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

 

 

 

Chrestotes: the quality of kindness.

Someone once told me a cancer diagnosis is the fastest way to find out who your friends are.  True friends will shine day and night while fakes become increasingly conspicuous by their absence. When your world shakes over twenty on the Richter scale another earth shattering revelation – you’ll be abandoned by people you care about – is almost as shocking as the diagnosis itself.  I remained open-minded and hopefully optimistic while chemotherapy dissolved more than just the cancer.

Three years on I’d love to report that my optimism was well placed, the advice proved invalid and all my friendships remain intact but I can’t.  I’d like to share an explanation for the disappeared friends but I can’t do that either because they evaporated into the ether like the crew of the Mary Celeste. I guess cancer is still too much for some people to deal with.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Aviary Photo_130718654939381437The other part of the prophesy – true friends will shine day and night – is equally true.

They shone, they shine and they keep on shining 🙂

I feel very fortunate to have true friends who are hugely supportive, thoughtful and encouraging.  They demonstrate all of the qualities of chrestotes: compassion, consideration, sympathy, humanity and kindness.

They’ve sent messages for a speedy recovery, cards, flowers and gifts. I am touched and overwhelmed by their continued kindheartedness and support and I feel extremely lucky to know such genuine, compassionate and beautiful human beings.

I’ve also received cards and good wishes from family friends – people who know of my trials and tribulations via my father and decided to lend their support. My hopeful optimism wasn’t entirely misguided because family friends, friends of friends and complete strangers have all proven amazingly kind.

Of course a post about kindness would be incomplete if I failed to mention my father.  For as long as I can remember he has devoted his life to help others yet his own life has been far from easy. A lesser person might have become peevish and resentful – my father isn’t.  Throughout the process of diagnosis, surgery, treatment, recovery, first prophylactic surgery, recovery, the recent second prophylactic surgery and this new period of recovery my father has been an inspiration – encouraging, supportive, wise and humorous (he has an excellent sense of humour and sometimes laughter really is the best medicine…)

The kindness shown by my family and true friends will never be forgotten. It buoyed me through some very difficult experiences and continues to inspire me on a daily basis. WP_20150320_010I am so very grateful to you all.

What it’s really all about…

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I had a birthday recently. There was nothing special about it in terms of the number of candles that might adorn a cake and I didn’t do anything special except enjoy the day, but the fact that it happened was significant. The fact that as far as I can tell I’m healthy and free of cancer is definitely something to celebrate.

Just over two years ago there were no guarantees I’d see another birthday because every investigation seemed to turn up something more worrying than the last. Of course there are never any guarantees, we simply assume the years will keep rolling in and nothing terrible will happen. Then something terrible happens and with luck we wake up and realise how important every moment really is. Even the ones that seem less than awe inspiring, like a trip to the supermarket or being stuck in a traffic jam. When you think your moments may be limited you find ways to make the most of them, including traffic jams!

There have been many special moments so far this year and my birthday brought some more because my son decided that, like the queen, I should be granted a second birthday with a second card, presents and flowers. In an unexpected way it helped erase some of the difficulties of the blighted birthdays, the ones spent in hospital or recovering from surgery. During those birthdays my thoughts were centred on endurance, making my way through whatever had to be endured so that I would see him through his education and hopefully some years beyond.

There are still no guarantees, from here on there never can be but then again, there never were. What matters is that I’m here, I’m happy and I have more time to make life special for those around me. It feels a little safer to make plans, to think about what we might do to celebrate my son’s next birthday in 10 months time. That feeling is a bonus, a subtle, positive change for the better after time placed on hold, living in limbo. Cancer took away so much but it also brought new insights. I no longer let time slip through my fingers, I use it to make memories with those I hold dear. That, for me, is what life is really all about.

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Find what you love

And let it kill you….

This is a Charles Bukowski quote. I like it because it makes sense. Why would any of us want to be killed by something we don’t like?

I tried cancer or rather it tried me, I didn’t welcome it into my life. To date a combination of trusting instincts, taking action quickly and an oncoplastic surgeon and oncologist who both adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ approach helped ensure it had limited chances to move elsewhere. Places where it might later take the opportunity to curtail my life.

Though the treatments have been best in class I am not complacent. Suspicion is an inevitable trait when you inhabit a body that’s let you down. Striking a balance between healthy concern and paranoia is key. Anomalies, functional changes and aches and pains make me suspicious even though I know some of them predate cancer. There’s no way of knowing when the first cell went haywire and research suggests it takes 5 years for a tumour to become palpable. 5 years is quite a long time for unchecked cellular chaos to prevail.

Many cancer patients live with ongoing suspicion and significant worries about what the future might hold. I’m happy with healthy suspicion because deep down none of us really knows what lies ahead. Whether we’ve been touched by cancer or not, life is unpredictable and we could just as easily be killed in traffic accidents or freak storms. Finding something we love and letting that kill us sounds an altogether better option and even if it happens to be cancer in the end, time spent on the things we love is the most beautiful, exhilarating and fulfilling time available to any of us.

Making space for the things we love is almost like starting life anew, with a few more wrinkles and white hairs than the first time around in my case! This year for the first time in far too many years I’ve given time to the things I love, not just the things I’m obliged to do. There’s a sketch book full of drawings and paintings that I have no doubt at all will outlive me. Maybe one day they’ll be treasured by some future grandchildren 🙂 Creating something from pencil or paint and paper offers an opportunity to escape from everyday tasks into somewhere tranquil and serene. Isn’t that the way heaven is meant to be? If so then death through art sounds much more appealing than cancer!

Idle doodlings :-)

Art is my recharge mechanism especially during the long winter months when it’s too wet, cold or dark to get into the garden. When the seasons change being outside with nature is another love that seems altogether more appealing than some of the things that eat up my time.

