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Peter Cunnington’s Last Cast

On the glossy cover of the magazine, a bearded man stands in a fast-flowing stream, his rod bent double, struggling to bring a hooked fish to the net.

“Fly-fishing was one of the great passions of my life,” says Peter Cunnington, paging through a magazine about catching fish on artificial flies tied to represent various aquatic food forms.

“Nothing, nothing, gave me greater pleasure and tranquility, than to walk up and down a bank flicking a fly, sitting, watching what’s going on, what insects are around now, do I need to change my fly? And then doing battle with one of those big boys,” reflects the slight 69-year-old from his bed in Wits Hospice in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.

Cunnington’s “final home,” as he refers to it, is across the road from a luxurious golf course and surrounded by mansions - including the house once occupied by South Africa’s former president and human rights icon, Nelson Mandela.

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At one end of Cunnington’s room is a vase filled with yellow, white and pink roses. Above his bed hangs a wooden cross and photographs of his grandchildren.

“Growing up in the Natal Midlands, I was surrounded by rivers, dams and streams filled with rainbow and brown trout. My idea of heaven, all this water flowing through mountains and green pastures,” he murmurs.

Cunnington yearns “all the time” to be fishing a mountain stream … But he knows he’ll never again experience the pleasure.

Just more than a year ago a doctor told him he had “inoperable, incurable” colon cancer. He was also diagnosed with diabetes.

The South African government says more than 100,000 citizens are diagnosed with cancer every year; almost 300 every day. Many die. Along with its pandemics of HIV and tuberculosis, South Africa is enduring a rapidly growing epidemic of non-communicable or so-called ‘lifestyle’ diseases, including cancer and diabetes. Medical experts say the causes of cancer include genetics, diet, smoking and over-exposure to the sun.

“Shortly after I was told I had cancer I got gangrene (a common symptom of diabetes). I had five operations. I spent seven months in hospital and I’ve been here at hospice for about five months,” Cunnington says.

“If I lie down, I experience no pain. But if I sit up, I can go through the roof. Then there’s the emotional pain and anxiety. But that’s not about me, it’s about my concern for my family, and the pain they’re going through seeing me like this.”

The patient’s turnaround

Cunnington remembers the feelings and questions that pulsed through his body and mind when a doctor told him he had a “few months” left to live. He was shocked. “Angry. Why me Lord? And the why’s. And the why’s and the why’s and the why’s…”

But, shortly after being admitted to the hospice, Cunnington says he experienced what he calls a turnaround when the hospice psychologist Cameron Hogg walked into his room “… and he looked at me and said: ‘Peter, I’m not here to speak about your medical prognosis. What I want to ask you is, ‘What do you plan on doing for the rest of your life?’

“‘You’re a professed Christian. So you’re going to have to account to the Lord one day if you waste the rest of your life. Are you going to tell the Lord, ‘I lay for so many months in bed, getting up to have a cup of coffee and sitting in the sun, reading the odd book and magazine, and waiting for death?’ “

Cunnington says Hogg’s approach affected him “profoundly,” and he arrived at a realization.

“Life is all about choice. I can choose today to say: ‘Oh well, that’s the end of the world; let me just curl up and die.’ Or, I can choose to say: ‘Hang on, there’s more in me yet.’”

So, says Cunnington, he’s chosen to live his remaining days of life productively.

Reference books, including dictionaries, and notebooks are piled on his bedside table. He’s writing two books.

“One is on my experiences in South African prisons,” he says. “To my regret, I was an accountant for most of my life. But later I became involved in educating prisoners.

“Then, I’m writing a work of fiction, based in KwaZulu-Natal, using a farm setting, with various interactions between farmers of Scottish descent and their Zulu workers.”

Cunnington says his research and writing are giving him a “great deal” of joy. “I am basically in a good place, not scared of dying. When the boss man says, ‘Come home,’ then I go home,” he says with a laugh.

Mother’s 90th birthday party

Cunnington says some people can’t understand how he’s able to be so positive, given that his life is hanging by a thread. “I have chased friends out of here, like dogs, because they come in here with negative stuff. Don’t come and talk negative stuff to me!” he exclaims.

Cunnington says others have “badgered” him to pray “non-stop” to be healed of cancer. For them, he says, he always has the same words: “In terms of my faith, I am healed already; this broken body or no broken body – I am healed! I know where I’m going, I’m at peace with myself, I’m at peace with my family, and I’m at peace with God.”

He describes his condition as a “blessing” because it has “forced” him to ask loved ones for forgiveness for some mistakes he made, and to recognize the “truly important things” in life. “I lived for last Sunday. To be at my mom’s 90th birthday was for me something very, very special ... To hear my grandchildren sing for their great-granny was amazing.”

To have loved children is another of his life’s “immense privileges,” says Cunnington. There’s a playschool alongside the hospice, about 50 meters from his room. The air often reverberates with children laughing, shouting and crying. “I wake up in the morning to the sounds of children playing and that makes me incredibly thankful,” he says.

Stubborn son, proud father

As optimistic as he is, Cunnington acknowledges there are “rare” times when he feels “down and dark.” Whenever he experiences negativity, he says, he recalls one of the “greatest moments” in his life.

It’s not anything Cunnington did, but something his son achieved as a boy back on the family farm in the Natal Midlands about 40 years ago. “It was mid-morning, on a blazing hot summer’s day, conditions under which trout are notoriously difficult to catch. But my son insisted on going fishing.

“I told him, ‘You’re wasting your time.’

“But he wouldn’t listen to me…” Cunnington chuckles and gets a little choked up with emotion at the memory of it.

“That boy came back at lunchtime that day with the two biggest trout ever caught at the farm! Aged four and a half he was! Oh! You have no idea of how proud the dad was, and what a fool I felt at the same time…”

Learning to live

Inside his spacious, spick-and-span room at Wits Hospice, Cunnington listens to the radio. The bittersweet, worn voice of Australian singer-songwriter Angus Stone leaks from the speakers.

‘In another world, in another time, in another girl, we were feeling fine, and we were in love…”

Cunnington rests his head on the pillow, reaching beneath the pillow with both hands to cradle it.

“Here, on this bed, I’m doing what I love. I’m not dying here. I’m learning how to live,” he says softly. And then a broad grin creases his face and he adds, “But I do hope the Big Man has a trout stream in heaven…”