I spent a sad train journey last week returning from my adventure with two great friends.
They were cycling the 1,000 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats in 10 days, and I’d ridden 210 miles with them. My return to civilisation brought me down to earth with a bump.
I was mourning the loss of Dave and Anna’s company, as well as our clear focus for a few days: the bike, the road, the hills and the beautiful countryside around us.
As we’d cycled the long miles together, we’d been in single file so didn’t talk much while actually on the road. It was a shame, but it offered plenty of thinking time.
For me I ended up thinking a lot about loss. A song from the musical Miss Saigon had popped into my mind early on the first day and had stayed put as I turned the pedals for the whole of the rest of the trip.
When I arrived home, I looked up the song – I Still Believe – and listening to it, cried like a baby.
It’s a duet about the loss by two women of the same man, a GI at the end of the Vietnam war. One is mourning the man she fell in love with who was suddenly taken away when Saigon fell. The other is mourning the part of her new husband she will never get to know. The part he left behind in Vietnam.
We’d studied Miss Saigon during pre-GCSE music lessons, but I’d never paid the song that much attention. Suddenly, I felt I was listening to it properly.
In the song for the first time I heard about a loss so painful and lasting that it is almost unbearable.
Later in the week, we went to watch a friend who was running her first 5k as part of Cancer Research’s Race for Life series.
Before the race began, the compere asked the thousands of women taking part how many had been touched by cancer, either themselves or a loved one. Almost everyone stuck up a hand.
Once again I was reduced to tears: such pain and widespread loss. I cried in front of a woman handing out balloons to my children, and she nodded and gave a little smile. She understood.
I sat my daughter and son down on the grass, and I asked them if they knew why all of these people were here.
I explained that there was this terrible poorliness called cancer, and that sometimes people get so poorly from it that they die.
All of these people, I said, wanted to help people with cancer. Running today might do that.
We had a little hug and we went on with our morning, cheering the runners as they passed and waving our pink balloons and flowers.
Later that day we were having a picnic in our garden. I checked in with my kids to see what they’d remembered.
“Do you know why all those people were running today?” I asked.
“Because they want to help people who are poorly,” said my daughter.
“And what kind of poorliness do they want to help with?” I asked.
“Cancer,” said my son, smiling because he knew he’d got the answer right.
We chomped for a little while longer and then my daughter said the most unexpected, almost unbearable thing to hear.
“I want to grow up soon, because when I grow up I can look after Daddy,” she said.
My wife probed gently: “Why do you need to look after Daddy?”
“Because Daddy has cancer,” she said.
Somehow, she’d connected some dots. It was all I could do to hold back more tears.
“You don’t need to grow up,” I replied. “You’re already helping me now, love. You’re already helping me.”