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.

Bruised

My least favourite version of a hospital gown. Printed with the words 'hospital use only' - that's funny because I thought it would look good as a party dress.

Having been so open about my recent surgery for nipple reconstruction I feel it’s only fair to update you on how it’s all turned out. OK so the administration of my hospital experience was ‘not ideal’ and I’ve written plenty about that (please note just over 7,000 words, and all of them, together with Ronnie’s accompanying blog, sent hard-copy to the hospital – more about their response will follow in another blog post). But surgically this was very straightforward and has gone well. I also have the most wonderful kind and gentle and skilled plastic surgeon – Ken Graham – who I trust completely. And I know he will always do his best for me.

So for ten days after surgery I have a blue foam block covering my new nipple and dressings on the other breast where I’ve had some revision for symmetry. And a four-inch suture line on the inside of my upper thigh which is frankly, very uncomfortable. That was the donor site for the skin which was used to create an areola (which will mean I don’t need any tattoo-ing if the colour works out well). And I don’t mind telling you that having three surgical sites in particularly senstive areas do in fact hurt, I feel delicate and bruised. The effort of bending over to paint my toe nails, the tenderness, the way I am frightened that I will knock myself and hurt. Impossible to sleep on my side, too uncomfortable because of the stitches on both sides. All those things that are familiar post-surgery.

And all this healing time is frankly boring. I don’t get out much, I can’t do anything very active. I sleep long and nap often. I have some visitors who bring me chocolate and cake and we chat. I’ve been to the cinema and also went out for delicious pizza with my friend Karen, but post-surgery is a time for rest and healing.

So as I anxiously look at myself I get to see bits of stitches, dried blood and bruising. That’s what surgery looks like while it’s healing. Continue reading

It all comes back

November 2007, picking Sarah up from hospital after her oopherectomy

Today’s guest blog, from guest Editor, Ronnie, picks up on Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic article ‘Welcome to Cancerland’. This one’s about ‘Carerland.’ It’s right next door.

So, it’s Monday evening, this week. Sarah’s just gone out boxing and the phone goes. It’s the hospital, offering Sarah a cancellation slot for her next surgery, this Thursday. ‘Do you think she’ll take it?’ I’m asked. ‘Well, I think she’ll hit the roof, blame me for the short notice, stomp around the house for a few minutes, and then agree it’s probably best to get it done now,’ I tell her. And an hour or so later, this scenario plays out, more or less precisely. Sarah takes the appointment, and immediately begins her blog about it, published on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning for me, I’m out on what’s becoming my regular run. From our house, ten minutes down to Sefton Park, once round the park, twenty minutes or so, then back up to our house – bit more than ten minutes, mostly uphill. Monday morning I’d skipped round this. But Tuesday’s different. In the end, my times are pretty much the same. But there’s a heaviness in my legs and in my heart. Skipping it isn’t. And half way round I realise I’m running through previous preparations for surgery, previous waiting rooms. And it all comes back. Welcome to Carerland. Continue reading

What is a friend?

knitting

Does knitting gloves for a friend define friendship?

Today’s post has been jointly written by me and my friend Rach, blogger at The Cancer Culture Chronicles, following a Skype where we talked about my ‘World without cancer‘ post.

One of the themes of the week has been one of deep reflecting about friendship. Rach was saying to me yesterday that some of her ‘friends’ have simply stopped asking her how she is, now she has metastatic breast cancer. Or they’ll send one line emails that say ‘How are you?’. Do they want the truthful reply that might take more than one line, or do they just want to hear that she’s ‘good’?  ‘Just read my blog’, she sometimes curtly replies. Others might just send meaningless, closed messages, like ‘Thinking of you.’ Messages encouraging no reply.

So, we’d like to ask our friends. Are you prepared to go down cancer’s rabbit hole? All the way?

Thinking about cancer, and death, has meant that I now view friends differently. Friendship, post cancer diagnosis, is deeper. Rach has similar feelings on friendships today. She simply doesn’t have the physical or emotional energy to manage friends who, through the passage of time and lives moving on, have really just become acquaintances. Her circle of friends is now much smaller, but she knows they are people she can rely on. And that’s never been more important.

And these reflections on friendship had prompted me to do a hefty Facebook clear-out of my friends, realising that many of them aren’t really my ‘friends’ after all, and I was telling Rach about this. In our usual snarky way me and Rach started joking about it. ‘Did I make the cut?’ Rach sarcastically asked, and then, ‘What’s the criteria Sarah?’

I said, ‘Well you know real friends you go to lunch with don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ said Rach, ‘so is the definition of a friend someone you would go to lunch with?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s probably more than that.’ And so began much snorting with laughter and sarcasm. And our list of criteria for ‘What is a friend?’ was born. Continue reading

I just didn’t know…

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw at the BMA Medical Book Awards in September 2011

 “I was 34; I knew people who’d had breast cancer – some who’d died. Some who’d lived. I read about it – hell, I’d even done a Run for Life. Turns out I didn’t have a clue. Working on ‘Being Sarah’ changed my life.”

says Fiona Shaw, editor and publisher of ‘Being Sarah’.

“But the messages surrounding breast cancer are so complex and contradictory I just don’t know what to do about it…”

Today’s post is by Fiona Shaw who runs her own publishing company – Wordscapes. Since working together on the book Fiona’s become our friend and she often turns up in my posts, you know doing stuff like going to Buckingham Palace and swanky book awards in London. She’s a super-smart fun person, her zest for life is infectious and I love the time we spend together. She can also spell better than anyone I know. And yup, she’s even done a Race for Life!

This is Fiona’s post:

“And so October heralds Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), and – this year – a Being Sarah blog every day. Each and every one of which, I hope, will inform, challenge or add something to breast cancer awareness – in its widest sense. Because I can honestly say that, before I started work on Being Sarah, I didn’t have a clue about breast cancer, and the issues, debates and controversies surrounding it. They are, I guess, out there. If you’re looking. But they’re just not questions and debates that are covered by the mainstream media. If I now know just a fraction of the things I didn’t know before, then it’s down to Being Sarah. Continue reading