She packed my bag for 5 days, but we were apart for 631 days. Here's why.
'What have you been up to lately, Stu?' is a question often casually and innocently asked as people re-emerge blinking in the sunlight after the disruptions Covid rained upon us. I don't have a simple answer to that question and I've never written about this before because, frankly, it hurt too much. So, to fill in the blanks, it goes something like this ...
It was the 13th March, 2020. Friday 13th -- I should've taken it as an omen. My 'wife' Mam dropped me at Chiang Mai airport because I was flying to Sydney for five days. 'Ok, babe, see you next weekend.'
Just three days after I arrived in Sydney, Australia slammed its borders shut due to Covid. I called clients in India and Singapore to explain I didn't think I could run their workshops the following week because of this temporary minor hiccup, but let me see what I can do. It soon became clear I could do nothing. I was powerless. And that felt odd, because now I was trapped.
I couldn't get back home to Thailand where my wife, two labradors, guitar, books, friends were. Hell, it had been home for 11 years. But I was not a citizen there.
I spoke with my oncologist -- the reason I was in Sydney in the first place: ongoing immunotherapy treatment for Stage 4 Melanoma. (Don't Google it, the statistics will only depress you.) Prof Alex suggested staying put in Sydney because I only had three more monthly rounds of treatment to complete the course. 'I can't stay in Australia for 3 months,' I moaned down the line to Mam. But as usual her calm reasoning prevailed.
Quickly my business model had to pivot. I'd been doing 200 nights a year on the road (or more accurately in the air) around Asia Pacific for the past decade. Airport-workshop-hotel-airport-workshop-hotel-airport-workshop-hotel. The new plague made face-to-face training the devil's workshop. So most of my existing workshops switched to Zoom.
Pivoting became the new buzzword. I was pivoting. Clients were pivoting. Everybody and everything was pivoting. So I decided to write a book on it: Pivot Power.
And my pivot took me in an extreme direction. With no distractions and no travel time eating up my day, I published six books in the next 18 months. Full disclosure: I cheated a bit because many of them were already half-written or existing material which only needed curation and compilation. Still, between blogs and books, I published 500,000 words published that year alone.
In lockdown, the only thing I did apart from writing and running the odd virtual workshop was speaking with my dear wife back home. Her bakery business had been smashed by lockdown. No parties, no cakes needed. We'd spend hours each day on multiple video calls, phone calls or texts. Pumping each other up, that this bad dream would be over soon, and I'd be jumping on a plane back to Thailand and she could nag me in person for leaving my clothes on the bedroom floor again, just like old times.
My treatment completed, I was feeling healthy and strong again, adding a daily bushwalk into my routine to clear my head. My oncologist excitedly declared I was in remission from the dreaded disease. My quarterly scans were clean. At least that was something to celebrate. Can I go home now please? No, the whole world was now under siege. And getting home seemed more remote than ever.
The hardest part was not knowing where the finish line was. I couldn't calibrate my expectations.
Valentine's Day came around. We usually didn't celebrate such a commercial occasion, but I couldn't let it pass without doing something. So I contacted our favourite French restaurant in Chiang Mai and requested them to cook up a special delivery of lamb shanks and a creme brûlée dessert. I cooked up the same thing at my end -- nowhere near as tasty, trust me -- and we jumped on a Zoom call to enjoy the moment together.
Soon it had been one long year since I'd jumped on that damn plane. I was so sick of planes and crowded airports at that time, I would happily never fly again. But now that it was not an option, I wanted nothing more than to fly to be back with her.
The more time passed, the more I got to thinking that -- after 25 years of living around Asia -- perhaps Australia could be, or should be, the next chapter for us when all this madness was over. But Sydney didn't appeal to me anymore. Too big and intense now. Funny, given that I've spent so much time living and working in swarming, bustling, jostling capitals such as Shanghai, Bangkok, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Jakarta. Mam had the same view. 'Yes, maybe Australia but not Sydney.'
So I started shortlisting where else. Mudgee. Orange. The Riverina. The South Coast of NSW. A friend of mine, Rod, was heading to South Australia to look after his aging mum, and asked if I could babysit his two Harley Davidson motorcycles while he was away for a few months. 'Oh, I guess so, Rod!' Soon I was off checking out those places, scoping a potential new future. One night in Orange settled it. The cool climate, the pretty vineyards, cafes, art and music, and the vivid four-season colour changes. I told Mam I'd made a decision. I would move to Orange in the meantime, and once all this Covid stuff cleared up, she would move over too. (She was unable to travel here because she was not an Australian citizen and we were only a de facto couple, not legally married although we'd done a sai mongkol ceremony in Thailand involving wrapping kilometres of string around our heads to signify our commitment to each other.)
