Shortest Day, Longest Year

Here it is, the shortest day of the year.  In NZ of course we get through that before anyone else does.  So happy 21st of June, world.  Bang on time we are about to be hit with a winter storm – gale force winds, snow flurries, rain.  Winter, in other words.

Tucked up here by the fire, tempting to say “who cares?”  I don’t really, I like the change of season, I like the fire.  I don’t even really mind the cold to be honest.  I feel sorry, briefly, for fellow citizens of this planet for whom winter means true misery.

It seems entirely appropriate, given that tomorrow we will be heading for summer, to ponder on the state of ‘things’, and in particular two topics that I reckon might just hold out some hope for this crazy world we have created.

Firstly, music.  I don’t understand music from a theoretical sense, but I know for a fact that it is an important part of my life, and seemingly most people’s lives.  The international language we all share, whether we know it or not, it seems to me that music is something fundamental to humanity, and therefore a potential source of great hope.

Our interaction with music varies wildly from day to day, but recently I have been lucky enough to indulge in some memorable music experiences.  The living legend that is Mavis Staples was unforgettable.  At age 77, still touring, still growling about the wrongs of discrimination, still joking with her audience about banana pudding.  Fabulous.

I recently attended, at the last minute and at significant cost, a performance of Book of Mormon, in Melbourne, Australia.  I was not too sure what to expect from a performance whose basic storyline involves young Mormon missionaries and female circumcision.  It was laugh-out-loud funny.   The entire audience left the theatre grinning from ear to ear, having been exposed to some of the rudest, crudest lines in the history of musical theatre.  Despite that, you just had to laugh.  You couldn’t help but feel better about the world.  I imagine it is not so popular with the Mormon church, but if half of what is in the musical is true, again, you just have to laugh.  I did have a long conversation with the distinguished gentleman from Singapore seated next to me about the absurdity of some – most? – religions, but we agreed that in the end most have a positive influence on the community in which they operate.

On Sunday I went to a ‘Live at the Met’ screening of a performance of La Traviata.  It is a brilliant concept, filming an opera performance.  I was unsure for quite a while whether it was actually live, and finally concluded it was not but presumably at some stage they do broadcast live.  La Traviata is one of my favourite operas, and this production was stunning.  Pared down to the barest minimum of set and props, the saga unfolds without any distractions from the music.  At one stage I found myself actually gasping, hand over mouth.  It was a movie of an opera, but somehow so gripping you could not help but respond to the emotion and drama.  At half time a fellow attendee needed a helping hand to get to the coffee counter.  Turned out her husband had been a tenor at the Met.  The man sitting next to me recommended a performance to download (I’ve forgotten which but it was nice of him to advise me).  Little, insignificant human interactions that made the outing all the more worthwhile.

Tonight I was supposed to be at choir practice.  Our dear leader has been stricken with a winter illness, and told us all to stay home.  It is a community choir; some 50 – 60 singers turn up every Wednesday.  “Give yourself congratulations for coming to sing together,” he tells us as we warm up, “Congratulate yourselves on making this your special ‘me’ time.”  And then we sing for 1 1/2 hours.  Gospel, Dylan, traditional, African, Latin America, Latin, Bee Gees.  Anything is possible.  There is no audition process for this choir, you just turn up.  For a bunch of amateurs, it is good, very good.  Serious about singing, having fun in the doing.  There is plenty of laughter between the singing.  Standing in the middle listening is a treat.  You hear it, but you also feel it, somewhere in your body, somewhere in your heart.

The second ‘thing’ at the top of my head today, the shortest day of 2017, is manners.  Yesterday at the supermarket, I overheard a mother say to her quite small children “OK, what are the rules for when you are out shopping with Mummy?”  Without hesitation, they said “No shouting, no running away, no bumping into people, no asking for things…”

I wanted to hug them all.  Such wonderful manners.  Such clever parenting.  These were not children ruled over with an iron rod, in fear of physical retribution, but budding adults taking their rightful place in the world, with a clear understanding that they share it with other people, and must consider those other people as they go about their business.  That Mother should be President of the USA.   Is it, after all, good manners that we are all missing?  I help the lady at the movies with the bad vertigo, the man next to me gives me a handy hint, we are polite and courteous to strangers and the world keeps turning.  We all get to have a good day.

Our Prime Minister has been caught out lying this week.  He ‘can’t recall’ details until his police statement is made public.  Suddenly he recalls.  The Member of Parliament breaks the law and lies about it, the PM lies too and has a bad case of short term memory loss – a pox on all of you.  You were voted in to public office and you are just dumb liars with no manners, no respect for us.

It is a long year for me.  The likelihood of a recurrence of cancer is highest in the first two years.  I can’t wait for this year and next year to fly by, singing, laughing, living well; not having cancer.

Great-Ocean-Road

Great Ocean Road – somewhere between Melbourne and Adelaide. Literally the bottom of Australia – magnificent landscape shaped over millions of years. We are just mere flickers on the surface of this planet.

