If my MS had an address, it would be Abbey Road
‘It seems like years since it’s been clear’ Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles (Abbey Road)
Some diseases will strike loud and hard, like a fist bashing on your front door. Others like mine come in ‘through the bathroom window’, where no-one’s looking.
I’d been in the ‘bathroom’ with my illness for a few years. It was a secret of sorts, only because we didn’t know quite when to get a confirmation.
We’d started living with the numbness in my arm, the eyesight episode, deteriorating balance, a growing pain across my chest. MS was like a future formality that someone would eventually find out and expose.
The diagnosis came first in April 2016 via a dressing room, one of those little semi-private cubicles at a radiology clinic where they give you a frock to put on. I spent about 10 minutes carefully disrobing and stowing all my shrapnel—two phones, wallet, two glasses, coins, clothes. But I took another 5 trying to sort out the light blue disposable gown.
I swear I was a sight from behind, with an inappropriate gap at the back, clearly unfamiliar with even the basic medical exams.
The radiologist, a young woman remarkably shorter than my height-challenged frame, was at first clinical and professional. Stand here. Sit there. Lie down. You’ll be fine. Press the button if you need me.
What she really meant to say was ‘Please don’t freak out on me when I slide your head into a very loud tunnel, but if you must, press the button somewhere in the middle of it all.’
She was right when she said the MRI machine would be loud. Thankfully, though, it wasn’t too loud for me to hear about half of the Abbey Road album I’d selected from a plastic folder of options in the cubicle outside.
‘I feel that ice is slowly melting little darling’
Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles (Abbey Road)
The first scan was painless but confronting. Still a secret from the world, Karen was in the waiting room after a shift at the cafe, the smell of coffee fresh on her blouse.
Inside the tunnel, I couldn’t see anything but the blurry white tunnel wall of the machine. The radiologist was right. It was louder than I’d thought. Sadly, The Beatles were not sounding their best, given the poor quality of the music speakers. It was like Abbey Road was being played on a 1974 tape player that was progressively chewing the cassette with every track. Somehow though it was comforting, hearing the music I’d grown with, music I’d put into playlists while writing a book for Random House a decade before. Though competing with the MRI, Here Comes the Sun was keeping me more outside the tunnel than in.
‘You did really well,’ the radiologist said at the end, though less chirpy than before when she wrapped up the scan and started unwrapping me from the sled I was on.
There was an unusual look on her face. I’d call it concern or sadness although I was probably as jumbled as what her scans were showing.
‘Have you got an appointment with your GP?’ she asked as I got up slowly.
‘Yeah, I made one for later this week but wasn’t sure how long you’d take with the results,’ I replied, catching the concern in her eyes.
‘Good,’ she said, looking down at something on the sled. ‘See him soon.’
‘Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight,
carry that weight a long time’
Carry That Weight, The Beatles (Abbey Road)
‘See him soon.’ I knew what that meant. It was like she was trying to give me a clue without a diagnosis, like she was skirting some ‘Law of Radiology’ that prohibited her from telling me the truth she’d just detected.
Actually, ‘soon’ found me first in the form of a phone call from the GP the next morning.
‘We’ve got the results Paul,’ he said, ‘and I’m not going to beat around the bush. You have MS. It’s clear from the scan yesterday.’
I remember my heart beating a little faster as I walked away from a meeting at work, excusing myself as I took the personal call.
‘I’m not really surprised,’ I said, trying to make it all easier on him for some reason.
‘Yeah, I’m sorry to have to say it.’
The doctor was on his day off but managed to get me back in for another more intense scan that day.
It was exactly that. Intensely longer. I know it went for more than an hour and a half because the re-run of the Abbey Road album I’d selected the day before went through at least twice before they extracted me.
Inside the tunnel that second day I could see more, thanks to a little mirror a new radiologist had put above my eyes. He was more senior than the woman from the day before, and a little less talkative.
I saw more, like him looking intently at the monitor throughout. Like him motioning to the monitor to what looked like the woman who’d done my test the day before. Like her nodding as he showed her things on the monitor. Like they didn’t have any doubt.
I remember wondering what I should do in the tunnel while I waited, trying to distract myself from a tear or a fear of twitching or moving in a way that would wreck the procedure.
I remember saying something to Mum, my mother who’d died from a severe MS five years ago—detected at the palliative care end of a physically hard life that started with polio at age 5.
‘You know what this is like Mum,’ I said, confident she could somehow hear me from Heaven. ‘You’ve been here before. You’ve gone through this tunnel. You’ve heard how loud it is, and how hard it is to go through all this.
‘But there’s something I’m going to do with this Mum,’ I added. ‘This MS that they’re going to tell me I have—it’s not something I’m going to take to the grave, and it’s not taking me to the grave.’
‘Here comes the Sun, do do do do
Here comes the Sun, and I say
It’s all right’
Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles (Abbey Road)