‘She never complained.’

I reflect from time to time, on what people say about me, about others, other women and men, as they endure – and yes I did mean to use that word – endure their treatments for cancer. Sometimes they say we are brave, and that we don’t complain.

I’ve never understood the ‘brave’ comment. What’s brave about making decisions involving chemical and drug treatments and surgery or multiple surgeries? Or more tests? Or more observations over time to see what happens?

What’s brave about agreeing to take a drug that has a statistical chance of increasing your life span? What’s brave about agreeing to surgery, to anaesthesia, to the potential complications, and possible side-ffects of all of them?

What’s brave about any of that?

It’s simply a choice, and not a choice that anyone would ever want to make. It’s not like choosing a new outfit, or where to go on holiday, or even what kind of an occupation you would like to pursue. It’s a choice from a lesser, more complicated, and sometimes painful set of options. A choice weighted with life and death statistics. It’s a choice made hoping that you wind up in the ‘good’ statistics, in the hope that your outcome doesn’t have the  worst side-effects (or at least not all of them), or the unforeseen complications. The ‘unusual’ patient. I know.

I know all of that.

22 February 2007, day after diagnosis. Brave? No, pissed off.

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We only know we have it now

Today – 31 August – is the ‘anniversary’ of my father’s death. Is it really 13 years? And so every year at this time, I feel sad. I’m now able to remember Frank, my father, happily and recall memories fondly; but he was my first experience of deep grief. But today is also a Friday. And now, on Fridays, me and Ronnie go for a walk – somewhere. Ronnie writes a regular blog post of ‘The Friday Walks’. Sometimes it’s over on the shining shore on the Wirral, the Dee estuary with its beaches and marshes; and often we combine a visit to my favourite botanic garden at Ness; sometimes further afield like Anglesey; sometimes it’s here in Liverpool, an urban walk; and sometimes it’s somewhere new. And today is a new walk.

New walks are tricky. We don’t have the route fully mapped out, we might not like it… but we like to find new places to extend our walk repertoire. Ronnie has suggested Churchtown, north of Southport and the marsh beyond, about 30 miles north of Liverpool. I’m not sure, but when Ronnie tells me there is a botanical garden at Churchtown then I’m keen to go.

I won’t describe our walk in detail, after all I know Ronnie will sum it up perfectly. (In fact he has done here – and if you look at the photos on Ronnie’s blog you will see I am sporting a rather large rucksack for a day walk, but I am practising with a heavier pack for my pilgrimage walk for Rach in a few weeks). Anyway, we arrive at Churchtown – which is delightful – we walk round the village, the churchyard, the lovely thatched cottages and old brick buildings, and we arrive at the botanic gardens, which are quite simply a gem. We find a bench and, as usual on the Friday walk, settle down to have our packed lunch.

As we are sat there I say, ‘This is great, isn’t it?’ but not really a question. Ronnie looks up from his lunch and says, ‘Yes, we’re doing alright aren’t we, in our after,‘ and then pauses. We are both silent. We both know we weren’t guaranteed an after. By any means. We also don’t know how long this after will last. We only know we have it now. My eyes fill with tears.

‘This is our weekly holiday,’ says Ronnie. So matter-of-factly. Yes. It is. Every Friday, we do this. We just do it. Other people exclaim over our ritual, but all we do is decide to do it. It’s not special, it’s ordinary now. The Friday walk.

The gardens are lovely, sort of gardens mixed with municipal park, but green and lush with a lake and lots of other people using them.

After the botanic garden we drive up to the marsh and walk out along the salty, empty sandy road to nowhere, just the edge of a wide estuary. I love it. The open-ness, the green-ness, the birds and the space.

And so, in the ‘unknowingness of breast cancer‘ which I wrote about before on our walks, we find ‘ordinary’.

I’m having a tough time this summer, losing my dear friend Rach this year has been very, very hard. The grief is immense. I’m taking a lot of time for myself. But in a moment when I dip back into the blog world I see that Marie is ‘celebrating ordinary‘. And that’s something I’ve longed for, snatched at, selfishly wanting the plain and simple ‘ordinary’ of everyday life. I realise that I have so much ordinary now… but it’s taken five years to find it again. But it’s definitely back.

25 August 2012. Ordinary.

Yes, that’s Saturday morning in Liverpool. It’s sunny and I peg the washing out, our sheets, on the line in our back yard. An ordinary yard, an ordinary sky. But really, not ordinary at all. If you think about it.

