And still I rise…

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

By Maya Angelou

I am painfully aware that Maya Angelou’s poem is all about the African-American Civil Rights struggle, and would never want to fall in the trap of cultural appropriation to make a point, after all I have not had my dignity and rights as a human being thrashed or denied … nevertheless her words resonate so much with me as a woman, the defiance, ever rising against adversity and so the reason for the quote.

My blogging has diminished as my living in the real world has increased… a lot has happened since my last post, some events I am happy to report here, others will have to wait a little before they make it to the blogosphere.

Firstly, I am aware that I kept quiet a very serious event which took place on 11 November 2016; it has taken me all this time to process what really happened and to absorb it.  So now I am ready to talk about it more openly.  I ran 10 Miles for Neuroendocrine Cancer on 10 November 2016; as it turned out I got lost at the beginning of the run and ended up running a half-marathon instead.  I felt great at the end of my run as I had a lot of support from friends, people from the three charities I was fundraising for and staff at Poole Hospital.  I finished the day on a high.  Nevertheless early in the morning of 11 November I woke up in excruciating pain and was rushed to hospital with a suspected bowel obstruction, which after five days of investigations, tests and scans turned out to be a perforated small intestine.  Thankfully the consultants and nurses at Poole Hospital were amazing and took care of me with expertise and kindness. I was looked after by the Intensive Care Unit and after a total stay of 15 days I was home recovering from the second major surgery in six months.  Needless to say this was too much for my body to handle and I have only begun to feel myself again in the last couple of months.

I also had some of my closest friends step in and step up to support me and my children (and the dog) in what were really traumatic circumstances.  I am forever grateful for their generosity in time and effort as well as their love for us.

According to my consultant, what happened to me was just sheer bad luck, in no way linked to running, unpredictable and unpreventable.

There are unpleasant side-effects to this latest surgery, some psychologycal, others physical, all manageable but not without challenge.  I continue to see a counsellor on a regular basis as I have been doing for the last four years.  She is a very supportive, professional and intiuitve woman, who by now knows me so well that all I have to do is enter the room and she can guess my mood without me uttering a single word.  She’s a treasure to me.

So a little over six months I am running regularly again, getting faster and actually enjoying it.  Today I set a new PB (personal best for the non-runners) at my local parkrun of 26:39.  I am absolutely delighted to say the least as only in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine runing 5Km this fast.

In the meantime, my children continue to delight and surprise me with their maturity, their kindess and ability to just go with the flow.

Eldest daughter is in the middle of her final exams…. complete social media blackout, I keep sending her the most positive of my thoughts and energy which I hope go a little way in helping her get through this latest stage of her studies.

My son is now a fully fledged army cadet, an activity he is relishing and taking on with gusto.  Company weekends seem to be a favourite where he gets to experience life as a soldier, scrubbing floors! Yes he can and knows how to, can I get him to do it at home? You guessed right, nope! Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that the experience is having a positive impact on him as his bedroom is permanently (mostly) tidy.

Youngest daughter is a happy go lucky girl, enjoying school life, with the usual moans about how lessons are soooo boring.  She however managed to fracture her right arm whilst playing rough at school; a very painful experience for her and a very stressful episode for me as it happened just two days before we were due to fly out to Italy for a short break.

We were fortunate to visit Oslo, Norway for the Easter holidays and Lippiano (Umbria), Italy for a long weekend at the end of April beginning of May.  Both amazing and unique experiences which I’d recommend anyone to do.

In Oslo, amongst many things we learnt how far the Vikings really did travel, all the way to India bringing Buddhism back to Scandinavia, visited the Kon-Tiki museum, learnt about Edward Munch‘s life and what lead him to paint the Scream and were truly humbled by the stories of all the Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Lippiano on the other hand was a more relaxed and nourishing experience; we stayed in Villa Pia a beautiful house on the border of Umbria and Tuscany, surrounded by the most spectacular scenery, with delicious food and coffee served throughout the day, helpful and caring staff and a beauty therapist (Maria Giovanna) who gave me the most amazing massage.  HIghly recommended.

In other news, I have started to do some renovating work to the house, which after nearly five years of neglect really needs it, decluttering, new windows, painting, garden reorganisation, the list is long but I am determined to get through it to make sure I add value to the biggest asset I am likely to pass on to my children.

I continue to face the prospect of further invasive treatment to deal wih the remaining tumours in my liver.  At present there are no specific dates but it is definitely hapenning this year, so I will keep you posted.

