Have you noticed that when we are ill advice seems to come in from all directions? Echinacea, someone will tell you, wonderful stuff, invaluable to the immune system. Vitamin C has been known to prevent cancer and goodness knows how many possibly fatal diseases. Carrots too are beneficial and have healing powers. Yoga, Chinese herbal medicine, Shiatsu, Chi Kung all help prolong life. Oh, and staying “positive”. No that ain’t easy when all you are positive about at the time is that you feel ill. Another saying is that laughter is the best medicine. But what is there to laugh at when that big, black cloud descends to obscure the vision of a life you once accepted as normal? Maybe I shouldn’t scoff at all these well-meant offers of help, though I must admit that the man who assured me that a couple of juicy steaks would put me right came close to causing me an apoplectic fit.
What has brought me to laughter (and tears too) whilst being in this wraith-like, depressed and anxious condition is the reaction of those around me (my family and comrades come into a different category). People are mind-bafflingly, singularly wonderful and if, as they tell us, laughter is the best tonic then by now I should have undergone a miraculous cure.
If the way some people raise their voices for my benefit is anything to go by my malady could be seen as having rendered me deaf. True my speech is severely effected but my mind and mental processes are much the same as they ever were. I could plainly hear, for instance, the hoarse whisper uttered in my presence, “I don’t want to tire her”. I was not consulted. This remark was directed at my spouse as though he had metamorphosed into a stern nurse who would stand no nonsense from visitors. And from another visitor, “She’s looking a bit brighter today”. I was not, as you might believe, sitting up in bed, pale and languid, supported by numerous pillows, but lounging on the sofa smoking a fag and enjoying a cup of tea. Next to me on the sofa was a book and this month’s copy of the Socialist Standard. I don’t take five-mile walks anymore but neither have I retired from the world. One remark was addressed to me by a very loquacious friend, “Don’t tire yourself, dear”. I thought “Why should I tire ‘myself’ when she can do that for me in five minutes flat?” At lunchtime the talkative friend returned with a tureen of soup and a bowl of strawberries, leaving me wracked with guilt at the irritable inclinations I had felt towards her. And what of the neighbour who appeared at my front door with her car keys? “Keep these and use my car whenever you need it,” she said.
You would say that all this is meant very kindly and you would be right. But when ill I have discovered that one becomes a slightly inferior being and in their eagerness to help other people can reduce one to the level of someone who has lost a few of their marbles. At the hospital a young nurse alarmed at my weight-loss cautioned me to eat more vegetables, potatoes and pasta. I wouldn’t know that would I?—I have only been feeding a family for about forty-eight years. A retort sprang to my lips but I knew that with my silly voice I could say nothing with the required dignity.
Some of those people who are being kind and helpful to me during my illness are not among the politically aware. My guess is that whichever political party promised them the most would get their vote. Karl Marx said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Yet despite capitalism’s erosion and distortion of the basic social instincts in human beings, the fundamental desire to provide practical aid and compassion when it is sorely needed is still there. The system will never succeed altogether in eradicating the understanding we all share of being human and needing one another. Some of my friends and neighbours have agreed with my premise that money can corrupt and change people for the worst. Ultimately we learn from each other and when the lessons are good we can develop our consciousness and gain knowledge and wisdom from that experience. Certainly if my illness is teaching me anything at all it is that most people have the potential for change—for the better.