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Journeys, non-journeys and the madness that seems to be in us all

My idea of a journey is to decide where to go, plan how to get there, successfully arrive and return safely home.

Life itself is sometimes referred to as a journey.  I question that.  No one has any certainty about how their life will play out.  Who has any say about what random events, chance meetings, or natural phenomena will tumble uninvited into even the best planned ‘journey’?  All we know for sure is the ending.

I recently completed a course on creating a new normal life after completion of active treatment for cancer.  Many times, the spectre of the ‘cancer journey’ was raised.  NO, not a journey.  More like a ride in a dodgem car at the Easter Show.  Unexpected twists and turns, with no idea when it will stop.  Indeed will it ever stop?

Last night, on the final decision night of NZ’s Bachelor reality TV series, the bachelor mused on his participation in the programme.  “It’s been such an amazing journey,” he said, “I’m so glad I’ve been a part of it.”  I think he means experience.  Reality TV does not qualify as a journey in my world.  In my defence I spent the entire day attacking agapanthus weeds;  I deserved a bit of mindless entertainment.

As well as ‘the journey’ story, the other mythology around surviving cancer is the stories of enlightenment – a higher awareness of the precious act of being alive.  I get that, particularly when the sun is shining and I have the luxury of time to notice and enjoy it.  However the value of simply being alive often morphs into cancer/illness being the best thing that ever happened;  I struggle with this.

I am reading ‘The Past in Hiding’ by Mark Roseman.  The true story of a young Jewish girl who somehow (haven’t finished the book) escaped “evacuation”, as they euphemistically called being shipped off to a death camp, to survive in hiding in Germany for the rest of the war,  eventually moving to England.  The Father of her sweetheart, (both of whom had already been shipped off to a ‘holding camp’ and who eventually perished), appeared to be either unaware or simply not acknowledging where the trains of people leaving with just the clothes on their backs went, and wrote:

“It may be that later, when we’ve got through this, we’ll look back on this as the most  important time of our lives and won’t regret having gone through it, brutal as it was.”

This I relate to.  Sometimes, when I am digging in the garden, or sitting in the sun, the reality of what has happened to me over the last 7 months dawns on me.  The surgical removal of my right breast, followed by being pumped full of seriously poisonous chemicals.  The markers of each chemo cycle are slowly disappearing as my nails grow; I have enough hair on my head to not invite quizzical looks, although people do not recognise me.  It is brutal, shocking; both physically and mentally.  Something to be ‘got through’.  I will not regret it, because it has saved my life, and so in a way is, for now anyway, the most important time of my life.  For the German Jews who did not leave when they could because they were more German than Jewish and thought that would be enough, they had much to regret.

Equally brutal, and to me shocking, was the plundering of their lives before they were dead.  Ordinary German people, neighbours, acquaintances, talking about what they would have of the possessions left behind.  How could they?  You can’t help but wonder how that happened, and what you would do in the same circumstance.

This week, the Writers Festival Gala Night. 8 writers speak for 7 minutes.  One of the speakers was the daughter of Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Tall, elegant and articulate, she enchanted us in her silky story-teller voice with an amusing and interesting tale based on “the heart of the matter”.  She is of course ebony black, emphasised on the night by her scarlet red outfit.  By the standards of Nazi Germany, a subhuman.  A few weeks ago I went to a concert by Mavis Staples, American soul/blues singer aged 77 and still touring.  She talked proudly of marching with The Rev Martin Luther King, as she called him and of her anguish that she still needs to sing, that the work is not done.  Both these women witnesses to discrimination most of us in New Zealand cannot begin to comprehend.

These moments were all completely random in my life.  I did not know who was speaking at the gala night; I had never heard of Mavis Staples until someone said they were going and I bought the tickets as a birthday present;  I borrowed the book in the South Island last weekend;  I watched the Batchelor because I spent all day in the garden and just wanted to blob out.

The figurative dodgem car in my mind bumps into all these things and while I weed or chop vegetables I think about all of them.  Journeys that are not journeys at all but events or experiences;  why some things make us better at being human beings while others lead to inhumane brutality.

For me cancer is not the beginning of a journey any more than life itself is a journey.  It is more like accidentally falling in a deep ditch.  It feels dark and cold, and the light is up there somewhere and you just want to get out as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately that is not the ending.  It follows you, sometimes close by, sometimes far away.  I have had check ups this week with both the surgeon and the oncologist.  I am sure I do not have cancer any more.  The best they can do is tell me I don’t appear to have it at the moment.

David Krombach, the same man who thought it might be “an important time in his life” when in fact he was about to be murdered, wrote:

“We have had to shoulder so many burdens,  Often we thought we would go under.  But we have also experienced much that gave us hope.  Selfish feelings fade away – one is ashamed of them.  We pull together and learn something of the power of the whole.” (‘The Past in Hiding’ Mark Roseman, pg 192)

I have hope for my own health.  For the world – not so much.

