Health

A writer’s final deadline

The knowledge that he has just months to live alters a man’s priorities

PHILIPPE DEANE GIGANTES April 1 2002
Health

A writer’s final deadline

The knowledge that he has just months to live alters a man’s priorities

PHILIPPE DEANE GIGANTES April 1 2002

A writer’s final deadline

Health

The knowledge that he has just months to live alters a man’s priorities

British Navy officer, foreign correspondent, prisoner of the North Koreans, author, journalistfor the Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette, assistant to prime minister Pierre Trudeau, senator from 1984 to 1998, history professor, father, grandfather. In a storied career, the Greek-born Philippe Gigantes had done all that by the time he learned last year, at 78, that his prostate cancer was killing him. Since being diagnosed with the disease, Gigantes, who lives in Hudson, Que., has focussed on writing, finishing his 14th book, Power and Greed: A Short History of the World, to be published in April. He calls this reflection on impending death “The final deadline. ”

PHILIPPE DEANE GIGANTES

“You have between 10 and 14 months to live, statistically speaking,” my doctor said to me on Oct. 25, 2001. “Statistically speaking,” he repeated.

I looked on the bright side first. “So, I do not have to worry about my cholesterol anymore,” I asked, “or my blood pressure?

I can eat good Stilton laced with great port? .» Fried zucchini? Stuff that swims in garlic | butter sauce?” Yes to all the above.

As to those 10 to 14 months, “How will | the cancer kill me, Doctor?” 5

“You will get progressively weaker and 1 die eventually. Or the prostate cancer will go into your lungs, giving you incurable pneumonia. Or a brain tumour. It will go into your bones [it has reached my spine].

If a tumour presses on a nerve we will irradiate that tumour and shrink it to relieve the pain. In any case, we are good at pain management, these days. We no longer worry that a dying person might become an addict. You’ll get all the painkillers you need.” “Will I feel zonked with those painkillers?” Not being quite there is a worry I have.

“We have painkillers which avoid that.”

I didn’t believe him. I was once on Demerol and felt I was talking like a genius. I taperecorded myself. I was talking drivel. (Finally, while writing this article, I have had

to take morphine. It helped the pain and I didn’t feel zonked. Yeah!)

The doctor’s verdict had not been unexpected. In March, 2000, surgery confirmed that I had prostate cancer and that on the Gleason scale (the virulence scale in layman’s language) it was at 10, the highest. On April 15, 2000, I sat at my keyboard and started writing.

We writers are lucky. We are not Homer or Shakespeare. There have only been two of those, whoever they were. Most of us cannot even comprehend how the Mozarts or Michelangelos produced their divine masterpieces. But we have words which we hand-buff endlessly.

“Leave your other writing,” said my daughter Claire, the editor. “Write that book you have been researching and ruminating since 1967.” I have never been able to write without a deadline. So I gave myself one year. I worked 12 hours a day, every day. And I finished the book on April 15, 2001. But would other people love it? We writers are consumed by this worry, which is a lot better than worrying about death.

Since then my capacity for work has dropped to about five hours a day, interrupted by a longish snooze. But I still exercise as much as before. I have a Stairmaster on which I strive for buns of steel. And I exercise my abs: under a layer of flab, they

are sculptural. And, of course, I write.

Not everyone who has cancer is a writer. But they can do other things: cultivate indoor plants; make a wooden shelf; calculate other peoples’ income tax for them; make things out of clay; draw; study math; read. Any activity is better than pills.

The ultimate best is to have grandchildren. You hold them tight and know that life is not ending, it is renewing itself. I am hugely lucky. Two small grandchildren live 13 feet from me. They are in my little house every day, the house my daughter Eve-Marie built for me, next to hers. “Why did you give them chocolate?” asks Eve-Marie. “I didn’t give them chocolate.” “Why do they have chocolate on their lips?” asks my daughter, a former Crown prosecutor. “I didn’t give them chocolate; they took it.” “You lie like Bill Clinton,” she says, giving me a hug.

Then I have true friends, foremost among them Susan, who reads me like a book and knows so much about so much. My former assistants think of me as their grandfather and treat me with affectionate irreverence, which is how I like it. Some of them visit me and bring me their babies for the ritual dance. I hold the baby and I dance, singing of their beauty:

Le plus beau de tous les bébés du monde / est celui queje berce dans mes bras /j’ai bien vu d’autres bébés à la ronde / mais aucun aussi beau que celui là.

