A Long, Long Way to Fall

“I realised…that I was very critical of myself.  Something flashed up on my facebook from a year ago… I looked at [myself] in this picture and I burst out crying and I would give anything to be that girl [again].”

It takes a lot to to bring me to tears. Throughout the process of scans, biopsies, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, I haven’t cried once. But upon hearing this from Lauren Mahon, I spontaneously and openly wept.  The sole surviving host of the BBC’s You, Me and the Big C podcast was referring to her appearance but, in that instant, I considered the current and former state of my entire life.

Around 9 months ago, following a particularly successful series of school concerts, I reflected that it was possible I was at the peak of my powers as a music teacher.  Sure – I might become more experienced, but maybe not more energetic, enthusiastic or able to succeed in what I now realise is my absolute ideal dream job.  I quickly snapped out of it with some of my customary negative reframing: I made so many mistakes and could have done so so much better – oh well, lots to learn for next year!

But others thought things were going pretty well. Shortly before my official cancer diagnosis, I was treated to dinner – and not just any dinner.  This dinner was in a very expensive and exclusive Mayfair private dining room.  Clearly, this isn’t my usual kind of hangout, but the event was put on by a charity, which I’d somehow persuaded to give us £10k towards a Rock School and South Asian music programme.  This, as I was willing to tell anyone who’d listen (ok – mainly to avoid having to engage in small talk!) was in addition to our 50 strong symphony orchestra, five choirs and senior wind/string ensembles that enriched a curriculum including four kinds of whole class instrumental teaching, dedicated SEND programme, almost constant singing, four nativities, a proper musical and – I’m not sure how many annual concerts – but six of them happen within a five day period.  I’ve probably forgotten some major achievements in there – perhaps some colleagues will add to the list. ‘Not too bad – we’ll get there some day,’ I though.  Sorry – did you say you’re at a primary school?!’ Was said by more than one successful secondary head of department with a kind of shocked-impressed expression.

Then, around the time I was told my cancers are, in fact, systemic and ultimately incurable, it turned out that even more knowledgable people agreed and my (ok – very well supported) one man music operation was (the only primary school) nominated for a national music education award for ‘Outstanding Music Department’.  The glowing citation from a well respected professor of music education is something I’m going to save reading again for when things get properly tough.  That and the letters from current and former students.  There’s a proper awards ceremony and everything – hopefully the chemo cycle will be kind to me and I’ll be able to attend.  I’m an orchestral musician – I’ve already got a dinner jacket and everything!

It’s with objective certainty that I can say we’re providing some extremely deprived children with better all round musical opportunities than they’d have at many a private school.  More privileged children have money. These 800 or so children – they have me.  Except…right now, they don’t…and here come the tears again.  It doesn’t help that today is my first day of long term sick leave and an already overstretched and underpaid workforce received an email detailing how they will now be filling in for me.

It’s no surprise that I’m welling up.  Two things really get to me – letting people down and being incapable of what I think I should be able to do.  It’s the worst feeling to be useless and I’ve put in a great deal of effort over the years to avoid it. The problem is – I’m going to have to get used to this.  Sure – I’m in less pain than yesterday, but today’s crowning achievements have been feeding myself and running a bath. I might just about get round to hanging the washing out but it’s still sitting in a machine that’s angrily beeping at me. This is my life now and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine myself capable of more than mere survival, even if it’s more likely than not that better days are coming, and coming soon enough.

I’m sure numerous people will advise me (some have already) to take each day as it comes, manage expectations, and not be so hard on myself.  These all help sometimes, but, right now, when I look back on my former self, I just cant help reflecting on my newfound ineptitude.  The man who could literally run all day and then some. Put in 12+ hour work days, broken up by a couple of running commutes.  Be there for people. Achieve something, anything!  He’s long gone.

I wish I could tell even 36 year old Nathaniel to take stock of the amazing life he had.  To be proud of what he’s achieved and, just for a second, be satisfied with it. Because that was it.  He’d arrived.  He made it. He had a successful life.  He could have smiled when people praised his abilities and achievements, rather than try to shift attention elsewhere.  He could have basked in the glories and shrugged off the disappointments knowing that, either way, he’d done his best. He could even have taken a bit of time off from the relentless ambition to enjoy some nice food and have fun.  Because chemo has made me crave junk food and it isn’t so great when you’re always nauseous.  Neither is anything I used to enjoy when I can barely stand up.

But enough wallowing – my life’s not over.  I can still hope that I’ve got time left to do something more with my life.  Maybe not as significant as I’d hoped, but at least something.  That’s hopefully going to include the day of this awards ceremony, when (long before my diagnosis – it wasn’t out of pity) I’ve been asked to speak to up to 180 music teachers about classroom improvisation.  Perhaps, even if just once more, I’ll feel like I know what I’m talking about.  However it goes, I’m going to smile, take pride and be satisfied that I’ve done all I can.  Then I’m going to have a lovely dinner and try not to get any of it on my best jacket – hopefully some day I’ll need it for another concert!