We have lunatics exploding homemade bombs at a concert in Manchester.  Dodgem car-randomness – who lived, who died.    Without doubt these suicide bombers are deluded.  Is it more or less delusional than aiming to exterminate all Jewish people, along with a smattering of others deemed unworthy of living?  A plan that somehow garnered the acquiescence of ordinary people.  Or of a society where the value of a life depends on which colour you are lucky or unlucky enough to be born with – a prejudice still alive and well such that a 77 year old feels the need to continue to use music as her protest medium in ‘the greatest country in the world’.  Same country that invaded Iraq and kick started this current torrent of evil.  I was at a concert that night – Bruce Springsteen.  He talked about what was unfolding on the other side of the world, slightly apologetic.

The power of the whole is our only hope, on this dodgem car ride called humanity.

Calendulas – their extracts used for calming. Can we grow enough for everyone?

 

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ANZAC Day

In New Zealand, the 25th of April, ANZAC day, has been a public holiday for many years, but in recent times has taken on renewed impetus.  It is the date of the invasion of Gallipoli in WWI – a complete and utter disaster at which many NZ soldiers died.  People of all ages gather at the various commemorative services, many of them timed to finish as the sun rises.  The media devote hours of daytime television coverage in various forms.

I have been a bit sceptical frankly, about turning ANZAC Day into a media event.  Somehow reducing  the horror of war to prime time entertainment does not sit comfortably with my take on it.  If you are that committed to remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars, just broadcast the iconic red poppy on the screen all day.  Stare at that and think for as long as you like.

This ANZAC Day my level of participation has been taken to a new height.  (I have been to services before, as a member of the Girls Brigade, probably 40+ years ago).  Through the power of the internet, I was tracked down by a member of the RSA (Returned Services Association) who personalise their commemorative event by choosing one of the ‘names’ on their Roll of Honor and telling their personal war story.  They happened to choose one of my ancestors, and I happen to have written a blog post about him a couple of years ago.  It would be churlish to write about the importance of remembering people and then turn down the opportunity to do something about it.

In order to get to the dawn service, I got up at 4:15am, to drive across Auckland to Howick, where this particular branch of my family settled in colonial times and dutifully went forth and multiplied.  Stockade Hill is the site of the former colonial stockade, and now has the war memorial obelisk, flag pole and trig point.  We were blessed with a perfectly still Autumn morning, a brand new crescent moon setting behind the obelisk with Venus shining brightly as the sky went from black to the pink of dawn.

The calm of pre-dawn, people quietly gather together before the service begins

Watching the ‘services’ in action is always entertaining.  Their ancient orders and instructions bellowed out as if everyone is either stupid or deaf, weird hats, staunch expressions.  I did not appreciate until today that the ANZAC service follows the set procedure of a military funeral.  Four guards stand at the corners of the obelisk facing outwards, guns pointing to the ground, hands folded, heads bowed.  Without saying a word, it is respectful, serious, and sets the tone for the prayers and words that follow.

It seems particularly poignant this year, when we have the lunatics in charge of the asylum with their fingers poised on the big red buttons, to remember the people who fought wars so that we can live in peace.  While I detest the seeming ‘commercialisation’ of ANZAC Day, I believe that we must remember the past and those who died giving us a future.

After the service I found my liaison man and introduced myself, and we agreed to meet at lunchtime.  It was only 6:30am.  A visit to a relative from the same branch of the family tree filled in the hours until then, as well as a visit to the graveyard where our common ancestors are buried.  These are all my grandfather’s people and he is the only grandparent I knew.  I miss my ‘old people’ – I suppose that is what happens as we age, until at some stage we are the old people.

I am early for lunch, but eventually the second service of the day up on Stockade Hill is finished and those who qualify for lunch arrive.  There were two veterans of WW II at my table – supported by their families to enable them to attend.  One due to turn 100 in November this year.  Such a delicate year.  No pressure, 99 is huge too, but 100 – that is very special.  Everyone wants to have a party, and no one says it out loud but secretly they are just hoping that you make it.  He did joke that he thought perhaps this would be his last ANZAC Day.

After lunch, served to 300+ people by the Air Training Corps – the same group who formed the guard of honour – lots of thank yous to the various volunteers that make the event possible.  Then a second reading by the winner of the essay competition.  Then me.  The last post-lunch speaker.  Not a great slot, frankly.  When I got invited to speak (i.e. read out my blog post) in my head I thought maybe 20 or 30 people.  300!  I guess it doesn’t make that much difference; you still hope to hold their attention, not make too many mistakes, and not babble incoherently.  Mission accomplished I think.  Just got an email that says:

I just wanted to tell you how well I thought you had done on a sensitive and moving address today. 
You touched a lot of people there and I am sure there will be more family research done as a result.
It was a story of exploration from the heart.

Truth be told I feel humbled by the opportunity to participate, to share my babble of thoughts, to see the veterans with their medals and be part of a show of gratitude for what they went through.  I would encourage everyone to make the effort to get to a Dawn Parade at least once in their lives.  Sooner rather than later – the soldiers are not getting any younger.  Nice to see veterans from other theatres of war as well; people who for whatever reason volunteered to risk their lives.

