On Monday 6 February 2012 my dear friend Rachel Cheetham, blogger at The Cancer Culture Chronicles, died of metastatic breast cancer. This last week I left the blog in the good hands of my beloved partner Ronnie Hughes, as I travelled over to New Jersey to say goodbye to Rach. I’ll be posting more about this, and also editing film of the service. But for now, here are my words for Rach, as read by me on Saturday 11 February 2012 at the ‘Celebration of Life’ service for Rachel in New Jersey.
I’ve only known Rach for a fairly short time, but we very quickly became close. I was looking back through my emails to see when we started to get to know each other and I found the first message from her in November 2010. You see Rach and I both inhabit the ‘blogosphere’ – that’s what we call the space where we bloggers meet. Yes I have a breast cancer blog, like Rach. I too have been diagnosed with breast cancer, at a relatively early age, have been treated, have spent years of my life being a patient. But unlike Rach, I’m lucky. I’m lucky because my cancer hasn’t behaved like Rach’s did – at least not yet. So I’m still here to talk about the life I’m living after diagnosis, which for the most part doesn’t involve much medical intervention. But the thing that Rach and I immediately had in common was that we disliked the culture of breast cancer that wanted us to be triumphal survivors. You may have read Rachel’s obituary, written by Anthony (her beloved husband), about how they got on with their lives after Rachel’s diagnosis and treatment….
Confident treatment was successful, because everyone “survives” breast cancer, don’t they?
But in fact, not everyone survives breast cancer, and bloggers like me and Rach felt that telling the truth about breast cancer might actually help us start finding a cure, and eradicating the disease in the first place.
So, I stumbled across Rachel’s blog in October 2010, and sent her a message saying how refreshing I found her honesty. She wrote straight back and even in the first email from her, straight off she was speaking it like it is, and exclaiming on how difficult it was to be a stage IV breast cancer patient. (Sorry I can’t do the accent here):
No one really wants to hear about it unless you’re embracing the survivorship sisterhood and doing it with smile on your face with a feeling of eternal gratefulness. What a load of bollocks.
And as if she felt she needed to justify this comment she went on, almost as a stage whisper:
(another thing about me, I’m Australian by birth of English parents, and now live in the US with my American hubby).
Well, I liked her. She sounded like my kind of friend! And so a few more emails were exchanged, then she revealed to me that she was not in fact Anna – the pen name she’d been using – and I got to find my new friend Rach.
In many ways Rach is similar to me, I mean we share a lot of interests – gardening, the natural world, knitting, cooking – and we also share a very ‘direct’ approach, I think that’s probably a polite way to describe it!
Shortly after our email exchanges we began to Skype, and that became a regular event where we’d spend literally hours putting the world to rights – marathon Skypes Rach called them – having a good old criticism of breast cancer culture, a load of laughs and probably share some recipes along the way, as well as talk about what was growing in my garden. We talked about our backgrounds, our families, our wishes for the future, about the reality of Rachel’s disease. It was always very open, no subject was off-topic and we were easily able to be completely honest with each other.
I then came over to New Jersey in June last year. I was welcomed with open arms by Rachel and Anthony into their home and enjoyed a fabulous stay with them. And Rach also decided I was Newman’s auntie! (Newman is Rachel’s adored small dog, a Norwich terrier).
In the book we’ve produced for today (Note: we will be making these available through the blogs), I’ve included two twin blog posts which we wrote about our friendship that explain a bit more about us becoming friends, but after the visit there was rarely a week that went by when I didn’t have a least one Skype with Rach, plus lots of blog comment swapping and social media interaction.
Rach planned to make a return visit to me in Liverpool in October. But, sadly, things weren’t going well for Rach medically and she wasn’t up to making the trip. But through the year I made regular short films for Rach (I’m a film maker), films about my allotment – that’s a garden that’s on a piece of land rented for growing plants, usually vegetables and fruit. I also made her films of the walks I’d take with my husband Ronnie, and he’d give her historical narratives of the places we visited. If Rach couldn’t come to see me in person, I could still share my world with her. And I was glad to, she always had the most inquisitive questions about the places I showed her. It was a great way to be together, even if we physically couldn’t be together.
I searched for a long time to find breast cancer friends and , for me, finding Rach was like fulfilling everything I wanted – someone who got where I was about breast cancer culture – she filled a void. I mean that would have been enough… But the fact that we shared all those other interests was just a bonus really. And so not to have her in my life leaves the void again.
I loved so much about Rach. I loved the way she would abbreviate words – especially ‘brekkie’ for breakfast, and ‘chokkie’ for chocolate. I’ll forever hear them spoken in Rach’s voice. I preserved some pears from the garden in cider, and kept a jar for Rach, for when she finally visited. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘they’ll be lovely with a bit of ice cream and some chokkie sauce.’
