So there I am, I’ve made it the quarter of a mile on a cold dreary February morning, cheered, heartened even (Ok I might have to start fining myself for these heart clichés as I did with a friend during the run up to surgery), heartened by the sound of the bells. Standing in this ancient building and feeling almost as old as her. Somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people pleased and surprised to see me back at church. I had been home from hospital about three weeks and wanted to return to church as soon as I could.
I was touched the week before that Peter had offered to bring communion to me at home and the way he made a temporary table out of the ottoman in my sitting room. A beautiful and intimate experience with a true “companion” – remembering the origin of the word being, ‘with bread’ and so someone you share your bread with. I again found myself thinking back, this time to when Peter and I met. I was an officer in the council and I was showing – if I may say – a somewhat sceptical and frustrated Peter how he could have a voice in the planning process. Never could I have imagined that some years later he’d be sitting on my sofa as friend and priest sharing communion with me, following open heart surgery. In some small way I’d like to think that I have helped him on a testing and meaningful journey with his ministry to the university and beyond. He has certainly supported me on this physical and spiritual journey of preparation, surgery and healing.
Back in Great St Mary’s on that winter’s day I realise that the walk and indeed the week had taken more out of me than I first thought. Having stood for the first hymn, I then sit for the rest of service. It felt strange to be participating in a different way. To have my view blocked of the altar as the last supper is reenacted and celebrated.
A couple of weeks later I am standing with the rest of the congregation for the hymn when I am suddenly overwhelmed by it all: the pain; the expectation; the uncertainty, and the tears flow and I crumple down on the pew. The person next to me, in their kindness, sits with me and gently places their hand on my shuddering shoulder.
I realised later that Jesus was surely in that moment, as much as He was in the breaking of the bread that I couldn’t see for all the folk standing. In my weakness He shared. With and in my pew mate, he quietly comforted me.
Vulnerability and weakness are perhaps not very popular right now and as some present an image of strength and stability I wonder if we pay a little more attention to brokenness and empathy with those that are, we all might be a little better off.
As the weeks passed I gained in my physical strength and confidence, but with that came the challenge of increasing expectation from others that belied my emotional frame of mind. That said I was chuffed to be asked to take part in the telling of the Passion story on Palm Sunday. The comments about my performance were very kind and encouraging but it was interesting to me that whilst I had a very prominent position as a narrator standing in the pulpit, I was also able to lean on it and receive support from it.
The Maundy – “mandate” or “command”- Thursday saw the beautiful and simple act of love and service as the clergy washed the congregations feet. I know that it was a privilege for Peter on his last Holy Week at Great St Mary’s to be given that task and I shall treasure the smile he gave me as he gently washed mine.
I stayed for an hour or so of the vigil that followed the service and as I sat in the chapel, beautifully lit by candles, it felt right that my eyes grew heavy and thoughts wandered. I felt in solidarity with the first disciples, who needed rest and left Jesus alone to pray, as I left in need of sustenance and sleep. In my healing state perhaps I felt a little more attune to their vulnerability and fear.
On the corner of the market square the next day it felt good to join with other churches to stand with the crosses. The looks on some of the shoppers were interesting , some a little confused , some a bit irritated that they had to negotiate their way through the crowd and some even stood still for a few moments.
But crowds and people are always mixed and complex. After all, it was the same crowds that welcomed Jesus with palms and branches and a few days later demanded his blood.
Some of this crowd followed the cross into Great St Mary’s. I decided from the start that I would sit for the Good Friday reflections and service.
“The cross as uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but through it we find reconciliation and solidarity” . As I sat there listening to the reflections of Rvd Dr Stephen Cherry (Dean of King’s College), as well as deciding that Victorians must have had smaller bottoms and shorter legs given the size of the pew, I could see what he was saying. Not least with the global and indeed local turmoil of present. It’s difficult to think of a time where a world needed accompaniment in its suffering and love in its division more than this one.
And at the personal level in some small, but very tangible way I felt more connected to the Good Friday suffering than on previous years and when I went up to the looming cross where the altar normally sits, I knelt and instinctively touched my heart and the wood in front of me.
