What Mattered Then

What Mattered Then; What Matters Now.

What mattered then was that the Great Barrier Reef was threatened with imminent extinction and I had not seen it yet. Headlines have often predicted the death of the coral reef. Even back in the early 1990’s its demise was forecast due to Crown of Thorns starfish. Just like a cancer caused by environmental toxins, these grow from the size of a particle of sand to that of a dinner plate, gradually extruding around the coral and absorbing its nutrients. Today global warning experts predict that the higher sea temperatures due to El Nino are causing bleaching and eventual death of the coral. But there is always hope, and due to the marvels of science, reef management, habitat protection and even restoration technology, the life of the reef could be saved. The restoration technology introduces low voltage electrical current, steel structures as growing frames and a white carbonate called aragonite which then accelerates formation of coral structures in a high pH environment with increased growth rates. A chemo or radiation styled therapy for the sea.

I was a typical empty nester. The baby boomer with successful married children who I had spent most of my life nurturing but now it was time to look at my own aspirations, fulfil some of my own long shelved dreams and stop taking the burnt chop. I was strong fit and healthy just entering what was now called middle age in an era where 50 was the ‘new 40’. Our move to Canada announced a new direction, exploring different options and having adventures.  I even got the opportunity to head out over the ice north of Prudhoe Bay in the Bering Sea, well into the polar region.  Soon after this a friend in Sydney, having heard about my trip, suggested I may like to go ‘bi-polar’ and gave me the chance to go with her to the Antarctic, setting off from Argentina around Cape Horn and on down to the peninsular with a group of scientists.

At this time I also decided to look within as well as beyond and I went back to university. I finished a degree in the Arts, got a TESOL diploma and started on a postgraduate certificate in Applied Linguistics. I went back to work, this time teaching English to foreign students and without any distractions from family responsibilities I was able to manage career and study to the best of my ability. My normal day was to spend an interesting time at the school with wonderful colleagues, then home by about 4.30 walk the Labrador in the park, followed up with a couple of hours of uninterrupted research and writing, prepare a lovely dinner for my husband … it was too good to be true. Together one night we even planned a bare boat charter holiday to the Whitsundays for the coming September. Only five months away.

In one of those strokes of luck that you wonder who sent you, an envelope came in the mail from the National Government Survey on Bowel Cancer. It was for all those whose 55th birthday fell in February. A free test kit; never say no to a free lunch. A week after I had done this test, I collected the mail as I left home and headed to school. I opened the letter at my desk that morning. It said I should make an immediate appointment with my GP but before I got the chance to dial she was on the line with another copy of the same letter in her hand and she had me booked in for that afternoon. I was unnerved by such attention, that sort of organizing of other people is what I do, not what’s done to me. The upshot was a rush of events and drama dealing with a life threatening cancer, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I wanted everything done yesterday, the thought of a crown of thorns growing inside me made me feel sicker than ever as I waited for some action.

I felt like I was playing a miscast role in some awful soap opera and soon it would all be called off as a mistake

“Sorry, we meant to give this to someone else”

I looked for ways to cope and arranged a couple of extra weeks to be added to my scheduled school holidays at Easter, I emailed my university supervisor and asked if I could respond early to the online discussion for the blackboard learning planner of my course. I wanted desperately to think that at least I could control these two areas of my life and cordon them off from the chaos of my alter ego. That way some of my identity would survive.

The operation left me weaker than I had ever felt, I had to ask people for help, lean on my family and I really thought for the first time in my life that this time I might die, not on a glacier in Patagonia or circumnavigating a continent but just simply lying there on the sofa watching day time TV in my own home. This was when I thought of the goals I wanted to re-set for my life. I could analyse them in a new light. Months before I had planned the graduation ceremony for our final year international students. I spoke to the doctor who said I might just be well enough three weeks out from the surgery to do the presentation of prizes and the opening speech if my recovery went exceptionally well. The goal was a tool to turn the process of recovery into a journey rather than a constant state of being.

“Welcome and congratulations. Today is part of a parcel of events which marks the completion of one stage of life and the beginning of another adventure as you begin tertiary study in a few weeks’ time. The preparation you have been given is going to affect you and those you come into contact with during your future careers for the rest of your lives. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago and I would like to tell you a short anecdote which even as it occurred made me think of today. I was unexpectedly rushed to hospital for major surgery and I was nervous as I lay in the operating theatre waiting for the procedure to start. A young nurse smiled down at me, held my hand and reassured me with some comforting phrases, even a gentle joke. She then explained she was in charge of my intensive care and anaesthetic … could she ask me some routine questions to check my identity? … I confirmed my name and address at which point she said what a coincidence I used to live in a home-stay there while I was a student at the international language college … then I told her about my job … she was so delighted to hear news of her old school and the staff … she recounted her studies there, before my time as head, and then her later follow up education at university where she had studied nursing. Our conversation had certainly relaxed and diverted me from worrying about the seriousness of my situation but our reminiscences were cut short by the entry of her team of doctors and my lasting impression of her is as a completely professional member of a specialist group responding quickly and efficiently to their highly technical requests.”

My work with every student would now play out against the backdrop of that story. What mattered now was that I had been threatened with extinction, according to medical experts. But the marvels of medical science have ways to manage protect and even restore my body to complete health. I found a book called “100 Magic Miles” which says it is a guide to the Whitsundays. It has chapters dedicated to navigating a course, finding a safe anchorage, managing your crew, avoiding hazards, coping with unexpected bad weather, visiting the outer reefs, managing the environment and provisioning your craft. This is out to be more than a map, more a metaphor for life than a chart to bring us north along a vibrant blue passage, winding between some one hundred islands in the heart of a tropical paradise.

I was half way through the chemotherapy when September arrived. Our bare boat charter was planned for the month with the most perfect weather but the doctor said the timing was off. When I told him I was going even if it killed me he just handed me the contact details for the North Queensland Rescue Helicopter Medical Service. He had come to know me by that time.

Two years later it was easy to travel Africa and sail around another cape. Four years after that it was exciting to climb up the rocky cliff to enter the most southern lighthouse in Tasmania.


About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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