Monday, 20 February 2017

The bear went over the mountain...

Those of you with children will perhaps be familiar with the rhyme
The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see…

I’ve always thought the second part of the song was extremely disappointing.

And all that he could see, and all that he could see…
Was the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain…was all that he could see.’

As I’ve sung it to my children I have secretly questioned “But what of the view? What else did he see?” as my well-travelled mind soared to broad panoramas of snow-crested mountains and deep-crystal lakes glinting in the wintery sun.

Yet as someone who feels they have just scaled a mountain by completing cycle 6 of my 12 cycles of chemotherapy, I can now empathise more keenly with that bear’s narrow-minded focus.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased to be halfway. That fact is, in and of itself, a mini-triumph. (I have another fox for my skulk). But all I can think about now is the long descent ahead, equal in length to the road I have already climbed.

On some hill-climbs the descent is an opportunity to accelerate. Who doesn’t enjoy racing downhill, throwing caution to the wind, the breeze in your face as you career downwards, slightly out of control, arms aloft and screaming with exhilaration?

Sadly, my mountain is not that kind of mountain. There is no fast-forward, carefree option.

It looks set to be a slow and painstaking descent across craggy outcrops and across treacherous ravines. The descent must be completed at the same speed as I fought my way upwards.

Like the bear in the rhyme, (who appears in my mind as the brown, densely-furred, occasionally grizzly type), speed is not a forte. Trundling along laboriously and methodically on heavy paws seems sensible and appropriate for both ascent and descent of this particular mountain. Similarly, focusing on the path ahead, undistracted by the views, seems logical, no point getting too far ahead of oneself. The present is where it's at. Sticking to the path and pacing myself.

Yet that doesn’t mean the journey is wholly without joy.

Far from it. A slower pace affords more time to smell the proverbial roses, or perhaps given the season, to appreciate the lilac crocuses that have recently appeared along with the merry daffodils. 
Despite their often sluggish pace and demeanour, bears don’t just trudge. They dance, they gambol, they play. So too does my bear, when opportunity presents. When I can, I am all for wrestling toddlers, running in the sun, splashing in muddy streams, dressing up as a princess and throwing endless sticks for the dog.

Then there is also the need to rest. A fact which the bear and I also have in common.

Hibernation is a must for me, as well as my analogous bear. Clearly the opportunity for several days or weeks of unbroken, restorative sleep would doubtless be something many of us would welcome. Unfortunately, my own mini-hibernations are not quite so comforting. I sleep, yes, but sleep as an escape from perpetual nausea and grimness. Sleep filled with fevers and chills and sweats and drool. My breath feels scorching, like a miniature dragon deep in my lungs is testing out his fire-breathing abilities. It is not pleasant sleep.

My enforced retreat from normal life takes me to my attic to hide for a few days. Not quite a confinement of insanity like the famed madwoman, Bertha, of Jane Eyre’s creation. Mine is simply a practical choice that affords me space and distance from others. Unsurprisingly, my state is not one that I wish my children to witness and remember.

Yet like all hibernations it offers my body a chance to fight back and recover, and within days my bear alter-ego emerges, nose twitching at the rediscovery of smells and tastes. The weakened bear takes tentative steps out into the open, staying close to home perhaps for a day or so longer, testing his strength, before forging once more into the world in search of pleasure and joy on his quest downhill.

My bear is also hugely grateful for those that add to his joy along the way. Much as my bear might appreciate the odd salmon being flung his way, I have been grateful for soups and lasagnes and biscuits. It has allowed me to save my energy for climbing and fighting rather than foraging and hunting. In that sense, I am a lucky bear indeed.

I have also been grateful for the physical flowers that adorn my home. Like little pockets of brightness and colour saying ‘come on’ ‘keep fighting’ ‘well done.’

I'll be honest. There are times, increasingly frequent, when I don’t want to climb or fight any more. I don’t want this fight. I don't want to be brave.

I want to run downhill in that carefree manner again without worry and doubt. I don’t have many tears, but as each cycle ends and I recover, there are always few tears. Sometimes more than a few. A mixture of relief that the worst days are passing, yet fear and dread at what I know is yet to come.

But as the shuddering and sobbing subsides I eventually return to two important truths:

1. The fact that I am not alone.
This whole experience could be tremendously isolating. Yet for me it has not been. It has been a galvanising of friendships and love on a scale I could never have imagined. Bonds with both family and friends have been deepened, and kindnesses etched in stone never to be forgotten. In my weakened and wholly dependent state I am indebted to others for both the practical and emotional deeds I cannot accomplish alone. It is incredible humbling and moving to experience such support.

2. I have many brave and incredible role models. 
Intense, grim and frustrating though my own experience may be, I have been fortunate enough to encounter several new heroes and heroines that continually inspire me with their own courage. Unfortunately our modern world means that I have met many who have trodden this particular path before, some who have endured far worse, for far longer, yet they continue to march on with strength and hope.

In the face of such truths, what is there to cry about?

And so the bear wipes his nose, dries his eyes and trundles off in search of new spring flowers, whilst he can.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Every day joys

It would be uber-cliché to say that cancer is a game changer. Of course it is. We’ve all heard it before. It changes priorities and perspective and ultimately alters the lens through which you experience life.

Now that doesn’t mean that everything is now tinged with rose-hued, beatific light. Nor that I see everything in gloomy shades of blue and grey, but it does mean I have learnt to appreciate and to ‘bank’ what I call ‘everyday joys.’ Those technicolour moments that surprise you by jumping out of nowhere to stop you in your tracks.

