delay, where various internal organs had been cut out, and this was followed swiftly afterwards by a course of daily radiotherapy and further treatment.
The physical assault on my body was nothing compared to the mental anguish. My moods swung between despair and hope, between anger and acceptance, but predominant was anxiety about how my husband would cope if I did not make it, and grief that I might not see my two children grow up; they were then aged 6 and 4. I loved them all so much and dearly wanted to live.
When I finally managed to get my galloping fears under control, I decided to find out as much as possible as I could about my situation. I learned that I had a 50% chance of surviving for 5 years. I am an optimist and promptly decided I would be in the better half of this statistic. I also resolved to hit the enemy hard with all the ammunition I had and resort to every defensive tactic. In addition to conventional treatment – surgery etc – I deployed all the alternative medical options: meditation, visualization, exercise, high doses of vitamin C, homeopathy, and a diet designed to boost my immune system, which had taken a hammering.
And I came through, and with every passing year and all the subsequent check-ups, I became more confident and more thankful. I have now survived not just 5 years but 5 times this. I’m still alive and well (often managing to ignore the peripheral neuropathy – pins and needles – in my feet 24/7, a legacy of having my sciatic nerve irradiated). Twenty-five years on, my children have grown up and I have two small grandchildren. At the onset I thought motherhood might be cut short and I never expected to be a grandmother – and what a blessing it is!
All those years ago, when confronted with my own mortality at a comparatively young age, I didn’t know God. But He knew me and saved me. Fourteen years later I encountered Him, and repentance with faith has changed my life. Now I know that life is a temporary assignment and our home is in heaven. Now I journey with the Lord at my side and the fear of dying is gone. I am so thankful for the extra time granted to me – the ‘borrowed’ years have been sweet. Though we all know that human life is finite, the young feel they’ll live forever. Then as age creeps insidiously up on us, we stop deluding ourselves. Some people worry about their end, but not believers. I have recently witnessed the early death from lung cancer of a dear Christian friend, and she was completely at peace about it. No one need die alone – Our Lord is always with us and He is the way, the truth and the life. Dispel the doubts and grab hold of hope. With Him and in His love, we can look forward to eternity with confidence and joy.