More news to follow…thank you for reading, with all my love

Twelve months 

Twelve months have passed since you, my love, took your last breath. I thought in my naivety that, because I’d known for a long time that you were going to die, I was ready to face life without you. How wrong!
You brought light into my life, you always had laughter on your face and there hasn’t been a day since your dying that I haven’t thought about you, missed your hugs and wished that I would be granted another minute with you just to hear your voice.

So many unrealised dreams and plans, so many hopes dashed in one cruel moment.
You would be so proud of your beautiful children my darling, they’re honouring your life and your memory by being funny, kind and sensitive souls. Seeing them grow without you here to share my pride leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and my heart. So many milestones you will not get to see, I can’t bear this thought.
I thought I had cried enough tears and yet my heart is so broken and in pain that I can’t do no better but cry. I love you…

What’s in a name?

I’ve been hesitant to write about how this December is shaping up for me and my family but it struck me today that although we have received many good wishes, generous gifts and a few Christmas cards, only one person has actually said to me that Michael is being missed. Up to that point I had quite realised that people no longer mention his name when they speak to me.

I don’t understand people’s reluctance to say his name, it’s as if he never existed. People have got round by saying “we know it’s difficult” or “thinking of you” and whilst I appreciate the sentiments it makes me sad that people have stopped talking about Michael, and I’m finding it extremely difficult to accept it.
Life without Michael will never be the same again, more than 11 months after his death I’m still not sure what shape this life is supposed to be taking. Talking about him and the memories I have of him is essential to me and my children, when other people who knew him, far longer than I did, fail to mention his name it hurts.

Christmas has been cancelled in our home. There are no decorations, at the specific request of my children, we’re not having the traditional Christmas meal.  I was never bothered by turkey, but was happy to cook it for Michael for whom Christmas was the best thing that could ever happen to him, he relished the whole thing indulging excessively in food, drink and gift giving, but much more than that he embraced Christmas with the enthusiasm of an overgrown child.

As it is my children are going to have more christmasses without their father than they did with him. This is painful for me and beyond comprehension.

Tonight we sat down to watch Michael’s favourite Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I had never watched it from beginning to end, being as I always was busy wrapping presents, cooking, decorating or last minute shopping. I understand the moral of the story and now also get why Michael loved this film so much.

I’m not looking forward to Christmas morning without him by my side. I fear all joy has completely abandoned our family and I can’t bear the thought of him not being with us, being silly, singing at the top of his voice and getting overexcited at the prospect of opening his presents.

I have mixed feelings about the year which is about to end. Every day, week and month that passes is yet more time further away from the last time I heard his voice, held his hand, hugged him. On one hand I can’t wait to see the back of 2016 off, on the other I want time to freeze as I don’t wish that gap to continue to grow. It’s a dilemma I can’t seem to be able to reconcile.

Counting days

10k medal

Today is an awful day for me. It’s one year exactly since I was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine cancer.  Just two days before I had run my first half-marathon surprising myself by completing it a good 13 minutes faster than my predicted time. So as you can imagine a cancer diagnosis was not what I had expected to receive when I was asked by the consultant endocrinologist to return to the hospital two weeks after a CT scan.

Since that fateful Tuesday all I ever  seem to do is count the days till the next appointment, or the days since I last felt well, or the days till the next injection. My life now revolves around meticulously recording symptoms and side effects so next time I see my oncologist or specialist nurse I can discuss at length whether the treatment is working or not. But the truth is no one knows, the truth is I must wait until the next scan where they will be able to see or not whether the cancer has spread. There’s no guarantee and sometimes the severity of the side effects is such that makes me ask myself is it really worth it? How much time is all of this actually buying me? I have been told many times “there’s no cure, your cancer is advanced”.

Having seen my husband suffer through so much invasive and debilitating treatment, I don’t think I want to go through yet more unnecessary pain and discomfort, nor do I want to be spending precious time away from my children whilst undergoing yet more treatment. I want quality of life.

I’ve had a whirlwind of emotions brewing up in the run up of this anniversary, compounded by my having to drive my eldest daughter back to her university accommodation earlier last week, as she prepares to return to the world of academia after a well deserved break following Michael’s death. I was able to keep it together all the way there, however once I was on the way back I cried constantly until I parked my car at home. I was emotionally drained for a few days after that.

