It’s the time of year when the sun has started to noticeably slip lower in the sky. It shines through the leaves of the trees making alternate golden light and shadows in the car as I drive home from the allotment. The year is turning.
Today I have had my ‘routine’ check with my breast surgeon, Alison Waghorn. A mild anxiety has been with me for most of last week. The usual feeling, even though I have nothing to worry about. But we always have something to worry about; fear of recurrence, even if there are no symptoms. And I go to the hospital with Ronnie, it feels like I have been in this lift a million times. The same waiting room, the file that is mine that is heavy and full. We sit there, and then we sit in the consultation room and wait, reading the notice about the Barium Enema referral procedure for the thousandth time. This room where I have spent so much of my life, or so much of my life where I am in a heightened sense of awareness.
And when Alison Waghorn comes she says she is sorry to have kept me, and she flops down onto a chair and smiles at me. She is the same age as me. We’ve become friendly during the last four and half years. We talk about my book – she liked it, says she likes the honesty in it, that it’s helped her to see things ‘from the other side’. She’s bought copies for her mum to help her understand what she does, and also for her aunt who works in a hospital too. And we chat about my recent trip to Buckingham Palace (she was impressed), and look at the photos, and chat about our latest camping holiday in the Lake District. And then we get down to the medical bit. I will spare you the details of a full breast exam, of the discussions of my reconstruction, the exclamations about my rub-on nipple transfer, how realistic it looks. All is well. For now.
The car is in the garage, so we get a taxi home. It is reminiscent of diagnosis day, 21st February 2007, when we left the hospital in a taxi, but with much heavier hearts. Still there isn’t there that kind of punching the air happiness even when there’s nothing wrong. Just a sort of deflated flatness that I’m even having check ups in a cancer clinic…
So, it is good. But I’m far too pragmatic to whoop for joy about these sort of days. It’s good for now. That’s good enough.
Just then, I was a breast cancer patient again. But mostly, lately, I’ve been living quite a ‘normal’ life. And no, normal is not a word I think of about myself, but what I mean is ordinary I suppose. Ordinary that I’ve had time, and heck not just the time, but the energy to actually do some minor DIY taks around the house.
My fellow blogger Kathi who writes the Accidental Amazon recently posted a piece called Housekeeping which resonated deeply with me. She is three years post diagnosis and writes about looking ‘cautiously forward’. That’s exactly it. And that the ‘undone, unfinished business’ that you didn’t get round to doing because you were a patient still needs doing. She says:
Yet for me, it’s miraculous just to plan these duller tasks, to think I might finally get to finish regrouting the tile on the bathroom floor, or reorganize my art studio, or refurbish the perennial border by my driveway. When you spend years not being able to get out of your own way, and cannot afford to hire people to help you, or lack the wherewithal to organize a few friends to give you a hand, it’s deeply satisfying to be able to muster a little ordinary gumption.
Yes, a ‘little ordinary gumption’. So I’ve been cleaning parts of the house that have been a bit overlooked, like the cooker, scrubbing happily with a Brillo pad; and scraping the flaking paint on the bathroom ceiling and re-painting it; cleaning the dirty grout in the shower; renewing the beeswax on the floorboards. I’ve not had the energy, the inclination or the sense of peace that getting out the stepladders and a paint brush needs to do these sort of tasks. How things like this just slip out of your grasp. Now my right arm tingles and aches from the effort of the work, but it is a ‘good’ feeling. And in between this I see my plastic surgeon, which is never as ominous as visits to the cancer clinic, and plan my surgery for November, more plastic surgery to finish my reconstruction.
Last week I made strawberry jam, the last of the British strawberries. And this week I pickled cucumber and gherkins. My pear tree and apple tree have bumper crops and I am excitedly looking through my preserves book thinking about what I might make.
To celebrate such ordinariness feels, well, it feels like a luxury. I am now four and a half years since diagnosis. Today Alison, my breast surgeon, finally got me to agree to not see her for a whole year, with a mammogram this autumn. How difficult it is to accept that I am in a period of peace, of stability, of transition. Back to something as fragile as an ordinary life. Oh, that I would want that so much!
But it is not like that for all of us. And it’s never far away in the world of breast cancer. It’s still in my dreams.
This last week I am worried about my friend with stage IV breast cancer. I am tired but in bed my eyes are open. Through the partly open curtains the sky is the colour of grey, the colour it is this time of year, never quite fully dark. And in the grey-ness an image comes to me. I am in a boat with my friend, in flat grey water. It’s hot. We are somewhere exotic, I’m not sure if it is the Congo or the Amazon. We are having an adventure. Our boat is small. My friend is dressed for adventure, all in beige and sunglasses and a hat. I am less well prepared but am wearing red lippie. And I am rowing our small boat through this grey water. My friend is unable to as her arm is hurting.
Reeds grow up through the water, the vegetation is dense. No I’ve never been to Africa or South America, I am dreaming an image of these places. Then we see a tail emerge. A crocodile tail. We smile at each other. My friend says it is OK. But then another tail, and another. And soon we are surrounded by tails. ‘Let’s go back,’ I say. And I turn the boat around, but there are tails everywhere.
Is that where we are going? The crocodile tails? The inevitability? I am scared. She is scared. But I will not get out of the boat, I am looking after her.
The next morning I wake and feel that my head has pressed too hard into the pillow. My shoulders ache.
Now I am hurting. How can ‘normal’ and so very ‘not normal’ exist so closely?