Just as things began looking better on the Covid front in Australia, they got worse elsewhere. New strains and variants and mutations. No efficacious jabs developed nor approved yet. Remember that amazing race? The finish line was yanked beyond our grasp again. I was losing the plot. Researching and writing a magnum opus book on a wartime massacre in Singapore 1942 probably didn't help my mental state any, especially with its own themes of love, loss and uncertainty. But it was wildly satisfying forensic detective work, helping veterans and relatives of that heinous incident find closure. So it gave me a shot in the arm of a different sort. Now and again I'd have to ask Mam to go into my study at 'home' 8048km away and scan some book or find a document buried deep in my research boxes, and zap that across to me.
Breakthrough! Vaccines were approved and rolled out. And I could go to the front of the line because of my immune-compromised status. And much of the world lined up for a jab. And talk began of lifting travel restrictions. And airplanes started flying again. It was like flinging open the hatch of a submarine after months and months underwater.
I excitedly called Mam: 'Hey, it looks like borders are opening. Perhaps it's easier for me to jump on a plane to Thailand and see you, than wait for you to get permission to get into Australia.' Great idea! We could go lie on some sun-kissed beach in the south for a few weeks. Enjoy $10 massages everyday. Reconnect.
I booked my flight on the 14 December. It would be 21 months -- 631 days! -- of not seeing, touching, smelling each other. I booked a romantic hotel in Bangkok for a few nights of reunion. It was all lining up wonderfully. Suddenly we could both dream again. The clouds lifted. Birds started singing sweeter (or maybe I just imagined that bit). The sense of anticipation was raw and real. I kept thinking over and over again about that first meeting at the airport. That hug. That joyous moment. We started a countdown of days till we met again.
I double-checked my passport was still valid. What an anti-climax it would be if I got to the airport and found that I couldn't board because my passport had expired! We laughed about that, nervously. Nothing, nothing, would or could stand in the way of us, right?
A couple of weeks before I was due to fly, I had another appointment with my oncologist. All the scans had been clear for the past 15 months and I approached the PET scan as the routine precautionary exercise that it was. The only time I dwell on my cancer predicament is a few days out from these things. Because I always have that feeling of, What if I sit in his chair for the results and he says, We found something'? So I typically become a little withdrawn and moody going in, and always relieved when Prof Alex says, 'Your scans look great!' and then wonder why I'd put myself through that torturous and twisting mental rollercoaster.
But this time, as I entered his grey office, I thought I sensed something. Or maybe I just imagined it. Yeah, of course, I always overthink these things. It's nothing. 'We found something,' he declared, pointing at the psychedelic images dancing on his monitor. 'Can't really tell what, but something's lighting up in this area,' he pointed to the stomach. Shit! I'd had an operation for stomach cancer about 7 years before. 'We'd like to get an MRI done to have a clearer look at that.' He sent me immediately across the road and teed up an appointment later that same day with a surgeon attached to his institute.
'Hmmm,' said Dr Tom, eying the MRI images and zooming in to an area behind the stomach. 'You have a tumour growing there .... about the size of a golf ball' Ok, this wasn't great news. But my previous tumour was more the size of a Rubik's Cube so this little sucker was early stage and shouldn't present too much of a drama. I knew the drill. I could deal with this one easily when I was back from my Thailand holiday.
'Perhaps we could continue this conversation in February when I'm back from overseas?' I said casually. But Dr Tom wasn't listening -- he was scrolling through his crowded surgical calendar. 'I can fit you in on the 15th December,' he said.
'No, you don't understand, I'm flying overseas on the 14th,' I said, rather hopefully.
'It has to be the 15th. If you wait till February we might be having a completely different conversation,' he said. I got his drift.
'F*ck! F*ck! F*ck!' I shouted, slamming my fist on his couch to emphasise each angry syllable. 'Er, sorry, Tom.' The submarine hatch slammed shut with a clangorous reverberating din. My whole world closed in again. Storm clouds gathered in a dark roiling mass directly over my head.
'So we'll see you on the 15th,' he calmly said.
I staggered out of his office unsteadily, like Mike Tyson had given me a belting in the gob. And the gut. Not only was I not going on that much dreamed of holiday, I was now back in the battle for life again.
What's worse I'd have to break this bad news to an equally expectant Mam. Turn her life upside down again. Something this angel definitely did not deserve.