At the end of last week I endured a heart wrenching 24 hours period when I realised I had lost my engagement and Michael’s wedding rings. I have been wearing his ring on my ring finger together with my engagement and wedding rings as well as one his ancestors wedding ring. That’s four rings on one finger. Luckily after posting a public appeal on Facebook a local couple contacted me to let me know they’d found them and I was reunited with my rings 24 hours after realising I had lost them. After this experience I’m now looking into how I can get four rings customised into one or two rings to make sure I never go through this horrible experience again. If you know of a jeweller in the sunny South of the UK who’d be up for the challenge, please let me know by commenting below, thank you.

img_8275As a last-minute decision I entered the 10k race part of the Bournemouth Marathon Festival. My aims were to:

  • test my body
  • complete the race injury free
  • run the distance without stopping
  • get round in 63 minutes

Well I can report I achieved three of the four aims. I ran the whole course, non-stop in 64:50 minutes and I’m injury free, I’ve got the medal to prove it too!. All of this just five months after surgery. I believe these are all good signs that my body will be able to cope with the 10 miles on 10 November; I’m counting the days.

Finally today has also been a reminder of how awful this grieving process is.  If the only way people can understand grief is to experience the loss of a loved one I wish I had a superpower that allowed me to stop anyone ever to have to go through it.

Last night the kids started complaining that he house felt cold, well of course it’s october and whilst the days are still mild, the nights are definitely not and as soon as the sun sets a chilly air enters our home.  So I started up the central heating system.

There’s a process involved with it, which Michael used to be in charge of, mainly by calling a plumber who would spend a good hour going up and down our attic, up and down our staircase, checking each radiator, firing up the boiler, turning off the boiler, etc, etc, etc. Michael (or I) never bothered to check what the plumber did, just paid the guy and off he went never to be seen again for another year.

Well this year I realised perhaps I had left it too late to call anyone in, they’re all already fully booked and I’d probably have to wait at least a week before someone could come in to get the heating going. Mmmmhh… maybe it was time to take action.  I bled the radiators, I knew that was an essential, I also knew that if I shut down all the radiators but the one furthest from the boiler any air bubbles would travel to the one still switched on and it would be easier to get the air out.  Well this radiator happens to be in the upstairs bathroom so cue frantic running up and down the stairs, checking the boiler, bleeding the radiator, switching on, switching off, back upstairs, back downstairs, whilst kids complaining it is still cold mummy!

Last night I was knackered, it was 9:30 pm, I hadn’t yet had a shower after cooking dinner, coming back from a run, feeding the children, the dog had yet to be walked, aaaaarrrrgh! so I gave up, but not for long.  This morning, I gave up my yoga class as I was determined to get the heating going before the children came back from school.  I did some research, Mr Google and Mr YouTube are lifesavers, found out that probably there wasn’t enough water in the system, checked the tank, aha! that’s why the plumber goes in the attic! Tank refilled, I proceeded to repeat all of last night’s actions until tadah! the heating started working.  Hence the reason I can sit comfortably in the study to type this post.

However at the end of this (minor) ordeal I sat down and cried, I suddenly missed Michael so much I ached all over.  He would have been so proud, he would have given me a big hug and a kiss and would have said that because I had saved him £40 on call out charges, he’d take me out to dinner or go out and get me flowers, or both.  I miss him, it hurts.

Instead I’m off to the hospital to be reminded once again how ill I am, to be given a very painful injection, which purports to be keeping the cancer at bay, to start counting the days until I must have the next one.

Grief with life in between

It has been a while since my last post, a lot of things have happened:

So this post is going to be longer than usual.
The thing with grief is that it is deceiving; it has often happened since Michael’s death when I think to myself that I am coping so brilliantly that I wonder what is it that people
complain  so much about the grieving process. And then as if to make sure I do not get so cocky about my own ability to overcome
adversity, POWit hits me squarely on the forehead and floors me, without notice, rhyme nor reason.

It is the smallest of things such as the fact that four years ago we were all in London enjoying the Olympic Games together as a family of five people, cheering on the amazing athletes and marvelling at their ability to perform at their sport making it look simultaneously easy and extremely difficult at the same time.

This time the Rio Olympics have brought home how different our lives are, without Michael here to watch the whole range of events, the little enjoyment I have experienced is always tinged with the acute sadness of his absence.

Meet Marlo, our puppy

A few months before Michael died, we were at the beach enjoying an unusual spell of warm weather; it was October 2015.  As we watched people walk by with a whole range of different dog breeds both youngest daughter and I begged him to agree to us getting a puppy.  It had been a recurring conversation whenever we went out for a walk, to which Michael always replied no; however this time the conversation ended differently, he said: “when I am gone, you can get a puppy, you can even call him Michael if you like”.

