Close the door, keep walking

Close the door, keep walking

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I wish all readers much happiness, love and wellness for everyday of 2018, these are life’s greatest riches and I hope you find them in abundance.

2017 was a difficult year for us. Although there were some high points, there were also terrors. The kind that bring sleepless nights and frantic days. We learn from all experiences, the good and the bad, but last night we pushed the door firmly closed on 2017.

The wonders and possibilities of 2018 are most welcome because the last 365 days have been a long, hard slog. Though the desire to wipe away the past is strong there are tributes to pay and deep gratitude to note before moving on:

  • For the medics who helped J survive meningitis and J’s will to recover from a very traumatic experience
  • For my father who continues to help others and spares little thought for himself
  • For our journey to the furthest reaches of Norway and our once in a lifetime experience of the Mirrie Dancers
  • For friends and family across the globe, and loved ones lost but never forgotten
  • For food, clean water, warmth and shelter – all so easily taken for granted yet still beyond reach for far too many
  • For life, however long it lasts, because every day is a day further from cancer. This year will be my sixth post-diagnosis.

This new year has barely started but it comes complete with some significant milestones for us, big events that will shape the future in ways we can’t fully imagine as yet. It also comes with lots of blank canvas, new days ready to receive whatever memories we chose to paint there. We are a family of three, and all three of us have brushed with death at an age that is far from being “old.” So as we continue this journey we remain optimistic about the possibilities that lie ahead. There is much to explore and too little time to grumble along the way. We know now that wherever the path takes us, we’ll make the most of it and keep walking on. It is, in every sense, a happy new year.

Advertisements

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.

image

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.

Destiny

The leaves on the trees are beginning to change colour, vivid yellows, chestnut-brown and scarlet are creeping across the landscape. Down at ground level flowers are being replaced by fungi and fallen acorns. Although autumn is arriving late this year due to our long, hot summer it is arriving none the less. Everything is covered in dew in the morning and last night saw the first hints of frost.

I like this time of year, the chill in the air, the velvet-black skies filled with stars so far away they might no longer exist. I like the cloudless cyan blue and hazy sunshine that greets me some days and the murky fog that clings and billows like an ethereal sail on others. Rain is not my favourite thing and we get a lot of it through autumn and winter but if there’s a decent thunderstorm or a hint of snow to come I like that too. Years of living in the countryside watching the seasons change and baring witness to the ebb and flow of life – plants, fungi, insects, birds, deer, people – has attuned my senses and instincts to nature’s patterns.

On these days when bright yet feeble sunshine casts shadows in my room and outside the window is a frenzy of activity accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong, (there are finches, scores of them, filling up on sunflower hearts), I find myself wondering how many more autumns I might see.  Two years ago that thought is unlikely to have entered my consciousness. Things are different now and time cannot be guaranteed.  I wonder if this is what octogenarians think about, silently knowing the days behind them outnumber the days ahead. Of course I’m not an octogenarian I’m barely half that age, so assuming there are plenty of days and many more autumns to come should be perfectly reasonable. Logic says in spite of everything I’ve escaped death at least once and in doing so should have improved prospects for the future quite considerably.  But nature is non-linear and unpredictable. Autumn doesn’t come at the same time each year and it never takes the same form. We can fool ourselves as much as we like but time was never guaranteed. Anyone who has lost a child and counted every missing birthday will know this all too well.

I wonder how much of our lives is predetermined. Destiny if you like that kind of thing. I’m not a geneticist but I know from my insatiable quest for information that genes and signalling pathways play a much greater role in health and longevity than many of us realise. Much like the processes of autumn, the microbiology of leaf fall and fairy rings, most of us don’t pay too much attention to happenings at a cellular level. We see the bigger picture, leaves change colour, nights draw in and winter comes.  I’d like to know how much of the path I tread is predetermined at a cellular level. My gut feel is that it’s quite a lot but I’m not sure if I want to know how many more autumns I have, at least not yet. At some point I will know because something, old age or old disease, will set the deadline for me.  Unless one of life’s non-linear and unpredictable mechanisms – meteor strike, plane crash, murder, gas explosion – intervenes in the meantime.