Someone asked the question this week whether if Australia goes to war to support America, will we go too?  I hope not.  I would not want my sons in any war zone ever.  It is hard to believe that conscription would even work any more, frankly.  Besides, a nuclear bomb does not require thousands of child soldiers in the trenches covered in foreign mud. If North Korea presses the button and the USA or anyone else shoots back, we are all in deep trouble.

To round off a perfect day, an early movie – ‘Their Finest’ – British film about making a film during WWII.   Just a coincidence that we went today, but very apt.  I cried.  Highly recommended.  I’ve been awake for 17 hours.  Big day.  Plenty to think about.

No one asked me about my EXTREMELY short hair.  Yes, I think I can say I have hair again.  Still an extreme cut, not yet a style.  Perhaps they were just being polite.  We all have our battles to fight.

The early morning sky casts pale light over the crosses representing the fallen soldiers of the area

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Housekeeping

Due to a lapse in thinking, I managed to flood the floor behind the washing machine.  Having pulled the machine out about 2 weeks ago, to survey the situation, I was aghast at how disgustingly dirty it was down there, among the fluff, dropped pegs, and various other unidentifiable detritus.   However disgusted I was, it still took me a couple of weeks for this particular task to reach the top of the ‘to do’ list.

The actual cleaning was not as bad as it looked, but of course leads to more – shifting the adjacent dryer, then the pile of stuff that had built up against the wall, then the coats and bags and accumulation of plastic bags saved for up-cycling in due course.

Tiresome, bit boring, but tasks that give the mind a bit of space on an at-home Saturday.  I had already knocked off a 1 km swim in an outdoor pool by 8:30am.  A return to former swim fitness levels of a few years ago, when swimming was a regular part of my week.  I miss it, but getting to a pool is not easy from home.  The first thing I did when we got home after a hearty cafe breakfast was txt my former swimming buddy;  it turned he had also done a 1km swim quite possibly at the same time as me.  That made me miss our swimming even more.

Spring cleaning the laundry is much easier than spring cleaning my head.  The course that I am attending one night a week is now at week 3.  We completed a questionnaire,  the first stage of a mentoring ‘awareness’ programme developed on the basis that ‘you can’t fix what you are not aware of’, which sounds logical.  60 questions, 4 different sectors of ones ‘being’.  Yes, No, or maybe the only options.  Then a scoring and filling in of matrices to figure out where you are in your awareness.  I thought the ‘no’ answers were probably more revealing than the ‘yes’ answers.

I have a daily practice of gratitude?  No.

Usually I think before I speak?  Not always.

At least twice a year I consciously consider my values?  NO.  (Sounds a bit flakey, frankly.  I would think values lasted most of a lifetime, once adopted.)

My career, work or service is a significant source of fulfilment?  No, I don’t have a job.

And so on.

I decided it would be a good thing to share, so he answered while I read out the questions.  Then he scoffed, and said it was obvious anyway.  I found this a bit disappointing, frankly.  Nowhere to go from there.  No opening for any further conversations about any of the questions, let alone his or my answers.

That was Thursday night.  Friday morning my horoscope said “Fix it.  Fix it!  It needs fixing and you are the one to do it.  “How?” is the question.  You won’t  know the answer, but your sincere intention is enough to fix it all.”  I can’t help but wonder why the US is bombing Syria and we seem to be on the brink of war with North Korea if all the Leo’s in the world can fix things.  Maybe we are not looking at the big picture.  Or just not sincere enough?

Thus, on Friday afternoon I cleared the crap off the table and set it properly, lit candles and made fish curry.  He was surprised at the table being set.  “Our hug quotient is way below 6,” I said,  (one of the questions – “I participate in at least 6 hugs in a day?”).

He hugged me and apologised for being so dismissive of the questions and process, and we sat and ate dinner like grown-ups.  No TV.  Little did he know the universe was on my side.

I read in Monday’s pull-out section of the paper about the power of intuition, gut instinct, call it what you like.  Sometimes we just know what is the right thing to do, or not do as the case may be.

6 hugs a day is actually a lot.  I said patting the cat does not count.  Like housekeeping, like cleaning out all the places that never get any attention, I can see this fixing carry-on is quite time-consuming but also like cleaning, so satisfying in a smug sort of way when progress is made.

The next job will be pulling out the fridge to see what is behind that.  I equate this with one of the big questions “It is easy for me to be self-forgiving.”  Maybe?

A tui does his Saturday morning housekeeping at the birdbath. 100% yes.

 

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Things are going swimmingly

The rain is coming soon – the first few drops have sent me scurrying inside.  I have been weeding the garden.  Hardly earth shattering news, but for me, right now, something of a triumph to have both motivation and energy to apply to the task in hand.