And what today reminded us about, is that you can find all sorts of lovely (and ordinary) places just by deciding to do it. And I’ll take ‘ordinary’ any day of the week.

The walking (for Rachel)

When someone close to us dies we grieve. And that grieving can take many forms. We cry, of course. We cross the earth to attend their funeral. We put together collections of photos of the departed one. Maybe of their writings. Sometimes we run. And maybe we’ll walk, ‘in remembrance of’ them. And in my experience there is an urgent need to do some or all of these things in the first year after the person has died. By year, I mean, the actual 12 months. I know from my father’s death that the first year was ‘special’ and the grief did not end at the one year point, but the marking of that year was important. You go through a cycle of grief because you pass ‘this time last year’ moments so often. Anniversaries arrive and catch you unawares, a birthday, the last time you were together; these moments have significance, especially so in the first year.

Of course the person I am thinking about this year is Rachel – it’s her birthday soon. And I’ve been thinking about doing a walk that would be like a pilgrimage – for Rach. For me. Yes I want to walk with Rachel, my beloved friend who died in February. And I have a feeling of ‘If I don’t do it now I may never do it’. It’s the grief, I know. A deeply personal need to in some way still be ‘with’ the one who has died. And I was wondering if you might like to walk with me?

So… this summer I’ve been entertaining fantasies of walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (also known in English as The Way of St James) in Northern Spain, maybe in October when the weather is cooler. It’s 485 miles (780km) in total from the start in France to the cathedral in Santiago in Spain, although you can walk part of it, or walk it in sections. So, nearly 500 miles? On foot. Why? Well, it started after I’d watched the film ‘The Way‘ starring Martin Sheen (Jed Bartlet from the TV series West Wing). He plays a father who doesn’t understand why his grown son has given up everything and gone to Europe to ‘find himself’, and they part angrily. Several months later the father ends up following his son to retrieve his ashes…. he’s died on the Camino in a storm. And so, of course, with it being Hollywood, Martin Sheen has a revelation and well, of course proceeds to walk the Camino himself and experiences enlightenment along the way, plus meets other ‘pilgrims’ and they talk about why they are walking and deeper questions about life. It’s well-filmed and has a great sense of place, but is also done without sentimentality. One of those films that makes you say, as the credits roll, ‘Mmm, I fancy going there.’

I’ve since mentioned it to a few people, some of whom have heard of the Camino, who have desires to walk it themselves. But it’s a big commitment, at least to walk it all. If you walk it in one go, it’ll take you about 40 days. On foot. Carrying all your possessions, well that is all your two pairs of socks and a change of underwear. Staying along the way in primitive ‘refugios‘ in dormitories. So to a lipstick-wearing, self-confessed co-ordinated dresser (ie me) does that still sound attractive?

Well, sort of. Continue reading

The shit filter

All in all I think I’ve done OK with this social media thing. I mean given that just over two years ago I didn’t know what Facebook was. Really. I emerged into 2010 from three years in ‘hosptial-land’ (thanks to breast cancer for that) and was plunged back into the ‘real’ world, and when I first heard the socially accepted end of conversation line, ‘Find me on Facebook.’ I said, ‘What’s Facebook?’

Well times move on and now I comfortably use Facebook, Twitter less so (and could somebody tell me what LinkedIn is for?), but I recognise that there are things about this social media stuff that means that I can stay in touch with people, find new friends who share my interests…. all good stuff. But it’s not all good. I mean, there’s just so much STUFF out there. How do you find the good or relevant stuff?

I recently read an article in The Word magazine (no I don’t read it but Ronnie does), and he’d told me about ‘frictionless sharing’. Mark Zukerberg, creator of Facebook, coined this phrase, and the concept is discussed in an article by Eamonn Forde:

“If everything we consume is being shared socially… does anything actually stand out? Sharing just becomes about quantity rather than quality.”

Exactly my feeling too. Continue reading

Losing Rachel

Rachel and her dog Newman

My friend Rachel died on 6 February this year. From metastatic breast cancer. She was 41. She will be greatly missed by her beloved husband Anthony, her family, her friends, her dog and the thousands of people who read her sharp, angry and witty words on her blog where she challenged mainstream breast cancer culture: The Cancer Culture Chronicles. She was my friend. In fact, she was one of my closest friends, found in the blogosphere and we became close despite the 3,500 miles that separated us. Her death came too soon, I was not ready for this and the grief has been profound.

In the grief of Rach I’ve been remembering other things. Sort of introspectively remembering my life since my breast cancer diagnosis, things that happened. Continue reading