As a Modern Languages undergraduate, it was my luck and privilege to swan off for the third year of my degree to practise and hopefully improve my language skills. Having spent my gap year in France, I opted to work as an English assistant in Rome, and it was fabulous: my workload was small, I was earning just about enough to pay for life – including regular home-made ice cream at the local bar and pizze around the corner – and I was living in one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
Naturally, it was a bit of a shock to the system to go back to university for my final year; for a start, with Finals on the horizon, I was going to have to start studying properly. Having been away for a year, though, other things had changed – both in my environment and within myself.
I had lived in college for my first two years, but was going back to accommodation outside the centre, while the majority of my contemporaries (on three-year degrees) had left and now it was the students who had not even joined as Freshers before I went to Rome who were most prominent within college. It’s the strange lot of the fourth-year linguist: you’ve only been away for a year, but when you get back you’re a relative stranger.
A year living independently in another country changes you, too. I was lucky to have already had a similar experience in Versailles pre-university, but my priorities, dreams and general outlook were changed by my time in Rome. It was exciting but nerve-wracking; perhaps because the year outside academic life begins to open your eyes to the opportunities of post-university living.
As I hurtle towards Day +100, the first major milestone since my transplant and the trigger for some easing of restrictions, I’m excited but nervous. It’s considerably less than a year since I was diagnosed, and only just over three months since I was touring London’s finest restaurants, theatres and cinemas with Mariacristina, but everything seems different.
This time, though, the biggest changes haven’t been in the environment, but in me. Physically, for a start, I have new bone marrow and a new immune system. This in itself makes the relaxation of my confinement to home a scary prospect; I may be at the end of the most risky period, but the risks are far from over. My untested baby immune system may be getting permission to test itself more openly against the bug-filled world, but it’s only 94 days old and has a vast amount to learn. It’s a big, scary world out there.
The change is pretty sudden, too. One day I’m having to avoid fresh tomatoes in case of infection, for example, so when the next day I’m told I can get back to a ‘normal diet’, I can’t help but eye the otherwise exciting prospect of a fresh tomato with some suspicion… Confinement to home and a restrictive diet can be frustrating, but they do make you feel safe. The consequent fear on leaving these things is probably good in some ways, though: I’ve developed a sharp instinct for avoiding snotty, sneezing people…
I can’t help but see life differently after my relapse and transplant. And just as my year in Versailles didn’t make my experience in Rome any less life-changing, having had to confront leukaemia once already doesn’t diminish the lessons learnt this time around. It’s different, too, as last time I hadn’t had time to make a place for myself in the world before getting ill, so starting afresh was no great change. This time I have a beautiful wife and house and an excellent job, for a start, but now I see them through a different lens – and certainly don’t take any of them for granted.
In addition, my recovery is still going to be relatively slow, and even before all that I have my first major clinic appointment since my transplant, where hopefully we’ll find out about some of the results of a bone marrow biopsy I had the other day. It’s another step along my path, and fingers are crossed that we’ll be told I’m still firmly on the road to recovery.
In cricket, commentators refer to the ‘nervous nineties’ as batsmen approaching a century start to feel the pressure, and I feel a little like that myself. I’m excited and nervous about the milestone and what lies ahead – but even reaching it will feel like a huge achievement.