English: Fairy ring? A plentiful supply of fly...

English: Fairy ring? A plentiful supply of fly agaric fungi. Beautiful yet poisonous; this lot could do a lot of damage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Awareness of self, the fragility of life, the lack of control (you think you have some?) and the ultimate outcome might crush a tender spirit and drive it half insane. Perhaps that’s why, for the most part, we fill our heads with distractions. For tender spirits like me who are not easily distracted yet wish to remain mostly sane there is a balance to be struck between constant wondering and enjoying the moment. I know the pretty little robin singing outside the window in his rosy breasted splendour may not make it through this winter and if he does, the next will almost certainly be his last. Today though he is here, he is plump and well-preened and his song is heart-warmingly beautiful. Today we’re going to enjoy each other’s company – I feed him, he sings – then cross whatever winter throws at us when it’s upon us.

 

 

 

In and out of multiple lives

Do you know what makes life confusing? It’s when you can’t determine if things are signs for you to give up or simply a test to see if you can hold on longer.”

Some strange things have happened in the last couple of days.  It started with the train. The train is late more often than not and sometimes cancelled all together. I’ve taken to holding my breath in anticipation each time I hear an automated statement that begins “we are sorry to announce that ….”   There was an announcement, two in fact, but they were for other trains. My train wasn’t late and it left me confused, possibly in a state of shock. The people whose trains were delayed weren’t surprised. Isn’t it strange how we come to expect  chaos, get confused if it doesn’t happen and sigh with boredom when it does.

Next there was the taxi. I used to work in Arcueil just south of Paris where I experienced a whole new realm of taxi drivers including those who point-blank refused to venture beyond the periphique. Although I developed a taste for French food, my taxi experiences were of dubious quality and left me with an aversion to this form to transport for several years.  My recent taxi encounter proved to be a revelation. Not because the driver shrugged, huffed or looked generally grumpy but because he asked about my headscarf.

In 8 months of baldness there have been plenty of stares, whispered remarks and looks of pity but no-one stopped to ask me why I had a hat or scarf permanently welded to my skull both outdoors and in. Perhaps I looked like I might be contagious, bite or share some information that went beyond the cursory ‘fine’ when asked ‘how are you?’  Who knows. So when, after talking about the economy, the weather (has to be done, I live in the UK) and politics, the taxi driver said “do you mind if I ask, is your headscarf for fashion or some other reason?” I was thrown into confusion again. Here is a man I’ve had a pleasant ten minute chat with asking in a very genuine and sincere way about my headscarf.  He turned off the meter and I told him the truth. My hair is still recovering from chemo and my head will get cold/sunburned/both without some protection. I saw compassion and understanding in his eyes before he said “I know what this is like, my wife just finished chemo too. They say she’s going to be OK… I really hope you’re going to be OK, are you OK?”   Thank you Steve the taxi driver. Although I was confused at first your quiet concern and genuine interest made me feel human again.

I had a few appointments to attend to then met with friends.  I haven’t seen some of them for almost a year.  Piecing together things that have happened in their lives within the short time we had available was  a little confusing. I’m out of practice having lived in isolation like Phineus the hermit for the vast majority of autumn and winter. So many stories to tell, thoughts to reflect on, questions to ask. There’s a good deal of uncertainty in the lives of some of my friends right now. Confusion stalks them like the black dog stalks me.  As a ‘find a way to help make things better’ kind of person it’s difficult to stand by, to feel their concerns and be unable to suggest possible solutions  that might assist.   Other friends have moved forward, thrown off the shackles and are happy to recount that stepping away from something draining and demoralising was definitely the right move.  Well done ladies, you set a good example for us all.

