I was talking to a friend yesterday in her kitchen. She had unexpectedly been given a rowan tree by a woodland charity but didn’t have room to plant it in her patch and I had agreed to find space for it in my garden. Since I was passing nearby heading for a work meeting, I had popped in to get the tree. On the way to her flat from the meeting, I remembered that a mutual friend of ours had been in the same hospital when I had had my last procedure and tried to make a mental note to ask her how he was getting on. Actually making the mental note isn’t the problem, the problem is remember the thought at the appropriate time and place. Chances were however good within the timeframe I was operating in.

The short plastic green tube was standing outside her apartment door when I arrived so I could have picked it up and left (my friend had said she might be out running) but I know the standard protocol in such a situation is to knock on the door and say at least “hi” and “thank you” (probably “how are you” too) as this is helpful in maintaining friendships. A short dither later I knock. She is in and opens the door but stands clinging to the door half open which I read as a sign that she isn’t inviting me in. The standard pleasantries (I’m not I agree with that word) done, it seems it is time to move on but I feel it is important to see how Z is getting on so I rather clumsily say something to the effect of “is Z dead?”. My friend pauses and invites me in for coffee.

This is one of those complex situations where several thoughts go through my head. She hasn’t answered my question. Is she too upset? No visual or audio clues for that. Do I want to go in for coffee? Probably would rather get home. How long will this take? What about my dog sleeping in the car? I am feeling rather tired. Better go in if I want to find out about Z. Right here I go.

My friend is a scientist turned therapist partly turned artist who lives alone; conversation tends to be deep and questions challenging. I like visiting and supporting her, though it can be rather tiring and time consuming. We chat about various things and eventually I find out that Z is still alive and having chemotherapy treatment for a bone sarcoma (later I find out this is a rare form of cancer). I check that the disease is terminal and deduce to chemotherapy’s aim is prolonging life.  I mention another friend who has a tumour on his spine but that is benign though as some point an operation will probably need to be done which would have the possibility of paralysis from the waist down.

As so often does at these times, the word “control” pops up. The fact that we have no control over our lives is usually highlighted through serious illness. I experienced it when I went through my liver disease period at a relatively young age of twenty five; Z is in his seventies, the other cancer suffering friend is in his late forties. We have no control over our lives except that it is vital for most people’s mental health that we have the illusion of control; the word has even made it to my shortlist of core values. How weird is that?

My preference for yesterday would have been to stay at home, to do some writing and fill the space in between writing with chores, preparing for the holidays and snoozing. Instead I had a GP’s appointment where I acquired another pill to my cocktail of drugs, a work meeting whose minutes I still need to write up, and a visit to a good friend interspersed with dog walking, present buying, and shopping. Yet I feel the control I have over my day off has been sabotaged by outside events, though in reality each appointment I kept was a decision I made and agreed to so perhaps I have exerted control at a level I easily forget about; or is it just that time spent with others is time when I don’t feel in control?

That makes some sense to me; control for me is about reducing anxiety but being around others requires effort and energy and perhaps I am always on edge for the unexpected, the uncontrolled even when it doesn’t happen. When I think of control I think of timelines, planning, and allocation of resources but the perhaps when I write about control, I am in fact thinking about my inner context about how I feel and react. These two types of control are not mutually exclusive though, turning on lights (particularly colourful Christmas lights at this time of year) can create a relaxing atmosphere conducive to writing for instance.

No wonder I am finding this heavy going even though nobody else is anywhere near me.