Six ways to spend time while dying
I am dying.
You are too.
It is a surreal experience to sit in a small room with a stranger and listen as they tell you that the cancer is aggressive and unpredictable, that it is time to think in months, not years, and that you should begin to get your affairs in order. When the consultant told me that I did not have much time left, I did what I assume most people do in the situation; I considered my life and thought of things left undone and then I tried to do them all.
I was first diagnosed with cancer in March 2006. The expectation was that I would not make it to my next birthday in July. As I am sure you can imagine, this was rather a surprise and dashed inconvenient. I had so much left to do. When I looked back on the amazing, love filled, exciting, interesting and joyful life I had led, I was unable to feel cheated or in any way rueful. In every respect, I had led the most fortunate of lives and was thankful for all that had come my way. To be dying at an earlier age than I had expected was, of course, not what I wanted, but I did not feel any fear or the rage that I know others have gone through.
I started to make a list of things to do in my final months. Ways to spend my time while dying. Most are as you would expect: spend more time with family and friends, travel, laugh, be happy, see things I had not seen, quit my job. Nothing unusual. I started to cram in all that I could and had an absolute blast doing so.
July arrived, my birthday bash was fabulous and, although in pain, I was still around. By this time, many doctors had prodded and probed, reconsidered, cut bits of me out, filled me with drugs. The usual. Carefully, step by step, my consultant extended her initial time line and started to talk about “next year” and other vague predictions.
So, it looked as though I was not going to kick the bucket quite yet. This realisation dawned on me in parallel with another: I was still dying. We all are. Why had I been putting things off?
The sharp focus that comes with being told there are only months remaining brings laser clarity to those ambitions and desires that rumble away quietly, unnoticed inside. Now awoken, I would not allow these to slip away.
One thing that played on my mind a great deal when I was diagnosed was the disparity between my life and the lives of some of the other people I had met who received similar prognoses to me. The inequality was stark. But cancer is a great leveller. For the first time, I built relationships with people from entirely different backgrounds to me. We formed a strong bond with each other; we would see each other at the hospital, at support groups, at fundraisers and some social events. These strangers who entered my life because of this thing we shared in common. People from all walks of life. As we got to know each other, I was reminded time and again how lucky I have been to have lived the life I have.
I thought carefully about the reasons my life had been so full of joy. My parents, my family, my friends. But also, my education.
I did not and do not know how much longer I have, but I decided in 2006 to do all that I could to try to promote education as widely as possible. To many, this seems an odd mission (my friends call it my moral crusade), but I have enjoyed every minute of the work I have done since making that decision. Education has the power to set human beings free, the power to transform lives, the power to save. I can think of no better use of one’s time than to promote effective education, battle against bad practices, and widen access to learning. Once upon a time, I was a teacher. My reach ended at the school gates. The very day I was told I was dying, I knew I had to pivot to helping teachers, rather than individual pupils. It is the teaching workforce that holds the answers.
Today, for whatever reasons, I am still kicking about. But I keep with me the urgency and drive I felt when told to count in months not years. I dedicate the majority of my time and money to trying to help teachers.
The deadline was finally lifted in 2011. No longer was my consultant willing to put a date on my expiry, but instead adopted the language of hope; “there is every chance you can beat this.” I like that challenge. But reminders of the precarious nature of life are frequent; the pain I am in at all times, the medication I take, the friends I made who have lost the fight; the loss of physical strength, the difficulty with some everyday tasks.
Some reminders are blatant.
In October 2016, I was bounding up the stairs at Old Street station as I did most days when travelling to our London offices. Suddenly, I lost my breath and felt a burning all over my body. I thought I was going to collapse and then, I did. I landed in a mess at the bottom of the stairs, the contents of my bag scattered around me, strangers walking on by. My energy was completely gone and the thought that entered my head was, I’m going to be late for a meeting. A discussion with my consultant later that day was inconclusive, but the reminder was there again in my mind. Uh-oh, I thought. I reviewed my life to check I had not slipped into old ways, to check I was living every moment, to check I was doing the things I want to do while dying.
In March 2017, we were hosting one of our national conferences, MathsConf9, in Bristol. The day begins with me welcoming the delegates and giving a short introduction talk. Twenty minutes before the start of the conference, I started to cough. When I looked at the handkerchief in my hand it was full of blood. An immediate foreboding came over me and I thought, I can’t die at a bloody MathsConf! I raced to the lavatories and locked myself in a cubicle. The coughing continued. More blood. Lots more blood. But slowly, the coughing passed. I went to the sink and washed my mouth out with cold water. This had never happened to me before and it weighed heavily on my mind throughout the day, but I am pleased that I was able to launch the conference with something approaching calmness and joviality. I mentioned it to nobody until I arrived home the next day.
Sitting with the consultant in the same room she had spoken to me in 2006, she now told me that there were “complications” with my oesophagus and that it was possible the cancer had returned. I was a trifle irritated by this, but again thankful for my life. After more investigation, prodding and probing, in August 2017 I spent some time in hospital having a few more bits of me cut out, which happily appears to have resolved the issue. Again another reminder: life is precious.
I find these reminders extremely useful. It is so easy to be blind to the beauty of life, so easy to lose sight of what matters.
I can’t grumble about being ill. Sure, some things are a tad inconvenient; remembering to take medication, finding it difficult to eat, being in pain, no longer being able to rock climb or play football. But these are inconsequential details against the majesty of life. These reminders hold me to account, keep me in check, ensure that I am doing the things I believe to be important.