And her humour was sparkling, and there was no shortage of that in Rachel’s writing. I am spoilt for choice to give you an example, but her Christmas piece about her favourite seasonal things included the practical aids of the panini press and the freezer full of food from her mother-in-law (thanks Felicia), as well as the economy sized stool softener, suitably illustrated with Rach holding her Miralax and pulling a snarky face and sporting a Father Christmas hat – had me laughing out loud reading it. Her ability to laugh and make fun of her situation was really remarkable.
But I also loved how angry she was, how honest, how open, how brave, how daring. Many of the tributes you will read about Rach say how she inspired them to be honest, to speak out, to tell their truths. I know I’ve often asked Rach about the best way to express something, or worked on a blog post jointly with her. I will miss that. I will miss the noise of Rach. My partner, Ronnie, who sometimes got roped into my Skypes with Rach, will also miss her. He’s written a poem for Rach, in the book, but these few lines sum her up perfectly:
All the notes
Of all the orchestras,
Played at once and turned up full.
That’s Rach alright. Full on. I think we’ll be hearing her still for a long time, her ‘turned up full’ writing is still there and will impact a lot of people still. I’m glad about that.
In the last couple of months Rach would address me, in writing, as ‘Dear one’ It was very endearing, and I am so sad that I will no longer be Rach’s dear one. I will miss her so much.
I’ve already told you that Rach was fascinated by my allotment garden in Liverpool – she was a keen gardener herself. She longed to visit it. I am sad that this never happened. On Wednesday this week I picked rosemary there and I brought it here and left it in Rachel’s garden this morning, in the snow – for Rach. Rosemary for remembrance.
I will never forget you Rach.
Ronnie did you proud and you’ve done Rachel proud.
Thank you. I appreciate your comment very much. Sarah
With the “rosemary for remembrance,” I came completely undone. What a beautiful symbol of your connection as friends, cooks, gardeners… The scent of rosemary is a savory scent of life. And smells have such an evocative way of transporting us in time and place.
That you could leave something behind for Anthony too… it’s just so wonderful and sad.
I’ve said it before but I will say it again, because it cannot be said enough: I took great comfort in knowing that you and Gayle and Kathi were in attendance at Rach’s memorial. Thank you for making sure it happened.
Love to you, dear one.
I will write more about this extraordinary event in my life Lani… the sense of urgency and of ‘having’ to do this, is almost inexplainable. Death forces us into places we didn’t know existed.
Even having watched you speak these words, I too am totally undone. Ronnie’s words ring SO true and yes, “rosemary for remembrance” has me choking. EVERY spring, there is a pot of rosemary on my patio and now that will forever be Rachel’s rosemary. I just peeked out the door and there is a sprig of green still left despite the frost. That scent will forever link me to YOU for sharing that and it will forever remind me of Rach.
I’ve been on the outer fringe of the circle as the newbie and if my heart is shattered, I can’t even begin to imagine how those of you who have been in Rachel’s life for so much longer must be feeling. I send you love, sweet Sarah. And I thank you for making it possible for all of us to share in the celebration of Rachel’s life.
AnneMarie, glad to give you a memory of Rach. And thank you for being on the outer fringe… welcome in.
Oh my, I should have followed my instinct and waited to read this in the privacy of my own home. Instead, I am bawling at the hair salon. What a beautiful piece. Your love for and bond with Rach is so evident. May we all be so lucky to love and be loved like you and Rach.
I am very lucky to have shared what I did with Rach. I know that. Thank you for reminding me.
Rosemary: one of my favourite fragrances. What beautiful words to evoke the sum of Rachel’s life! I love Ronnie’s poem. He speaks volumes when the rest of us have no words. XOXO
In grief I am almost forcing myself to find words where there are no words. This matters so much to me.
I want to thank you, Gayle, Kathi and Stacey for being there. I felt great comfort knowing you were all there. I also found the live stream to be helpful as I so wanted to attend and that allowed me to “be there” if only as a silent observer. Something that really touched me when I listened to you and Gayle speak was the gentleness of your voices. The love conveyed was almost a tangible thing, if that makes any sense. Thank you for reading a few of my words too. I wasn’t expecting to hear them, and when I did, I was overwhelmed with emotion. So glad you’re back home. I look forward to reading more of your words about Rachel. Thank you for being her friend. Thank you for being her dear one.
Thank you Nancy, Elaine, Renn, Deb, Peter and Catherine for your comments. This is a deeply personal post and I’m sure Sarah will want to reply to you. But she’s still jet lagged. In Sarah’s body-world it’s still very early morning in New Jersey.
