Health: David Beresford's diary

With six weeks to go before my brain operation, I am troubled by a word that is new to me: "lability". It was used by a French neurologist in a report on my condition that said: "There is no apathy and no depression, but he complains of emotional lability, which bothers him a lot." Webster's offered the definition: "Readily or continually undergoing chemical, physical, or biological change or breakdown." My suspicion was confirmed: emotional lability meant blubbing a lot.

They had misunderstood, of course. Not about the crying - I do plenty of that - but about my being bothered by it. I was rather pleased with myself, really.

I have been puzzled for some time by fits of crying. They would hit at genuinely emotional moments, but they were a disproportionate response. For example, when I had to travel to Grenoble for assessment of my suitability for surgery, I was told that a group of friends had clubbed together to upgrade my air ticket. Obviously one feels a surge of warmth at such a gesture and perhaps brushes away tears of appreciation. But I found myself staggering around, sobbing my heart out and gasping to my concerned-looking partner: "I don't know what's going on."

One of the many positive experiences of Parkinson's is the way it brings home the understanding that we are the product of chemical balances, or imbalances. So I suspected this response reflected another instance of my neurons, or whatever, misfiring because of a dopamine shortfall. In Grenoble I checked my theory with the neuropsychologist. She confirmed it was a known syndrome among Parkinson's patients and mistook my pleased reaction for relief.

On second thoughts, maybe she was right in detecting relief. No one likes to be known for breaking down in tears. Besides, I must be sensitive to questions of courage; why else my interest in the polar explorers? My attention was drawn to the polar regions by a photograph of a penguin I stumbled over on the net some months ago. The bird was seemingly greeting the photographer by proudly displaying an egg at its feet. A caption said it was from a glass negative taken by a member of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the Antarctic. The fanciful thought passed through my mind that the penguin was reminding the expedition of the importance of life.

Inspired to dig out my copy of Scott's diary, I was startled to discover that "I am just going outside - I may be some time" were not in fact Oates's last words. In fact after recording the sentence, Scott goes on to say: "We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him..." So the famous line did not lead to his departure, but to a discussion.

It was not the only discussion on the subject. The previous weekend Scott is to be found recording that "Oates is very near the end... He is a brave, fine fellow and understands the situation, but he practically asked for advice."

Discussions on the subject are also hinted at by Scott's attempt to impose his authority on the story of Oates's death: "Should this be found, I want these facts recorded. Oates's last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death."

Intriguingly, in the final days of their ordeal there was also a row between the explorers over the possibility of suicide. Scott notes that the expedition's doctor was forced to hand over "the means of ending our troubles" in the form of 30 opium tablets each.

For further reading on the subject, I turned to The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. A classic study of courage in the face of adversity, it is an account of the expedition told by its second-youngest member, who demonstrated exquisite insights into his fellow men.

Most memorable were his observations of Scott. "He was strong," the young man notes. "We never realised until we found him lying there dead how strong, mentally and physically, that man was." At another point he characterises Scott as "the strong leader whom we went to follow and came to love", adding that "he cried more easily than any man I have ever known".

Most of us have heroes, I guess. Mine is Lance Armstrong, who beat testicular cancer to become the greatest cyclist in the world. Watching him pedalling through the fields of pain in the Tour de France, I was struck by the absence of any sign of emotional lability.

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