A letter to my daughter who has cancer

She is fifty five, unmarried, no children and has two devoted cats. We are three hours drive away from her home in London, which is too far, but she is surrounded by a wonderful network of friends, colleagues and relatives so I wrote her this letter — handwritten. How many people write handwritten letters today? But they mean so much more.

This is the text of that letter which I hope will give strength and support to others going through the hard times of life —

My dearest lovely, loving and much-loved K*****,

The Elephant in the Room

We think we know a lot about our family and friends when, in fact, there are huge gaps in that knowledge. We know you dislike fish in any form but I have no idea of your views on the situation in Libya or whether you think Putin has benefited Russia. You have known me all your life but I doubt you know much about my beliefs, faith or expectation of any form of existence after death. Yes, you know I go to church irregularly and that I say prayers. You are probably not surprised to know that I put down C.of E. as my religion when I complete a hospital form but what do I truly believe? There is a lot in Buddhism that appeals to me but I am not going to sit for the next few years under a Bohdi tree — I would get cramp within half an hour!

Forget religion. It is a fallibly man-made construct that has done as much harm as it thinks it has conferred benefit. Faith or beliefs are completely different. What is my religion? For want of a better description I describe myself as a Christian but only because I have learnt more about that form of philosophy over the years than other mind-sets like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism or Rastafarianism but that does not diminish them in my mind. If those philosophies have helped people to lead better lives then I applaud them but none of them can give a definite answer as to what happens after our body dies. The abstracts of “heaven”, “nirvana” or “happy hunting grounds” are concepts to describe the indescribable. My faith/beliefs are something very different and, I believe, that they are part of what makes every person unique. Nobody has the same belief as anyone else — similar, yes, but individually different and no enforced doctrine is going to change the inherent belief of any particular individual. A sermon, song, poem or film may provide questions or challenges to those mind-sets and may often alter them very subtly.

Sorry! I have just realised that I have gone very deep into what some people may classify as philosophy which is not the intention of this letter. But then what is the intention of this letter? Good question! I think it is an attempt to pass on my inner strength to you — if that makes sense.

We are always demanding ‘the proven facts’ but belief and faith are not provable. We have neither the vocabulary, knowledge nor imagination to begin to describe what happens after death. Many years ago, when I was sitting in the Head Boy’s place, alongside the headmaster in the school’s chapel I was often scared out of my wits by the thought that, in 60 or 70 years I would be dead, and that would be the end of me for all eternity. I would never ever be “me” again.

I have never told anyone of this fear because I knew that I would only get well-meaning platitudes as reassurance. Now that I have lived those years, I no longer fear death. The people I am going to feel really sorry for are those who are left behind and are grieving while I am at peace. I can’t say I am looking forward to it because I will miss so many people but I sincerely believe that, for want of any better words, I will connect with the essences of Sophie, Mum, Dad, Jack, Joan and Granddad Peach among so many others. Sophie will not have curly hair and a wicked grin; Grandad Peach will not be blind but Jack will still be gentle; Dad will have lost his insecurity and my friends who have committed suicide will be no longer tormented but content.

This is my strong belief — it is not a fact — but I am comforted by it.

Is there a God? I don’t know but I believe that there is a supreme power that guides our destinies for good even when the lives of young children are cruelly cut short. There is a reason it’s just that we cannot comprehend it. Do we come back as re-incarnations? Almost certainly not as some people imagine it but I do believe that death is not the end but the opportunity for another life chapter. I believe we are on this earth — and maybe on other planets in the universe — to learn a lesson or two. We are not perfect and we will return to learn further lessons but not in any form that we can begin to comprehend in this life.

I have been influenced many times in my life by quotations, especially from the lines of Kipling’s “If”, but also from the Buddhist Sutras and the Bible. It is the last that reminds me that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” There are so many things we cannot comprehend in this life which I believe will become clear when I have left this ‘chapter’.

Fear and imagination are very sharp two-edged swords. Fear helps us to avoid danger but can also be a horrible spectre that either vanishes in the light of later knowledge or can crush us if realised. Imagination has produced the world’s greatest art, literature, music and inspiration. It is also a black lion in the shadows of a dark cave with pinpoints of light glistening on its razor-like claws — and it will not go away.

“Don’t be frightened” must be one of the most inane pieces of advice anyone can give. Be afraid. You are human. Look it in the eye, spit in its face and force a laugh. Courage- which you have in spades — is looking fear in the face and telling it to “Sod off!”

Cry? Tears are healing. Yeah, well, they’re wet — but healing? Possibly. The one thing you can say about them is that there are times when they are not only necessary, they are vital, so take a deep breath and move forward into the unknown. The unknown is not only death — that’s the biggie — it is whether your nephew is going to be killed by a drunk white-van man on his way back to Oxford, whether your brother is going to win the lottery or if Brighton and Hove Albion are going to be the one team to beat Liverpool in the Premiership this season!

Regarding Friday, when you get the latest scan results, and as an aside to this “deep and meaningful” communication, I have just remembered one of Oliver Cromwell’s more memorable quotations — “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Are you going to be alive in three years’ time when the next car lease runs out? Possibly — unless you slip through another platform gap into the path of an oncoming train — so start thinking about how to celebrate your 70th birthday rather than your tax return for 2023.

This may have sounded like a mindless meander (good alliteration!) but I would like it to confer emotional strength from me to you for what is yet to come. I just hope it brings as many smiles as tears. (Tissues included!),

With my very bestest love,

Your very own,

Dad

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Adrian Arnold

Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.