November 7th 1994 was a big day for me, even though for me, it wasn’t a long day at all. I spent eleven hours of it unconscious while a grand total of twenty-two doctors removed a tumour from my spine. The tumour and I had history, but it was finally time to get rid of it. Admittedly, I didn’t know it was there most of the time, it was only diagnosed earlier in the year but had been there since Easter 1991. I’d made an enemy of a friend of mine as he was being an arse to my little brother, he chased me down several flights of stairs at Fairlight Junior School, then shoved me down the last steps onto the tarmac of the playground. From that point the tumour made itself known, causing vast amounts of pain in my right leg to the point where the transition from sitting to standing or lying down was too much at first. I managed it and re-learnt how to move with it still in me, misdiagnosed as being an attention-seeking child of divorce. I returned to school after several months, a massive laptop lugged around in a backpack (along with a flute, but let’s repress that part of the story) thanks to my Dyspraxia, as well as a slow gait and a hunched posture.
My body adapted to it, bit by bit. Most of those years were spent with my mother looking for any reason why I might be in so much pain, my family having to deal with this lump who could barely laugh and would be in agony most nights.
After a few years of this the good news was there, finally. I had a tumour. This wasn’t some strange imaginary demon, there was validation to all the questing, all the scans, the day trips to various real and alternative doctors. Okay, ‘tumour’ does sound like bad news, but at this point just knowing was pretty damn special.
I went to the Maudsley Hospital to have the surgery to remove the tumour. The fear of needles I’d developed after all this time meant I would have some extra time in the hospital to try and deal with it, or at least work out the best battle plan to get me out for the count so they could take the considerable time needed to operate. No one wanted a repeat of my attempt at flight from the injections needed for my MRI scan. Even then I thought that was probably the most idiotic hospital escape ever. It wasn’t though, it wasn’t even MY worst escape attempt from a hospital, that would happen later.
For a few months, I’m in the Maudsley in my own ward, just down from a little girl with a brain tumour misdiagnosed because apparently mothers worry all the time that their kids heads are too big. The doctor who did that? Same guy who did for me. Small world, really small world. I’ve generally been good with my own company and possibly slightly better when I’m weirding someone out. This fourteen year old listening to Tom Waits, watching The Prisoner and Sapphire & Steel, religiously reading the few X-Men graphic novels I had over and over.
They tried to drug me up enough to get the IV drip in my hand, apparently through dosing me with a lot of drugs. I would be awake to experience it, but would be too far gone to remember. That’s never been a reassuring statement. The test run was a bit of a failure as I hallucinated the doctor with the drip turning into some six-armed death goddess with needles for fingers. I freaked out a bit, then feigned passing out and was left with this attempt being branded a failure.
Once everyone left, I got up even though my limbs felt weighed down by chains like I was Marley’s ghost. I dragged my body through the hospital on a desperate escape attempt, unable to perceive the exit. I saw visions of my brother dressed as a Predator chasing one of my friends dressed as an Alien up the stairs, then they would switch positions and the Alien would chase the Predator back down. I took it as a sign and floated up the stairs to the hallway which led to the family room. I found my way in there and saw another friend, Dylan, who was pretty much a third Etheridge-Nunn brother for out childhood. There were two of him in the family room; one dressed as the Grim Reaper sat reading a book and one dressed as Arnold Judas Rimmer reading over his shoulder. Then I was caught and dragged back to my room. My first and so far only hallucinatory experience and even at fourteen it was nothing but the popular culture and my friends. If I remember correctly Dylan was actually visiting and I dread to think how I must have seemed. So that was the most pathetic escape attempt over an done with, so far my last one. While still off my face, I was gassed by what I thought was a game show presenter in a golden top, placing a rabbit mask on me. Finally, the drip was in the back of my hand.
Eventually, just the other side of Bonfire Night, came operating day. I was terrified. Before then I knew every day would be painful, I knew I was going to be away from the other kids and in pain. It was a terrible life, but you knew where you stood. The future’s uncertainty seemed like the biggest weight in the world. My mind hadn’t even gone as far as, “is it benign?” or “will I be able to walk?” at that point. My family were going through that instead.
After my incident with the drip the first time I was knocked right out and left to sleep through the eleven hour surgery. The shortest day in my life. It took a lot of time to recover. I had to learn to adapt to walking without a tumour, getting out of a wheelchair and increasing my range from a ward to a hallway, to the nearby park and its billion squirrels, to Rock Steady Eddy’s which has probably taken years from my life. Eventually I was up and moving, my right foot sticking awkwardly out for… whatever reason. After all the surgery and the ability to actually move, I wasn’t going to complain.
Woody Allen once said that the three greatest words aren’t, “I love you,” but, “it is benign” and that certainly felt true after everything I’d been through. Much like finding out that the nebulous allegedly-imaginary pain was real, finding out that I would have to only live with the lasting damage of the tumour was good enough, it was the best I could have had. Now, that big scary future was there waiting for me.
There were still issues, my back is a wreck but one which is fairly manageable. I wore a back brace which made for pretty awesome armour through my teenage years. The nerve damage in my leg hurts at times of overuse and stress, after enough time with painkillers and deciding not to go down the Greg House route it’s something I live with.
So now I’m in that big scary future.
Twenty years ago today we didn’t know whether or not I would be able to walk. Now I wander the South Downs in random directions. I got rid of my long hair which was, frankly, necessary. My hair took the message a little too far and decided to all-but vanish from my head, but hopefully I’m making that work for me.
I’m in the process of dealing with my fear of needles after having become so defencive about why I wasn’t going to get a free flu jab that I realised exactly how stupid I sounded and went to get it done right away.
Then there’s the basketball. Yep, fourteen year old me wouldn’t have thought that possible, let alone any fast movement at all. I do have a few things against me; my poor hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness, my weight and the damage which has been done. But I can do it. That’s been pretty amazing. One night a few weeks into playing basketball I was walking home and realised that it was coming up to twenty years since this was an impossibility. I promised myself that I would see if I can keep doing it until at least the anniversary of the operation. That would show my tumour, that would show my past self. If it was really hurting my back, if I was making a total idiot of myself and was definitely not able to do competitive sports then I would give it up knowing that at least I kept going until this special date.
The thing is, I’ve not looked like a total idiot. Well, I kind of do, I’m a chubby man running about a basketball court in an Innsmouth Swim Team t-shirt, but it’s the fun kind of idiocy. I’m going to continue to play basketball with my colleagues and their friends. I’m developing some skills. I’ll never be amazing, but I can actually play. The “Etheridge-Nunn Bullet” has become a thing in my group of players. I’m pretty good at getting in people’s way, something which has been a pastime of mine for three decades, and I’ve been scoring more hoops. As a man who defensively, wilfully decided against learning how to play the game before the first week I was there, I’m actually enjoying it despite myself.
Even with everything that led me here and that will continue to define my life from age eleven until someone finally puts a stake through my heart, I’m actually able to do these physical activities. Last night I played basketball on the eve of this anniversary. Tonight, after I’m done with my writing group, I’m going to a ceilidh where I will inevitably drink and make an arse out of myself, but hopefully in the best possible way. A fairly good way to celebrate twenty years, I think.