A few days later awake at 4 am and moving very quietly around the house (not to wake my parents who were with me for Easter), I showered and then put the finishing touches to the Easter breakfast table.
As I walked (still not strong enough to cycle) my chest was heavy in the cold dawn air. The look on the somewhat worse for wear, puzzled clubbers walking in the opposite direction was memorable.
Arriving early, I talked in the darkness with those setting up inside the church. At 5.30 the priest sang and the Easter fire was lit outside – burning in the darkness and illuminating the faces of those gathered around it and from that, the Paschal (Passover) Candle was lit. We entered into the dark church and as the beautiful service continued the building was gradually filled with light as the Easter candle lit each of ours in turn.
There’s been rather a lot of darkness and fear in my own life of late and as I walked home to join my parents in their Easter breakfast I couldn’t help feel that the cross of Friday meant so much more to me as the sun shone on that Sunday.
It was a grey day – as grey as Eeyore – but considerably colder.
Not the best weather to be leaving hospital. But I was grateful and apprehensive to be doing so. With my armoury of pharmaceuticals and so many leaflets I could barely carry them in my precarious state, I left Papworth with my parents carrying my luggage – which seemed strange in itself.
I was grateful that my folks had brought a cushion as requested to shield me from the bumps and the seat belt.
In Cambridge, I climbed gingerly out of the car and shuffled up the street towards Parker’s Piece. As I reached the corner, the force of the wind hit me and the green space was stretched out like a huge ocean: equally overwhelming and exhilarating.
In the early days of recovery at home I was struck that I never felt ill as such; it wasn’t the sensation of flu or sickness for me, it was simply being drained of all energy. My big brother apparently remarked how I looked “a little peeky”. Which was possibly an understatement.
As with so many things in life, it’s only when you look back that you realise how far you have come. I was touched by the care from my family and friends, but perhaps, as with all bereavement, it’s when the phone stops ringing and cards and messages stop arriving that you realise how difficult a prospect you are facing.
I was shocked how vulnerable I felt and how much I had to rely on others for very simple tasks: opening a packet or lifting more than a bag of sugar. I was determined to take the advice of cardiac support and walk from day one. But I was shocked how daunting the prospect of walking just a little around the park was and my mind went back to the start of this journey, some eight years before on the same stretch of green.
I feel blessed to have such great friends and support throughout it all: the casseroles and hugs, the flowers and cards, the chocolates, the walks with furry companions, the long lazy pub lunches and afternoon teas, but above all having the ear that listens. And maybe I feel blessed to realise how terrifying It must be to go through this without friends.
As a councillor one spends quite a lot of time looking after the needs of the most vulnerable and this recovery has give me an extraordinary insight into that. Walking through the shopping centres of Cambridge I experienced first hand the anxiety of an older or less mobile person in a crowded place. The feeling that people are coming from all directions and that their trajectories all seem to involve knocking you out of the way.
On one such occasion, after navigating the crowds, I found myself using one of the backstreets that I knew so well from the many door stepping sessions of a local politician. On this particular street there is a funeral directors which I had passed many, many times before and usually had only given a cursory thought to its activity. However, on this occasion the yard door was unusually left open and there in front of me was an empty hearse. I stopped in my tracks and looked at the sombre vehicle and I realised how easily I could have been its occupant if events had taken a different turn.
It’s often been said that the only taboo left in Western society is death. That confrontation with the hearse was a stark reminder of its reality in all our lives.
I’m pleased to say that accompanying this surgery and recovery I had been offered a rehabilitation programme consisting of exercise classes and talks. The irony was not lost on me that the talks took place in one of the highest rooms at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and at some considerable distance from the main entrance. It was as though they were giving us a challenge just to get into the room.
Since cardiac surgery I’ve tried to avoid heart cliches, but it is almost impossible and indeed I think it is fair to say my heart did sink as I walked through the door of the seminar room to discover a place where NHS furniture went to die. With banks of cabinets, chairs in varying states of neglect, stained ceiling tiles and indeed many of them missing. The final flourish of decay and neglect has to be witnessing the tutor trying to move a table, that in geriatric protest quite literally lost its top.