Although we’re barely into Spring, there’s an old fashioned cottage garden that’s worth every ounce of effort that’s gone into it, a townhouse garden that seems to have relished all the thought underpinning its creation and a new season of vegetables, herbs and fruit beginning to sprout – peas, beans, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, chives, garlic, parsley, strawberries, loganberries, apples, green gages, rhubarb and plums to name a few. Buying organic produce is expensive, growing it is a worthwhile labour of love even if it is responsible for some of the suspicious aches and pains.

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I have many other loves. The people who are dear to me, my darling cats who remained faithful even when I kept them away during chemo, music, travel, cooking, photography and walking.  From time to time I can even throw decorating, renovating and repairing things into the mix.

At least I know I’ll never die of boredom and I’m hopeful I won’t die of cancer though that one isn’t a given. With luck I’ll simply slip away under the cherry tree one sunny afternoon having completed my best sketch ever at an age where I can happily be called ancient and extraordinarily eccentric 🙂

Until then I’m going to do the things I love and encourage you all to do likewise.

The most precious gift

New memories were made on Christmas Day, positive ones that will stand us in good stead for the future. Appreciation written in a card for unfaltering support during a troublesome year. A warm thank you for dinner, including the carrots (!) and a life-long agreement that we’re never too old to hang up a stocking in the hope we’ve behaved well enough to avoid finding coal or sprouts at the bottom. Personally I like sprouts but my son doesn’t.

image Some everyday, non-Christmassy things were noticed and appreciated too. “Mom, your nails are back and your hair isn’t white. It’s still ginger and it’s grown… and you’re doing great.” There’s nothing special about hair or nails until you see your Mom without them. Then you find your teenage years – time that’s supposed to be carefree – erased by the concepts of critical illness and death. Cancer is such a thief. We’ve spent a lot of time together in recent months but yesterday brought a new dawn for my son. It was almost as if a thunder-cloud had lifted from his shoulders and sunlight was streaming into his world once more. Mom isn’t covered in bruises, stalled between life and death or endangered by other people’s germs. Mom’s just Mom again and that’s the best gift my son received this Christmas. It’s the best thing I could’ve wished for too.

Of course the future will be different because everything changed. We’ve no idea what that might mean and it doesn’t matter because the future was never guaranteed. (We just kid ourselves into thinking we have some control over it). Whatever it is, worry won’t cause it to better or worse. The present, well that’s another story. It’s easier to make the most of today when it isn’t clouded by maybes, or promises based on frail assumptions of plenty more tomorrows to make good the pledges.

The new memories are very ordinary yet extraordinarily special. Sharing Christmas dinner together, listening to carols, watching movies and finding neither sprouts nor coal in the stocking. Laughing that socks are a good present when the washing machine seems intent on eating them throughout the year. We were all pleased with our gifts, made the most of the chance to relax and enjoyed the food and drink. More than any time previously we found that one day of happy, uninterrupted time together was the most precious gift of all and for that we were enormously grateful.

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.

Sometimes…

Sailing Away

Sometimes I’m not good with words. Or rather I can’t string them together in the way I’d like so that I say what I really want to say. 

Sometimes I’d like to say THANK YOU in a way that isn’t just the ‘I’m grateful, you’ve made me very happy, I feel so lucky, thank you’ kind of way.  I’d like to say it in a way that conveys what’s really going on, without sounding fawning. How do you speak those two simple words as if the best firework display, most beautiful rainbow or a perfect day is dawning in your heart? I don’t have the answer so instead I send my usual heart-felt thank you’s for making this year’s birthday special and memorable, you know who you are and I appreciate it so much.

Fortunately try as it might there are some things chemobrain won’t be able to wipe away and that’s useful because it has succeeded in scrambling many of my previous memories and cognitive functions. Usually it sees me going to the fridge at least three times when one trip would’ve been sufficient if only I could remember why I went to the fridge in the first place!  Cooking can also be dangerous.  I’m an auto-pilot cook. I abandoned following recipes long ago and have sufficient culinary experience to know which flavours go together, how best to combine them and how to cook things long enough to prevent food poisoning. As long as I’m left to cook in peace all will go well… interrupt my train of thought and there’s every likelihood some essential ingredient will be omitted from the meal.  Multitasking is something of a conundrum for me these days; I find I swear at myself (audibly) at least twice a day – ongoing knee problems a fridge or cookery incident will usually be the culprit.  It sounds silly but it’s incredibly frustrating.

I was recently asked to provide some insight to the breast cancer experience for a magazine article.  What useful advice or information was I able to offer those who are newly diagnosed to help with their treatment and recovery?  I entirely forgot that chemobrain can present a number of challenges!  I did mention that the process from diagnosis to treatment may be complex and fraught due to false starts, incomplete information and new revelations every time some extra scan or tissue analysis takes place.   I also mentioned that I felt it was important everyone recovers at their own pace since there are many misconceptions about how soon we should be ‘over it’ and of course it is never really over, the scars don’t disappear (physically or metaphorically).  My other pearl of wisdom was blogging; the ability to connect with people all over the world who are willing to share insights, offer support or find ways to make us seem less alone with the nightmare.  The blogging community has been invaluable to me as a source of inspiration, knowledge, encouragement and experience so I’d like to thank  all of you too in my clunky but deeply sincere manner. 

On the day I took the photograph in this post it was supposed to rain, the day-long clothes-drenching kind of hard cold rain that makes even the most upbeat people thoroughly miserable. I decided to go out without a coat or umbrella and take my chances, after all, what could a bit of rain do that cancer, surgery, chemo and a bunch of other chemicals haven’t already achieved?

Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we think it will. Sometimes it does.

Sometimes it surpasses all our expectations.  Thank you 🙂