Here are six of the ways I choose to spend my time while dying:
Be a good man
For as long I as can remember, this has been my single greatest ambition. I was raised and surrounded by good people. I have always wanted to rise to the challenge of being the same as those people. I aim to be moral, strive to do the right thing, want to help others and always put other people first. Whether it is my Christianity or the profound impact of the goodness of my parents and their parenting, something makes being good my main focus in all areas of my life, from interactions with strangers to the time I invest in my friendships, from social relationships to the way I do business. Being good, retaining a sense of goodness, envelopes it all. I struggle to understand why any other approach would be desirable. From what I can tell, being good also leads to being happy. I know many, many people in business, for example, who are driven by greed or who deploy underhand tactics. I interact with many people like this through the businesses I run and they always strike me as empty and lacking. I want to tell them that life is too short, that this is not a dress rehearsal, that it is possible to be ethical in business and still succeed, but so often they are incapable of hearing.
Be good. I promise you, it brings so much happiness.
Spend time with loved ones
My family and friends mean everything to me. Helping them to feel happy, secure and loved is of ultimate importance to me. Like most people, I guess, I have just a small number of close friends; five people I truly click with. Being in their company makes me incredibly happy. We have seen each other at our best and at our worst, we are there at the drop of a hat if needed, we make each other laugh, make each other want to be better people, and protect each other from ever feeling alone, afraid or broken. We take turns at being strong and, like all human beings, have periods when we fall down. But the power of true friendship is knowing that if one does fall, one will be surrounded by love. When I think back, for example, to the time of my last operation in August 2017 and how they flocked to my house from across the globe, interrupting their own busy lives, just to be near me or spent hours on the phone with me where circumstances made travel impossible, I am overcome with joy at having such good people in my life.
My family are good people too. In fact, as a family, it is our raison d’être. Being surrounded by goodness as a child defined me. I have never understood why any parent would choose anything other than goodness. When I was a child, friends from school would stay at our house over the summer because they did not want to be with their own parents. At weekends, when parents visit their children at school, I see fathers ignore their sons or those who criticise every word their child says. Again, these men look broken, lost, empty and desperate. I struggle to understand why they are not able to see the joy that would come if they showed their children love instead of indifference or cruelty.
Support chosen causes
As a Christian and a human being, charity is important to me. There are so many people in such great need, but there are also so many of us who are incredibly fortunate. We have a duty to play our part in easing the pain of those who have fallen. Of course it is impossible to concentrate on all things at once, so I have a number of causes that I campaign for and support financially and practically.
Education is, of course, top of my list. Amongst other work, I am a director of two education charities, which strive to make the system better and I also do as much pro bono work as I can fit in.
I support cancer research and care through very regular financial donations as well as fundraising activities and awareness raising.
Ending homelessness (and particularly rough sleeping) is another cause I try to dedicate time and resource to as often as possible.
Finally, suicide prevention has become tremendously important to me – in recent years, I lost someone extremely dear to me and now try to give financial support to, and raise awareness of, organisations that help those who are in such extreme pain and torment that they are considering taking their own life.
Those four causes are the ones I have chosen to dedicate my time, money and effort to. If those of us who are fortunate each chose just a few causes to support, I believe the impact would be substantial.
The world is enormous. There is so much going on, so many things to see, so many people to meet, lives to touch. I travel as much as I can. I want to see and feel the way people live, want to dip myself in as many cultures and traditions as possible. The one thing that strikes all travelers, I guess, is that human beings are fundamentally the same. Their lives are different in rich and varied ways, but at the core, we are all the same. Watch children playing in the streets of Delhi or Tehran, in Copenhagen or Split, in Newcastle or Moscow, in Lima or Melbourne, in Nouakchott or Beijing. They are all the same. They laugh at the same things, cry at the same things. That fundamental bond is affirming and uplifting.
Live a varied life
In the pub a few weeks ago, my chum, Tom Rees, told me he found my blog to be a bizarre mix, by which he meant he found it odd that my blog was not just about education. This comment from Tom is what led me to write this particular blog. It strikes me as odd that anyone would write a blog about just one thing. I am dedicated to education, but it is not who I am, not all that I am. It is not even the greatest part of me. When I was eleven years old, my teacher challenged me to become a scholar in the traditional sense; to be learn’d, to know everything there is to know across all possible disciplines. I am interested in education, in art, in science, in philosophy, in anthropology, in music, in sport, in… well… everything. This is why my life is varied and colourful. I have various business interests ranging from education and technology to pharmaceuticals, property and architecture. I have varied personal interests from mountaineering to theatre to writing and playing in my band. I have varied relationships from deep friendships to hilarious acquaintances, from the spiritual to casual. I know there are many people who are one-issue and there are many who have taken the blue pill. But I want to be alive to truth and all that life has to offer, I love to have real interest in a wide and diverse range of ideas, activities, disciplines and relationships. I can only imagine how bleak life would be if one was interested only in a single subject.
On reflection, this blog is perhaps a rather long response to Tom’s question, but hey, writing it has been a good way to spend the time while waiting to board a flight!
I am addicted to learning. Always have been, hopefully always will be. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, I love to learn. If I am walking to the office from the train station or driving to a meeting, I am invariably listening to a book, lecture, podcast or course. This might be a 150 episode language course or a history of architecture in Portugal or a discussion about freedom of speech or learning about some obscure inventor. I just adore learning. I am lucky to have offices and homes in Central London and Cambridge, which means evenings can always be filled by attending public lectures or debates or readings in local bars or listening to lectures on the street. I love learning an entirely new discipline and seeing the connections within it and the schema it builds, but I also love trivia – I do not accept that knowledge is only worthwhile if it has utility. I love knowledge for its own sake and enjoy the fact that my mind is filled with half-forgotten facts and disjointed pieces of information, which I can play with.
These are just six of the ways I spend my time while dying. You are dying too. Think carefully about what makes you happy, the ambitions you have, the places, people and things you wish to see. Ask yourself if you are putting any of these things off. If you are, there is no need to. Don’t leave it too late, live now.