Needless to say I was immensely glad that I didn’t see this room until I’d actually had surgery. I am not sure it would fill me with confidence of the NHS’ ability to manage broken things.
That said the talks and the sharing with other cardiac patients was helpful, even if they did feel a little bit like a cross between a school class and a rather strange Channel 4 sitcom. I will leave you to decide which role I played within that… But of course that was just the start of the programme: managing stress, diet, and the theory of exercise were merely the horderves and exercise was the main course.
A few weeks later I had a physical assessment. Whilst the staff and equipment were great, the premises were like entering a somewhat decrepit gym in a school in the 1950s. I was then enrolled on an exercise programme, that at the time of writing I am still involved in.
Having had this surgery at a point where I was regularly exercising in a gym and cycling every day it has still been a huge challenge undergoing an hours supervised exercise a week and my heart goes out to (oh, there we go with those unavoidable cliches again!) to my fellow cardiac recoverers who entered into this with less time and less options. Thankfully the staff are lovely and that wonderful mix of caring, somewhat sarcastic and most definitely vigilant.
My outward physical recovery has been quick. The colour has returned to my face, but as I keep reminding others as much as myself, I am recovering rather than recovered. Whilst the sternum has now healed and I can carry things again, at the time of writing, I still have considerable stiffness and pain in the chest and get very tired after exercise. With more time and exercise these will ease but the psychological will take longer.
For me this surgery is intrinsically linked with my faith. Perhaps it is the only way I can understand it and make sense of it. It has forced me to pause, dwell and reflect. But it has also given me other opportunities: to understand; to gain a better empathy with others pain; to share; to spend more precious time with the precious ones in my life; to laugh; to pray and to cry.
I am hugely grateful for the love shown by my family and friends and the support that I continue to receive. I hope and pray that whatever may be ahead on my journey I can give such hope and support to others. Because after all, we are all of one heart and we all need help to keep ticking.
To my surprise, and something of a blessing, throughout my recovery I haven’t lost my appetite, nor mostly my sense of humour. I was therefore unexpectedly tucking into a meal whilst on HDU which certainly helped in regaining strength and normality.
On being transferred to the cardiac ward there was something of the apprehension of the new boy at school, but with added vulnerability.
I was however delighted the next day to be reunited with my “ heart buddy” John, who I had bonded with at the base camp of the adventure in the pre theatre wards.
Another great comfort in those early days post surgery was my travelling companion Eeyore.
Now you may laugh and look on disapprovingly – many have – but I acquired Eeyore some 15 years ago when I was in one of life’s lonely places and he’s been a great companion ever since. So much so, that on realising last year that this surgery was happening I decided to take him to my church’s animal blessing service.
Again there were a few raised eyebrows, but in my defence – if I need one – the minister Devin was very generous in his invitation to all animals significant in people’s lives. The church was full mostly of the wagging variety, but Eeyore wasn’t the only less animated creature going up to be blessed. I reasoned that he would be helpful in the difficult journey that lay ahead. I was deeply touched that the priest got this and showed him just the same level of pastoral care as he did to the more vocal animals.
However, I hadn’t realised how significant his role would turn out to be.
Whilst I thought it would be good for Eeyore to be blessed, it didn’t occur to me to ask for a blessing for myself, nearer the time. Thankfully my dear friend and priest, Peter did. That moment was made all the more significant that my political group leader also was present.
So months later on that first night on the cardiac ward, feeling bruised, tired, disoriented and in considerable pain I was so grateful to be reunited with my grey companion. However, what I never envisaged is the conversations that would come from his presence. I had three chats with different people in three days about why an AA Milne / Disney character was sitting on my bed. Perhaps, I mused as I stroked his ear, he wasn’t just accompanying me.
