An afternoon with a slight breeze

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou



Sounio, September 2016 (© Foteini Vlachou)


When someone breaks tragic news to you, you can’t really imagine the casual way this may be delivered. Monday past, I was announced to, in a rather summary way, that I wouldn’t be continuing with the initially predicted fourth cycle of immunotherapy. During a course of conversations that had taken place last week, I was informed that we had early proof that immunotherapy wasn’t working, and that we would continue with the fourth cycle, with the (very) slim hope that I might be a late responder. After that, if I still didn’t respond to treatment, anything administered would be a palliative measure, since there was to be no cure anymore.

Over the weekend, symptoms worsened considerably, so apparently the decision to dismiss immunotherapy immediately and turn to chemotherapy, in an effort to put brakes on the quick progression of cancer, was reached quickly between my doctors, and then announced to me, unfortunately, by the doctor least familiar to me, in that casual way I mentioned above. Afterwards, I was supposed to have another consultation, so I was taken (I was in a wheelchair) by the nurse, and subsequently placed in direct view of the garden, until I was called in.

The garden at Champalimaud is simply marvelous, a joy to look at. It was a sunny afternoon, with a slight breeze. I could see the leafs of the various plants sway gentle with the breeze, and everything struck me with its beauty. The word ‘terminal’ had not passed anyone’s lips, and it probably didn’t need to. I was perfectly aware what was at stake. But as I was sitting there, in my wheelchair, overlooking the rich variety of plants adorning the garden, I thought to myself: “What does that word even mean?” It sounded vaguely like a train station, a final destination of a long trip, not a medical condition, much less a final one. Does one receive this news and decide that they are going to die sooner or later? How do people even react to that? How do they handle their lives afterwards? How do they even find the strength to go on?

I looked at the garden again, and suddenly it didn’t seem that difficult. You can’t decide that you are going to die, when confronted with so much beauty. It’s not as simple as that. Life does not stop, just because someone announced something with terrible import regarding your future. I thought, screw cancer. No one can predict exactly the time stamp of my death. At that point, I realized there was nothing worse than the death penalty. To know exactly at what time you shall stop being alive, stop breathing. I can’t imagine a more cruel thing done to a person. At least, I don’t know exactly. It seems like small comfort under the circumstances, but a kind of comfort it most definitely is.

There I was, faced with that garden, having all those thoughts. Later, in the car, on my way back, I had the exact same thoughts: the ride from Champalimaud back home, passes what is still to me after all these years in Lisbon, an impressive stretch, containing one of my favorite buildings: the Torre de Belém, the gem-like nautical fortress, imbued with so much history – and despite being aware of the heavy colonial past defining Portuguese history, I cannot help marvel at the temerity of those who one day got into a ship, and sailed to a place they didn’t even know it existed. I shall never get over my awe, even a somewhat romantic feeling of adventure and admiration, an almost childlike reaction, in front of that historic building.

And with such a lovely day, everyone was out, strolling by, in plain summer clothes already, simply enjoying the landscape and the weather. I didn’t now how to be anything but happy and grateful for being alive that day. I didn’t know how I could have any fear about the future on that particular day. Yes, I will die. Perhaps sooner than later, compared to most people I know. But I don’t think I can spend my remaining days, independently of how many they are, in fear, or despair, when there’s sun outside, and life, and love, and a beautiful garden you can always hope to rest your eyes upon.