Crossing the Bridge

There comes a point when the only option is to cross the bridge. No matter how rickety or poorly constructed it may seem and irrespective of the pace or iciness of the waters below, the only road to the rest of your life involves crossing the bridge. Time is on a route march and it doesn’t care much for sorrow, sentiment or sickness; it spares no thought for the down-hearted, despondent or disillusioned. Time goes on and like it or not, so must we.

Old packhorse bridge (c.1717), Carrbrig, Scotland

Old packhorse bridge (c.1717), Carrbrig, Scotland

In clinging to the past we slip out of time. Slowly but surely life passes us by yet we fail to realise  until sometime later, when we perhaps begin wondering where the days, months or years went and how and why we didn’t notice them. Offloading all that baggage and leaving it by the river’s edge isn’t easy. Disentangling the past and setting it down in its rightful place takes thoughtful deliberation, acceptance of what was and complete renunciation of what might, could or should have been. How many times have you heard yourself (and others) talk about the way things should or shouldn’t be? The truth is, there is only what was, what is and that which is yet to come – should, could and might are all irrelevant and leave us stuck in a rut.

To get out of the rut we have to cross the bridge and the only way to do so safely is by travelling unladen. We can’t live for today until  we forgo being cemented in the past.   Fortunately once we build sufficient fortitude to put one foot in front the other, take our chances and walk across the bridge, everything changes. We flow in time. Life is lived in the here and now, in this very moment. Living is very different because here and now is full of sound, colour, wonder and a smorgasbord of new choices; it’s the polar opposite of everything in the world of ‘back then.’  I don’t recall being taught how to manage the past, to leave it in it’s rightful place by the edge of the river and continue with my journey in time. Its a skill that could useful be taught to high school seniors because all too often I am surrounded by folks who are completely trapped in time, rooted by events that happened years or even decades ago. I always try to help, to share coping strategies or suggest appropriate sources of professional help because being empathic isn’t the same as being a psychologist. Empathy exists because I’ve had many of my own bridges to cross and I stopped to take note of each lesson along the way.

I don’t deny crossing life’s bridges unencumbered by the debris and detritus of countless events that cannot be changed is sometimes difficult, even when practiced continually on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s a daunting prospect, but that doesn’t make it impossible.  This year, especially today, I realise I’ve crossed and walked some way from another bridge – one I hesitated to traverse for a multitude of reasons.   It’s the bridge from active cancer patient to healthy human being, from constant companion to casual acquaintance, from broken to steadfast.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when the bridge was crossed, when the heavy baggage of cancer and so many shattered promises got dropped at the side of the riverbank. I don’t know when the waters rose up to wash it all away, I just know that its gone. It seems this happened slowly, almost subconsciously, throughout the course of the year and for the first time in two years there’s room in my head to properly relish each day as it comes. The time of fretting about what tomorrow might hold (all firmly rooted in an army of negative experiences from the past) is gone and this, I think, is what it means to be free.

We all have demons in the closet, painful events, disappointments, scars and injuries, but we don’t have to be ruled by them. We can chose to lock the door behind them and walk away or drop them at the edge of the river, cross the bridge and let the waters wash them far out to sea. For however long I have here I’ll take the opportunity to drop life’s baggage at the banks of each river and skip across the bridge to whatever happens next. Today, cancer, (and all the ills you wrought upon me), I am over you. Guess what, it feels good :-).

 

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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.

 

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 🙂 ).

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.

Live Forever

We don’t of course, or at least not physically which is probably a good thing because our bodies wear out over time. It must be quite frustrating to go from being active to inactive and mentally alert to easily confused.  Loss of independence would be really difficult for me, potentially verging on unbearable. Hopefully that day is still a long way off. Although our shells, these complicated works of art, science and sinew we call the human body succumb to all manner of things, in many ways we are immortal and we live forever.  We’re captured in photographs and stories, documents and memories. When we have children our genes live on in them and we, hopefully, always have a place in our children’s hearts.

Two people who live forever in my heart had birthdays last week, my Grandfather and my Mother. Both were very dear to me during the time we shared and both continue to play a role in my life. They’re in my thoughts, my memories, my sense of who I am and how I want to lead my life.  They were both amazing people who would never have considered themselves anything more than decent human beings and that in itself made them wonderful.

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My Grandfather spent much of his life caring for other people. He was posted in various countries during World War II including Italy and North Africa. I’m fairly sure he almost died of dysentery at one point, then contracted malaria and was seriously ill for a very long time.  He hitch-hiked the length of Italy to rejoin his unit and was very close to Mount Vesuvius when it erupted in 1944. He spent time in Austria, though I can’t remember how that came about and he told us of a mysterious and frequent whistling sound in the desert. It happened to be the sound of bullets flying past and sometimes into people. When my Grandmother was alive we used to joke that it was a miracle Gramps made it home from the war, he’d had so many brushes with death. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps so although he was conscripted, his mission was to preserve life rather than deny it. We know that he had some truly horrible experiences and saw things that no-one ever wants to see, but he never spoke of this and he never let it cloud his nature.

