Warning: this post is not for the squeamish. I’m sure it could be a lot worse, but if you’re anything like me, if you let yourself visualise what I’m about to tell you, your legs might go a bit wobbly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (The subject is toes, by the way.)
A few years ago my wife had to have an operation on a toe (it had become permanently bent, a condition which I believe is called something like “hammer toe” – I’m afraid I’m not too good on the technical side of these things). The operation was fine, but when she had to have the stitches taken out, she said it was indescribably painful – worse than giving birth, in fact, so she tells me. We blokes can only imagine. I think I’m right in saying that a lot of nerve endings are found in the feet and toes, and that is why it hurt so much.
Well, here’s the thing. My father Jim is 93. This week he had to have an operation on his big toe (the important one, I guess.) When he went into hospital they said they would decide on the day whether it would be a general or a local anaesthetic, depending on how much of it they needed to remove. Gulp.
In the event they went for a local, as he was only going to need to have one inch of it taken off. Double gulp.
That was two days ago. He went into hospital at noon, and was home in time for tea. I visited him today (we his offspring have been doing visitor relay all weekend). It’s the hottest weekend of the year, and I turn up to find him sitting in the garden in his Panama hat with my sister Jackie, waiting for his roast chicken lunch to materialise. Full of beans, looking more sprightly than I have seen him for months, and of course bragging about how pleased he was that it was over.
He then goes on to give me the full detail of the procedure (which I will of course spare you, dear reader.) They had put a blue sheet up his end of the operating table so that he didn’t need to see what was going on, but he decided to remove it so he could get in on the action. He thought the whole thing was marvellous and is amazed that where before he was in constant discomfort from a toe that was partly dead, he now has “NO PAIN”. Just to prove it, he stamped his newly operated on foot on the floor a couple of times to show me. If he feels any discomfort he has been told to take a headache tablet.
“Stone the crows!”, as he would say. Where does this resilience come from? Last year he lost his beloved wife of 56 years, and has been living alone at home ever since. Mum was much younger than him, and in effect was his carer. When she had her first stroke the roles were tragically reversed, and after she died he found himself thrown into an upside down world of hospital visits, decisions about care pathways and eventually re-establishing his support mechanisms. He is determined to keep out care homes at all costs, and has soldiered on through the grieving process and into a new way of life. In his words, another page in the book has turned, and he has to look to the future.
My theory is that this strength is learnt, not inbuilt. Jim was a prisoner of war in the Far East for 3 years during World War 2, and I think that is where he learnt it. He came close to death himself, not least from various ailments such as dysentery, jungle ulcers, dengue fever, beriberi, double pneumonia and malaria, all of them stemming originally from malnutrition. His weight went down to less than 100lbs, and I’ve seen the photo of him which looks more like a skeleton than a human. He says he was one of the lucky ones: he was treated well in hospital, and was imprisoned in what he describes as “a holiday camp” compared with some of the other camps.
He didn’t receive any communication from outside for over 2 years. When they were allowed mail, it was a maximum of 25 words. Here’s an example which he received 5 months after it was sent to him:
“DEAR JIM. ALTHOUGH YOU ARE ALWAYS IN OUR THOUGHTS, THINKING ESPECIALLY OF YOU TODAY ON YOUR 24TH BIRTHDAY. LOVE, GREETINGS AND SAFE RETURN. MOTHER. DAD.”
We call him “Lucky Jim”, but we know it’s not luck. It’s something else which we are missing these days, I think. In our world of Risk Assessments before putting on the school Christmas Panto, weather forecasts which tell us to watch out for high pollen counts or slippery pavements, the Welfare State and all the other molly coddling which too many take as a right, we’ve lost that strength of spirit which says you make your own opportunities, and life is what you make of it.
In his own quiet way Jim has inspired his three offspring (and maybe one or two more who might be reading this), by demonstrating such a positive attitude. There aren’t many of his generation left, and we’ll be the poorer for it when they’ve all gone.