Time is precious when you have an inoperable brain tumour, simply because you might not have a whole great lump of it left to play with.
But it’s not the ‘limited amount left’ kind of time that has been bothering me of late. It is the barely noticeable small thefts that have added up to a comprehensive time robbery right under my nose.
The trips to the doctors, the waiting rooms, the scans and prescriptions. Each a short simple exercise, but each bringing with it a series of little time wasters: childcare, travel, logistics, re-arrangements, decisions. It may be a 20-minute appointment, but there goes another half day. Telephone calls to insurers, letters written to schools, appointments chased up. A legal document to be finalised, forms to be signed, money to be moved around.
The unwelcome time-consuming admin of an unwelcome time-limiting disease.
The worst thief of all is that which steals the time you need to simply absorb and understand what has happened. The time it takes to deal with the challenge mentally and spiritually. The time needed to talk, to consider, to chew over, to think. Because this isn’t the kind of time that can be chiselled into convenient chunks and snatched back in 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there.
Over the last four months, the time given freely by friends and family (and even those I don’t know well) has moved me in its generosity.
It has been the simplest gifts, like offering to spend time with our children, so we have the time we need to make phone calls or write those letters. Time to get to the doctors without negotiating a series of logistical hurdles.
It is time given by those who have come to our home, invited us to theirs, or joined us for short holidays or days out, that comes with the assurance: we’re just here because we want to be. You don’t need to entertain us, or to think of things to do. You don’t have to play host, or feel obliged to talk. We just want to be with you, to hang out, to go for a walk, to cook a meal together, to play a game. To sit in your living room while you disappear for a while to sleep, or rest, or cry.
The giving of time has been all the more moving when it must have brought frustration or even hurt to give: to be around children, to be reminded of cancer, to be confronted with fear the same might happen to you.
For the last three days, my wife and I have been able to spend time on a short walking break in the Peak District, for the first time without our two young children. It wasn’t for romance or to rekindle our relationship, or to take pleasure in being away from our little ones. It was simply so that we could talk.
Anyone who has young children will know that their care, entertainment, feeding, cleaning, playing and pleasing is a full-time, exhausting and exasperating job.
This week we were able to talk to each other without having to break off to take one to the toilet, to help another put on their shoes, to answer a question about what pigs eat, or to decide how long until we can have an ice cream.
We were, for the first time since I was told I had a brain tumour, able to achieve that parental nirvana that is the simple joy of being able to start, execute and complete a conversation. The pleasure of being able to propose an idea, throw it around, disagree, break off to enjoy the scenery, revisit, try an alternative for size, conclude, decide.
Knowing this time was what we needed most, our children’s grandparents and their aunt gave their time freely and generously to care for them.
A gift of time made all the more meaningful because it wasn’t just a gift of minutes, hours and days, but the sacrificing of their own interests: their peace, their hobbies, their sleep, their TV choices, their quiet uncomplicated mealtimes.
In exchange they expected nothing. In return we brought them our heartfelt thanks and a tea towel revealing the ‘secret’ recipe for Bakewell Pudding.
From time to time, every one of us will find family, friends and others in distress or crisis. And each one of us will wonder what we can most effectively do to help.
I’m moved and humbled recently to have learned that time, freely offered without obligations or expectations, is one of the most generous and precious things we have to give.