Pre-cancer and chemotherapy, otherwise known as life B.C.C, at the end of any normal day I could doubtless have more readily reeled off my list of irritations, worries and annoyances, than shared a catalogue of things that have made me smile that day.

Yet, now those little moments that make me smile, so often insignificant and fleeting, I actively clock, bank and take a mental snapshot to store up for greyer days.

Princess heels
It could be anything from the heavy clomp, clomp, stompy footfall that heralds my daughter’s arrival at my bedroom door, clad in over-size, ill-fitting princess heels and armed with a wand and tiara at 6.45am on a Saturday morning. Or the uncontrollable, life-affirming giggles of laughter as my husband chases the kids up the stairs as the Daddy monster. Or simply the wafting scent and inviting froth of a well-made coffee as I sit at the kitchen table in peace, alone, for once. And obviously, sunrises. Always sunrises.

These experiences are not the stuff on which legends are founded. They do not involve great courage, resilience, nor mental and physical fortitude. At the moment, for me, Herculean endeavours like summiting mountains or sailing the oceans feel out of reach, such feats exist somewhere beyond the chemotherapy timetable of poison, recover, repeat. But these mini-triumphs, these ‘everyday joys’ are all around me.

In the last few days some of my great everyday joys include the following:
Watching my daughter scoot halfway to nursery. Totally mundane to some, but my daughter is inherently lazy. If there is a buggy to sit in, she will sit. If there is set of shoulders to ride on, she’ll demand that option. If no alternative to walking is offered, she’ll sit down in protest or demand to go in the car. She’s a persistent creature and through my own ‘weakness,’ namely a desire to (occasionally) arrive on time, or in fact to get anywhere, I often concede to the easy option. So, it was with immense pride, joy and surprise that I witnessed my daughter not only opt to take her scooter to nursery, but actually get beyond the driveway and HALFWAY to nursery before any protestations were uttered.

A second moment of ‘joy’ was returning home from a recent hospital trip to be greeted by my loving spaniel offering not one…but two slippers! A minor miracle? Or perhaps a sheer fluke? But given that my slippers are often distributed around the house by said loving spaniel and deposited / hidden as single items, my euphoria at being handed TWO slippers was very high.

The thing is, when you start counting, it’s almost staggering how much ‘joy’ there is in each and every day.

Crunchy ice
A cursory glance at the snowdrops, now beginning to peak their heads up through the wintery soil. A proper old-fashioned letter from a friend that arrives with the morning post. Being solemnly presented with a soft toy by my toddler son, repeating his latest word ‘owl.’ The satisfying crunch of cracking the surface of icy puddles. Blissful yoga stretching to release long held tensions. Minutes spent jumping up and down to pop bubble wrap. The list is endless. All everyday moments that make my world a better, happier place.

I might have briefly noted and enjoyed such moments before, but I have never actively sought to count them, or to click the shutter in my mind’s eye and ensure that I’ve stored and filed these moments under ‘joy.’ A new memory trick to aid recall when I need them most.

What has only recently struck me about such moments is the unplanned and unexpected nature of these incidents. It has reminded me of the need to allow space and time for spontaneity in my life.

I am often guilty, as we doubtless all are (to some extent), over planning and controlling my life. Trying to ensure I know what is happening and when, listing out what I need to achieve each day, making sure I have packed for every eventuality (e.g. extra clothes in my giant backpack for emergency scenarios like ‘falling over in a muddy puddle’).

This preparedness is not a trait I wish to curb, but I have realised that often my favourite memories arise from a distinct lack of planning. And with a lack of planning comes the absence of expectation. The child-friendly afternoon BBQ that morphed into a bar crawl and dancing til dawn was insanely fun. The morning coffee/play date that turned into lunch and a full day of co-parenting toddlers until bathtime was a positive bonding experience. The unexpected hour of comedy that arose from messing about with traffic cones in a deserted car park brought chuckles and chortles galore.

Admittedly, planning can work out well too. Sometimes, when I have planned a lovely day of activities for the kids, it has all gone swimmingly, and it has indeed been a wonderful day. But all too often I let ‘the plan’ override a change in circumstances and plough on belligerently with ‘the plan’ rather than changing course.

A recent example for you. Following a glorious, sunny, winters day last week, a friend and I organised a trip to a local National Trust property for the following day. Nothing complicated, but we assumed similar cold but sunny weather. When morning came with its glacial frost, chilly fog and biting wind, I continued with Plan A, armed with scarves, gloves, snacks and snowsuits; certain that fun was to be had by getting everyone outside.

Not so. Minutes from the car I had two kids screaming with cold finger and streaming with snot. But did I turn back? No. I carried the children onwards to the windswept playground, convinced that running around would solve the problem and warm everyone up. Wrong again. One hour later despite snacks, cajoling and my best attempts at distraction, the level of persistent wailing had reached that uncontrollable pitch that grates on your very soul. Defeated and guilty I headed home, and the day was only salvaged by a roaring fire, a delicious lasagne and a movie session.

‘Idiot’ I thought to myself for hours afterwards, but sometimes it’s hard to change plans and to concede that what could, and should, have been fun, was an unmitigated disaster.

Chemotherapy means that I can’t and daren’t plan too far ahead. Far better to keep it simple. Be content to revel and relish in the everyday moments of joy (that intersperse and offset the inevitable moments of irritation and annoyance).

And so my latest life lesson is to be more flexible about my plans, to set expectations aside and carve out space and time for the unexpected. For you never know what is around life’s next corner, and every day joy has much to recommend it.

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