A few weeks ago an old friend of ours invited me and Ronnie to stay with her in an apartment in Spain, near Alicante on the Mediterranean coast. We haven’t seen our friend Rhona much the last few years as she moved to Sweden in 2006 and now lives in Budapest. In fact just before she moved we were working on a project together, and it was a few months after she moved that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s always stayed in touch and followed how we’re both doing. She owns the apartment in Spain with her sister and for the last ten years they’ve used it for family holidays with their children. The apartment is also available to rent when they are not using it, and Rhona needed to go there to get it ready for the first guests who were arriving at the end of March. So, an offer of a ‘free’ holiday with a friend, all we needed was a flight to Alicante (direct from Liverpool) and Rhona would meet us at the airport in a rental car. What’s not to like about that?
Well. I didn’t immediately say yes. I hummed and haahed a bit. Why?
It’s only now, now that we are back from what was a splendid break, that I realise why I was reluctant. In the moment of becoming a breast cancer patient – on the 21st February 2007 – the world changes. The ground is no longer solid. Things you feel sure about, such as living until you are old, no longer become things you can be sure of. Staying well is not guaranteed. Staying alive isn’t either. And in that shock of change I realise that I became needy of things that I could rely on, that I was sure about.
I didn’t consciously do that. But, for us, the years that followed were full of medical intervention and doctors. A lot of surgery, treatment, tests, side effects, decisions; in fact, for a long time. To support my fantastic NHS team we travelled, regularly, to other doctors in the UK for opinions and tests. We’d often stay away from home and make a short break of it, but the reason we did it was breast cancer. Similarly with the trips I made on retreat. They weren’t really ‘holidays’, they were because of breast cancer. To mark getting through the first six months, the most terrifying in some ways, we flew to Ireland, to Galway on the west coast. It was magical, but thanks to my latest drug I spent most of it asleep in the hotel. Because of breast cancer.
And during all this we would camp, most years, not every year depending on where I was up to with my multiple surgeries. So we thought our lives had settled down again when we were back in our tent, camping. But really, I now see, camping is quite a secure way of going away. You take your own possessions, your tent, your bed, your cooking stuff, your food. We also have a few regular campsites that we like. So it’s not really very adventurous is it?
And I didn’t travel light. I never have. I always take way too many clothes, too many shoes, things I didn’t need. But I might need them. And that’s the thing. I might need them. I don’t know if I will, so I take them anyway. I am unable to just let go and think, ‘Hey, I have enough, it’ll be fine.’ Because I’ve become so worried with ‘what ifs?’ that I can’t really let go. And of course, there’s always the fear of leaving my medical team, of being away from being near them, even if I’m not actually in active treatment.
So, the trip to Spain would involve a flight. Yes I know I’ve fairly recently been to New Jersey to say goodbye to my dear friend Rach, who had very kindly also bought me an Economy Plus ticket (which of course was not intended for the service after her death, but for a week together in March, which never happened). And that’s quite a comfortable way to travel, especially over a long distance, especially for someone like me who hates flying. But Spain is ‘budget’ travel. I haven’t been on a budget flight for years now, and didn’t know that part of what makes the flight so cheap is that everything costs extra, including luggage. So imagine my distress on finding that the airline we were flying with only allows one miniscule hand luggage case (they have the smallest baggage allowances of all airlines), with a maximum weight of 10kg (22lbs), unless of course we pay the additional swingeing fee to check in a suitcase in the hold.
In preparation we bought two very cheap (£19.99 each), very small cases – yes they are matching. And so on the morning of the day we were due to fly we both put them on the bed and realised that we were going to have to pack very light. Ronnie forfeited his running shoes and decided to have a break from his daily runs, I forfeited wearing a different outfit each day, and decided on two pairs of trousers – one to wear, plus a spare – and my thermals just in case. Plus one jumper, and swimming costume and sunhat. And one lippie (in red).
And, you know, it was enough. It was perfectly enough. Every moment has been perfect, and we both had enough to wear. In fact, for the first time ever, I can proudly say I’ve worn absolutely everything I took. Four pairs of knickers for four days.
We’ve eaten delicious fresh gazpacho and grilled prawns (not for vegetarian Ronnie, of course); had a picnic under palm trees and fallen asleep to the sound of the breeze in the palm leaves; sat on the terrace of a bar watching the sea, drinking local wine; sat on the rooftop gazing at the stars and the moon, and Jupiter and Venus; shopped in a Spanish supermarket, exclaiming over the quality of the fresh produce, the mounds of aubergines and oranges and enormous strawberries; we’ve driven past lemon groves, orange groves and olive trees; I’ve photographed the pink flowers of bougainvillea, purple daisy-like osteospermum, red bottle-brush flowers, and many others I don’t even know the names of.
We’ve sat with Rhona and talked late into the night, about Rach (Rhona didn’t know Rach but watched her service live, you can see the film here), we talked about death and breast cancer, about families and traumas. It was healing, reassuring, helpful. It was very special.
We’ve slept long and deep, and woken to sunlight and clear blue skies; we’ve swum in the unheated pool, tiled in Mediterranean blue; we’ve visited the Elche Palm Forest, and the Huerto del Cura palm garden (fabulous – see the full report over on the Plot 44 blog); strolled along palm lined streets to the basillica; eaten ice cream sundaes in the Café de Paris with a view of Altamir Castle; visited the remains of the Arab baths, over ten centuries old and steeped in history; we’ve even navigated getting a bus from Elche to Torrevieja – and we don’t speak Spanish – marvelling at the drive through more orange groves, more palm groves and even fields of pomegranate trees.
In short, we’ve had a great time. In fact, here are some more photos:
And all we had to do was get the bus from the bottom of our road, 30 minutes later we arrive at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, catch a flight to Alicante which took just over two hours. Hola! A new world is waiting for us.
Afterwards we reflect how easy it was to do this, how relatively cheap it was, especially with the free accommodation and Rhona’s chauffeur services (apart from the bus adventure) – thanks Rhona! How we’ve not done anything this frivolous or light for… well, for ages, for over five years in fact. Does the fear of breast cancer strike so deep, that you don’t even realise you’re becoming needy of a safety net at all times? Maybe we’re finally letting go of the life raft, and can really start being able to do our living. Now.