Shatterproof

It’s just over two years since cancer darkened my doorstep, turned my world upside down and ripped away some irreplaceable parts of my life.   The body I live in is not the one I grew up with, the scars I carry aren’t restricted to my chest and my days are all a little less carefree than they used to be. Cancer is cunning so ongoing vigilance is unavoidable. Vigilance means thinking about it, checking for it, watching, listening, monitoring, observing. The last thing a cancer patient wants to do is think about cancer, the sensible thing is to remain forever aware.

Recently I returned for a follow-up mammogram, part of standard cancer patient after care. (According to NICE guidelines I should be offered an MRI – so far that hasn’t been forthcoming and doubtless it’s all down to cost). The mammogram result came through earlier this week with a letter that says “there were no signs of abnormality which is obviously reassuring news.” I struggle to get excited about it or breathe even the smallest sigh of relief because this news isn’t completely reassuring. I had a false-negative result before and a piece of paper stating no sign of abnormality could so easily have sealed my fate. Fortunately I favoured instincts over x-rays on that occasion, a decision that almost certainly added a few years to my life.

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Its only now, a while down the line, that I can look back with some clarity and say the last two years have been  physically, emotionally and psychologically tough. The profound uncertainties, constant ambiguity, twists and turns of every medical procedure all the while never quite knowing if the picture was complete and true. The disappearing acts, privation and injustices, because a broken spirit is, of course, the ideal accompaniment for a broken body and traumatised mind. The toll of treatment, the obvious and not so obvious impairments and the side-effects that are permanent not temporary. The maelstrom raging over the last couple of years might have proven all-consuming, it’s  brutality, ferocity and relentlessness shattering mind, body and spirit into a kaleidoscope of jagged shards each too small and uneven to form anything other than an unsightly mess.

I’ve learnt a good deal through this tumult of experiences. The instability, nihilism, dispossession and  separateness. The labels help paint an accurate representation of a time that rendered more chaos and confusion than any other in my life. Yet I’m here and they’re just labels. They summarise a point in time but they are not me. . .    It seems unlikely anyone could endure a period like this without being a tiny bit broken as a result, but this damage doesn’t have to be irreparable. I will always be incomplete, imperfect and scarred and in spite of those things I’ve learnt what it means to be unrelenting,  intrepid and shatterproof.

 

Silence

Clee hill

 

It’s hard to believe it’s just two weeks since our trip to London. It’s even more difficult to believe that a visit to the capital city with all its hustle and bustle, perpetual motion, noise and mayhem, could be seen as an oasis of tranquillity. My son had said “I don’t want this to end…” I can easily see why.

When I took up my current post I made a conscious decision to step back a level. In doing so I sought to achieve something that had eluded me for several years – the fabled work-life balance. I’d come to believe it was as rare as a unicorn and the last time I saw one of those I was seven years old with my head in a mythological creatures book!

Being a well-paid business person is all well and good but the salary isn’t much help if you’re dead. No matter how good the employer they’re unlikely to pay your family for your untimely demise due to overwork or work-induced critical illness. I know too many people who didn’t make it to retirement age and not one of them said they wished they’d spent more time at work.

My father, knowing me well (and holding much the same values, ethics and ethos), has often said I wouldn’t like a boring job. He’s right, whichever way I look at it that statement is true. I find slow, bureaucratic and/or stagnant very unattractive along with anything that requires scant intellectual challenge. It’s not that I’m hard to please, I just need some pace, some food for thought, some ability to improve things (you know the phrase change or die? Only one of those conditions is aspirational), and some willing comrades to work with. I like being part of a good team delivering interesting, useful stuff that makes a difference to other people’s lives.

Along with cancer the eighty-hour week is something I chose to consign to the past and having consciously stepped back I wasn’t looking for the kind of role that rips through your every waking hour like the biggest dawg-gone twister this side of the yellow brick road. I wasn’t looking so guess what I got… Some sparkling red shoes and one hell of a journey in all directions.

Preventing my head from exploding or simply rolling off my shoulders has been a high priority over the last few months. As a naturally hardworking person with empathic tendencies and the ability to carry a heavy load, (one of my previous French colleagues said “you English work like stupid donkeys” and in my case he was probably right), I sometimes forget that the maelstrom happening all around me also works its way into and through me. I do not want to be caught up in the chaos or torn to wafer-thin shreds because at a cellular level my health probably can’t withstand that turmoil again.

People develop cancer because normal
cells suddenly become abnormal. The abnormal cells proliferate because they never switch off. Holistically and right down at a nano level we’re all supposed to switch off.

Silence is the best option and lately I hunt it down like a trained assassin. Alone isn’t worry-making for me, it’s a long story for another time. I’m happy searching out the most depopulated, remote, off-the-beaten-track places I can find. North Wales is good, mile upon mile of hills with little evidence of any other humans to be seen. Clee Hill summit is also good and somewhat closer to home. I almost bought a house on Clee a few years ago. The purchase fell through but not before one of my dear colleagues of the time advised against living there… “they’re strange folks up on the hill you know…”

Despite the warning the hill is where I went last weekend and it’s where I’ll be heading this weekend too. It’s empty. Emptiness is next to godliness as far as I’m concerned. Past the car park the only way to the summit is to walk using one of the scrawny uneven paths carved out by rugged sheep who look at you knowingly as you pass by. It isn’t an easy walk for me, flat ground is better, but there’s no hope of finding an expanse of flat ground devoid of human detritus, clutter and noise nearby. The hills are all that’s left, untouched by developers because they’re frequently inhospitable.

The walk is worth the pain because the environment is strangely welcoming. It is often totally silent. Have you ever heard complete silence, the kind that engulfs you from head to toe, seeps under your skin and deep into your psyche? You could be persuaded to think the whole world disappeared except on top the hill you can see it stretching in front of you like an impossibly large green carpet.

