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.