Brisbane man Chip Hedges opens up to us about his health battle in The Cancer Diaries, the first in a six-part series published by QNews Magazine reflecting on a life well-lived in the face of cancer.
Five o’clock. My clock is Steady Eddie. No tick-tock. I leave that to the intravenous pump I’m tied to. Ward 4M, Room 19. That’s me. Here because the arse fell out of my neutrophils, the white blood cells that do battle with all and sundry infections. I woke to have a pee. Then I reach for my bed console, a bunch of buttons that works my room. That is if you know how to use them. I haven’t figured out how to turn on the light without calling a nurse at five in the morning. It’s embarrassing how often it’s happened. But I’m a nice guy so the nurses always laugh. This time it’s Mannie, Man for short. He’s a young, short active guy who makes friends very easily. He needed to come in anyway and take my temperature, blood pressure, and empty my bottle.
The problem with chemotherapy is the dull headache that never leaves, though it’s not as bad as a migraine. The pain can be distracted; that’s how I survive. At 5:30 the sky shows signs that the sun is nudging the horizon from below. It’s tempting to go back to sleep, but something keeps giving me a small nudge. A grey sky peeks behind the venetian blinds. Grey turns to blue up above and a pale pink at the skyline. On the left an orange glow behind the city skyline becomes gorgeously strong. I wonder if the sun ever decides to take a holiday to slide back down from where it came from? But no, that orange is intense now. Then bang! A brilliant orange sliver peeks from behind the tall government offices. In no time it’s too bright to look at. Then the whole city is bathed in yellow. A sunny day has arrived.
I walk down the corridor to the lounge, overlooking the river, towing my intravenous pump tick-tocking away. I make myself a cappuccino and sit down to watch the river. I notice four fours: four racing shells, each with four rowers. Every rower has one oar: two lay on one side of the shell and two on the other, alternating. The boats are long because longer boats travel faster, supported by narrow semicircular hulls; they’re unstable and take a lot of skill to stop from tipping over. The skins are thin with riggers that stick out from the side of the hull to accommodate the oars that give the rowers plenty of leverage. Their seats slide on rollers, so they can use their strong legs to push long, powerful strokes. They’re a gorgeous sight to see, slicing fast through the water.
Sixteen rowers on the water at six in the morning! They too start at five. How do they do it? What happens if one sleeps in? It doesn’t happen. These boys are keen. I couldn’t tell from way up in the hospital, but they might have been students from my old school of Brisbane State High; their rowing sheds are close by. Some minutes later the long eight glides past, with its eight rowers and the small cox at the rear to steer it. An easy job? He also must get up at five in the morning. But why so early? The water is still, and the rowers still have work or school later that morning.
Sitting there on my own I want to be with them. I had wanted to be a rower when I was at State High. I was not sporty. I couldn’t play ball sports. I was tall and skinny, ideally suited to be a rower. The other rowers were prefects and top students. Rowing seemed to attract the elite students. That’s why they were there at five o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t row though because all these sports were played on Saturday morning. As a faithful Seventh Day Adventist, I went to church on Saturday, the Holy Sabbath day, the day on which God himself rested after his Creation. Adventists didn’t play sport on Saturday. I never said anything. That was the price of being a follower of the Lord Jesus. We were told that for every soul we saved we would have a star on our crown. My crown was starless. The boys at school never asked. I never said.
Church and school remained separate until one fateful Sabbath afternoon down at Mowbray Park on the river bank. The church hierarchy were about to bless the new missionary boat bound for New Guinea. About a thousand Seventh Day Adventists from all over Brisbane stood on this sloping park, heads bowed, eyes closed, listening to the prayers of blessing for this boat. “Our very gracious Heavenly Father, we do give thanks for this precious vessel that will take your message to the Fuzzy- Wuzzys in New Guinea. We pray that, as a result of this boat, many souls will be won for your Heavenly Kingdom…” But I was in agony. At this very moment a Head of the River rowing regatta came slicing by, a battle of the eights from all the other Brisbane private schools. Our boys were battling it out for glory. The yelling and screaming of thousands of onlookers drowned out our minister with his tiny PA system. I stood there, head bowed, eyes closed. Well, nearly. I tried to sneak a quick peak. It didn’t change anything. No-one was victorious that day.
Five years later I was working in Port Moresby for the Public Works Department in my university vacation. I spent heaps of time down at the water; it was a good way to keep cool. I had friends with a boat. I loved lying on the prow as we sped along and would hold my hat out to catch flying fish trying to escape our wake. No such luck! But it was fun trying. Yet on my return to the harbour I spied our missionary boat, moored at a small jetty. I didn’t notice any stars on its crown. I introduced myself to the missionary and asked him about the boat.
It had been designed for the shallow water of the rivers around the New Guinea coast line. But the propeller was too close to the hull; when the blade turned it created a pressure wave that thumped against it. Any reasonable speed caused juddering which immediately slowed the boat; a leisurely sail across flat water became torment. I suggested he encase the propeller to stop the pressure waves. But I was an engineering student talking to a missionary who was versed in the ways of the Lord. He gave me a vacant look. Was that boat ever fixed? I have no idea. And what had happened to all the money and offerings raised for the Fuzzy-Wuzzys in New Guinea? Let’s not go there.
Back on my hospital lounge I’m lulled by my intravenous pump tick-tocking away, watching those rowing boats down on the river, and the ferries that have joined them. I’m thinking of my younger self standing at Mowbray Park, trying to keep wet eyes closed through those prayers. I want to walk up to him and gently put my arms around him. We both cry a little. The grief of never being a rower. And the shame of living as an outsider.
Read the next part of Chip’s story in issue #460 of QNews Magazine, out on Friday, August 3.
(Photo by Jodie Hutchinson)