Your days are numbered. When they’d told me that, professional, detached, but empathetic, I’d run with it literally. This was day fifteen thousand, seven hundred and six. I liked the length of it, the time it took to roll around my mouth as I said it; it seemed to have more heft about it than counting off my years. Forty three.
They hadn’t actually used the phrase your days are numbered of course. For all their clinical detachment my team of surgeons hadn’t acquired the bedside manner of a bad James Bond villain. Ah, no, Mr Adams, I expect you to die… Having your own team, when it comes to surgeons, is not really something to celebrate – it’s not like Roman Abramovich having his own team. Other than really, really wanting them to win obviously. To be honest I don’t really remember the exact words now, I’m not sure I even registered them as it had been so apparent what the prognosis was before anyone even spoke that I’d just sat there in numb terror; my ears ringing and a rising wave of nausea threatening to envelop me. So I’d filled in the blanks later and settled on your days are numbered.
Fifteen thousand, seven hundred and six days. I’d toyed with restarting the count at one, from the day of diagnosis and seeing how far I could get, see whether I could get past the notional deadline they’d given me. At one point, again with the literal, I’d made it an actual dead line: counted forwards to the date marked by their best estimates and drawn a blunt, thick line down the calendar. Before: alive. After: not so much.
Running the count in days just has more substance to it than years. It’s easier to mentally trace back through individual moments framed by days than the aggregate annual view. Years are just too broad. 1972 born. 1977 start school. 1979 Forest win the League Championship. 1982 cultivate extensive crush on Anna Jackson and understand the cruelty of the human condition via Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All”. You get the picture.
There’s nothing special about 43. At 40 you can take satisfaction in hitting one of the big ones: life begins and all that. At 42, if you were so minded, you can riff on that number being an expression of the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Raise a silent toast to Douglas Adams and collapse into your own mid life crisis. Okay, you may not be so minded. That one might just be me. But 43 ? Nothing. At a stretch it is a prime number so maybe there’s some power in that. The 40s are ripe with them: 41, 43 and 47. A time to be in your prime, perhaps. Primes: indivisible except by themselves or one. There’s got to be a metaphor in that.
It seems easier to imagine a myriad of ways in which you could make a day, rather than a year, special. We could get crazy and break this down into three hundred and seventy six thousand, nine hundred and forty four hours. Or twenty two million – yep, million – six hundred and sixteen thousand and six hundred and forty minutes. Or compressed right down to one billion, three hundred and fifty six million, nine hundred and ninety eight thousand, four hundred and forty seconds. Enough time, put like that, to listen to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” more than five million times. Or “The Winner Takes It All” of course but there’s only so much heartbreak one person can stand. And the prognosis was heartbreaking enough on its own.
Some of those days have been pretty shitty to be honest. The “your days are numbered” day was obviously a particular lowlight. That said, even on the shittiest day, I couldn’t hand-on-heart claim that every single minute, every single second, of that day was shitty. There must be a tipping point. Does more than seven hundred of the fourteen hundred and forty minutes in a day being crap render the whole day a bad one ? Or is it enough if just one minute – or even just a few seconds – is so horrendous that it sours the entire day ? What about a year ? What about a life ? Is the prospect of spending each and every one of your remaining days with a doctor’s grim proclamation of impending doom ringing in your ears enough to tip the whole thing out of balance: away from something worthwhile, facing down the apparent futility of it all ?
But, you know, some of those days have been pretty goddamn amazing. I have no idea why that sentence felt obliged to pop out all American like that but let’s go with it. Some of them have been real “get in the hole”, “you the man”, “who’s living better than us ?” kind of days. Maybe Americans have just got a better handle on expressing the whole notion of awesome than us Brits. Some of those days have been really rather good old chap. Cup of tea ?
It’s not even that the awesome bits are always obviously awesome. It’s certainly not the case that awesome sentences are in any danger of turning up in this monologue anytime soon. Sifting through the fragments of awesome in memory turns up anything from the biggies: falling in love with the perhaps-now-never-to-be Mrs Adams (maybe I should still ask her ?) right through to something as mundane as walking across Market Square late at night, wrapped up against the cold and watching Saturday’s stragglers and strays shamble out of pubs and bars. No idea why it’s lodged there but it’s filed away under happy. It’s possible I was drunk. Or stoned. Nottingham wasn’t characterized by sobriety for me at the time. There’s friends and family and music and laughter and wine. Strangely there’s also throwing a lemon around in a field in Reading. Another less than sober time. Losing my virginity nestled right up in there with riding the train through Dawlish station (the one with the beach) every week when I was about sixteen (a mere five thousand odd days old). Clearly one of those was a bigger deal than the other: Dawlish is pretty special. An assortment of moments that have stuck fast, constituent remnants of happiness.
So perhaps moments are the thing. Not years, or months, or weeks, or days. Individual moments of no fixed length, not counted in quantity but experienced and remembered for quality.
They hadn’t said my days were numbered. They’d said I had, maybe, three years to live. After the shock had worn off (who am I kidding, it still hasn’t worn off) I decided it sounded too small: three. Another prime number and maybe the one that was going to stop me finding my way from 43 to the next one, 47. So I started counting days, backwards and forwards. The numbers are bigger and stretch my conception of what’s left and what I’ve been fortunate enough to already have.
And they remind me that moments are the thing.
This is the thirteenth (another prime) story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. It is fictional for avoidance of doubt: apart from the bit about Anna Jackson and The Winner Takes It All. And the lemon. That was true too. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/