Thursday, November 18, 2010

Proper Use of Knowledge

I had a very interesting weekend. I've been in Nottingham for the wonderfully fannish SF convention, Novacon. I've loved this convention since the very second time I attended. This year Sally came with us. I wasn't sure how much fun it would be for her given that, other than the next generation of fans in the approaching pubescent age and younger, the youngest person is probably in their thirties and the average age looks to be late fifties. As far as I can tell, though, there was enough amusement and book purchasing opportunities to make it a weekend well spent for her.

There were two stand out moments for me. Not Ken MacLeod interviewing Iain Banks though that was an amusing glimpse into a firm friendship and Iain's way of thinking. Not Julian's occasionally immoderate moderating of Iain Banks, Geoff Ryman and Charlie Stross's discussions about hard and mundane SF, fascinating though that was. Not even James Bacon with his endearing rendition of one of Bob Shaw's serious scientific talks although that was very wonderful. No, my moments were less comfortable though more enlightening than any of those.

The first moment came as I arrived at Tarn Thai on Friday evening, decanted from the taxi I had shared with Julia, Doug and Julian. Ian and Sally were waiting outside the restaurant although the rest of the party had gone in. 'There's a problem,' understated Ian. 

I looked at Sally who was hardly breathing in an effort not to cry. 'What's wrong?' I asked and the tight control dissolved into wild sobs. Horribly, I couldn't understand a word she said. Eventually I fathomed it. Her much loved science teacher from school, Mr Friedeberg, had died suddenly. He had been one of those teachers who hadn't lapsed into cynicism or despair but had continued to give huge amounts of time and effort to his pupils. Sally had benefitted from a great deal of extra help from him and her grade B in chemistry was a result of his enthusiasm and selfless dedication as well as her hard work and willpower. He made his subjects interesting and comprehensible, passing his enthusiasm on to the kids who responded by working hard to achieve, and by loving him. Apparently his funeral was so packed that there was no space left.

Once the first powerful torrent of grief had abated somewhat I called a taxi and the two of us went back to the hotel and sat in my room. She talked about the man and what had happened. Mr Friedeberg hasn't been the first important person in Sally's life to die. Both my father and Paul, her Dad's mother, have died but both deaths followed a long period of worsening health and increasing pain, both as a result of brain tumors. The deaths were slow and awful and ultimately a relief. There was plenty of time to say goodbye. Mr Friedeberg died unexpectedly. One of the things that bothered her when she was finally able to drink a mug of tea and reflect on the shock was that she had missed the funeral. When I spoke to her father the next day he said he had known about the death and the funeral but didn't think Sally would be interested and was reluctant to mention it. Augh!!!

OK, so that was my first stand out moment. The next evening we went out to Pappa's for a really substantial Greek meal; enough vegetarian meze for six served to Sally, June and me whilst the remaining five ate enough meat for many more people. We staggered back and Ian, Sally and I subsided on the sofas in the dimly lit back of the bar. We girls had made a bit of an effort with makeup so Ian snapped us with his new iPhone. They're interesting pictures, despite Sally's strange otherworldly silver eyes. Later in the evening Ian showed the pictures to Liam Proven who seemed more concerned than a technical problem might indicate. He suggested to Sally that she should get her eyes looked at, probably not a problem, but really. Do it! When Sally backed away he came and spoke to me. Initially he didn't want to explain but I pressed him. Apparently there had recently been a story about a toddler who, in her birthday photographs had one redeye reflection and one eye that reflected white. The white reflection was a result of cancer of the retina which displaced the capillaries that cause redeye. Very gently, after repeating that it was extremely unlikely, he told me that that type of cancer had a very good chance of cure if caught early enough, but the eyes would have to be removed. I looked across at Sally who was chatting to Julia. She was animated, happy and very beautiful. I can't begin to describe the dread and grief I felt. Liam repeated that it was very unlikely, that it usually happens to much younger children but that, really, to be on the safe side, I should make sure she got it checked. He wandered off leaving me ashen.

Five minutes later I'd explained Liam's warning to Ian and he'd immediately devised a scientific experiment. He dashed upstairs for his usual camera. Photographs of Sally with this displayed wonderful, lovely redeye. Photos of Julia with the iPhone had scary silver eyes. Somehow it must be function of how the flash works on an iPhone. My relief was almost as devastating as the fear. I didn't know what to do with myself. 

I would like to note here that Ian's reaction is one of the reasons why I love him so much. In a crisis he is calm, clear thinking and wonderfully practical. Laura Wheatly and Julia Daly, also practical and terrifically sensible, helped me calm down from my adrenaline high. 

So. It was a false alarm. I was utterly terrified for, as it turns out, no reason. Should Liam have kept quiet because the information would upset me? Good God no! I never want to have another trauma like that but half an hour of deep terror is trifling compared to losing my child. 
My final point is that information can often cause pain but without it we may make false choices with results that might range from mildly embarrassing to disastrous. Failing to pass information either shows a lack of respect for a person or cowardice. I never think it is better not to know. We can't be in control of our own destinies if we have no conception of reality. We can only gauge that by obtaining all the information and testing it. And then maybe seeking the support of understanding friends.


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