When I was growing up my Grandfather was simply the best anyone could have.  He’d make things with us kids, normally messy things like papier-mâché or exciting things like dens and secret hide-outs. He’d take us to the zoo, play conkers, go fishing for tiddlers, sing songs and play games like ludo, monopoly and snakes and ladders. He also let us collect butterflies, caterpillars, grasshoppers and spiders (not in the same jar) as long as we treated them kindly and always let them go again. When I had my own son my Grandfather was as great with him as he’d been with me and my brother and although J was very young, he still has some memories of his Great Grandfather. A gentle man in all sense of the word, my Grandfather was empathic, knowledgable, encouraging and very good fun to be with. He was also an accomplished artist and musician, a good listener, hugely supportive and had a love-hate relationship with a rather large ginger tomcat my Grandparents took pity on as a 4 week old abandoned kitten.

My Mother was a kind and gentle person who always put others needs ahead of her own. Forced to leave school early to earn a living and care for her step-sister, she spent most of her early life being told she was clumsy and stupid. Today the things that happened to her when she was growing up would probably be considered neglect, or child abuse.  I know she used to clean the house and clear the fireplaces, polish the floors and fetch all of the groceries, almost like Cinderella but without pumpkin coaches, glass slippers or a ball to attend. When she met my a Father she said she knew he was ‘the one’ and her life improved enormously once she went to live with him and his parents.

My Mother had a talent for understanding people and animals, I suspect because she appreciated the sanctity of all life from an early age. She was a very loving and giving person with a strong sense of right and wrong, a placid temperament and the ability to turn her hand to almost any task.  She had a high work ethic, well-developed personal values and no ego at all. Though she was very talented, my Mother never quite believed she was as good or as talented as others – deep down she probably never completely recovered from her horrible childhood and that made her determined to ensure my brother and I never endured undue criticism, lovelessness, isolation or insurmountable chores. Because she was multi-talented my Mother spent time teaching us to make cakes and biscuits, identify plants and animals, read, write and draw, make models, build things (with Lego, scrap cardboard, or bits and bobs from the house and garden). She helped us understand that there’s no sense in violence, you should never sleep on an argument, and there is always room for another hug. My Mother loved music, the countryside, nature and her family. She found pleasure in the scent of a freesia, a starry night or a walk in the park with Dad and the dogs. I can’t ever recall my Mother asking for anything from anyone. She spent her whole life making other people’s lives easier, happier and brighter.

Grief is a funny thing. When we lose people a period of grieving is inevitable, it might last for weeks or months or years, but one of the downsides of grief is that it draws our focus towards the gaps in our lives – the people who are missing and how sad we are without them.  It can become all-consuming to the point where it blocks out the happier memories, the things we’re grateful for, and can make us lose sight of the fact that our loved ones probably wouldn’t want us to be broken-hearted, miserable or withdrawn for the rest of our lives. It seems there’s no easy way to understand this without going through the process of loss, grief, readjustment and reflection.

Although I was deeply sadden by the deaths of my Grandfather and my Mother I’m no longer consumed by sadness and grief. I can now draw on memories and stories while being happy for the time we had, the experiences we shared and the things I learnt from them. Gramps and Mum are in my thoughts and here with me every day bringing love, warmth and inspiration. I can’t wish them happy birthday in person but in my heart they live forever and we celebrate the good times.

Half a World Away

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

 

It’s a beautiful morning. Since the beginning of December I can only recall one other day without rain and that seems like a very distant memory. At work on Thursday we joked that the Mayans may have correctly predicted the end of the world – it’s simply coming along a bit later than expected. They were ancient people without atomic clocks so what’s an extra year or two on top of a few centuries?

Looking at the clear blue sky today is not the day it all ends and I’m happy that’s the case.

This time last year it was snowing. Clumps of pristine white snowflakes were swirling around me like the stuffing from expensive duck down pillows. January and February both saw fairly significant snowfall, at least by UK standards. Out here in the countryside the drifts were over six feet high and I walked the lane crunching my way through the freezing blanket to take photographs in a completely silent landscape. When snow muffles everything the silence takes over – no road noise, no rustling trees – and with silence comes stillness. The fields and hedgerows slip into a moment of frozen tranquillity.

Silent stillness always draws me out into the chilling air. Wrapped in a thick winter coat, huge scarf, fingerless gloves (so I could operate the camera) and my woollen cable-knit baker-boy cap I trudged down then up the lane, a walk that normally takes 10 minutes but needs at least 20 in heavy snow. The horses at Holly Farm had taken their leave and retreated into the stable but every tree and shrub along the way was alive with small birds foraging for food. When the snow comes the need to eat overcomes the need to fear humans, the birds will take seed at your feet if you’re still enough. After walking the lane I was cold and tired but a cup of hot chocolate soon addressed both.

How do I recall this scene so readily when it was a year ago? I’d just received my final round of Taxotere. I was hairless, as pale and translucent as an undernourished vampire and completely strung out on steroids. There are few things I detest and dexamethosone is one of them so if I never have it again that’ll be just fine with me. Looking back the whole scene – the snow, the chemo unit, the regular blood draws, the side-effects – it feels half a world away. It almost seems unreal and if it weren’t for the tale-tell signs all over my body (and embedded in my psyche) I could almost convince myself it was a very bad dream.

Almost.

Today there’s no snow. The tall trees opposite the window are gently rippling so there’s a breeze. The sky is the most beautiful cyan blue and bright yellow winter sunlight, the kind that is brilliant but holds no blazing heat, is streaming into the room. Small birds are chattering outside the window and the cats who were exiled to the conservatory last year, are happily curled up by the fire for an after-breakfast siesta. Today is a very beautiful day and it seems that all is well in my wonderfully bizarre, confusing and ever-changing world.

Half a World Away