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.