Oh Nancy, I too am glad you could ‘be there’ too. And there will be many more words for sure… There was so much love in that room for Rach, and I’m glad you were able to feel some of it.
I meant to include Kathi’s voice as well in my above comment. I could feel the love in all of your voices. It was very moving to watch and listen to the service. Well done. Thanks again.
Thank you for this. I’m so sad for all of you who knew Rachel, and sad for those of us who will know her only by her words and remembrances. To have such a friend and to be such a friend is a wonderful, and now bittersweet thing, never forgotten. All the best.
Thank you. Please keep reading and sharing Rachel’s words.
Sarah, I watched you say these words on the memorial video, and I cry again reading them now. You all did such a beautiful job, with such grace and poise and love. You all did. It was so moving.
In poking around the links in your post above, I discovered a post of Rachel’s I had forgotten… the one where she has chest pains and goes to the ER — the one where she reveals her real name. That was the first post of Rachel’s that I ever read. I started “following” her after that, and she “followed” me.
And now Newman’s little puppy face pops out at me whenever I look at my blog’s “members.” Surreal.
Thank you for sharing Rach with us in your poetry, your prose, your pictures, and your marvelous films that you made to show her your world.
Peace and light,
Thank you Renn for being part of Rachel’s service. I was so honoured to be able to do this for my friend.
Yes the ‘chest pains’ post was incredibly moving and real…. those of us who spend too much of our lives in hospital-land are too familiar with that sense of isolation and Rach captured that beautifully.
There will be more films too. There is still so much to say. Sarah
Welcome Deb and thanks for reading.
I find myself torn between wanting desperately to read these entries and not. So I skim over them quickly and my eyes fill with tears at a similar rate.
Hello Peter, and welcome. Your sister was a brilliant and amazing woman, as you well know. She is deeply missed by me and many, many others. Read when you are ready, the words for Rach will be many. Sending you much love, Sarah
What extraordinary women, you and Rach. I’m fairly new on the scene (diagnosed 1/27/11; mastectomy on 3/8). But I found both your blogs quickly. I was there in July when Rachel unmasked herself, which felt like quite a moment at the time. You could feel that her molecular urge for honesty was at war with her pseudonym. The news about Rachel and Susan was a terrible shock that shouldn’t have been, given that that is the reality being hidden under the Great Pink Lie, the Giant Pink Cloud of Denial. This piece, Sarah, is lovely, as was the chance to be a part of Rachel’s memorial service. Thank you.
Thank you Chandra. I’m sorry to hear of your diagnosis, but glad you’re able to link into this amazing network of bloggers. I sometimes wonder how different my experience would have been if ‘all this’ had been available to me back in 2007….
Yes, Rach and I often talked about honesty. It burned through our conversations. The reality of breast cancer, hidden by pink, is that too many women die. And that is why I will continue to write and speak. In truth.
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A beautiful testament to a beautiful friendship.
These words resonated with me “….everyone survives breast cancer, don’t they…” Until relatively recently, I believed that too. Then a friend who shares my stage 3 diagnosis graduated to stage 4. I thought, “This doesn’t happen to women like us! We get cancer. We beat cancer. We write a book about it. We don’t DIE, for God’s sakes”. And so while I did not know Rachel, her death touched me deeply. We lost a sister.
An yes, that’s it – the ‘myth’ of survivorship. The culture where there is no space for those who die. To quote Wanda Lucas: “How angry do we have to become before we stop women dying of breast cancer.”
= ( I want to run and hide sometimes from Cancer and had a hard time reading these recent posts. Reminds me too much of the friends I have lost in my cancer journey. I just wasn’t ready to read the posts. I was compelled to read this tonight. I feel numb. I have a similar experience with my friend Sara who was a soul sister I lost 4 years ago. It never goes away and we have to be brave and live on and be angry when we need to be. Today I put the compact she gave me in my pocket and her bracelet on my wrist. I ran my fingers over the ridges in the bracelet to give me courage.
I love your words for Rach and especially this ‘But I also loved how angry she was, how honest, how open, how brave, how daring.’
Yes we lost a sister. Thinking of you Sarah and sending you a big hug.
Isa, it is always difficult when we lose one of our community to this wretched disease. It hurts us all. It’s a reminder of the reality of breast cancer. The reality we all face. The possibility of death. It never leaves.
I was sorry to hear of your friend Sara, but glad that you have something to remind you of her, and to give you strength.
Rach was angry. I’m angry too. This is a very big loss.
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You and the ‘Babe have been in my thoughts every day since I heard. I am truly sorry for your loss–for all of our loss. She was a distinct voice and from what I have learned about her from yours and others testimonies, a shining soul. Much love from us in the heartland.
Thanks L for the love. Miss Rach so much.