Don't Look Down

Project #365

Chapter 5. About holding tight, whilst letting go


The light and warmth from the fire, pushed back on the tantrum of the world outside. Flames dancing inside every glass and bottle behind the bar, double-exposing the atmosphere just enough to soften the edges of his reality.  “Do you not think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself?” suggested the barman. “Seems like you just got a bit unlucky, and look…..”

 “Don’t say it…I know” he cut in “there are people far worse of than me, right? That never had the things I had? That are going through far worse?”. His voiced laced with a rising tone of indignation.

 “That’s not what I was going to say, old friend”; trying to keep the storm to the outside of his pub; “ but since you brought it up, how hard done by do you really feel?”

 The fire lit up the right side of his face with terrifying timing, as he lowered his eye-lids against the question. But the deeper he went in to the enquiry, the more he appeared to resign himself to the solemnity of the truth.

 “I’m, I’m sorry. Truth is I don’t feel hard done by. I never really have. Despite everything that’s happened, I’ve rarely worn the ‘Poor Me’ t-shirt.” He blinked repeatedly and turned his gaze towards the fire. “Whatever anger and resentment there is, it’s self-addressed. Of course it is. So much could have been avoided. With so little effort. My poor girls, jesus!”

 The barman leaned against his bar, and sighed deeply. His eye-brows falling to their sides, under the weight of the compassion that had begun to take hold. And for a moment they hung silently gently together in the soothing glow of the pub fire.

 “Anyway”; he said eventually, clearing his throat against the reluctant silence “what was it that you ‘were’ going to say?”

 “Keep going’ replied the barman; “I don’t think it matters anymore”


“Hi ya, I’m home early. Bubba?”

(Bubba; the pet name Emma gave me the day we met. To this day, I’m still unsure as to why.)

“I’m in lounge" I replied, barely audible and with a tone laced with fear.

“What’s wrong?” 

She walked in to see me ashen faced, laying in the fetal position on the sofa.

“I don’t know, it started about an hour ago. Funny sensation in my spine. Feeling as if I’m about to pass out at any moment. Something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong. I dunno...”

“Ok, Bubba we’re taking you to the doctor, enough is enough. Look at the state of you, you’re white!”. Her tone was more frustration than concern. I didn't blame her.

Something was definitely wrong, and quickly devolving from bad to worse. The chest cough had been smouldering away for a few days now, but hadn’t reached a point where I felt medical intervention was necessary. Strong painkillers and anti-inflammatories were keeping the pain in my back manageable, but something new had joined the fray.

It had started about an hour earlier, about 8.30 am. I’d just begun my day, working in the study when I became conscious of an awkward sensation in my spine. Not a defined pain as such. More a potential. Like the first time you put your tongue over a tooth that’s just DHL’d you a cavity. There’s no pain, just potential. But you know bad times are in the post.

It was a strange lingering sensation. Slowly spreading it’s way up my spine and eventually rippling out, throughout my upper back. The ripples weren't as strong as the pressure on the spine but had enough of a presence to create an extremely uncomfortable and anxious situation.

"What was happening now? Shit…”

As the pressure dug in, my body seemed to drop a few degrees in temperature. Hands, fingers and lips started to tingle slightly, and very soon I began to feel the warning signs of a whitey coming on. I’m no expert (who is?) but from experience, my passing out manoeuvre did seem to follow a consistent pattern. Starting with a tingling sensation in the tip of my nose, followed by a gradual disconnection with gravity and any ability whatsoever to hold on to the world. I was fortunate to have recognised the signs. With some deep breathing and intense concentration, I managed to remain conscious and alert enough to avoid it. Somehow knowing, that to feint right at that point would have been very, very bad. This felt serious, and I needed to stay upright.

Too strung out to concentrate on work, and coughing with increasing regularity, I clumsily made my way into the kitchen and downed several glasses of cold water. This seemed to help lift the disorientation slightly, and hand me back some clarity. Taking further water supplies with me, I flapped into the adjacent living room and adopted the fetal position on the couch. Beginning the fruitless task of trying to figure out what could possibly be happening;

“Have I eaten something? What did I drink last night? Have I taken too many pain-killers for my back? (I was on a lot) Have I ever felt like this before? Has whatever’s causing the pain in my back finally cracked and started to spread? How could it? Is it linked to my cough? What was it? Why am I feeling feint?  What is feeling feint anyway and what could possibly be happening to make me feel so scared and uncomfortable? Is my spine ok? Shit, I could have finally damaged my spinal chord? Shit. ”

The last thought anchored hard, and seemed most feasible. The awkward sensation and discomfort spreading with unstoppable menace like an oil-spill through my body.

