When I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer I set up a separate blog to record my thoughts, and vowed to keep the professional and personal blogs apart. But this is different. Mike Baker, like me, worked in education. But, it was our respective journeys through cancer which brought us together. So, I’m crossing the divide here, for reasons which are obvious.
It feels odd to be writing a tribute to someone I’ve never actually met. But most people working in education are mourning the loss of the finest journalist who worked in the field. I heard the (not unexpected) news of Mike’s passing while at a wedding, on an idyllic day in Ambleside. People come into our lives in the most unexpected ways. I had always admired Mike’s work as the BBC’s education correspondent and so, when I heard of his cruel cancer diagnosis, (a non-smoker getting lung cancer just isn’t fair) I felt moved to write and tell him of my own journey through the disease.
We wrote to each other regularly after that, and Mike was generous enough to refer to my own blog through his own award-winning cancer blog. Typically Mike, he optimisically,reflected on my own response to the diagnosis:
“It is clear from his blog that David is quite happy to be open about his situation. It’s also a very encouraging and positive blog and I’m happy to report that David is doing well and is living a full and amazingly productive life. I won’t go into everything he said in his email to me as that’s private but I will say that it gave me enormous encouragement. He was also spot on about several things: that the first few weeks are the worst, that there’s a lot of comfort to be had from talking to fellow patients, and that it’s good to keep as busy as you can.
He also said something which I thought was brave to say to another cancer patient, namely that he could honestly say that he felt lucky to have had cancer. I know that is a risky thing to say and may be hard to understand for anyone who has lost someone to cancer but I do, already, know exactly what he means by it. It is a chance to rethink your life, to say things to those close to you that you really should have said but never quite got round to, and a chance to get your priorities right. I’m not saying I’ve achieved that yet. I still worry about the small stuff. But I’m moving in the right direction. So thank you, David and continuing good luck to you.”
Whatever comfort I may have given Mike at this difficult time in his life is overshadowed by a sense of guilt – that I got a slow-developing, containable, cancer, while he got a viciously aggressive form.
My tribute, therefore, is not to do with his working life – impressive though that was, and testified, in recent days, by successive Secretaries of State for Education. It is the way he conducted himself in life, and especially, in death.
Mike’s blog chronicles coming face-to-face with our own mortality. And it’s an inspiring read. His lust for life stayed till the very end. His love of family, woodworking and the British countryside rings out from every post. As an educator, however, I was most taken by his thirst to learn. As a musician, I was delighted by his decision to learn to play the ukelele only weeks before his passing. He must have known he was fighting a losing battle but, as in his admiration for Phillip Gould’s departure, he was determined to squeeze out every ounce of joy of living, even in the throes of dying. The final chapter in Mike’s wonderful life is written by his wife, Chrissy in the final blog post – it’s incredibly moving, but, as a way to take your leave, it’s about as good as it gets: living, loving and learning till the very end.
The day after he died, I picked up my own ukelele, sang ‘What A Wonderful World’, and thought of Mike.