I cry easily in movies. Ever watched Marley and Me? Oh, God! But generally it takes a lot to make me cry and I don't remember ever shedding a tear through my whole cancer journey. I face it generally with levity. Humour is a great defence mechanism. But the second Mam picked up my video call, the waterworks started. I wasn't going to be seeing her in 14 days, there was no long and languorous island escape, and, well, I'm back in the boxing ring again. But I explained it was nothing much, just a little guy, a golf ball which we'd take the 1-wood club to and drive the little bastard down the fairway and hopefully into the next suburb.
'I've got to come there now,' was her response, 'to be with you for that.' We applied for an exemption for her to travel to Australia as my de facto spouse on compassionate grounds. Dr Tom's letter on his weighty letterhead would surely count for something. As would the letter from the Australian honorary consul in northern Thailand, Ron, who happened to be our neighbour. At Mam's insistence I checked my inbox a hundred times a day for that green tick of approval. Even on weekends. (I reminded her that government departments don't work weekends.) Then the following Monday her travel was approved. Yaaaay!!! It's funny that you can experience moments of such exhilaration even while the overall graph seems to be trending downward.
I visualised that meeting again. But this time it was in Sydney airport, not Bangkok airport. Just the thought of it triggered cascades of tears again. It was happening! But for all the wrong reasons. I was an emotional mess. Like my brain was in a fast-spin cycle in the washing machine. Tumbling. Rumbling. Jumbling. And I'm convinced the relentless physical, emotional and financial toll of the past year and a half had triggered the recurrence of my stomach cancer (which only happens in 5% of cases).
I arrived way too early at Sydney airport. There must've been five planes that came out ahead of her. But still I craned my neck trying to spot her. One young guy walked out of the customs area and into the arms of his girlfriend standing next to me. They embraced. I lost it. More tears. I wiped my face, feeling the redness and rawness of my eyes. Then my angel appeared, wearing her big shining signature smile. The moment had arrived.
But weirdly there were no tears. There was barely a hug. But weirdly, I just kissed the top of her head. We moved out of the way of other passengers. It was no big climactic Hollywood movie embrace. Perhaps it was emotional overload. The body and brain just couldn't process the enormity of what we'd been through. Still were going through.
Happily, we reconnected immediately: picked up where we left off. We needed to because I was going under the knife in a few short days, rendering me physically useless for a while. But I had to get my war book out which meant a lot of last-minute production fine-tuning and sign-offs. That finally launched on the 14th December. I went into hospital on the 15th.
I went in knowing that they would slit me from my navel to my sternum, excise the golf ball, and I'd be back climbing Everest and skydiving (ahem!) within 6 weeks like last time. However I woke up minus a few vital organs. What the hell does a spleen do anyway?They'd removed a veritable mixed grill from me! Just put some tomatoes on the side and fry it all up.
Anyway it was a great excuse to lie around reading for six weeks, milking as much sympathy and cups of tea from Mam as I could. (I scored well on the latter, less on the former.)
Thankfully she loves Orange. The walks around the lake. The wildlife. The quieter pace of life (population 45,000). She dusted off her resume, applied at five cafe/bakeries around town and her phone had rung with five job offers before we'd even reached home (yes, she's really the creative and talented one in our family). On her birthday I went down on bended creaking knee and proposed to her with a ring of rubies and diamonds. Thankfully she said 'Yes!' The following day her permanent residency was approved. What a buzz.
We are both clearly suffering from separation anxiety, a hangover from those 631 days of being forcibly apart. And we're rebuilding our lives. We bought a new 650cc V-Strom motorcycle for touring, we've adopted two kittens (Rocky and Rolling), and I've restocked my wardrobe having arrived here with a small bag packed for just five days. And I just signed a publishing contract for a music biography that'll come out later this year.
We often pinch ourselves. How did we get here? One day we had a great life in Asia. Cue turbulence and transformation. Now we have an amazing life on the other side of the world. One which is better in many ways because we are both able to be more intensely creatively productive and get to come home to each other every night. But while this reads more like some sort of sappy love story, it's more a story of resilience. The power within us all to deal with chop and change.
I will be on the anti-cancer medication for the rest of my life, and have to throw down a cocktail of pills every day. But my scan interval has been moved out from 3-monthly to 6-monthly. I take that as a good sign. Either that or my oncologists are just getting really sick of me.
Oh, and we're starting to research island holidays. Maybe Thailand. Maybe Fiji. Maybe Hawaii. Wherever we go, I'll just make sure that we never ever fly on Friday 13th again.
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