Now Or Neverland
There are words you really don’t want to hear – “You’ve still got that lump on your back.” Even more unwelcome – “I think it’s getting bigger”. These statements began my journey to a place I call “Now Or Neverland”. Unlike Peter Pan’s magical destination you can’t reach Now Or Neverland by flying "second to the right, and straight on till morning”, access can be obtained only by arriving at a singular realisation. My life is finite.
Of course we all know this intellectually but to gain entry to Now Or Neverland you have to feel this finality in the very marrow of your bones. Usually something happens. A parent dies, a child leaves home, a friend has an illness, or your wife tells you that you’re turning into Quasimodo.
“You should see someone about it,” suggests Anna, my aforementioned spouse. This seems an eminently sensible and wise course of action but instead I opt for another strategy – denial. I develop a theory that renders my lump innocuous. I’ve probably injured muscle tissue by pressing down too strongly on the portable wooden massager I roll my back over every night. Let’s see what happens if I stop using it for a while.
Weeks pass. Lump unchanged. Maybe it’s not the massager. My mind is now occupied with another possibility - a cancerous growth spreading through my body like a mutant alien life form intent on causing my untimely departure from the planet.
The borders of Now Or Neverland are often crossed in the dead of night, and always alone. At 3 am one morning I decide to do something. Something a little strange.
I sit down and compile a list of all the people I have known reasonably well who are now dead. I think I do this in an attempt to bring home the reality of mortality and thus motivate myself to have my lump examined. I’m expecting to compile about a dozen names. Soon I have 47. I’m lucky. At this time the list does not include any close friends or immediate family. But I know one day it will. And I know one day I will be on someone else’s list.
This thought propels me onto my feet. I strip off my T-shirt and stand with my back to a full-length mirror. Twisting my head over my right shoulder I strain to reach the lump with the fingertips of my left hand. During this attempt I meet my own eyes in the reflection. And that’s when I get it. My life is finite. Of course the lump is a tumour. Undoubtedly malignant, untreatable, and one of many buried within my corporeal frame. The gates of Now Or Neverland yawn open and I enter.
Weeks pass and Anna gives up nagging me about getting the lump checked because of the misguided belief that I am a mature adult who will eventually seek appropriate medical advice. But since my encounter with the mirror I have adopted an alternative approach for dealing with the issue - frenzied activity.
Like Barries’s Captain Hook I feel the crocodile of time pursuing me. There’s so much I want to do before the clock stops ticking. Projects to create, places to see, words to say, people to meet, things to learn, love to give. Not at some hypothetical future date. Now. Or Never.
Over the next couple of months my dedication to urgent action builds to a crescendo that frequently leaves me with a palpitating heart. Anxious and exhausted, the irony of suffering a cardiac arrest while trying to outrun death does not escape me. I decide that it’s finally time to be a grown up.
At the surgery I tell the doctor about my lump and my massager causation theory in the one sentence as if to ward off any alternative diagnosis. The doc is behind me so I can’t read his facial expressions as he moves his fingers over and around the lump for what seems like an eternity.
This is what he says next: “Well I hate to disagree with your theory…(pause)…but this is a tumour…(excruciating pause)…you have a lipoma or fat tumour which is quite common and basically nothing to worry about."
Fat tumour? I learn later that 1% of the population have different types of lipomas. They are usually found in people over the age of 40 and can occur in any part of the body. They are not glamorous but they are almost always harmless.
Leaving the surgery I feel relieved but not released. I know that I cannot use the doctor’s words as an exit visa allowing me passage back to the world of the Lost Boys where we are told that life goes on forever. I have felt the full force my own finitude and there is no return from that realisation.
However, after my examination I soon find that being a permanent citizen of Now or Neverland brings blessings. The ticking of the crocodile gradually fades. I begin to see clearly that time is indeed precious and not to be wasted and that this includes not wasting it by pursuing fabricated urgencies that rob us of the richness inherent in every moment.
To this day I still roll my back over my massager pausing as it connects with my subcutaneous lipoma. I focus on my breath as the air passes in and out of my nostrils. “I’m alive,” I whisper. Just for a little while I let the future take care of itself. There is nothing to do but be. The present is all there is for me and my lump and everything else.
“To die will be an awfully big adventure,” Peter Pan tells us. He may be right, and for all we know there may never be a Never. Who can say for sure? But to live fully right here and Now, that’s an awfully big challenge that we all have to grow up and face sometime. Like it or lump it.
©Anthony Ackroyd 2024
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