My new health regime requires organic vegetables.  They are easy enough to purchase but generally have a price premium.  Common sense dictates the logical answer is to grow my own.  The lettuces that went to seed late last year have been yanked out of the planters and replaced with kale and cabbages.  You don’t need lots of space to grow a few veggies.

I decided to get some more seedlings in advance of the rainy weather predicted to hit on Friday, now finally arriving.  I cleared out a small raised bed beside the house, added some new compost, and planted broccoli and perennial spinach, beetroot seeds, rocket seeds, and a couple of marigolds to deter the white butterflies.  Watered them all in, and stood well back.

Saturday morning I went out to check on their well-being and was horrified to see that the snails had stripped one broccoli to the stem.  Organic vegetables don’t include using snail bait that leeches into the soil.  Based on experiments in plant protection at Tawharanui, where small plants get chomped by rabbits, I have decided to use old onion bags pinned down with kebab sticks, so my plants now each have a ‘skirt’ I hope will prove impassable to your average garden snail.  I have also used crushed egg shells on a few that are in a pot nearby, so it will be interesting to see what works best.  Both I hope.  Rocket seeds are up already.

Up-cycled onion bags, up-cycled egg shells, and rocket poking through. Big strides in three days!

All this is part of piecing my life back together.  I have started a course on just that subject, designed to help people get ‘off’ active treatment for illness and back to a normal life.  Have only been to one session – I think it will be OK, and it is always informative to talk to other people who have had a similar experience.  We had to write down what was concerning us.

To be honest I am not spending much time being concerned about anything.  I have made my future treatment decision, and am putting my trust in my own body, mistletoe, and cabbage pills.  No point in revisiting it.  Not like buying a new pair of shoes, where you always wonder whether they really are worth it.  This is not a game; there is no second chance.  I have even added value to the next 5 weeks of driving across town to attend the wellness course by booking into a pilates class en route.  To sharpen up on technique, and ensure I don’t end up lopsided.  An ‘end of treatment’ treat.  They didn’t say anything about that on the first night.  I have an extensive list – including a fitbit.  Seems the secret to fitness longterm is heart recovery rate.  That calls for adopting the latest technology I think, I can’t be bothered doing the maths when a small screen will work it out for me.  Some Jo Malone perfume is also on the list of treats.

I was however slightly anxious about the oncologist.  I’m picking not many of his patients say “Yeah, nah”.  Several enquiries led to one possible potential replacement in a different city, so not that practical.  It seems oncologists are of a kind, one and all.  I joking said to the tea lady at the cancer treatment centre that she could prescribe the drugs just as accurately as the oncologist.  Somethings are not so funny when it is almost true.  To erase my anxiety, I emailed him this week with the “yeah, nah” message in advance of our next meeting sometime in May.  Part of me thought he might well say, “yeah, nah” back, and suggest that I might be best served elsewhere.  Instead he said “I trust you have made an informed decision.  It is not what I would do.”  Fair enough, mate, but you are not me, and by the way, good luck with the hot flushes, if that is what you would do.

I have to conclude therefore, that the course has already taught me one thing – sort it out, don’t waste time worrying about what might happen.  It probably won’t.

Reminds me of a homily recently relayed to me:  These are uncertain times, so sometimes the best course of action is to create some certainty for yourself.   Metaphorically  speaking, if you are in a boat and it may or may not sink, get into the water, at least you will have some certainty.  I like it.  On Friday night our friends thought it was madness; you should always stay in the boat until the captain says to abandon ship (they are both engineers).  But that was before, when the world was predictable.  What about now?

I cannot read another word about Donald Trump.  He is beyond words.  I did see today there is a website for people who voted for him to post messages.  Someone has apologised and, as a Doctor, suggested he needs professional help.  Quite.  John Key gave his final speech in the NZ Parliament this last week.  A review in the paper says he was a joker, everybody’s mate, and explained why he was nick-named the smiling assassin.  Frankly not traits I valued in the leader of the country.  Bye bye.

This week also saw some bleating from some fellow co-owners of a commercial building.  I am currently being paid to be the client representative.  “I incurred costs” they moaned.  If only they had said what they were up too, I could have saved them the trouble/cost.  It was something of a satisfaction to be able to quote the minutes of the AGM.  Deafening silence has ensued.  The best bit though, was a message of support from a fellow committee member, who in addition to endorsing my stance said “good to see you are back to your old self”.   What?  Bitch?  Stickler for process?  Will not be pushed around by self-interested lawyers?  All of the above I hope.

I had a visit yesterday from my grown-up cousins.  I say that because they are the two oldest cousins, and I am one of the youngest.  There are 15 in all, 13 are women.  I was always a bit in awe of them, but of course the age gap has narrowed from my childhood days.  They were both missionaries; intelligent, well travelled, well spoken, well read.  We exchanged musings on the state of our parent’s generation relationships, our children, our lives.  The value of quality friendships that nurture and inspire, how life is too short for friendships which drain you rather than lift you up.

