9th March 2001 at 00:00
Friday, 3.20pm. I've just got to register my form, and then it's the weekend. Or it would be if I was actually in school. Instead I am sitting by the bedside of my 27-year-old wife who is in the late stages of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The consultant has just visited, outlined the slim possibilities of further treatment and she is sleeping comfortably despite the metastasised lung cancer (she has never smoked). And I am the one who has to "go off sick" to care for her.

My wife was a primary teacher before the cancer was diagnosed in April last year. Since then life has gone round and round in circles that cannot be understood by those who have not experienced cancer. Questions - why me? Viruses, depression, normality, rushed back into hospital, scans, chemo, more scans, radiotherapy, more scans, normality, depression and, again, why me?

Throughout this period, my mother-in-law has been able to attend the hospital appointments while I've been at school. There have been times when I have needed and wanted to go with my wife; my school, particularly the staff, have been outstanding in their support. Often this has had to be at short notice, for which I am forever grateful.

Until the middle of last month, teaching was a temporary relief. I admit to not doing the best job I could, but it was a blessed means of escape. After Christmas, despite all the radiotherapy and various courses of chemo - and climbing Snowdon on Christmas Day - my wife's condition deteriorated.

I realised I could no onger function at school so I asked about my entitlement to leave of absence. The school version, as a business, was that I would be entitled to unlimited, unpaid leave, with five days paid before the funeral, one day paid for travelling and five days paid after the funeral, not forgetting the offer of counselling nine months after diagnosis. No other options were discussed.

My union highlighted four options: hand in a week's notice and resign; take unpaid leave; go off sick; carry on as normal taking the odd day off.

During the day I sit with my wife in hospital, during the night my mother-in-law stays with her while I go home, sometimes to sleep, most times to worry, and, to a much lesser extent, to fret that my teaching career of only four years is now tainted by the necessity for me to go "sick".

I recognise the financial implications for my school, but in a career and working environment where compassion, care and support are paramount, should there not be special circumstances that could help myself and the school's situation?

My financial circumstances are of no significance in relation to what really worries me, but the past few weeks would have been a whole lot less stressful if I had not had to worry about getting time off from teaching to care for my wife. I am grateful to everyone at my school for their continued support and I am glad and relieved that I am now able to focus solely on the care of my wife.

Michael Jackson teaches in Nuneaton, Warwickshire

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