It was good to see everyone, to reminisce, to hear their hopes for the future, to smile with them and be part of a community again instead of feeling alone.   Of course I’m not alone, I’m part of a huge community of cancer patients all of whom are in a club they didn’t ask to join. It’s a club that is constantly changing since it gains and loses members regularly. Becoming attached to members of this special club can be confusing and dangerous if coming to terms with death isn’t your thing. Aside from undertakers and morticians I don’t know anyone who is good at it.

I’d like to be fully present in the community of my friends and family. The one where the black dog runs amok occasionally but isn’t eating up souls every day. That world is still accessible to me but a large chunk of me is confined to the world of medical investigations, procedures, drugs, side effects and survival rates.   It’s definitely a test to see if I can hold on longer, 5 years, 10 years, more… who knows? It’s very confusing.  It makes my concept of the future a little more contained, closer to today than my retirement age of 67 when I might receive £110.15 a week state pension if it hasn’t been scrapped by then. 23 years is a long time for politicians to continue screwing things up – assuming we ever get out of the current mess.

Friends, family and concerned strangers like Steve the taxi driver shape and enrich the experience we call life. Many of my new friends know, as I do, that life may not last as long as we’d like so there’s a lot more catching up to do, places to go, good times to be had. Time is precious. Most of us get stuck doing things we don’t enjoy at some point but still have chance to change. Change it because you may not get another chance.

For my dear friends old and new and my family who have no choice but to deal with this crappy situation here is my wish for you:

Comfort on difficult days, smiles when sadness intrudes, rainbows to follow the clouds, laughter to kiss your lips, sunsets to warm your heart, hugs when spirits sag, beauty for your eyes to see, friendships to brighten your being, faith so that you can believe, confidence for when you doubt, courage to know yourself, patience to accept the truth, Love to complete your life… and a life free of confusion.

hands in mental confusion

hands in mental confusion (Photo credit: luigioss)

B4Peace: Forgiveness is a four letter word

Asking For Forgiveness

Asking For Forgiveness (Photo credit: hang_in_there)

This months peace challenge is about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a four letter word. I want to say that word is love. I want to encourage everyone who reads this to believe that to forgive is to love and in loving each other we somehow make all the Bad Things that have ever happened to us magically disappear. I am an optimist at heart but I struggle with this one because there are some situations that are very difficult to forgive. I’m not talking about the trivial things, the ones that aren’t worth getting upset about in the first place.  I am talking about events that lead us to feel deep despair, burning anger or heartbrokenly hurt.  Turning those emotions into love is almost as challenging as splitting the atom – it’s feasible but it takes the right environment, a lot of energy and specialist skills to make it happen. For most of us leaving the atom whole is much, much easier.

At this point you might be thinking ‘ah, she’s saying forgiveness has parameters – if its small don’t fret about it, if it’s huge you’re saddled with it and anything in between might be worth a shot.’

So many of the things that offend, upset or annoy us are intrinsically linked to our personal values. A situation that might cause me to be deeply unhappy may not even register for someone else. Parameters don’t really work because they’re as individual as we are and our boundaries for good/bad/acceptable/unacceptable behaviour start and end in different places. Promises and lies are good examples. I don’t care if someone I barely know breaks a minor promise or tells me a few half-truths because it’s unlikely to have a life-changing impact on me.  It’s a different story if a key person in my life breaks a major promise or tells a half-truth that will have a significant adverse impact on me or my loved ones. The chances are I will be deeply unhappy about it. It’s not just about the adverse impact  – I’m upset for three reasons – the person responsible caused a Bad Thing to happen and it’s impact is significant, I’ve invested in a relationship with that person and didn’t expect them to abuse my trust, trust is one of my core values and once broken its difficult to reestablish.  I’m not much fun to be around when this kind of thing happens!

