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But in battalions

Oh, Shakespeare. You knew a thing or two about human life, didn’t you? You (and Claudius) are spot on about sorrows, single-spies and battalions.

As if it isn’t enough to be confronting bloody Ms Alzheimer’s with her fangs and wily ways, My Loved One now has skin cancer.

It’s a non-aggressive type and, as I keep telling him, this is a relatively minor blip. It’s not in the least like getting, say cancer of the bowel or lung. It’s fixable – and will be dealt with very soon – although I expect it will be pretty sore and uncomfortable after surgery and we’ve been told he’ll probably need a skin graft so it isn’t exactly something pleasant to look forward to.

One way and another he seems to be running out of luck. If this lesion (I gather that’s the technical term for the rapidly growing cherry-sized growth on the bridge of his nose) had been elsewhere on his face, the dermatology department would have been able to sort it more or less instantly. As it is he’s been referred on to Ear, Nose and Throat which means waiting a bit longer and he’s lower in spirits than I’ve seen him at any point since the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

So how can I cheer him up? I took him straight down to the surprisingly nice café at Lewisham Hospital and bought him a double espresso and big chocolate cookie after we’d seen the dermatologist. I think I’ve bought and handed out more chocolate biscuits in the last twelve months than in my entire life but of course that isn’t really the answer. It just creates other problems. He is now beginning to say that some of his trousers no longer fit.

It is, however, becoming ever more difficult to find things which give him any pleasure. For many years we’ve been frequent theatre goers because of my work. Well, for the last year or so I haven’t included him in some of the more way out “fringe” excursions because I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like them. He’s a  conventional sort of chap. Besides he no longer has the stamina for too many outings and gets very tired.

Last week we saw (and I reviewed Peter Pan at Open Air Theatre, Regents Park. Well, OAT is pretty easy to get to from our new base in south London. It’s a venue we’re both very fond of. We saw the show when it first aired in 2014 and I was pretty sure it would be good so I thought I was on to a winner with MLO. Not a bit of it.

“Good” is an understatement. Predicating Peter Pan on the fact that the lost boys would have been cannon fodder ten years later and set in a field hospital, it is theatricially astonishing and almost unbearably moving. Most of the critics writing for publications with star systems gave it 5 as I would have done. Yet, MLO sat impassive next to me and I could sense that the show wasn’t working for him.

Afterwards I said “You didn’t enjoy that did you?” to which he replied “No, not much”. Once I’d had time to digest the baldness of that and we were on the train home I pursued it. He couldn’t, however, articulate why he hadn’t liked it. And the same thing has happened on the last two or three occasions he has accompanied me to the theatre.

“You don’t seem to enjoy going to the theatre much any more. What do you REALLY like doing?” I asked, in the end.

“I don’t know. And that’s the trouble” he replied.

So where do you go from there? In fairness, classical music concerts still seem to do the trick. We heard a magnificent performance of Haydn’s The Creation at Temple Church London last week and his eyes did shine for a bit. Sort of.

He tells me, when I push, that  he’s worried about the squamous cell carcinoma (except that with his usual lack of scientific understanding he doesn’t know that what it’s called) and the outcomes. I’ve told him over and over that it will almost certainly be OK and it’s very, very common. But he doesn’t hear me.

Part of the problem, I think, is the new found bluntness of the medical profession. I’m a spade-is-a-spade person and usually all for frankness but MLO grew up in a family where people whispered behind their hands of “growths” and “losing it”.

When we got the Alzheimer’s diagnosis all he heard was the word “Alzheimer’s”. It was the same this time. The dermatologist simply checked the rest of his body, then measured and inspected the lesion before saying: “That is a skin cancer and it will have to be removed.” MLO heard one word and has been panicking ever since.

So how do I distract him since chocolate biscuits and theatre (for different reasons) no longer work? “Let’s book a holiday for late September” I said brightly. “That will be something for you to look forward to once this thing on your face has gone and you’ve got over it”.

I got a half-grin and a bit of low level enthusiasm so organising that is my current project – once I’ve sorted arrangements for Catus Domesticus, the real ruler of this household.

I have spared you, loyal reader, the photograph of the cancer on MLO’s face which I have on my phone. It isn’t pretty. Enjoy a nice shot of Shakespeare instead. It’s Robert Gower’s Shakespeare memorial in Stratford, another place – by the way – which MLO no longer has the stamina to get to for the theatre unless we stay overnight.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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