The night Michael died, our youngest daughter had been staying with friends.  She did not like visiting the hospice, as in her words “it was a sad place”.  I telephoned with the news that Michael had died, so it came down to our friends to tell her, after the initial shock and sadness, daughter reportedly said “it is ok as we can now have a puppy”.

IMG_7209So late in July we travelled to Brittany in France to collect our beautiful puppy, Marlo, he is a Brittany Spaniel.

He is the kindest, most placid and affectionate creature, very quickly establishing that I am the leader of the pack, to be obeyed and followed everywhere I go.  He manages to capture people’s attention when we are out walking by just looking at them with those beautiful puppy eyes.

He is a very quick learner (I have the dog trainer’s word on this one) and so far very well behaved when out and about; he is also exemplar at home, except when it comes to the sofa, what is it with dogs and sofas?

A birthday without daddy

So youngest daughter turned 12 in July.  We had agreed that Marlo would be her birthday ‘present’; however there had been discussions as to what she would like to do as a birthday celebration.

When it came to it she decided she did not want any fuss on the day, no birthday cake, no special event.  I understood how she felt.

I reached my 44th birthday this June and a combination of my birthday falling on Father’s Day and three weeks after major surgery, meant that I did not want any celebrations and instead wanted to scape as far away as possible from everything that reminded me that the love of my life is no longer here.

Whilst my daughter was unable to express her feelings about her first “without daddy” birthday , I could read the pain in her eyes, so we did exactly as she asked, nothing.

Time flies, yet stands still

On August 15th marked seven months since Michael’s death.  For some reason youngest daughter wanted me to watch “Miss You Already” which you might want to avoid if you or someone you love have been affected by cancer.  Of my three children, she has found it the most difficult to talk about her feelings during her daddy’s illness and after his death, so it took me by surprise that during the film she started talking about how chemotherapy had affected him, how she remembers the hospice and the effect his death has had on us.  The film acted as a catalyst for her; as I sit here analysing the experience I guess it became a non-threatening form of dialogue for her.  I was also surprised by how it was me who could not stop the streaming tears and had both the dog and my daughter comforting me.

I shed tears for Michael everyday, I am astonished by how many tears I can still produce and how very small things can set me off.  For example as we started out on our trip to France to collect Marlo, I had packed the children and our luggage in the car, stopped to get petrol and made sure I went through the “Michael travelling checklist”, money (tick), passports (tick), tickets (tick).

As we left the outer boundaries of our town the song we played at his funeral “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole came on the radio, cue streaming tears.  I couldn’t help but feel both his absence and his presence, as if this was Michael’s way of saying that what were about to do was ok, but of course he was not coming with us.

Every anniversary, landmark, event in our lives now has a bittersweet taste to it.  We are, as a family, doing things we did not do with Michael and it feels wrong and out of balance, an integral part of this finely tuned machinery is missing.   At times it feels as if the chapter of our lives together was somehow a dream that I made up, and then I look at our children and realise it couldn’t just have been a dream.

Running again

On July 30, nine weeks after major surgery, I ran at my local parkrun which are organised freeIMG_7930, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.

I am a stats mad type of runner and keep a record for every run I do.  My personal best for 5km stands at 28:07 and it’s nearly a year since I set it.  Of course I was under no illusion that getting back to running after surgery was going to be easy and did not expect to even be able to complete the run, so I was very pleasantly surprised and proud to have completed the 5km without stopping in a time of 38:53.  I have been running twice a week since returning and have managed to get my time down to 32:48 in the space of three weeks.  I hope improvements will continue and aim to increase the frequency to three times a week very soon.

Sadly a side effect of my treatment is that my energy levels and reserves are depleted very quickly to the point that a couple of hours of normal activity, nothing strenuous, means I need to take regular naps during the day, so after running I am good for nothing for about three to four hours.  I am hoping this will eventually improve and I am in constant discussions with my consultant and specialist nurse as to the best way to manage.  I do not want to give up exercise or running, it makes me feel better in my head.

On the road

Oldest daughter is legal to drive, it was not easy and it took several attempts for her to pass but it is finally done.  Not that she is in any hurry to buy a car as to be able to insure young drivers in the UK a mortgage is required.

She had been practising her driving in Michael’s car which I had kept for that sole purpose, however as she prepares to return to university to finish her degree it is both impractical and financially non-sensical for me to keep hold of two cars, so “Stickers”, as it is affectionately known by us, has to go.

 

I didn’t choose bravery 

I belong to two private online forums, one for people diagnosed with cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Shine Cancer Support, the other for people aged under 50 who are grieving the death of their partner, WAY Widowed and Young.

