I write a lot about flowers and plants, about gardening on Plot 44, of scenic walks and happy times; about celebrating life, and especially gardening – so much so that I now have another blog where you can follow my gardening activities – Plot 44. But one of the realities of being alive, is that we will face death. We all die. And my experience as a cancer patient means that I’ve thought about death a lot.
And these last few months I am in grief for the death of my friend Rachel, who died of secondary breast cancer age 41, in February 2012. Whose ‘celebration of life’ service I structured and delivered with my friend Gayle Sulik in New Jersey, and the memory of that is a ‘good’ memory. It felt so right to do that for her.
Just before Rachel died I had, after much thought and reflecting on how breast cancer had changed my life and how I wanted to use that deep reflection, decided to apply for a training course to become qualified as officiant to perform services for life celebrations after death. (This is just one organisation, there are several who offer training). Celebrants are trained to perform unique services to mark the lives of people when they die, without religion, in a way that focuses sincerely and affectionately on the person who has died. Back in 1999 when my father died we had this type of ceremony, and it’s stayed with me as a ‘good’ memory, a happy day, a celebration as well as a time to say goodbye. Now, because of my experience with breast cancer, I’ve become comfortable talking about death, and illness. I am not afraid to have deep conversations, I am comfortable with ‘difficult’ subjects.
I talked to Rach about this, in what was to become our last Skype together. Rach thought it was a great idea. The hurdle for me though, is that I don’t have enough money to pay for the course fees. ‘No worries,’ said Rach, ‘you can just ask people to chip in. I’d chip in for you, you’d be great.’ So after we finished our conversation I immediately dismissed the idea, feeling uncomfortable about asking for money. But really I shouldn’t have because I’d done it before – in November 2010 I raised the money from friends to go to The European Parliament in Brussels to contribute to the campaign about environmental links to breast cancer. People wanted to help and funded the trip. I was astonished actually. So, what was I waiting for this time?
Then Rach died.
Feels like rather a big pause in my life. A massive interruption. A blow to the sense of ‘normal’ I was starting to ‘recover’ as I approached five years from diagnosis. That passed without mention, it seemed so insignificant compared to Rach dying. The sort of blow that leaves you feeling without purpose, with no energy or inertia. Difficult. And then last month our friend Rhona encouraged us to come and have a holiday with her in Spain. Which was great for all of us, a real tonic. Just what I needed. And there, under the starry sky on her rooftop terrace, Rhona told me how she’d sat in her living room in Budapest and watched Rachel’s service live, streamed from New Jersey, and how wonderful she thought it was. I told her about what I want to do, and the training, and that I’d asked about bursaries – none are available to help, and that I’d also looked at various charity funds to see if there was something that might be able to help me out, but found nothing. But she still encouraged me to do the training, even if it meant I had to ask friends for money. Rhona knew that, as she’s said, she would be ‘met with squirming discomfort at the idea of asking for money’… but she was very persistent, right up to the last moment when we parted at the airport. She even eloquently wrote about it in the guest blog she soon sent us, and I sat and cried when I read her words:
Sarah did not ask for breast cancer, but she should ask us to help if we can, if that help will make a difference. And that’s more than enough for me to chip in a few pounds.
And people I didn’t even know commented. This is Iwona:
I would love to chip in and I know many more would. It’s a wonderful idea.
And someone I hadn’t been in very much touch with for years, Lelir:
I know it’s an old cliche, life is for living! So I just wanted to say I want to chip in so I want you all to push Sarah (especially you Ronnie) to accept what she wants to do – Sarah you would be an amazing celebrant. I thought I would share with you when Dad went and we had his funeral, the guy we had was just what we wanted and what Dad would have wanted – just the right words which said the right things. And the best thing of all he took time to find out what he was like which really helped. So go for your next dream you deserve it.
I have been in tears reading their words. So, how could I not do this? Rhona has been reminding me, encouraging me, she knows I want to do this, but it’s been so difficult in my grief to do very much at all.
Why can’t I afford to pay myself? Well, life changed completely for me in February 2007 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, age 43. As I went through multiple surgeries and treatments for the next three years I didn’t have time or space to work and relied on state benefits, plus income from Ronnie who continued to work when he wasn’t caring for me – we are self-employed and have run our own business since 1995. When I was at a point at the end of that treatment and ready to return to work I then struggled on and off with depression for most of 2010 and 2011, which made working difficult. In November 2011 I had what I hope was my final (and seventh) surgery for breast cancer, so we arrived into 2012 with our savings depleted, earning enough to live, but no spare money, so no money for the course fee. But today I finished the application form. Now I need money. How much? In all I’m looking for somewhere in total around £2,000.
This is another way for me to celebrate life.
A massive thank you to all my friends who ‘chipped in’ to my fund.