[Side issue:  my new cancer friend said “love you” as we parted after lunch last week.   I did think it was a strange thing to say but then, these are strange times for both of us.   When I saw her this week, before I had even sat down she said “Did I say that? I’ve been so worried you would misunderstand.  I only say it to my daughters.” and turned bright pink.  Laughing out loud, I quickly assured her I did not read anything untoward into it.]

My cousins declined to take any of our great-grandfather’s Bible pages (published in 1874 but now falling apart), but talked about how in China a village sustained their spirituality and hid their Bible by having one page each.  One of them was a librarian, as was my Mother, so it was comforting to think a librarian can justify destroying a book and a Bible at that!   “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble,” they noted.  You do, don’t you, when the big cousins are coming.  Vegetable frittata with salad, fruit flan.  Clean bathroom.  The least one would do.

So here I am, out of the boat and in the water.  Not brave enough quite yet to go to a business meeting bare-headed.  Waiting not so patiently for hair to regrow on my head; noting with some regret that it is returning elsewhere.  Feeling fit and strong, and suddenly very aware of how un-strong I was during chemo.  I have a to-do list, and I have a tentative timeframe.  5 more weeks of the course.  5 weeks to get to the end of my to-do list, grow enough hair to attend job interviews, and decide what the perfect job actually is.

I can’t touch the bottom, I don’t have a life-jacket, in my metaphorical adventure, but I can swim really well.

Got asked if I wanted some guavas, got given far too many; how I wish my future was a clear and how I hope it is as rosy as the jelly…

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What now?

Haven’t we all played the ‘what if?’ game.  What if I won lotto?  What if I got a life-threatening illness?  What if I fell in love with a Prince?  Such fun, because of course we never think it is going to happen.

Never fallen in love with a Prince; never won lotto.  Have had/got a life threatening illness.  The past 4 months have passed in a blur of surgery, appointments, internet research, decisions.  Tears, laughter, fear, confidence.  Climbing mountains; wanting to hide all day in bed.  Rediscovering the joy of physical movement, of feeling strong and fit.  Discovering that when it was my turn, I went into ‘information and decision’ mode – methodical research, questioning, fighting for what I felt was right for me, and being proven right, so far.

Putting my life on hold and focussing on me and my health.  Yesterday was the last ‘event’ that I associate with the first stage, if that is the right term, of my new life.  Prior to diagnosis, several future events were in place.

Doing the Kepler Track, Fiordland, NZ.  Tick (not without a lot of effort, both physical and emotional, might I add, and I would not recommend it if you are having chemotherapy for what it is worth).

A weekend in the Coromadel with friends.  Tick.  Last weekend.  It rained like it was the tropics.  We dashed from the rented accommodation across the lawn and down the sand dune to swim in the fresh ocean water in pouring rain.  A childish undertaking that is nothing but joyful.  No lurking at the edge of the water pondering on how to get wet – straight in.  Shared meals and conversations, lovely food, exploring a part of NZ I have never seen before.  Even in the rain very lovely.  Lost my watch actually, only for it to be found again the next day.  My very expensive watch spent the night alone on a sand dune in the rain, but there it was, waiting for us the next morning, and working just fine.  Never wear your watch to the beach, never put it in the camera case for safe keeping.  Have bought a lotto ticket.

Bruce Springsteen, last night.  Tick.  Last seen live on his first ever NZ concert, 2003.  The day the USA invaded Iraq.  Best concert ever.  This time a wider range of songs, at least half I had never heard.  But he is the man.  My City of Ruins – dedicated to everything that falls apart and has to be rebuilt – to the losses that become harder to bear as we get older.  The man speaks to me.  Acoustic version of Thunder Road as his farewell song, alone on the stage with guitar and harmonica.. “have a little faith, there’s magic in the night, you ain’t a beauty but hey your alright”.  Thanks.  With friends – girls night out.  One of them never made it, or left early or something.  I adore her but cannot save her from her own disorganisation.  I could not in all conscience be one of the people allowing those who have not turned up early to secure a good spot to push in later on.  Women of a certain age will not allow men with four beers to push through, no matter how hard they insist they are just joining their friends.  Go back the way you came.

I thought, foolishly, that chemo would be the hard thing.  The real hard thing for me is deciding what happens now, both medically and the BIG Questions.

Medically, on one side, my instinct and my belief based on my understanding of the human body, that once cancer is removed it becomes essential to change the environment that allowed it to establish.  An environment that deals with the probably daily cell mutations without any hiccups.  I believe that my own immune system is the best, incredibly capable system to do just that, provided I feed it right, exercise and stay healthy, and sort out my state of mind.  My oncologist believes that the best way to do this is the feed me hormone treatment for 5 – 10 years that will make my life miserable.  How can a man even begin to understand the debilitation of hot flushes, insomnia, mood swings, aching bones?  Dismissed as tolerable side effects because it allows him to hide behind the ‘certainty’ that this will decrease the likelihood of dying of this cancer by 5%.  Only there is an 85% chance I don’t even need it.  And of course the osteoporosis that WILL happen, mitigated by yet more drugs.    The real tipping point in this conversation, which did not go well, was his concession, reluctantly, that meditation is now scientifically proven (the basis of his belief system) to be of benefit to cancer patients.  At that moment I realised we are not in the same reality.  I had to ask him about his life – after all my life is supposedly in his hands (not mine).  He is single – no partner, no children.  Dedicated to his work, perhaps, or, more likely, somewhere on the OCD spectrum and therefore has never been able to find someone who can live with him.  I am sure his mother is very proud, but me, I want a human, not a robot.  I foresee a change of oncologist.

