I’ve got six to twelve, the older man said.
The younger man said quietly, they give me three to six.
But you never know, said the elder, my count is down. A little. I might get longer. Doctors can be wrong…If the count keeps falling, I might last longer than the twelve; I might be able to take the family to Greece next year. I’d love to go…
The younger man said I want to get to my brother’s wedding in February.
Silently we did the sums. February will be after three months.
The elder man’s oval face creased. He said to the younger: maybe you can get into a trial. I’m on a trial drug. My count is down, a bit. Are you on a trial?
No. I’m not eligible. I don’t have the mutation.
The elder urged the other to do things, to try things, not to accept predictions as solid fact: They can be wrong you know.
The young man smiled his crooked smile, stretching the wasted side into momentary symmetry. I know, he said. At first they gave me twelve months. That was five years ago.
The elder man’s eyebrows shot up. Wow, he said, that’s beating the odds. His earnest face relaxed, happier now. Are you on chemo?
I have been. On and off. It’s stopped working.
I keep hearing about people who have their brain tumours removed. Couldn’t they try that?
They did. Twice.
Twice? The elder man winced. He was trying everything, fighting the younger man’s disease.
Whenever he spoke the younger man’s voice was quiet. A physiotherapist, he was trained in disability. Now it had come to him, kept coming, unfolding in his body. His brain analysed each stumble, he processed the growing weakness down the left side, every step was improvised, his studied speech experimental, not bitter.
I stumble too, said the elder man. Last week, I was only one kilometre into the marathon when I stumbled. The ambulance men would have taken me away but Howard here wouldn’t let them. It’s just the foot, it flops.
The younger man said you can get an orthotic to keep the foot straight. They work. They’re not comfortable but you won’t stumble.
The ‘stumble’ was a crash. Down he went, his heavy body accruing momentum that his muscles could not brake. Six of the last eight months in hospital had seen powerful tissues soften and shrink, proud muscles, muscles that had carried this man 39 times the full 42.185 kilometres and across the Line. One of the Legendary Seven, last Sunday he lined up for his fortieth. He walked, he trotted, he shivered wildly, then he fell. Bent forward at my feet the man groaned loudly. He crouched, his head folded under his belly and he groaned again. Blood oozed, first from his knees, soon from the heels of his palms. Two tall young men materialised, one on either side of the fallen man. They asked questions, good paramedical questions. The athlete groaned. I said, He’ll be alright.
The ambos said, He doesn’t look too flash.
I said, I’m his doctor.
What’s his diagnosis?
Everything, I said. He’ll be right.
At the prospect of unwelcome rescue the runner hauled himself up the helping arms of his son and his doctor. His sister-in-law mopped blood. The tissue was soon soaked. He said to his son, I’m shivering. Can I have your jumper?
He started walking again. People in the crowd recognised him. He was one of the Seven. Good on you, they cried. Legend! Keep going!
The man kept going. So did his teeth, chattering violently now, drumming time with his gait. The doctor in me wondered about fever, the return of infection that had seen him in hospital again and again.
A little short of the Fitzroy Street landmark his wife intercepted him. She took his arm and guided him gently to the kerb.
The younger man and the elder had not met before, although each had heard me speak of the other, a person like him, another with a problem that doctors could not cure.
The younger man regarded the elder. This rotund man, this athlete, this grandfather who’d three times risen from his sickbed to run so far. He sat at a remove from his stricken body, his face alight in wonder.
I nudged the younger: tell him what you’ve been doing since your diagnosis. The younger man spoke a little in the voice I have come to know, the voice he always uses when speaking of his living while dying. The voice speaks softly, a grin riding above the speaking mouth, ironic knowing in the background. The elder sat and listened. He heard of the classes the younger man runs for children with disabilities: They’re the kids no-one can do anything for. I mean no-one can fix them. There’s no cure for their cerebral palsy or their intellectual deficit or their severe ADHD.
The younger man did not mention to the elder how he teaches children they can be anything, do anything. His own life is the textbook, held open to the kids.
How do they come to you? Do you advertise?
Not as such. More word of mouth. And there’s the website*.
A smile dashed across the younger man’s face: We start off each time with a group hug. It’s more a gang tackle – they race across towards me and throw themselves onto me and we hold each other. It will be fun tonight. The younger man glanced at his failing left leg: Until now my balance and strength have been fine. Tonight I’ll go down and I’ll stay down. He laughed. It was a merry laugh, no irony, just the laugh of a man looking forward to sharing with his small friends the joke that is his health. The joke that is all health that is broken or twisted or failing.
We ate, all of us suddenly hungry. The younger man’s left hand rested in his bowl of hot dhal. I looked down, wondering when he’d remove it. The hand stayed put. The brain that should have perceived and sent the message to the hand neglected its work. The brain has been invaded and the invasion continues.
I asked them both, Don’t you feel angry? (I felt angry.)
The older man said, Why would I feel angry? Look, I’ve lived, I’ve got my wife, my children, a grandchild. I have a lot, I’ve lived. I feel sorry for my mother. She rings me every day, every single day. She worries.
A moment passed while we thought our thoughts. I felt for the younger man sitting at the side of the elder and hearing of the joys of a life lived, of a man full with his generations.
The younger man said, I’m not angry about this. He pointed to his head. I just get angry when doctors won’t listen. I nodded. Some of my starchier colleagues are uncomfortable with a patient who is more than his disease, one who charts his path, who travels his world so widely and deeply as my friend.
A week earlier I asked the younger man was he frightened of dying. He said no. Later, a characteristically quirky text appeared on my screen: On the way down in the lift I worked out why I wasn’t scared. Dying isn’t scary – if you get it wrong then you stay alive.