What a beautiful sound: The chink of ice! Sadly not in a long gin and tonic-I’m sure I was promised one of those today?- But instead a whole jug of iced water. Then again, given I was lying in a bed on the high dependency unit with plastic tubes coming out of places I dare not think about , it was probably just as well.
It was now 8 o’clock in the evening and I was aware once again of my surroundings and even got to hear the friendly and relieved voices of a friend and my Mother on the phone. The room was dimly lit with pools of light around beds, surrounded by figures speaking quietly. It’s somehow gave me the impression of a field hospital in a battle zone.
I was hot. So very hot. The ice was so very welcoming.
If anyone from the medical profession ever says that something may be “a bit uncomfortable” they may be about to do something that’s very painful. It came to the moment for removing the drains in my stomach and it was explained to me that it may indeed be a bit uncomfortable. “Oh, Oh” I thought as the mask was put to my face.
Whilst I gathered afterwards from talking to others, people’s experience of pain varies depending on the individual and of course the procedure they’ve just woken up from. However, I can safely say that it’s the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. The laughing gas-I certainly wasn’t !-seemed to just detach me from place, but not really the pain. Don’t ask me why, but in those moments which seemed like hours I saw a searing white light and the feeling of observing from a distance. And quite bizarrely the most difficult maths problems I could imagine were filling my head. I know I’ve never been great friends with maths, but I’m not sure why I should’ve been subjected to Trigonometry whilst having yards (well it felt like yards-though I’ve never been good with maths ) of plastic being pulled from my insides. Perhaps my brain helpfully thought it would be a distraction. Interwoven with that were voices from my life questioning my worth-voices of doubt,of inadequacy, but then I became aware of a quiet voice saying “you are stronger than this”.
Apparently I was . I slept on and off during the night. The assistant registrar visited me and said that the operation had gone well and that they hadn’t needed to replace the valve and that my surgeon would come and see me on the ward to talk about the aneurysm. I later discovered that when they opened me up there was a gasp that went round theatre- the aneurysm was more extensive than expected. I can understand now why the registrar left that for the surgeon to explain once I was more stable and rested.
The oddness of the day continued when I was offered jelly and ice cream- suddenly I was at a children’s birthday party-. So in the NHS you’re offered tipples at breakfast and party food in the middle of the night- no wonder I was confused.
And somehow in the middle of this most extraordinary of nights, I discovered that the recently qualified nurse looking after me went to church in Trumpington, which just happens to be the home of a dear friend who has supported me so much on this journey. I shared with the nurse that I was exploring where my vocation may be taking me. So there I was, hours after life changing surgery talking about God and suddenly those pools of light around the beds looked a little different.
I woke the next morning to be shaved (yet again) And is often the way life, when you’ve been waiting for something for so very long, and imagining exactly how it will be it and how it will be said: suddenly it just happens when you stop thinking about it . I looked up and the porter was coming in and he was most definitely this time, finally , headed towards me.
Cheery and matter-of-fact “Mr Cearns?” And I climbed into the wheelchair and we travelled the draughty corridors of the wards and up in the lift to the theatre.
As I sat in the antechamber to the theatre, I witnessed once again that sense humour of God’s . On the radio was a discussion about the congestion problems of Cambridge. As a County Councillor over the last four years, and a resident of Cambridge for some twenty plus, this problem had exercised my thoughts and energy a lot. Though I’m not really sure I wanted to enter into a discussion about it moments before the doors of theatre opened and my chest was prized apart…
Thankfully I was spared a protracted debate as I was quickly taken into theatre, asked to lay on the table, stretch out my arms, as two lines were put into my wrists.
Just as I was thinking of how there was something sacrificial and vulnerable about all this, my theological musings were interrupted by “What’s your favourite tipple?” It was a bit odd, being asked that at 8 in the morning- but then there wasn’t much that was normal about climbing onto a table in a nightie surrounded by strangers-. “Gin & tonic” I helpfully replied (bizarrely thinking that I better give the “right’ answer, whatever that may be). “Here’s a nice in gin and tonic” said the anaesthetist and that was that.