“It’s a nerves thing. Shit I’ve damaged my spine. Should I move? Shit. Shit Shit…”

Imagination: 1. Bullet-proof optimist: 0. To make matters worse, this wanton dive into the worse case scenario had raised my stress levels considerably. Just prior to nearly feinting again, and covered now in beads of cold sweat, I bookmarked the occasion with a simple head-note: “this is the worst I have ever felt in my entire life. I need help”.

It was unusually perfect outside for so early in October. I don’t know why I remember the day so vividly. Maybe it was my heightened sense of awareness. Or perhaps I was exercising our strange human trait of imprinting in minute detail all the unremarkable details that surround a sudden disaster, or moment of personal trauma. The clear blue sky that framed the car crash. That smile he gave you as he set out on the morning he disappeared. Or the hopelessly tragic, untouched lemon cake in the kitchen that was baked the afternoon before the night she passed away.

For the record though, it was a stunning morning. Dubai shared them every now and then, usually between December and March. This one was an early gift. The skies were crystal clear, and the temperature had dropped several degrees enough to allow us to keep the air con off. The sliding doors that separated the living room from the garden were slightly open, letting in a gentle breeze that danced around our cavernous living room. Gently playing with the curtains, flirting with loose papers on the coffee table, and occasionally stroking my forehead, as if aware of what I was going through. The Parakeets, Indian Rollers and their recalcitrant cousins (I often wandered about the ornithological value of our garden) were in full voice in the trees and bushes that lined our garden walls. Collectively the whole scene was extraordinarily peaceful and serene. Cruelly so, given the stark contrast of my inner-climate. But then this wasn’t first time the weather would provide such an ironic back-drop to parts of this story. And it wouldn’t be the last.  Always during the most difficult and traumatic times. Or perhaps that’s just when I needed to notice it.

I was grateful for the serenity on this occasion. Together with frequent gulps of cold water, deep breathing and putting my calming voice of reason on loop, I managed to assuage my inner-panic enough to keep me conscious and alert. But having dialled up the possibility that it might be spine related, I was terrified to move. Naturally I was extremely relieved to hear Emma come in.

An hour later we pulled up outside a Family Clinic Centre in Dubai’s low-rise, and reasonably charming Jumeirah District. Emma had managed to get an emergency appointment and it was only a few minutes drive from our Villa. Approaching the start of lunch-time, the area was packed with traffic, and parking was simply non existent so she dropped me as close as she could to the building. We agreed she’d do a drive by pick up when I was done. This all seemed sensible at the time, but as soon as I climbed out of the Jeep and into what had now returned to a typical 35 plus sweltering October midday sun, I quickly fell to pieces. Watching Emma drive off, I found a small piece of shaded wall to lean against as I fought to hold on to some sort of honest connection with world around me, and summon the energy for the 50 meter walk up to the Clinic.

As 50 meter walk goes, this once was was a long and treacherous. The Clinic was on the 1st floor above a small village mall. A well-appointed warren packed with over-priced boutiques, cafes, and the ubiquitous jewellery and sun-glasses stores. Several years ago I used to work in the building next door, so it was a very familiar place. Not that that offered any comfort. Such was my disorientation I failed to see the lift option up to the clinic. Feebly climbing instead, what felt like way too many stairs.

Finally reaching the air-conditioned safety of the clinic, I edged through its sliding doors with an audible sigh of relief. Despite my aversion to Doctors surgeries, I was very grateful to be there. Thankfully I had visited this particular Clinic a few years back on a routine check up gig. They still had my details on file, so I managed to swerve the obligatory paper work. I wouldn’t have been able to write my name let alone the 3 pages of personal details they threatened to ask me for. The only taxing thing I had to execute was to confirm that I didn’t have any Insurance, and that I understood that this was going cost me way more than it should. I spilled my credit card onto the counter before falling back into one of the waiting room chairs to await the sound of my name. I honestly couldn’t tell you if anybody else was in the their with me. I was only conscious of the tip of my nose and the weight of my head. Everything and everyone else was energy.