In spite of all this I still see forgiveness as a four letter word. Not the one that’s an anagram of a popular fashion label though sometimes it might feel easier to say FCUK, FCUK off or for FCUKs sake. Tempting as they may be, forgiveness is none of these things. Saying them out loud a few times can help relieve tension but has nothing at all to do with absolution and I’ve realised over the years that in order to move forward with our lives we have to leave the past behind. Playing it over and over on a loop is a path to despair, resentment or partial insanity. A life filled with bitterness and loathing is no life at all and retaining a state of unforgiveness over an extended period of time is a good way to end up permanently bitter and enraged.

It is difficult to forgive people who cause Bad Things to happen in our lives. It’s hard to let go of all that anger, hurt and disbelief.  It’s not impossible though and there are alternative ways of viewing situations that call for our forgiveness. For me the four letter word that sums up forgiveness is GIFT.  I admit it’s not an entirely altruistic gift because it hasn’t slipped my attention that there’s something in it for me when I bestow forgiveness and draw a line through whatever Bad Thing happened. Separating the Bad Thing from the person who invoked it is where the gift begins.

If you stay mad, hurt, upset or disillusioned by the way someone else has treated you, the only person who really suffers is you. You suffer because of what happened and you add to that suffering with your own special mix of negative emotions. Why punish yourself in that way? Why waste your energy when you could be using it to get out of the situation you’ve just been landed in?

Forgiving someone is a gift, not just for them but for you too.  Even if you struggle giving this gift, it’s important to realise that by doing so you give yourself the gift of liberty: freedom to take positive actions to resolve the situation, freedom to move forward and freedom from grudges, bitterness and resentment.

Last year someone in a very influential told me something I believed to be true and acted on in good faith. A few months later that person changed their stance. Their shift in position had serious adverse consequences for me while I was undergoing cancer treatment. As you might imagine, I was upset, staggered and astonished. By Christmas 2012 I was approaching my wits end but it dawned on me I was the only person in turmoil – the other person wasn’t really bothered. The only way for me to move forward was to forgive that person’s behaviour and focus on sorting out the bad situation I’d been left in. Was it easy? No. Did it take me more than one attempt? Yes (a bit like splitting the atom – it didn’t happen straight away). Did I feel better when I was free to solve the problem instead of focusing on why it happened? Yes. Has my relationship with that person changed? Yes. Was that detrimental to either of us? No. Have I been able to let go of the negative emotions associated with the Bad Thing? Yes. Do I feel better without them? Definitely!

Forgiving is a four letter word – gift. It’s a gift to forgive someone else’s detrimental behaviour. It’s a bigger gift to free yourself from resentment, upset or loathing to move on with your life. It would be nicer, in my view, if we could live our lives and behave in such a way that we never have  cause to say sorry or forgive one another. Until that day comes keep giving the gift.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

It’s been a busy week of work and hospital visits.

One of the interesting things about work is that it’s changing but never really changes.  I’m fortunate in that I toil alongside some very intelligent, warm and capable people.  They’re diligent, dedicated and also manage to bring a sense of humour into the office as a means to mitigate the daily shenanigans. I can’t really ask for more than that.  The company we’re all part of is lucky to have these people and it probably doesn’t realise quite how blessed with talent it is – which is rather a shame because my colleagues aren’t afraid to explore, dream or discover.  For people with their skills and abilities, a whole ocean of opportunity is waiting just outside the door even in these less than exciting economic conditions.

Work takes up so much of our time and it can be a popular topic for moans and groans (almost on a par with the British weather) but as with everything else there’s not much sense in moaning, groaning or being miserable about it.  Sometimes we feel trapped in jobs or companies we’ve fallen out of love with but as soon as we realise the bars on the windows are figments of our imagination we’re free to explore, dream, discover.  Life is too short and too precious to waste… if your job is sucking the life out of you its time to get another job!  It might take a while but investing energy in a job search is always going to be more productive than complaining to anyone who’ll listen  🙂

A volunteer pastor and spiritual leader came to sit with me at the hospital today. I’d never met Barbara before and I must admit I was a little concerned because my faith is of the wide-ranging and non-specific kind rather than being invested in any particular God. I needn’t have worried. Barbara is a woman of faith and although hers may be a little more specific than my own it is still broad enough to welcome me and make me feel at home. Every now and then we meet someone and it seems as if we’ve known them all our lives. Sometimes people who know nothing about us have a way of seeing deep inside within a couple of minutes.  Both of those things happened today.