I’m yet to find one online forum combining both criteria, young cancer patient and young widow; I’m sure I’m not the only one going through the same circumstances but perhaps it would be too sad to find myself in an even smaller minority. [UPDATE September 2017]  I have since discovered that at least seven other young widows are going or have undergone cancer treatment, either whilst caring for their dying husband or since windowing…an exclusive club indeed.

In these forums we share our experiences in a safe, supportive environment with other people who are going through similar circumstances in their lives, without prejudices or fear of recrimination. It is remarkable how similar some of the discussions are in both forums. One that comes up often, and which seems to leave a lot of us riling, is people in general telling us how brave we are for carrying on with our lives, for still being able to function and I guess for not “having lost the plot”.

I want to dispel a myth, I didn’t choose bravery. The circumstances of my life just happened, there was no plan, heck who would plan such a life? Anyway, there was a time when I did have a neat little plan, an expectation which did not turn out as I’d thought.

But I digress, back to bravery.

No I am not brave.

Brave are the refugees fleeing war-torn countries, risking life and limb in the hope they will carve out a better life for their families in a far away land. Brave are the doctors and nurses who risk their health to care for sick people wherever their vocation takes them. Brave are those who speak out against injustice whichever form it takes.

I am sure there are many more worthy examples of bravery that you can think of.

No, I am not brave.

I continue with life as best I can. It is not perfect, and if ever you see me and have the compulsion to say “you are doing so well!”, please know it is just a facade, an illusion, the mask that I must wear everyday to make sure I am not left behind, because life still goes on. This is the performance I have become accustomed to so that I can make it through each day. As the saying goes, fake it ’till you make it.

This does not mean I never take the mask off or that I don’t stop performing, oh I do, everyday! And when I do, those around me get to see how brave really I am not. But I have had to plough through because there is no choice, because the world does not stop, because not carrying on would be cowardice, and that’s definitely a label I am not willing to carry.

They are alive! The orchids are alive!

I haven’t been posting lately because, as I explained to one of my friends recently, I get my inspiration when I’m running. Since surviving surgery I haven’t been able to run, therefore inspiration is a little on the low side right now.

But today as I tended to my orchids, it occurred to me that I could write about them.  My orchids surprise me every year; here is their story.

I own three orchid plants. I didn’t buy them, they were gifted to me in the last six years. Despite having them all this time, I know nothing about orchids, what to do with them or how I should care for them. I just follow my instincts.

I discovered by mere accident that the best location for my orchids is a window sill in the bathroom.  It is the only room in the house which is warm, humid and with just about enough daylight coming through the windows.  I say I discovered this by accident because I’m no good with plants.  You see, they tend to die on me, I don’t know what to do with them, so unless all they require is a splash of water every now and then, they are guaranteed to die in my possession.

I can’t remember the occasion for which I was gifted my first orchid, but I especulate it must have been a birthday. All the other window sills must have already been taken up by other things (mostly clutter, I’m sure) so I placed it in the said bathroom window sill, realised it was quite pleasant to look at it whilst lying in the bath, so it stayed.

Not too long after, I noticed the orchid was dying, the flowers had gone, the stem was dry, brown and clearly dead, leaves were falling, it was all very sad to see, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, so there it stayed showing all the signs associated with decay.

Sometime after (first orchid still dead), a second and third orchid were gifted to me. I can’t recall how far apart those gifts were nor the reasons; I do however remember the people who gifted them to me, they are special people in my life.  I looked at my dying orchid and decided it must have been lonely, so orchids number two and three joined it on the same window sill in the bathroom. I resigned myself to the fact that they would all eventually die. And they did!

For a while I had three dead orchids in my bathroom. I had stopped watering them because they looked so dead. Michael would often comment on how sad they looked. I somehow could not bring myself to throw them away. These were gifts from special people.

Eventually I stopped looking at them, I didn’t pay any attention whatsoever. They became part of the structure, the kind of things we get used to because they’ve been in the same place for a long time.  And then one day, out of the blue, I started to see new fresh stems with buds on them, new leaves were coming through too! All three orchids were alive! I could not believe my eyes! My heart jumped with joy, I called out to Michael screaming: “They are alive! The orchids are alive!” I was so happy to see life springing out of what I thought had for so long been dead.

Now I know they have a natural cycle in which they look as if they are dead but they are not, they are just resting. I don’t water them at all, the level of humidity in the bathroom is just perfect for them. And every year they reward me with beautiful flowers. Right now they are budding, I can’t wait to see them bloom again this year.

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