Meanwhile, turns out mistletoe extract is used in Europe as part of standard chemo treatment.  Yes, a plant extract.  Scientifically proven to reduce side effects.  And probably more, I will find out.  I never thought I would be self-injecting plant extract but turns out to be really easy, and painless.  I am heading that way – it is an immune system booster, with no side effects.  Next in my arsenal will be, for want of a better description, cabbage pills.  Well known (probably proven) that the cruciferous vegetables are strong antioxidants and therefore anti-cancer.  You can buy a condensed form over the counter.  No side effects.  Currently in clinical trials.  I told him that in 5 years time I will be sitting there and he will be apologising for giving me poison when I could have had cabbage.  I have the prescription for the hormone treatment, but at this point in time, have no intention of filling it.  By his own admission, 30% of his patients do not continue with it, presumably because the side effects are worse than the risk of recurrence of cancer.  WORSE.  Think about that.  According to some studies, 50% of women stop taking them.  I wonder how that affects the statistics –  the same probabilities that give oncologists so much power of persuasion.

I talked to a friend this week who has followed her Oncologist’s orders to the letter.  She is taking the pills.  She is also on antidepressants, and in fear of her life.  8 years later.  I commented on her new sleek hairstyle and she reported that her husband hates it because it reminds him of when she was wearing a wig during chemo treatment.  A wig he insisted she wore to bed.  OMG.

This is what my nutritionist (University degree and also experienced naturopath) who said:

“Remember that healing is about bringing your whole self into balance.  In essence, this is what is being asked of you now.  It would seem at this stage that part of bringing your self into balance is to go beyond the orthodoxy and pharmaceutical approach into what feels right to you. Stay with it.  This is a process of discovery about your self, the system and beyond.  The beyond being quite a big place!”

Bless.

Before I finally decide what to do I am talking to two Doctors, actual trained medical professionals, whom I know to have a wider world view than what can be scientifically proven.  This week coming will be decision time.

The future beckons.

My contract job is all but finished – I have one invoice to approve, one payment to be refunded for, and that will be that.  I need to play the “what if you can do anything you want?” game.  What if I can?  What is it I want?  Apart from living another 20+ years.  See above.

I don’t even know where to start.

My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins  

        Bruce Springsteen

Great concert, shared with friends.  Perfect Saturday night

Great concert, shared with friends. Perfect Saturday night.  That’s me in the white hat.

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Staunch

We booked to do the Kepler Track, a 62 km long ‘Great Walk’ in the mountains and lakes of Fiordland, southern New Zealand, after talking about it for several years.  We had been enchanted with the idea of doing the Kepler but never quite got in touch with the reality.  In the meantime we climbed Mt Taranaki, in the North Island, a few years ago.  We did the Hollyford Track a couple of years ago, but the ‘glamping’ version, where your packs are carried to lodge nestled in the beautiful forest of the Hollyford Valley, and a bed with white sheets and a hot water bottle awaits your tired body at the end of the first of two days.

In casual conversation with friends, whom we knew had done a few of the other tracks, we decided the time was right for action.  On a Friday night, as they headed for the airport and a flight to Malaysia (and a trek through the tropical jungle there) they called and said “Yes, let’s book the flights and the huts.  Let’s do this.”  An hour or so later, probably as they boarded their overseas flight, 3 Department of Conservation huts were booked, as were flights to Queenstown.  It all seemed so simple.  Timed to fit in before school started and Kathy had to go back to work.

Motivated by the thought of 3 nights a 4 days of walking in the bush and above the snow line, we started training the next day.  By Tuesday afternoon the following week, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  A few weeks later, with a follow-up appointment with the surgeon scheduled, we also scheduled dinner with Chris and Kathy, as I would know by then what was likely to happen post-surgery, and we could figure out what to do.

As it turned out, I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen due to incomplete test results, but we met for dinner anyway.  In a quiet voice, almost as an aside, Chris said “I’m waiting for biopsy results too.”  He had had a niggling prostrate issue that warranted a ‘watch and wait’ approach.