I have a life rich in loving family and

I am no Fred Astaire but I dance alone to the soundtrack of Sleepless in Seattle and when no one is looking I get fancy. My two dogs look puzzled.

friends, beautiful trees, the fox that comes and sits on a flat rock behind the house and preens itself, deer when the fox is not there, a sea of wild flowers when the time comes, blue jays, cardinals and music. I am no Fred Astaire but I dance alone to the soundtrack of Sleepless in Seattle and when no one is looking I get fancy. My two dogs look puzzled.

There are dark moments. I look at the picture of my wonderful wife Sylvie who died so young and tears run down my face because my grandchildren are missing someone who would have been the greatest grandmother in the world. I have dark moments because another grandson and his mother, my daughter Eleni, the archi-

tect, live an ocean too far away. There are dark moments when I think of pain I caused. How could I have done that? How can I repair it? And that is another essential activity superior to antidepressants and painkillers. I rebuild bridges every day to people who thought I had forgotten them, or given them a lesser degree of love than I have given others.

But there are the good moments when, like other oldsters, I think back. Memory often censors, blotting out the horrors, remembering, most, the joy, exhilaration, warm embraces, gorgeous books, nature and people at their best. I have been hugely lucky (this thought keeps coming back). I loved school and my jobs. The British Navy that took me, a foreigner, and made me a young officer it trusted and cosseted. Cmdr. Hinton, my skipper, who wore silk white overalls and a scarlet scarf and sat above the armour—a living battle ensign —fully exposed to enemy fire as we went into combat. Cmdr. Scatchard, in whose destroyer I served when we sank three German destroyers in one night and shot a German plane out of the sky with a primitive radar guidance system that was supposed to miss.

As a journalist for the London Observer, I was a prisoner of the Communist North Koreans who tortured me but did not break me. I did not sully the family name nor the Royal Navy which had nurtured me. I was a reporter all over the world and saw amaz-

ing sights and people. Ravishing Rajasthan princesses with emerald earrings the size of pigeon eggs. The brilliant, beautiful young women around Castro as he sat, the conqueror, on his first night in Havana, in the penthouse of the Hilton, eating all night and not looking at them, as I did. I saw the northern lights and south seas sunsets. The Nizam of Hyderabad, wearing a soiled fez while showing me coffer after coffer filled with precious stones. The Aegean at sunset when it looks wine red, as Homer said. Helping with the lambs in Scotland, when they were born. The train that brought me out of captivity and the Russian passengers who soused us with vodka and celebrated with us because we were going to be free;

they kept kissing us, conjugating: “I love peace. You love peace. He loves peace. We love peace...”

I remember these things when my arms get too tired to hold a book as I read in bed. In my mind I read my own, unwritten, adventure story, think of those I love, the grandchildren especially, smile at their smiles and go to sleep.

And I remember how Canada took me as its own, spoiled me, rewarded me, honoured me. Trudeau, who liked verbal boxing matches with me and didn’t mind when I scored a rare point. He put me in the Senate where, among other things, I could help simplify the adoption process for Canadians seeking babies in other lands; where I could initiate the legislation that abolished the drunken defence (“maybe I beat the bitch to death but I was too drunk so I don’t remember”). I remember visiting seniors residences and dancing with old ladies who had young eyes and remembered how to waltz.

I was once asked by a childhood friend, Spyros Kapsalis, a retired Greek Admiral, what reason I had for staying in such a cold country. We were talking on the phone, he in Athens under a sunny sky and 15° C, I in Quebec during the ice storm. I had 30 million wonderful reasons, I replied—the Canadians.

I think of death not as a sorrow. Those who love me will feel sorrow but it will not be my fault. I will be gone. I will have left

them the epitaph I have chosen, bilingual: “// nous a tant aimés. He loved us so.” Just before the last moment, I want to be lifted from my bed, sat in my chair, have my fingers put on my keyboard. I am a writer and we have the word. In the beginning was the word. And so it must be at the end.

And the last word is that awful word I have hidden so far, the word that as a writer I have no right to hide: fear. I fear having my grandchildren see me diminish physically. I fear my body betraying me so that I cannot even walk to my bathroom. I fear—terribly—that I will be a burden to those I love. And I fear most that I will not be able to hide this fear and that my cherished self-image will die before I do. ES]