How many hours until the end of 2014? I am counting the minutes. Sorry 2014, I hate you. I can’t see the back of you and yes. It is personal.
The wrong foot
To be fair some things were being carried over from the previous year, like my father’s health, but 2014 started on the wrong foot. Almost literally.
I think it was the first day of 2014 when I felt a slight bump in my leg that was painful to touch. I remember it because it was at a party that is given every year by a good friend of ours. Initially I thought it was a bite and thought nothing of it. But then in my foot became painful and swollen. It looked like cellulitis which I had on that foot before. So I went to the doctor which prescribed some antibiotics. The foot improved a bit but not much. Another round of antibiotics and another slight improvement. The doctor then thought that there may be another reason for it and she suspected a blood clot somewhere. So off to an ultrasound that day, just in case it was deep vein thrombosis, but fortunately the clot was not in a deep vein but what’s termed ‘Superficial thrombophlebitis’. I thought nothing of it. Until I did a ‘fatal’ mistake. I googled it. I saw the possible causes. Some trauma to the leg, sitting too long but then the clincher ‘cancer of the pancreas’. That immediately raised my anxiety, but considering I felt fine I thought that may be unlikely. In the meantime the doctor prescribed me some anti-coagulants. These were not to be taken by a cheerful pill with my tea. These were a course of pre packaged injections that I had to inject myself by pinching my stomach flab and putting the needle in there to inject the content. Some days it went well. Some days it went horribly wrong which meant that my tummy, ugly in the best of days, looked like it had been rolled by a cultipacker.
So my second ultrasound and to the doctor. The clot was still there. So she suggested I go and see a hematologist. She rings him. I hear her. I hear ‘Mmmm..CT scan of the abdomen’ my heart start racing. CT scan. Abdomen’ it means one thing. Possibility of cancer of the pancreas. What Google said it was true. I feel faint. I breathe heavily. I feel dizzy. The doctor ends the call. She sees me and she obviously sees my distress and she takes me to a quiet area to lie down. She tries to be reassuring and says to me that there could be a variety of reasons why I have that blood clot. But all I can think is ‘cancer’. I feel like I am trapped. I can’t breathe and I can’t escape. What was a normal life before has changed. All I can see is misery in front of me. The doctor orders some blood tests and she says let’s look at those and let’s see. She asks me to come back on the day after the next to discuss results. I can’t remember those two days but they are a blur of anxiety. I ask my partner to come with me to the doctor and take notes. My partner has had some fairly major health issues in the past, done stacks of tests thinks I am ridiculous. In the waiting room it’s hell. My partner orders me to go outside for a while. I come in, the doctor calls us. She says “from the results of your blood test they are normal and they show there’s nothing majorly wrong with you’. When you get that news you don’t feel relief straight away. You feel some sort of numbness. Perhaps the stress chemicals in the brain are still there. My partner as a somewhat an annoyed ‘I told you so’ look on her face’. Knowing me she writes everything of what the doctor says on the notepad so if any doubts start springing in my anxious mind I can read them again. But while the doctor is not concerned about my physical health, she is about my mental health. She believes I have a form of generalised anxiety disorder and she suggest a Medicare rebate for me to see a psychologist under Mental Health Treatment Plan. My partner nods approvingly.
My travails do not end there because the hematologist orders some ‘coagulation’ blood tests. And I did read on Google that an indication of possible pancreas cancer is change of coagulation in the blood. My brain is so predisposed to anxiety that despite my GP having told me that ‘there is nothing majorly wrong with me’. I fall back into the same pattern of anxiety as before. Same anxious waiting for results, same anxious waiting rooms. Finally in the end of February the hematologist calls me and tells me ‘I have good news you coagulation indicators are all normal’ he prescribes over the counter low dosage aspirin. It’s over.
My job. The rug is pulled the rug out from under my feet.
Despite what was happening in my life. My hypochondria, deaths in the family, problems at home. There was a place where I found a stable place and that was my job. I love my job and I found my employer to be a fairly benign one, considering others that I’ve worked for.
I see now Easter as the only island of peace in 2014. My health issues seemed resolved and I spent a great time relaxing at Kirra Beach near the Gold Coast. Then back to work. I have heard that there were restructures going on at Melbourne University. But in January/February we were reassured by our bosses that the library would not be touched by what was termed as the ‘Business Improvement Plan’ (BIP). The library had gone through a redundancy process just two years previously, and the reason for the BIP was because the administrative units of the University increased their staff numbers substantially, more than predicted, while the library actually reduced staff in the same period.
Then, after Easter we were all called to a ‘town hall meeting’ this was for all professional staff (that is not the academics) in a huge lecture theatre. As I was going I thought that it was just an update on the BIP. The Vice Chancellor talked about the need to concentrate on research and teaching and learning and avoid duplication. He mentioned that about 500+ jobs had to go. But I sort of knew that. It was that bloated administrative sector right? I came back to my desk. Saw an email from my boss convening a meeting for next Friday about the BIP and thought nothing more of it.
