Very little shocks me in the normal course of events, but today, when I walked into my local newsagent, I was rocked to the core of my being. There, on the racks in front of me, I saw a copy of Britain’s The Sun newspaper, with a headline, in bold block capitals - JADE’S CRY: I’LL BE DEAD IN A MONTH. Alongside the headline was a photograph of former Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother contestant Jade Goody, completely bald from the effects of powerful chemotherapy, and with an expression of such extreme grief on her face, that one could only compare the image she presented with that of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting of The Scream. I can only assume that Antonella Lazzeri, who wrote the piece, and Sun editor Rebekah Wade, who presumably okay-ed it, have neither of them suffered the effects of terminal cancer during the course of their lives. I, on the other hand, have. Jade Goody [now Mrs Tweed] is, I understand, the mother of two sons. She has terminal cervical cancer which has moved to her liver, bowel and groin. She is 27 years old. I was 38 years old when I received my terminal diagnosis, in 1992, in Toulouse, France, after two years of pretty much unimaginable misery - and I, too, was the father of a young son. Jade Goody will have gone through a similar traumatic period, much truncated - her cancer was confirmed only in August 2008, after two previous scares back in 2004 and 2006 - but equally traumatising.
Without having experienced the utter certainty of imminent death, it is hard for anyone to comprehend the enormity of the situation one is forced, unwillingly, to inhabit. I was lucky enough, following my one month terminal diagnosis, to respond, almost miraculously, to the extreme treatment [surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy] that my French doctors, with little else left in their pharmacological armoury, threw at me. I gather that, in Mrs Tweed’s case, such a miracle is unlikely to happen, and that she has just now entered a palliative care hospice, on a two day trial basis, in order to spare her sons the agony of watching their mother go through the process of dying. It is easy to be clever after the event, and to revel in moral outrage. But in this case such moral outrage is, I believe, justified. Confucius wrote that ‘To be trustworthy in word is close to being moral in that it enables one’s words to be repeated. To be respectful is close to being observant of the rites in that it enables one to stay clear of disgrace and insult.’ In the next few weeks, Mrs Tweed must come to terms with the terrible reality which has been thrust upon her. To do that she will need all her strength. Dying is an intensely lonely experience. In my case, I was fortunate enough not to be a celebrity - in other words no one, apart from my closest family, interested themselves in my going. I was thus able to call upon natural reserves I never knew I had - reserves that had not been depleted by the forced externalisation of emotion caused by obsessive media interest - in order the better to make my soul. It is, quite frankly, irrelevant, whether or not Mrs Tweed called any or all of this publicity down upon herself - she deserves, just as any person in extremis deserves, our protection. Human beings sometimes behave inappropriately, even self-destructively, and allowance should be made both for Mrs Tweed’s age and for her condition - it is impossible to think clearly and rationally when suffering invasive treatment and under an imminent sentence of death.
I was lucky enough to be allowed to go home for one last weekend before my final return to the Institut Claudius Regaud in Toulouse. Unable to walk without a stick, and having lost forty percent of my normal body weight, I was hardly in a position to go walkabout. However something drove me to start down, before dawn, to my favourite meadow below the woods that surrounded my house. I knew that I would never be able to get myself back up the hill again, but I left a note for my still sleeping future wife as to my whereabouts, and departed on what I suspected might be my final adventure. When I reached the lower field, the mist was just rising from the damp grass, and the dawn was breaking. I limped through the knee-high grass, breathing in, for what I felt would be the very last time, the precious scent of meadow sweet. It was at this moment that I felt a presence behind me. For some reason I continued walking, unwilling, or unable, to turn around. Slowly, the presence at my side began to overwhelm me, and I felt a sense of the most unutterably perfect friendship. At that exact moment, stumbling through the sunlit meadow in my dressing gown, my collar turned up against the early morning chill, all fear deserted me, and I realised that I was not alone, and that the presence beside me was that of God. I suddenly knew without knowing that this presence was perfect, and total, and that whatever happened to me, whatever subsequently came to pass, would be all right. I offered myself completely to God at that moment, inexpressibly grateful for the comfort of His presence. I did not need to turn to see Him - He was everywhere, He was everything.
That experience changed my life. On my return to hospital, I slowly recovered from my illness, to the astonishment of my doctors, my family, and myself. I realise now how lucky I was to have been allowed the space and the peace to find these things out about myself - to explore my relationship with God, and to understand that only by total abrogation of the Self - that only by complete submission - is salvation possible. I was quite happy to die by the end. I almost welcomed it. Mrs Tweed must be allowed the same courtesy. I refuse to criticise the people who are benefiting from Mrs Tweed’s agony. People do things. It is their nature. But I would like everyone to stop for a moment, and imagine themselves, if they can, in Mrs Tweed’s place. To wonder what is appropriate behaviour towards a person who deserves our support. Confucius again [using D. C. Lau's translation, as before]: ‘It is only the most intelligent and the most stupid who are not susceptible to change.’