How a brain tumour did what Facebook couldn’t.
22 years ago I left Australia for London. It wasn’t a life plan; I don’t have those. I did it simply because I’d tripped over a tall, serene, blonde man in Broome, one of those men who’d spent a lot of time travelling to places where children with deep chocolate eyes smile and there’s always a bit of crazy going on. He is one of only two men with whom I’ve been able to spend a whole day, without wanting to escape. My friend Bob is the other. He and the blonde share the same birthdate, November 23. It gets scarier. In all sorts of ways.
Bob and I met in 1979 and immediately sparked. It was an instinctive and at times intense, friendship, one that took place in the houses, pubs and streets of Carlton, Collingwood and Fitzroy in inner Melbourne. If these were formative years for me, they were even more so for Bob, the boy from Western Australia. His curiosity was unstoppable. He trawled charity shops, from where he created his stylish uniform of crisply-starched shirts and bow ties. He bought Bakelite, fifties kitchen implements and far too many paintings of turbaned men on camels. His urban life began to take shape. Even so he still disappeared to the West’s wheatfields during the summer holidays, to earn his keep, returning with a slight tan and a healthy swag of stories about his pals in the bush.
Until late September, I hadn’t seen or spoken to Bob in over twenty-seven years. I never forgot him. His name often came up in conversation, and he must’ve claimed pole position in my subconscious because I have a soft toy I picked up long ago in New York who already had a name, until I immediately changed it to Bob. ‘Bob’ is also my reply when people ask me my name at parties. I figure they don’t need my real name and it sorts out the curious people from those who fill you with ennui. Why had we lost touch? Why does anybody lose touch when they leave town? We both find Facebook hard work. And we fall into that category of people who get on with it.
Until the Sliding Doors moment. This trip to Melbourne was not on the cards, but rather the consequence of a contract job in a foreign country that was not there when I arrived, leaving me with a bag of summer clothes and very little time to figure out where to go. My sister heard Bob on ABC radio talking about his terminal brain tumour because my niece was taking too long to turn up, so she switched on the car radio. She tells me later that she wasn’t going to mention it. She reckons she debated for 30 seconds. “Might have been too much for you right now,” she said. And then she changed her mind. The rest is not history. It’s now.
We’ve picked up the thread without any false notes. We’re running like it was 1979, except there’s a clock ticking somewhere. This wobbly, slow Bob is the only Bob I know though, so it’s ok. Occasionally I find him looking strangely startled and disoriented, like he’s been swatted by a passing All Black. But he’s still Bob. And apparently I’m still me. We plan, conspire and riff off each other as writers do. I take the piss out of him because he’s become a famous kids’ screenwriter and now he’s ‘Robert.’ I always knew I would write and Bob was delighted for me when I found the route into copywriting. He says my writing made him want to write. I’m embarrassed but I’ve told him he can keep saying it if it makes him happy.
“ You wrote two of the best things on kids’ TV.”
“You fucking wrote one of the cleverest TV commercials of the clever 1980s.”
“And now I ghostwrite for others. Nobody knows me but everyone knows you.”
“Yep. I’m the man.” He smiles. A big, luminous Bob grin.
I’m proud of him. Stupidly so. At times like this it’s hard to equate him with a Stage 4 diagnosis. When it hits me, as it invariably does, I experience acute surges of emotion not unlike those described to me by a mate when he first gave up heroin. It’s messy. Even so we have no problem discussing the hard stuff, the death talk. We seem to know when to shift. With it comes a constant flow of black humour because, let’s face it, what else do you expect from a Lebanese and a Jew? When we reunited he immediately told me he’d taken up smoking again. “That way I can die of lung cancer which is much easier to explain and people will say I deserved it ‘cos I smoked.”
Last week he introduced me to the delights of the hospital’s Oncology suite. “See how they’ve painted the railings in blue and pink. “They only do that cause you’re gonna die.”
In the waiting room, I silently telegraph my disappointment with our fellow passengers then hiss in his ear, “Bob, you’re in with a dull crowd here. Do you really want to die with people you wouldn’t want to know in real life?”
He texts me back. “They look like interesting folk.”
The oncologist is a man who wears a look of well, constant defeat, really. Hardly surprising when your job is about making really bad things, sound a bit less bad. “We’ll discuss some options next time,” he says as he waves us off. I am bemused.
“You mean you have options,” I ask Bob. “Why did you choose the worst one then?”
“So I could milk it,” he replies.
This merry go round we’re on lurches unexpectedly. Bob can wake up completely spent and then bounce through the afternoon. He’ll have two horrible days of wondering whether his Acquired Brain Injury (as he likes to call it) is accelerating, then suddenly revert back. Occasionally he rages against his overwhelming fatigue. He has things to do. Mates to see. Harmonica to play. Kids to make memories for. Sometimes I look at him staring into the distance and I crumble. But I recover. Not because I’ve decided to be strong for him: I’m not particularly strong. I’m just me. As he points out, there’s no right way to do this. He hates the prevailing cancer narrative, the one that tells you to make friends with your cancer and embrace it so you can be that better person. “It’s not a fucking journey. It’s a fucking way of dying. End of.” He’s a wise man and a generous one. I don’t think we lost all those years, Bob and I: we just got on with it, exactly as we’re doing now. I suspect this is when I am meant to be here.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to do good on my part. There was no decision. As a mate of mine in London says, real friends don’t ask if you need anything: they just do it. As I write this, Bob has found out the Thing has grown back. I looked for that section in the ‘When folks are dying’ manual and there were no clues. So I’m doing my best to help him squeeze the guts out of the quality days he has left. Just getting on with it.