Christmas 2016 for me was rather different than normal. I knew the other side of it was less about working off the turkey pounds and more about not being chicken for the major surgery that lay ahead. My operation was originally scheduled for beginning of January, but with the challenges that the NHS is facing at the moment, it wasn’t to be.
So it was after two cancellations , days of waiting in my dressing gown (of course sporting a pocket square), unexpected taxis home in the rain to wait for a new date, more nights overnight in hospital, more shaving (how many times is it necessary to shave a chap’s chest in 3 weeks?!) I was finally facing surgery as first on the list the next morning.
Not only was I sitting in a room of strangers, but I was missing out on a fun night to celebrate the re branding launch of an LGBT charity I’m a trustee of. Thank goodness the Wi-Fi signal gods at Papworth were kind enough to show me the well wishes from the event and from other friends.
Even in the short time that I was in hospital before and after the operation I was struck how isolated from the world I felt and whilst it’s a two edged sword, modern technology can be a blessing to keeping in touch with the thoughts and prayers of friends and family.
As I lay in bed in that ward I had time to reflect on the extraordinary few months leading to that point. There were many occasions where the ordinary collided with the extraordinary. There was the time of waking up on the sofa just in time to see the final image of the Paralympic closing ceremony of a huge heart being formed on the stadium floor. Or the Sunday that I left Great St Mary’s Church later than normal which meant I bumped into the last of The Chariots of Fire race competitors who just happen to be raising money for Papworth Hospital. Or being in the right carriage, at the right time, on the right train to hear a conversation between two men clearly describing the language of the Church of England’s ordination selection process .And having the courage to speak with them.
Many moments. Many conversations. Many beats of the heart.
The heart . There’s something so emotive, potent, visceral and compelling about it.
The imagery in faith, art, literature, songs and indeed hymns: all manner of human expression. It is so vital: the pump house of our bodies and yet or indeed because of that, so soulful.
I closed my eyes and thought back to the towering figure of the Bishop of Ely laying his hands on my head in blessing to help prepare me for this ordeal.
I was reminded on that Epiphany Sunday and now in that hospital bed, of a knight being blessed before going into battle.
My thoughts returned to that dear hymn I learnt as a boy:
When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
He was gentle and brave he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
For God and for valour he rode through the land
No charger have I, and no sword by my side
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride
Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead
Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness the power of the truth
It was time to face my dragons……….
Sometimes in life we just know when something is wrong. I was walking around one of Cambridge’s many green spaces, but not with my usual spring of step and sense of purpose. On this occasion I felt like an octogenarian crossing the Savannah’s of Africa rather than on an afternoon constitutional.
Some weeks before on a visit to the doctors , I was shocked to learn that I had a heart murmur which needed investigation. After tests it turned out I had a leaking aortic valve which would need to be monitored and possibly treated in the future. It was a year later, after a sabbatical in the U.S that I was then diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.
Fast forward 8 years and despite living with a condition that was clearly going to need addressing at some point, I was still surprised to find myself last summer, in a surgeon’s office at Papworth Hospital, facing the prospect of major surgery. It somehow didn’t seem right, and made all the more difficult by the fact that there was risk either way and the decision was mine.
I felt for the second time in my life that I was back in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first time coming to terms with who I am and this time coming to terms with where I was.
What followed was months of uncertainty, prayer, conversation with friends and family, research and tears. It felt that for a long time God had tried to whisper with that “still small voice of calm” but in the noisiness, activity and clamour of life, I had not heard or perhaps sometime chose not hear the warnings. It seems now that He was shouting and finally I heard.
I always thought that God has a great sense of humour, how on earth would have He created us lot if He hadn’t. For someone who thinks so visually, the irony was not lost on me on how much imagery there is in Christian faith about the heart.
I eventually came to the realisation that whatever I did, I was going to end up needing this surgery and it was better to face it now….
A pocket of calm in cyberspace where I will be sharing something of my journey and thoughts leading up to and recovering from heart surgery. This is part of my broader journey of vocation and my thoughts and reflections along that road. If that sounds too heavy, I promise there will be some of my humour in there too.