Close your eyes and you could be out in the dark silent vastness of space.

For a split second the silence is eerily daunting because our lives are so full of 24×7 noise. When the birds stop singing there is no sound at all. Even the voice we all carry in our heads, the one that reminds us to put the trash out, buy some milk, clean the car, phone Susan – and for goodness sake get a grip of your work email because there’ll be a thousand more to deal with next week – seems to find it’s mute button. All it takes is an hour’s silence.

A few years ago I couldn’t imagine the thing I most enjoy at weekends would be scrambling up a barren hilltop past some tumbledown ruins, a handful of sheep and the occasional crow simply to find a complete and all-consuming silence. A silence impervious to everything including the chattering of one overly conscientious inner voice. The desolate hilltop is the only thing keeping me from the madness of a world that was not of my making. I will fix it because my conscience doesn’t allow for anything else but this time I am older, wiser and understand the costs involved. They are not mine to be borne alone.

Something to Remember

There’s a saying that “It’s the moments, not the milestones, that matter.”

21 is a significant milestone and I think it’s still worthy of a whole bouquet of memorable moments, even if it’s no longer the age of coming of age. So when we set off for our trip to London me and my son had simple aims – generate many enjoyable and memorable moments, celebrate his 21st birthday before, during and after the day itself, and create something special we’d remember for the rest of our lives.

I said in my previous post that regaining the time stolen away from us by cancer, depression and a bunch of other adverse events over the last few years was impossible. In terms of linear time, the kind measured in seconds and hours, that’s true. We cannot go back and rewrite the past.  Non-linear time is a different story because it’s measured in friendship, conversations, smiles, laughter and small kindnesses. Those things evade the confines of seconds and hours, they’re unbounded and run through our lives like invisible seams of gold. Humanity’s obsession with longevity measured by defined units of time can lead us to forget that our dearest memories are woven from the gossamer strands of innumerable moments, each of which is infinite and everlasting.

This week the moments meant we both forgot the stresses and strains of the past, the things we couldn’t do, can’t change, gave up or had to cancel. We forgot death came calling, ignored the various absurdities of our lives and created a sparkling sea of moments unfettered by time, tasks or the uninvited terrors of sentience. We rode the tube, walked the embankment, wandered around Soho and dined in China Town. We went to a couple of bars, ate birthday cake, people-watched and admired the landmarks. We received an unexpected upgrade on our theatre tickets so had the best seats on J’s 21st birthday… Thanks Palace Theatre 🙂 We talked about previous birthdays, growing up, options to make this an annual mini-holiday just for the two of us,  the places we’d like to visit and things we’d like to do.

We set off for London with a few simple aims – celebrate, enjoy, make memories and we did that. Our mission was fully accomplished in one tiny, profound moment as we walked back to our hotel along the Charing Cross Road.  “You know Mom” he said, “I’m enjoying our time so much I don’t want it to end. I wish this could last forever…”  We smiled at each other both knowing that it will.

Coming of Age

It’s my son’s twenty-first birthday next week and I can hardly believe the years have passed so swiftly. He arrived exactly on his due date and has quietly filled my heart with joy ever since. It’s natural for a mother to feel proud of her son but I’m especially proud of him because his life to date has been far from straightforward and the last few years have been particularly tough for us both.  Years that should’ve been fun and carefree for him were marred by my cancer treatment. He was then diagnosed with anxiety and depression but we both know it had been wrapping its arms around him for several years. I suspect my illness played a significant role in tipping that delicate balance and the thought rests heavy on my soul.

Slowly but surely we are both reconfiguring our lives, learning to live with heartache, uncertainty and confusion safe in the knowledge that whatever happens we’ll find a way through. We know we can’t make up for the carefree years that were stolen away so instead we’re aiming to make 21 extra special, starting from today.

A week of celebrations begins with cake, candles and presents in advance of his actual birthday. It’s the first year that he’s been able to open anything early and we decided to bring this part of the festivities forward because he and I are going away for a few days next week. Carrying everything to London and back would be logistically difficult. Although 21 isn’t technically the year of coming of age (voting and alcohol are both legal from 18) it’s still an important milestone.

When he was 18 I put together an A – Z photo album of words and pictures representing who he is and what he loves.  There were other presents that year but the photo album is the one he treasures most. This year I’ve been busy researching all the events of 1993 as well as occurrences that took place on the day of his birthday over the course of the last 21 years.  This task has been made much easier through the wonders of the interweb! Having found a host of 1993 events plus a notable occurrence on each of his birthday’s from 1993 to 2013, I’ve turned them into illustrations – cartoons with a snippet of information about the event – to make a unique present he can look back on in years to come.  There are other presents too but I’m hoping this one will join the photo album among his favourites.

Our trip to London is the first time we’ve been away together for far too long. He loves the hustle and bustle, travelling by tube, street performers in Covent Garden, the glazed ducks and bright orange squid hanging in the windows of China Town’s restaurants, the smell (and taste) of all that Chinese food. He also loves the theatre so this visit includes a couple of surprise West End shows which are sure to be a lot of fun. Both productions will have us singing like song larks for the rest of the week so by the time next weekend arrives we’ll be hoarse, in serious danger of annoying anyone in earshot, or both!

I’m glad we’ve been able to secure this time together, that nothing else has impinged on it, that we are both in reasonably good health and can go away for a few days to create some new, happier memories for his coming of age.

(These pictures were taken last weekend. He played for over 5 hours in a charity football tournament with all the proceeds going to St. Peter’s Hospice and raised over £1000. Another good reason for me to be proud of him 🙂 ).