We came to the meeting and my boss had a dour face. She handed out a discussion document about the BIP. She immediately said ‘it’s bad’. You know when you read something and for an instant when the brain communicates the information on the page to your conscious and it goes blurry for a microsecond, maybe because your brain releases anxiety chemicals that must make dilate your pupils.
The library was not going to be quarantined by the BIP process. On the contrary, it was going to be hit hard. Not only that my team was going to be hit particularly hard. The shock amongst the staff was palpable. Knowing of redundancies is bad enough, but to be told we were safe and then suddenly we are not magnified the stress. I’ve been through redundancies processes before and they are never pretty. What happens is that the mood and atmosphere of a workplace changes radically immediately. From what was one of the most cheerful and happy workplaces it became dark and dispiriting. We were told the news on a Friday and I remember the following Monday was the first time since I’ve been working at the University that I didn’t look forward coming to work. From a place where people happily discussed their work and life it became one where people looked at organizational charts to see where their job was. A place where rumor started to whiz around. When facing redundancy any thought of the future stops. Any discussion of possible project has to be preceded by the statement ‘If I will be here next year’. But for me it was more. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but work at the Library is something I love and has been a steadying influence in my life. Whatever happened at home, or anywhere else I found that work provided a steady part of my life and now that was gone.
So it was six months of this uncertainty. It started in May and by late October we had our ‘new’ position descriptions. Then there was a frenzy of preparing a CV (a very different one from those I was used to. It had to be 2 pages at most). Then getting ready for the interview. Meanwhile my rational brain was going ‘it is inevitable. Organisations go through restructures. This is not based on performance’. But then (especially when the selection process and we were right in the middle of what Sarah Ferguson aptly described ‘the shark pools’ – as the same process happened for the ABC) when we were selected and pitted against our colleagues it became a merit thing. And I was angry. Angry that this was the third time I had to apply for the job. That I had done well and I was at risk to be turfed out. That all the effort to finally get a job I liked, try to do the best in it was going to be all for nothing.
This process was a take all or nothing. Apart for my first job at the University, every time I applied for something I knew that if I was unsuccessful I had a position. But not this time. If I was made redundant I would not only lost a job I loved, but I would be out. And 53 I feared I would not get another one. Let alone a job I really liked.
Finally on the 2nd of December almost after seven months of feeling unsettled and anxious I got the call that I was being offered a position. Basically same level and pay. Perhaps more work. But I will take it. To say I was relieved was an understatement. But right on queue another event was brewing. Something that was inevitable and predicted but sad nevertheless.
My father had been sick for some time. In fact he was not well for most of 2013. Nothing specific. He was old. In January he was bedridden and the GP came to visit him at home. ‘He’ll last a couple of months’ we were told. But my father had other ideas. He plugged on and about May went to hospital and a young gastroenterologist noticed his salt levels were low. New medicines and my father got a new lease of life. He was not jumping around, but at least was able to be aware and converse. At one stage he was even able to walk around the floor of his apartment with his stroller.
But his deterioration was evident. He eventually stopped walking. He started to sleep all the time again. He ate less and less of the food my mother was lovingly preparing for him. He was extremely thin, but he was still at home for his 89th birthday in November.
My mother, despite feeling depressed as seeing her partner of more than 60 years fading away, was determined to keep him at home as long as possible. But eventually the amount of care my father needed and his condition dictated that he had to go to hospital. This was just a few days after I knew I got my job.
The hospital stay was brief. The doctors realised that my father now needed palliative care for his last few days and was moved to the Caritas Christi Hospice. There I talked to him even if he barely responded knowing that the dying can hear. I talked to him of the usual things we talked about, soccer mainly. AC Milan won 2-0 against Napoli.
On Thursday the 18th of December I went to visit him after work. He was just sleeping. But as I left I said “buonanotte papá!’ and his eyes opened and he answered in a muffled way the best he could ‘buonanotte!’
Good night. That was his farewell as the next day at lunchtime, as I was getting to a work Christmas function my mother called me to tell me that it would be better for me to come. My father was in what medical science calls Cheyne–Stokes respiration, a type of breathing that occurs just before death. It came to me how breathing signifies birth and death. As the baby takes his first breath in pain so the breath of the dying is hard work. As my mother, my sister and my niece talked his breathing steadied. The nurse told us that people near death can hold on if they hear loved ones around, it may be a few hours. So my mother tells my sister and I to go home and come back later. I go home, make some toast while I watch the news. My phone rings. My mother tells me that my father passed away.
I didn’t feel devastatingly sad. But a huge person in my life, someone that has been with me always was gone. I was grateful that he lived a long life and loved by all. Something he didn’t have in his childhood.
It was the 19th of December. The Friday before Christmas. I didn’t like the summer Christmas anyway but this year I hated it passionately. As I passed all the office parties I felt a sense of alienation and exhaustion.
Please let me breathe next year
It is sort of appropriate that the death of my father came practically at the end of the year. A horrible year. A year punctuated by anxiety, anger and sadness. All I ask for the next one is nothing special. Just tranquility, I’d love boredom. I talked about life and breath before. That’s what I need. I need to catch my breath. I need to breathe again.