John Ebdon reflects on journey’s end

‘Well,’ said my consultant surgeon, a caring man at the top of his particular discipline but one singularly devoid of a sense of humour (although I once persuaded his lips to part in the shadow of a smile), ‘the position is this. The tumour is in your jaw. However,’ he continued, ‘to remove it would involve radical surgery, a long period of anaesthesia through which’, he added, ‘taking into consideration your age we think it unlikely that you would survive.’ He paused. ‘This’, he continued, ‘leaves us with one possible alternative: namely, a course of chemotherapy, but in view of the high risk of infection we would not be happy to pursue that particular avenue. So,’ he concluded, ‘all we can do is to monitor you monthly and to ensure that the pain is kept at bay.’ He took off his glasses, replaced them in his breast pocket and looked benignly at me. ‘See you in four weeks time,’ he said. We rose, gravely shook hands and together with my wife I left the clinic and walked to the car beginning to digest the news en route. ‘Ah well,’ I said as I squeezed her hand, ‘in the words of the old negro spiritual it seems that I ain’t got long to stay here’, and I switched on the ignition.

At the end of the ensuing month, which for the most part was pain free thanks to the expertise of the palliative care specialist, I revisited the clinic for a progress report. It was as I had expected. The cancer had grown leaving me aware that my life’s expectancy should be measured in months rather than years. ‘So be it,’ I said to myself. ‘Amen.’

This was not the first time that I’d been the recipient of unwelcome news and made aware that the God-given gift of life should not be taken for granted. During the last unpleasantness between ourselves and the Third Reich I was denied my sight for seventeen and a half days. For part of this time I indulged in an orgy of self-pity and like Christ at Calvary cried out to God and asked why he had forsaken me. Never, I thought, would I see again the glory of a sunrise and sunset when the skies are shot with green and gold, or see ripened corn bending under the wind at harvest time, or look upon the face of a beautiful woman; and in my veil of darkness I wept.

Thanks to good nursing and the prayers of many (and despite what cynics may say I am a great believer in the efficacy of prayer), my eyesight was restored and I was thrust again into the maelstrom of aerial warfare; but my short period of blindness taught me a salutary lesson. During it I learned to differentiate between pity and compassion in a person’s voice and, praise be, I was made aware of the true values of life; and when the red mist cleared and the shadows gave way to sharpened images, like St John the Divine I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I began to see and not just look at the world around me. I saw the iridescence in a preening starling’s wing, the coruscations of dewdrops bejewelling a spider’s web, the delicate traceries of frost on a window pane and I looked at the night sky with fresh eyes and a new perception.

That episode in my life happened sixty years ago but this latest prognosis has had a certain déjà vu about it. Once again my nose has been rubbed into the facts of life and death and once again I have been reminded of my own mortality. Now I drink even more deeply from the cup of life, not rueing that it may soon be taken from my lips but rejoicing that it was offered to me in the first place by my Creator. I have seen the coming of springtime when the clean, green unused colours of that season broke the sleeping earth with the flowering of the daffodils turning their golden trumpets towards the equinoctial before giving way to the first blooming of the roses. I have taken in the sweet smell of newly mown grass and the scents of the Mexican mock orange and the honeysuckle and daily give thanks to God for allowing me to witness these miracles of birth and above all for giving me the inestimable love of Mary, my wife, who has comforted, cosseted, cajoled and nursed me through these times of trial and that of my family. In short, I am the most fortunate of men and I never cease to count my blessings.

The veteran actor AE Matthews, who, when he was in his nineties, was asked how he spent his day, was reported as saying: ‘Well, I wake up, have my breakfast, read the newspapers and, if I’m not in the obituary column, I get up.’ I go farther than that. Whilst eschewing breakfast either in or out of bed, from sunrise to its setting I extract to the full whatever the day has to offer, be it the pattern of rain on my conservatory roof or the heat of the sun through its panes; and on the hedonic scene I obey the dictat of Churchill and swill my claret and sip my burgundy and, ignoring the warnings on my pipe tobacco which assume that I am a fertile hermaphrodite and that smoking can harm my unborn child, I puff contentedly on my Calabash encouraging its bowl to change from burnt sienna to rich mahogany.

Now with autumn on my far horizon I look forward to the bronze and golds which that season brings before the oaks dying leaves flutter to the ground carpeting the earth with russet. And who knows? Deo volante I may even see the emergence of the bulbs we have planted in the glade. But that is God’s will and not mine…

Admittedly I have some regrets. It now seems unlikely that I shall equal my highest cricket score of 86 and that I shall be heading for the pavilion five runs short of my target but I shall have enjoyed a good innings; and although I have done my best to put my house in order there is still much to be resolved. As David Livingstone once observed, ‘So much to do, so little time in which to do it.’

Vale. Whilst the act of dying itself leaves me with some misgivings, death itself holds no fears for me. When all is said and done, I shall merely move into another room in the Lord’s mansion. In any case, as Peter Pan mused, ‘To die will be a very big adventure.’

John Ebdon DFC, author, broadcaster and former Director of the London Planetarium, is a house communicant and member of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath.