A regrettable winter

My mother died twenty years ago this December 2nd. I remember it clearly for several reasons. Her death was unexpected, she’d almost finished chemo following another run-in with cancer. Cruelly, she was in hospital receiving treatment for chemo-related complications and everyone thought she’d be home for Christmas – she wasn’t ready to give up and nor were we but none of us got what we’d hoped for. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint I was there when it happened, and now, 20 years on, the violence of her death still plays vividly in my memory with full technicolor and time stretching slow motion despite my best attempts to erase that fateful winter day.

In the early years following her death seasons of the year blended one to another, life continued but the gap she left behind was all consuming. Christmas, which had always  been one of my favourite times of year, became desolate and hurtful. My memories consisted only of my Mother’s untimely death and the actions that had consumed me in the period leading up to her funeral. I spent many Christmases in the wilderness, caught between bereavement and bewilderment. It is not a time I would choose to relive.

Roll forward twenty years and I’m still here, and still filled with sadness about my Mother’s death. It’s no longer acutely painful because as humans I suppose we’d cease to function if anguish and torment stayed so raw for so long. Today the feeling resembles a blanket of numbness, the kind that comes with Novocain. You know there’s a lot of pain beneath but on the surface it’s no longer perceivable. Somehow  you know it’s a trick, because the numbness is transitory and the pain might resurface when the Novocain wears off. So you hope it never wears off.

For the longest time just thinking about my Mother conjured images of her death and nothing else. It’s taken two decades for other, happier memories to creep back in.  My Mother was never a moaner. Throughout her illness she never asked “why me.”  During her sickest, most challenging days she always had more concern for others than she did for herself.  Generosity of spirit was one of her greatest characteristics and something I learned a great deal from.

Twenty years on my relationship with my Mother’s death has shifted from one of desolate unhappiness at her early departure to one of gratitude and profound joy for the time we spent together. Of course I’d have wanted her to have 80-something years on Earth instead of the 40-something she achieved. I’d have wanted her to enjoy many more happy years with my Father and live to see her grandson grow into a young man with a passion for helping others and a talent for medicine. Winter 1996 snatched all of those things and more away from us. But times change and winter is no longer such a regrettable time of year. I remember happier times, times spent with my Mother making Dundee cake and Brandy snaps,  decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping presents. Her death was cruel and untimely but her loveliness and warmth live on, timeless and unchanging.

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

 

 

 

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Another year over…

The winter solstice passed by ten days ago and in the northern hemisphere, slowly but surely, daylight hours are beginning to increase. Tonight we usher in another New Year and in doing so set this one behind us. Another year over. In less than 6 months the summer solstice will mark a return to darker nights and the cycle – birth and death, growth and decay, dark and light – will continue. That is how our planet works.

At two points in my lifetime our family had five generations to celebrate Christmas and New Year, something of a rarity even in days when families were very large and women typically had children in their late teens or early twenties. Today very few of us remain and those who do are scattered over long distances across three continents.  Family is important to me and I would happily forgo all worldly goods for the opportunity to spend an extra year with lost loved ones, though a year would be insufficient because some were lost at a very young age. Young or old I know that parting again from those held dear would be far too difficult, something I would not relish for a second time so memories and photographs must suffice.

My oldest living relatives, my great aunt and great uncle, are 86 and 89 respectively. I was unable to visit during cancer treatment because I was chemo-pale and sickly, doing my best to avoid infections. They had experienced all that 17 years ago, immediately before they lost their only daughter and I couldn’t countenance this elderly couple bearing witness to the ravages of cancer treatment yet again.  A couple of years on and I’m largely recovered, pass for near-normal and have a functioning immune system. The Christmas break offered a good opportunity to visit and I found that Aunt and Uncle wear time well. They remain largely independent though they’ve both faced many personal health challenges in the last few years. They continue to live in the house they moved in to over half a century ago, the first house to be occupied on their street of brand new houses at the time.  Uncle tells me they are the last of ‘the originals’ on the street, they have seen many people come and go and he has lost his oldest friend in the last few months. Great aunt remains a country girl at heart, the Welsh lakes and mountains are never far from her thoughts and I am sure if she could, she would return there.  Though they’ve been married for 63 years I noticed Aunt continues to call Uncle cariad; he calls her cariad in return. Darling or sweetheart in Welsh. We talk of many things, of our lost loved ones and of those who are still here, of modern times and days gone by. Uncle gives M a bottle of beer and they discuss their favourite brews, he has a J2O for me because Aunt has told him I’m doing my best to take care of my health. We pet their dog (who is also very old at c17 but no-one knows his age for sure – he was rescued). We drink tea and remind Aunt and Uncle to keep warm in the cold weather, stay safe indoors.  The visit passes quickly and when its time to go Uncle takes my hand and says “keep looking after yourself, once there were lots of us but now there are few. We don’t want to lose any more.”  So true.

I wonder if there’s a point in our lives when we come to realise time slips through us quickly, more quickly than we might appreciate? If so, does the realisation change the way we view the world and go about our lives? Perhaps our experiences ordain when that point might be and make it dawn earlier for some than others, if at all?  As ever there are so many questions that seem to have so few real answers. 

Another year over and I think perhaps I have reached the point where I appreciate the value of time, how fleeting it is and how far beyond our control it lies. I also realise, and have done for a while, that I am free. Free from worrying about my pension, what other people think, how I look, whether my health will stay stable or my joints will ever improve.  I realise there is no time to waste which means enjoying the time there is, all of it, in whatever shape or form it takes. That is my mission for 2015, nothing more and nothing less.

To everyone who has followed Fecthis, liked and commented, thank you all – your encouragement and support is truly inspiring. To those who are facing cancer afresh or continue to live with it, I send fortitude, love and compassion. For everyone, I send wishes for happiness, well-being and peace in the year ahead. You are all amazing and you all deserve more time than human form allows.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

Yuletide Gratitude & Thankfulness

It’s the season of goodwill and all around me friends and family are scurrying to get ready for Christmas.  Although a number of us hold no strong religious convictions we preserve many of the customs handed down from generation to generation. As well as giving gifts we decorate our homes with fir trees, holly, ivy and mistletoe, a practice that pre-dates Christianity.

The ancient Celts cut mistletoe and placed sprigs above their doorways offering protection from bad weather and evil spirits. The mistletoe festival and crowning a mistletoe queen still takes place in my local village.  The ancients believed mistletoe was sacred and used it as a cure for many illnesses (please don’t eat it, it’s poisonous). To them it represented peace, friendship and fertility. Bringing greenery into the home at Yuletide also served as a reminder that once the winter solstice had passed the sun would return and crops would grow.

To live in a fertile land where food is plentiful is a blessing but I haven’t lost sight that I am fortunate to be able to feed my family. Although we live in a modern society there are many here who are hungry, cannot afford both food and accommodation, or whose families rely on food banks to ensure they can eat one meal per day.  As well as hungry people there are hungry animals, abandoned or neglected due to circumstance or spitefulness.  Eating is something many of us take for granted. When you’ve been hungry and had no money for food you realise being able to buy produce is something to be thankful for.

My country is largely peaceful and for that I am grateful too. There are incidents, more violence and intolerance than I would want, but most of us feel safe in our homes and out on the streets. The various Governments of my country engage in warfare from time to time though this is rarely done with the support of all citizens. The sanctity of life is important, yet perhaps we only realise how important when looking death straight in the face? Once you understand that time and old age are not givens as I and anyone affected by a critical illness soon learns, your perspective changes. Life is not something to be wasted over power struggles, land disputes or disparate beliefs.  I am grateful for every second of my life, the ups and downs, the quiet solitude, the time with family and friends. Much has changed in the past 2 years and there is no doubt life is harder, more uncertain and sometimes frustrating. Yet I am not regularly faced with procedures I have no choice in, made sick as part of the process of getting better or mentally confined in the land of the lab rat. I am thankful that those days are gone, that I am largely intact and still have hold of a reasonable chunk of physical and cognitive ability

I am grateful for those who are dear to me, whether nearby or far away, for the friends I’ve known since school and my virtual friends who have offered so much support. I am thankful that my son is showing signs of improvement and the depths of his depression are not as all-consuming as they were in summer.  I am glad we trust each other enough to talk about the problems and seek help. My Dad is simply amazing and if people were paid based on the goodness in their hearts he would be the best paid man on the planet. I am glad we are so close and have the ability to find strength in adversity.

I am thankful to prepare for another Christmas, to decorate the tree, wrap gifts and listen to cheesey songs. I’m grateful to have time with my family, drink tea and eat toast in a warm house surrounded by cats while a storm is raging outside. I’m thankful for the chance to experience 2014, wake each day and watch the seasons change. I am grateful for my humanity and my commitment to improve things for those around me in any way I can. We may walk this path only once so I’m going to make the most of each minute. I hope like me, you’ll find a way to celebrate the good things in your lives and give thanks for the time you have.

Today’s theme is charity, third of the heavenly graces

An aristocratic lady coming out from temple an...

An aristocratic lady coming out from temple and giving alms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charity: Noun.

  • The voluntary giving of help to those in need.
  • Kindness and tolerance in judging others.
  • Archaic: love of humankind

These reflections (two previous posts can be found here and here) began on Christmas day, my first Christmas undergoing cancer treatment.

When we think about charity we often think of the first definition – voluntary giving of help to those in need.  Charity organisations certainly aim to do this and many do extraordinarily good work.  I’m especially drawn to those who focus upon research, such as Breakthough Breast Cancer.

I believe the solution to the problem called find a cure for cancer lies in more research effort, more accurate tests to detect risks and improved treatments to prevent the proliferation of rogue cells.  By stopping the disease from taking hold, we would in time see an end to harsh regimes like chemo and radiotherapy.  I believe such research may also pay dividends when understanding and tackling other forms of critical and chronic disease. Today remission is the best status most cancer patients and Doctors can hope for and whilst that’s better than nothing, frankly it’s not good enough.

As with everything in life, it also pays to be a little cautious.  Charity donations such as the ribbon campaigns (for all critical and chronic illnesses) have, in some senses, become bandwagons. Take care with your £’s, $’s, ¥’s, €’s; ensure your hard-earned cash makes its way to the charity of your choice not the coffers of a commercial enterprise.  Charity cards are one of the worst examples I can think of; often less than 10% of the purchase price is donated to the charity concerned.  The same is frequently true of fashion items, accessories and jewellery.  Caveat emptor – buyer beware.

The second definition of charity, kindness and tolerance in judging others also struck a chord for me. Almost all cancers are disfiguring in some way or another; where possible surgery is used as the main weapon to ‘cure’ this insidious disease.  As anyone who has had an operation knows, surgery leaves scars.  With luck and over time the scars begin to fade but our bodies are never quite the same again.  For some people this is of little concern; they’re relieved to have a dysfunctional body part removed and see their scars as signs of conviction; a battle fought and won.  For others even when the physical scars fade the emotional and psychological wounds remain raw and painful.  We all react differently, we all have different coping mechanisms and we all have different views on body image and attractiveness.

Kindness and tolerance are essential in helping people come through their diagnosis, treatments and life beyond cancer. I don’t like to highlight this rather sorry state of affairs but self-confidence and self-worth are crucial when living in a world that has become very dog-eat-dog.  The media continue to be guilty of creating false idols; images of perfect people with bodies most of us can never aspire to when 100% fit and healthy (because they’re air-brushed, photo-shopped and in essence FUBAR). Charity, the third heavenly grace, suggests we need to be more honest.  Perfect people don’t exist in the real world; people with scars whether physical, emotional or psychological are the real world.  I urge that they should not be forsaken, made to feel less worthy, less attractive or less confident because kindness and tolerance are reserved for the few, not the many.

The archaic definition of charity, love of humankind, is my personal favourite.

This Christmas I’ve been inundated by the love of humankind and I feel very humbled.  Gifts of shawls, scarves, beautiful toiletries, candles, gloves, books, chocolate, jewellery, trinkets, food, flowers, music, love and friendship have been bestowed upon me by so many generous and wonderful people. The material gifts are beautiful, all will be cherished; but the most cherished gifts are those of love and friendship. They are priceless and irreplaceable.

I hope to extend the archaic meaning of charity, paying it forward through my love of humankind to those who are dear to me throughout the year ahead. I extend this meaning to the natural world too, the non-human animals of our planet are worthy of my love,  kindness and tolerance as are the lakes and mountains, forests and glades.  I’m not sure if heaven exists; if it does I may not qualify for entry because I’m not a perfect person. I cuss, I get frustrated and I could be more tolerant from time to time.  Even if there’s nothing beyond this life I’ll continue to practice the heavenly grace of charity. I was taught practice makes perfect; I still have time to strive for improvement as do many of the rest of our humankind.

Heavenly graces, cardinal virtues, cancer and Christmas.

christmas paint

christmas paint (Photo credit: cassie_bedfordgolf)

 

Yesterday was busy as Christmas Day always seems to be. Cooking, cooking and more cooking followed by cleaning up. I didn’t mind because the meal was very much enjoyed, even by my son who employs the ‘avoid vegetables at all costs’ policy. Time spent in the kitchen offered an opportunity to reflect on the past year and  consider what it’s like spending Christmas with cancer treatment as my ever-present companion.

 

The words ‘faith, hope and charity’ came to mind as I checked the turkey’s progress.  I’m agnostic and although those words are described by some as the heavenly graces, to me they’re just words with some significant meaning.  Having contemplated the heavenly graces I also mulled over cardinal virtues; fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance.  The Greek philosophers identified these many, many years ago and philosophy was one of my recent topics of study so it’s no surprise the cardinal virtues joined forces with faith, hope and charity as I prepared our carrots and parsnips.

 

These seven words –  faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance are as good as any to describe the experience of cancer at Christmas, the dirty mark it left on 2012 and my attempts to erase it.  I like things to be relatively clean and tidy, not perfect but passable.  Cancer doesn’t fit that bill:

 

CleanAdverb – so as to be free from dirt, marks, or unwanted matter.                   Adjective – free from irregularities, having a smooth edge or surface.

 

Tidy: Verb – bring order to, arrange neatly.  Adjective – arranged neatly and in order.

 

I’m no longer free from marks or irregularities nor am I arranged neatly and in order.  My treatment plan is designed to eradicate unwanted matter but there are no guarantees. I aim to be passable in 2013 hence my theme for today is Faith. 

 

Detecting that there’s something wrong with our bodies calls for faith.  Faith that we’ve a relatively good idea about what we look and feel like, what’s normal and abnormal. Without this underlying faith I’d have faced a heap more trouble this year.  The trouble I found myself in was trouble enough.   Unlike crustaceans and salamanders we can’t regenerate body parts and we can’t operate on ourselves so we have to place our faith in the medical profession; sometimes its a challenge.  I received a clean bill of health in January 2012. What if I’d ignored the inner voice whispering “there’s something wrong” until  January 2013?  It’s almost too scary to contemplate.

 

Fortunately I trusted my instincts and returned to the medics; unfortunately they confirmed my concerns. Diagnosis is one thing but treatment is quite another.  There’s so much to weigh-up at a time when rational thought can be displaced by disbelief.  More faith was required – to remain positive, chose the optimal treatment pathway, believe surgery and harsh chemotherapy would do the job (without killing me in the process or disabling me for the rest of my life).

 

These are big decisions that medical science can inform but as yet no-one is equipped to fully underwrite.  Alone with the knowledge that any choice I made would be life-changing called for a leap of faith. The maze that is cancer and its treatment meant I’d either find myself on solid ground or I’d need to learn to fly PDQ.

 

Cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy, is challenging.  Being confined to a physical body undergoing chemical warfare and death at a multi-cellular level on a regular basis isn’t an everyday experience (thank goodness).  Things fall off – hair, eyelashes, nails; other things stop functioning – healing processes, skin renewal, the immune system.  I learned how to fly to combat an extended period of imprisonment in a body I barely recognised that’s ill-equipped to do the things I want to do.  Flying combines a good deal of faith that in time, things will repair themselves with the knowledge that I can think myself free.  Free from needles, free from chemicals, free from hospitals, physical impairments and pain.  My physical body may well be dying at a rapid pace on a regular basis but it doesn’t mean my spirit has to follow suit.  It can be anywhere it wants to be.

 

Christmas with cancer has been quite different to other Christmases. Socialising in crowded places is off-limits and visiting or receiving visitors is only possible if people are fit and well.  I’m happy in my own company but I never imagined being a hermit and this Christmas is proving unusually reclusive due to the need to avoid germs. Waking on Christmas morning in the knowledge that I’d be back at chemo camp in three days, on steroids again within 48 hours and doing a human pincushion impression several times before the week was through also put a slightly different complexion on things.  It would have been easy to dwell on  these less than festive thoughts but they’d have stolen the spirit of Christmas.  I set them aside, had faith that I could ignore them and went about making it an enjoyable day for the sake of my family.  My mission was accomplished  – they enjoyed it and that’s all I asked, with the help of a little faith.

In spite of this year’s difficulties, having faith that I could overcome adversity and in the abilities of those who care for me has enabled me to jump some significant hurdles while remaining relatively unscathed.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect with justice as my theme.

 

Christmas Wishes – Love and Peace

See the stars, diamonds in an ink black sky    

Feel the breeze, an icy breath of winter sighs.

Sing with joy, the words of carols amplify –

Childhood dreams, as reindeer over rooftops fly.

deers

 Love and peace, two precious gifts we cannot buy

Within our grasp, a change we need to sanctify.

Fear and hate, fake prophets to be cast aside –

Choose goodwill, purge human faults and purify.

 Earth is sore, our impact cannot be denied…

Time to change; make peace, don’t fight, be dignified.

Love and peace, two precious gifts we have inside

Use them now; please let’s heal the whole world-wide.

 Childhood dreams, as reindeer over rooftops fly,

Love and peace to unify all humankind.

Tá mo chroí istigh ionat ~ My heart is within you

flames

I speak fondly of my friends and family because I am very fond of them.

Tá mo chroí istigh ionat.  My heart is within you – all of you.

My family is small but perfectly formed.  My Dad is a regular visitor here and has been truly marvellous this year.  I was devastated to have to tell him that yet again breast cancer had struck our family; I really didn’t want to bring that shadow back to his door. I cannot thank him enough for his love, support and understanding, or for his sense of humour 🙂 My Aunt and Great Aunt have helped me along with phone calls, emails and texts.  I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that they are no longer young women, both have health challenges of their own but they’ve been stalwart in providing affection and compassion. Don’t forget Aunty L that I’m expecting you to teach me how to get into mischief when I’m fully recovered…

My long-standing friends have helped keep my spirits up and shown more kindness than I am worthy of.  Yesterday I was visited by four kings whose richness of character make them wealthier than the richest people in the world.  They brought felicitations and blessings from some of my new friends who I know will be here for keeps and today brought more special visitors who hold a place in my heart for always.

As Christmas approaches I reflect on a year of trials and tribulations; 2012 has not been an easy journey and I know 2013 will  bring a few more bumps in the road.  I’m ready for them.  I also know this year has been very unkind to some folks who are very dear to me. I’m sad that my dysfunctional body prevented me being with you in person to share your burdens.  I think of you each day and in spirit I am always by your side.

I am indebted to my family and my friends for standing by me, helping me through the difficult times and making me smile from ear-to-ear on a regular basis.   Whatever happens next, my heart is within you today and for always and I thank you for being the very special people you are.