Ryan Grieve laughs then cries remembering the time he forgot how the sun felt on his skin.
He’d spent a month indoors, dealing with pain that made soft sensory comforts irrelevant.
“I was on bedrest for a month just from ascites [fluid build-up] and pain and whatnot where it kind of felt like being skinned alive for quite a long time,” Grieve says.
“After a month I went outside and I’d forgotten what the sun felt like, and just thinking about that, yeah… does get me teary. It didn’t actually hit me ’til I went inside. Then I was like ‘oh man’.”
The 23-year-old’s liver doesn’t work properly any more and unprocessed excess fluid creates abscesses beneath his skin.
It’s one of many symptoms that comes with the final stages of terminal liver cancer.
But the few tears Grieve wipes away retelling this are more for depth of feeling and a kind of gratitude than self-pity.
He has gained perspective and wisdom over the past eight months, despite much being taken from him.
“I have a lot more understanding of everything if it makes sense – just how things work, because I’m allowed to see it from an external point of view,” Grieve says.
“It’s pretty cool to see that before I get to go. It’s kind of hard to put into words.”
Sitting with his mum Vikki Blundell in the back garden of the Hamilton home they have rented to live together for this part of Ryan’s “journey”, there is little space for dwelling on the past or future.
“He’s taken a major leap in wisdom in the past six months. You know how a lot of people don’t reflect on their life until much later in life,” Blundell says.
“It seems like Ryan’s been doing that. Always was wise, but now wiser. Ryan literally stopped to smell the roses and it becomes a spiritual experience sort of. What a gift.”
This immediacy goes for Blundell too.
“I just focus on now. I know what’s going to happen but it’s not this day. This day, Ryan needs care and love and support and that’s what he gets, and later’s later,” she says.
“It’s a big job and it’s 24/7 so I have enough energy to support my son and keep myself well and what’s left goes to my other children. And there is nothing left for anything else. There’s no energy for drama or catastrophising. That’s the simple truth of it.”
But the past year has brought upheaval for the two of them that stands out in a year of upheaval for everyone on the planet.
In June, on hearing of Grieve’s sudden diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, Blundell made an arduous journey from Peru to New Zealand as the globe shut down in the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Blundell had lived in the city of Cusco in the Peruvian Andes for three years.
A life epiphany of sorts saw her abandon a corporate career in New Zealand as general manager of the Graeme Dingle Foundation, and she was setting up a tourism business in her new “home”.
“If I had’ve had to stay there I would not be sane,” Blundell says.
“They ended up with a 200-day lockdown. It went on much longer after I had left. I’m just so glad I got out when I did.”
In the eight months since mother and son were reunited there have been undeniable trials.
“I had to stop the treatment, it was doing very poorly within my body,” he says.
“I think it worked for a certain amount and then started to do damage. When it was being intravenously put in it felt like the bottom part of my spine was turning into broken glass.
“The first one worked relatively well. I’m pretty sure it’s a major contributor to why I’m still here. So I’m happy that I did it but it was just a bit too much at the time.”
A regime of 16 pills a day numbs Ryan’s ongoing pain and helps him digest his restricted diet.
An “emergency pack of meds” that Blundell knows how to administer helps in extreme pain.
In January, Grieve had internal haemorrhaging and was rushed to hospital.
“Things can happen quite suddenly. We’re both calm. We don’t panic. We’re in it together,” Blundell says.
“When he vomited blood that was pretty serious. We didn’t panic. Called the doctor, who said, go to the emergency department. Even getting through ED was quick. It’s just keeping a level head and just dealing with whatever’s happening at the time.”
He also returned home from hospital two weeks ago after surgery to place a permanent tunnel drain in his abdomen for excess fluid that was causing him much discomfort.
But although Grieve does not know how much time he has left, he has committed to several personal projects.
In the shed of their Rototuna rental home where he lives with his mum and younger brothers, Callum and Connor, Grieve has been rebuilding his paintball guns in preparation for another game with his mates on the anniversary of his June diagnosis.
His uncles Grant and Rodney Blundell have also been almost constant fixtures at the house. A Givealittle page has also assisted in Grieve and Blundell’s living expenses.
Grieve is also considering writing an autobiography on his experiences over the past year.
“It’s kind of day to day. If you plan, you plan a day ahead. Nothing more, nothing less,” he says.
“It’s pretty simple. The support’s been amazing. Always had someone to talk to, always had someone to help me out if I need it. Ride the wave – my specialist told me that and I’ve never forgot. You’ve only got to go through certain things once. There’s no point being afraid of them.”
Blundell says her son’s philosophy to his cancer has amazed her. She says she has never seen any anger from him at his situation.
“I think he’s extraordinary. He’s so good natured. Kind. Still cares about everyone else. I heard him say ‘it’s not about me’,” she says.
“If Ryan can help someone else he will. And that’s part of the reason he did the immunotherapy because it’s a new drug combination. Part of the thinking was by Ryan trialling it, it’s supporting others in the future.”
And Grieve has been given something too.
“I’ve lost a lot of strength. But gained a lot of will power though. I had no idea I was this strong.”
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