By the time of Kathy’s 60th birthday, I was waiting to start chemotherapy.  I had met the new man in my life, Reuben, the oncologist.  When we told him about the Kepler booking, he quickly worked out that provided I tolerated the chemo in a half-decent manner, the timing was perfect to do the tramp just prior to the last of 4 doses.  I didn’t really believe him, thinking he didn’t realise it was the Kepler – out of range, out of sight, wilderness with no Plan B.  But I was prepared to adopt a wait-and-see approach.  In the early part of the birthday party, I asked Chris how his result had gone.  “I’m booked to have surgery,” he says, matter of factly, “the worst bit is convincing my family I am not going to die.”  We laughed about how sex really wasn’t that much of a big deal later on in a relationship.  He said he had been advised that sex will still be possible, but that it requires more effort (!) so he intended to get Kathy a French maid’s outfit.  When I asked about the timing, he said he had booked it for after the Kepler.  I was a bit aghast – there was not way I would have delayed my surgery, by then well and truly over, for anything.  He said it only made a few weeks difference in his case, and I suppose his oncologist/surgeon was happy with that.

Chemotherapy Cycle 1 came and went, and to my surprise, it was OK.  The first week was a bit rough, but after that, life just went on, sometime a bit slower than normal but still very much normal.  I reported in to Reuben, and thought, for the first time, “I can do this.”

So training commenced in earnest.  Back packs filled with water bottles, long walks up and down hills.  A group walk over the holiday period in full tramping mode.  4.5 hours, 14.5 kms.  Heartened, we started to look forward to the big event.   Cycle 3 was the next day, so I expect the same conditions to prevail on Monday next week, which will be day 3 of the tramp, and day 20 of the 21 day cycle.  Reuben kindly rescheduled Dose 4 out one day to give me time to get back to Auckland.  Turns out he is a bit of a hiker himself.

The nurse that was administering Dose 3 was very interested in our mad plans.  “We don’t get many people in here doing things like that,” she said.  Naturally we would not be doing it either had it not already been booked.

Last week I got a head cold.  Normally I would not take too much notice, but when your immune system has been nuked to the brink of collapse, little things become epic.  In desperation I went to my GP, who dispenses herbal and homeopathic medicine as well as the latest modern medical science can offer.  He jabbed me with stuff for sinus issues, and started on what will become a longer engagement with iscador, a form of mistletoe.  Even John Hopkins University acknowledges it “minimises the side effects of chemotherapy”.  In Europe they pump it into you intravenously prior to plugging in the chemo drugs.

I also got sore little toes.  “Ye Gods”, I thought, “it is not chemo that will stop me doing this tramp, but a head cold and sore little toes.”  I sought advice from a sports podiatrist, and, bless him, he said “Buy some bigger boots,” along with a whole list of other things to try to alleviate pressure on my toenail beds.  Turns out he sees a few people on chemo having nail problems.  If you keep seeking eventually you find the right answers.

The lovely Dr at Dove House said to me, last week, “The most toxic thing is your own thoughts.”  I pondered on this, mid-head cold, and wonder how much damage we do to our hopes and dreams just by thinking it will all go pear-shaped.  I clung to the image of Chris and me, cancer patients, embracing at the top of Mt Luxmor.  Take that cancer, you might mess with my body but you will not mess with my life.

On Monday we four had another meeting, complete with delicious Nepalese food at the local restaurant.  Before we walked up the road we knocked off the daily crossword between us – group effort – which seems like a good omen.  The restaurant has images of the Himalayas – we joked about how that might be next.  They were supposed to go there last year, but the trip was cancelled because it was deemed too ‘American’ to be undertaken safely.  Kathy had lists from their previous tramps.  We are the novices here – they have lists and experience – form.  We talked about what we could share – the cooking pot, toothpaste, first aid kit.  They stunned us with their menu – fresh wraps for lunch, while we will be munching on commercially made baked fruit and oat bars.

Kathy advised us that the previous week the resthome where her elderly Father lives had told them to gather, that his death was imminent.  She reported that he had recovered somewhat, but that if he died she would pull out and perhaps Chris would still do the tramp.  Today Chris advised that his father-in-law died yesterday.  They have figured out they can go to the funeral on Friday, catch a later flight, and meet us in Te Anau on Saturday morning in time for the water taxi across the late as planned.  We have now booked bus tickets instead of sharing the rental car, but we will all return together.

Who would have thought a mere 3 1/2 months ago when we first booked and picked what was a fairly random date that two of us would subsequently be diagnosed with cancer, and  we would manage to fit the tramp around a mastectomy, a prostectomy, chemotherapy and the death of a loved one.  Despite all this, we are determined.

I have my new boots – literally a third of the price of my other ones, but also 10mm wider across the toes, and the toe problem is solved.  Still clearing my lungs, but all good to go.  The weather forecasters are talking about a weather bomb, with heavy rain and strong wind warnings all over the place for tomorrow.  The day after that, Friday, we fly south, and the day after that, Saturday, after everything the Universe could throw at us, four of us will be departing from Te Anau by water taxi and starting the Kepler Track at Brod Bay.

Staunch.  Watch this space for the outcome, later next week.

Half way up the hill, Tawharanui - the beginning of our test hike.  In the distance Tamahunga, our other test site conquered earlier in the week.

Half way up the hill, Tawharanui – the beginning of our test hike. In the distance Tamahunga, our other test site conquered earlier in the week.

 

 

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