It was a poignant moment. I didn’t know it then but this first Doctors visit would come to represent the beginning of a very intense 14-month relationship with allopathic health care. A relationship that would take me to the fringe of life and back again, force me to confront my deepest phobias and childhood fears of needles, drips, blood and pain, and ultimately rewrite my bullet-proof script in its entirety.

Had I known, I’d have made more of an effort.

Yet even crumpled up in the corner of that waiting room; shivering, panicking and generally feeling like a terrific plane crash, I still carried a belief that whatever this was, it could be treated quickly and we’d all be back to normal. Soon. I’d accepted that the immediate health prognosis might be bad, but what I’d missed, and what my intuition had missed, was just how bad and how long the journey was going to be.

Strangely, or not if the minds ability to heal is properly understood, I started to feel notably better as my wait for the Doctor grew longer. The uncomfortable sensation was still there, but I’d clawed back some lucidity and started to enjoy a greater sense of gravity again. Probably just as well if I was to get my money’s worth from this visit. There’s not much a Physician can do for a monosyllabic patient.

“Christian Burne?” the name seemed foreign to me as it boomed around the waiting room. Neither was I sure if she was asking me a question or not. Saying nothing, I made eye contact, nodded, and got up slowly to follow the nurse into the Doctors office. Nerves and white coat anxiety increasing with every step.

I’m not sure where my fear of Doctors, or to put it more accurately, fear of potential butchery by Doctors, stems from. I was stitched a couple of times as a kid, and had to go through vaccinations along with everyone else, but aside from that there was nothing dark enough in my past to warrant such an irrational foreboding. Maybe it was the lack of experience and treatment since those early skirmishes that left me with such an vivid, imaginative relationship with it all. Or perhaps I was just a natural born coward. Regardless, there I was, finally in front of Doctor. Perched on a cheap stool like a nervous 4 year old. Spontaneously aware of everything in his room that might hurt, lest he reach for it. Suddenly feeling much, much better. Where was the minds healing a few hours ago?

We discussed the symptoms I was feeling, including as much of the history on the lower back pain as I could cram in, before he carried out what seemed to be a thorough examination. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for but whatever it was he didn’t appear to find it. Neither the spine pressure, the cough nor the back pain seemed to trouble him.  Despite my reiterating with as much dramatic creativity as possible, how painful and enervating it all was. In fact the entire visit was a massive anticlimax. The fact that I had started to feel better prior to seeing him probably didn’t help. Nevertheless, 500 Dirhams (about 80 pounds) to be told I wasn’t to worry, take some Paracetamol and to spend the remainder of the day resting, seemed like a bum deal. Just how titanically enormous that bum was, would only become apparent in a few weeks time.

Cue another hindsight ‘Fuck’. The wheels of fate had already been put in motion so far as the long-term was concerned, but had that GP advanced me for some cursory blood tests or x-rays on that occasion, there’s a strong possibility that the nightmare of the next few weeks could have been avoided. Duly catalogued with those previous misread X-rays, that would be the second time in as many weeks that professional health care had let me down. Thankfully however, I neither trusted this particular GP, nor was I ready to accept his deliberation of ‘all clear’. Such a wanton fall on the thin ice of faith, that so many place in their professional health care providers, would have been terminal. No no, it was on now. I held tight to my optimism, but was now willing to let go a little on the arrogant notion that I could do this on my own.

The absence of any clear diagnosis or recommended treatment was as frustrating to Emma as it was to me. Driving back to the Villa you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. I’m not sure what we were hoping for but to have finally visited a Doctor after all this time, and leave empty handed was very disappointing. The continued insufficiency of explanation was beginning to weigh heavy on our relationship. The lower back pain continued to keep me from being the Husband and Father my girls needed, and outside of Ava and her welfare, our conversations were now dominated by the cruel apparitions of If’s, But’s and Maybe’s. We had all the questions but none of the answers. Infinite assumptions, but zero certainty. As my world got increasingly painful and sedentary, Emma’s got increasingly pressurised and hectic, and the cracks were beginning to show.


“About a Great Many Things” is a story about my, and my families journey through the howling vortex of discovering, fighting and living with cancer. About the many things, the great many things, that such a journey demands of us as human beings. The mistakes we make, the courage we find and the love and light we wield, to push back against the darkness of this most unforgiving and unpredictable of foes.

These are just a preview chapters as the whole story and Book is finished, and I warmly invite your comments and feedback.