If you know Bute, you’ll know the long, steep, twisting road that’s very appropriately called the Serpentine. It’s a favourite challenge with cycling enthusiasts, who test their mettle tackling the 13 hairpin bends to get to the top. Today we’re sitting in a flat halfway up this precipitous road with a spectacular view right over Rothesay Bay and beyond. From here we can see the Calmac ferry making its final turn to berth at the pier, bringing both residents and visitors to this popular island in the Firth of Clyde. With its gleaming white superstructure and red and black funnels, emblazoned with the company’s insignia, the ferry is a vivid and welcome sight – no matter how often you may have seen it before.
We’re here for a few days holiday – though rest and recuperation would be a more accurate description. My husband almost lost his life a short while ago and even though he’s recovering well, and so very grateful to be alive, it still takes time to come to terms with an event that could have changed our lives forever.
It felt like more than a coincidence when we discovered that Print Point, the island’s fine bookshop, was hosting a visit from eminent gynaecological surgeon and cancer specialist J Richard Smith. Richard’s new book – The Journey – is an account of the author’s own brush with ‘the reality of mortality’, as well as examining the physical and psychological challenges faced by recovering patients. You might think that recovery from a life-threatening illness, or accident, would leave you ready to carry on with life as before, but in fact, he told us, people often fall into one of two categories. There are those who recover and have a heightened sense of being given a second chance and endeavour to live each day to the full. But, sadly, there are others who find themselves sinking into a state of dread, so anxious are they that the illness might recur that they become unable to live life meaningfully, and become prisoners of their own fears.
Like most people, I’d heard it said that, if you fall off a horse you should get back on one again as soon as possible before you find yourself too scared to do so. But I hadn’t thought of this in connection with major illnesses and accidents.
I do now.
Unbidden and unwelcome comes the thought that if it could happen once it could happen again. And how do you deal with that?
Richard Smith’s book suggests one way. With his many years experience working with patients who are at their most vulnerable, physically as well as psychologically, The Journey (subtitled Spirituality, Pilgrimage and Chant) maps Richard’s own ‘pilgrimage’, his journeys of discovery. He writes of the road he has travelled towards physical and spiritual wellbeing; “of the challenges and wonders of pilgrim paths to ancient sites such as Jerusalem, Assisi, Iona, Patmos and Mount Athos… The Journey is a book about being whole and is for anyone on the pathway to physical healing after illness, or seeking greater spiritual fulfillment.”
Right now we feel such gratitude that we’ve been given that second chance and are learning to overcome the fears that inevitably accompany it. I hope the path we chose is the one where we continue to live life with relish and make the most of each day as it comes.
Reading Richard’s book, being back on Bute, having the support of friends; these all contribute to the ongoing process of recovery. And I’m grateful for all of them.