Barbara is an Afro-American woman who moved to the UK 20 years ago, she’s older than me and has a different story to tell but within seconds it felt as though we’d been friends for a very long time.  She didn’t start out as a pastor or spiritual leader, she spent a long time working as a business consultant until the shenanigans ground her down. She walked away from the salary, the politics and the back-biting once she’d seen her kids through college.

Barbara’s first question to me was “have we met before?” so I’m guessing she sensed the same connection I did.  Her next words were “you have such positivity in your eyes… is today your first day here?” We talked. I explained that no today was not my first day, I’d been coming for 10 months now and my regular visits would continue for most of this year too.  I explained that although it might be difficult to describe much of what goes on as pleasurable,  I find ways to make each visit as pleasant and enjoyable as possible.  Mostly that involves joking with the nurses or other patients and supporting newcomers so they see it’s not as scary as it seems.  I decided a long time ago there was no point staying miserable about this cancer thing – living in a trash can wouldn’t suit me and in my little world that’s the only place Oscar the Grouch is allowed to live 🙂

Before long we were laughing which on reflection seems strange because the subject of our conversation – cancer in your thirties – isn’t much of a laughing matter.  I’m not even in my thirties!  Barbara insisted I must be so I laughed some more and suggested she could add a decade. She laughed right back at me and said I must be wrong.  Who’d have thought that a bucket load of chemo would double up as the elixir of youth?!

To me my eyes are blue-green, eyelash-less and a little tired looking. To Barbara they were a window to my psyche before I’d even uttered a word.   Who knows what or who we might discover there on the inside or outside in the big wide world when we throw off the bowlines and catch the trade winds in our sails?  Keep exploring, keep dreaming and keep discovering always because you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Be glad of today because tomorrow is a work of fiction

Human Heart(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Human Heart
(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My heart was examined once again today using ultrasound to create an echocardiogram.  This is standard practice because the anthracycline based chemotherapy I’ve endured and the Herceptin I’m continuing to receive are both known to cause damage to the heart.  I’ll find out next week if my 10 oz bundle of muscle is as healthy as it was three months ago. I certainly hope so and in three months time – all things being equal – it’ll be checked again.

The heart is an amazing piece of equipment. It beats around 100,000 times in a day, circulates blood through some 60,000 miles of blood vessels and if looked after can last a lifetime without needing too much maintenance. It’s also thought the heart can contain ‘cellular memories’ – recollections of the events we experience, preferences and attitudes we hold.  Although the idea of cellular memory is fiercely contested there are some astonishing and as yet unexplained examples, including the 8-year-old girl who provided information that led to the apprehension of her heart-donors murderer.

Irrespective of whether we believe cellular memory or not, if we start out from the premise that every day is the best day of the year I suspect it might help us be happier about what we have instead of feeling miserable about the things we don’t have.


You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die.  Or when.  You can only decide how you’re going to live.  Now.  ~ Joan Baez

If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.  ~Larry McMurtry, Some Can Whistle.

We die daily.  Happy those who daily come to life as well.  ~George MacDonald

Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy?  Of what relevance to an individual is such a statistic?  Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised?  Must I check off each day of my life as if I am subtracting from this imaginary hoard?  No, on the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived.  And with each day, my treasure will grow, not diminish.  ~Robert Brault

Tomorrow is a work of fiction, every day some of us discover tomorrow never comes.  So live today, all day and write on your heart that its the best day of the year 🙂