Finally, halfway! And still relatively asymptomatic. The skin on my neck and lower jaw is now pretty sore even with the cream (but less itchy). For now fatigue is steady in that I get bursts of it during the day but it’s not constant. Swallowing has actually improved a little since the 2nd day I was on magic mouthwash, perhaps because of its cumulative effects and also because I have been particularly attentive to the viscosity of the food I consume. And I drink vast quantities of water with meals.

After some inquiries this morning, I have it on good authority that the arrival of clowns and the breakdown of x-ray machinery yesterday was just a coincidence. They come once a month. Just in case you were wondering. One of the technicians said to the clowns that their timing was not so good. . . .

Yesterday, I awoke at about 6am for a 7am dose of radiation so I could attend convocation. Which is the subject of the rest of this post.

McGill splits convocation into several different batches, and the Faculty of Arts (of which our department is a part) is also split in two. We got the 10-12 slot. As part of the stage party, the other profs and I (and assorted others) gathered in the Arts building at 9:30 to put on our very medieval uniforms and hats. McGill’s regalia in red, black and various accent colors are far superior to the University of Illinois’, which are an unfortunate combination of orange and blue. Also, we got nice puffy brimmed hats instead of mortarboard caps. In any event, since the university loans faculty regalia if they don’t own any, we were happy to wear McGill’s. Actually, because I am a larger size and the regalia company is less than accommodating (despite several weeks’ notice), the rather ingenious convocation officer found me a larger sized gown that happened to be for a doctor of music. So while others in the arts procession who didn’t bring their own regalia got green trim, I got pink, which actually looked great. And I guess that will do until the Faculty of Music gets around to offering me a courtesy appointment.

Anyway, when the ceremony began, we put on our outfits and marched down the center of campus behind a guy with bagpipes. I was first in line on the right (not my decision) and it was loud, especially when we entered the tent set up for graduates. If you have never had the chance to march in step with someone playing bagpipes, I actually highly recommend it. It was an unexpectedly moving pleasure, especially walking into the space with the hundreds of people. We then took our place on the stage, sat through speeches, watched our students graduate, and then marched out two hours later (give or take). Alas, there is no opportunity to hood one’s own PhDs, and though some profs got up to congratulate their own students or students in their own program, I didn’t really figure out that this was normal in time to do it for my own student who was graduating and I had a slight fear of falling off the rafters in a most spectacular fashion, but it was still nice to be up there.

Also, completely by accident and not by choice, my face appeared behind the podium on the big screen on several occasions. As far as I know, this was not an issue except when the chancellor went on an unexpected excursus from his ceremonial speech to instruct the new graduates about how “you are in control of your health.” I’m sure it wasn’t in reality very long, but trying to keep a straight face at hearing about how we are all in control of everything was a real challenge, having just arrived from external beam radiation. Neither I nor any of the other cancer patients I encounter every day in the green room are “in control” of our diseases or our treatment. We have submitted, and maybe committed to the situation (at least I have), which is very different from being “in control.”

To be fair, maybe it was just how I heard it and my own state of mind given what I’m dealing with. But maybe it was the cognitive dissonance from the fact that it was the parents and grandparents in the audience who were more likely to be the cause of the healthcare-occasioned fiscal crisis than the hundreds of about-to-be-former undergraduates. Or maybe it was the fact that I don’t think the proper response to the fiscal challenges facing healthcare is to tell the sick not to be too much of a burden on the system. I don’t know anyone who wants to be sick. Or maybe it was just a dose of puritanism to go with those bagpipes I enjoyed. (Moral: there may be a social cost to enjoying bagpipes too much).

A portion of the most common causes of death are preventable (as he said, “eat right, exercise every day”). But death itself is not preventable, and neither is the breakdown of the body or mind given enough time and given the varying fortunes that life deals us. Every one of us will one day become subject to and in need of care from the healthcare system. The fact that healthcare costs will rise as the population ages is no doubt a cause for great fiscal concern, but I am pretty sure we will all eventually need some of it, no matter how well we take care of ourselves. That is not a fault; it is the human condition.

Happily, the other convocation speakers gave nice talks very fitted to the occasion (including my dean, who I did not expect to hear as a convocation speaker), the valedictorian got all the right laughs, the students smiled and occasionally showboated as they got their degrees, and the families and friend hollered and applauded, just as it should have been.

Healthcare policy and early-morning radiation aside, I would have to say that I have never really liked going to graduations, but I very much enjoyed this one, and would do it again sometime. And it was a delight to see our PhDs march across the stage.

As to bringing politics and morality into graduation speeches, I have probably spent a disproportionate number of words on what the chancellor said. But take it from someone who learned the hard way. It’s probably just not the right gesture for the venue.