Quiet rooms and mountaintops

That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it.

― Cheryl Strayed

It’s been strangely quiet around here, there and everywhere. I’ve missed this place, I’ve missed you, I’ve missed hanging out online. My plans I was excited to make for 2017 have been blasted to fine dust and blown away. No photography business will be opened, no online shop, no workshops attended, no places will be traveled to, no adventures will be had for a while yet.

I’ve a good excuse though, and I have a note from the Doctor to prove it.

self portraits from hospital

A routine mammogram showed a mass that the radiographer said required a biopsy. From that moment, when she ushered me into the small, quiet room and told me that while giving my cheek a rub, my life changed. I changed. The whole world changed. I just didn’t know it at the time obviously, the sheer magnitude was beyond me at that point.

From then until now, and probably for a while to come yet, life is broken down into weekly chunks of time, time that needs to be filled with things that occupy my mind until the next stage happens. Sometimes life seems unreal, not like a dream exactly but more like I’m a bit detached, watching an absorbing film or reading a book, being drawn into someone else’s story…

Audiobooks are the greatest thing, and I’m going back to the ones I loved when I was younger. Each book helps mark time and while I waited for the initial biopsy result I listened to The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett:

“Surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.”

I’m trying to remember this all the time as I work on keeping my mind occupied.

I followed that with The Horse And His Boy by CS Lewis:

“If one is nervous there’s nothing like having your face towards the danger and having something warm and solid at your back.”

 I’m grateful to have the warmth and solidity of love at my back.

***

I threw up on the morning the consultant confirmed it was cancer.  I already knew, although everyone kept telling me to keep positive, I just knew, ya know? But even so, there was a lot to be positive about. It was found early, it’s a small tumour and I live in France with access to advanced, free healthcare. My consultant is a big, hairy man – like an Ewok in crocs. He brightly tells me my cancer is treatable. My tits are in safe, experienced hands so to speak.

And so began the really, really hard work. My family are with me constantly, when the good stuff crashes into the bad – like the weather when opposing forces collide and an almighty thunderstorm kicks off. The sleepless nights, the fatigue, the times I meltdown or throw up. When I want to crawl into bed for days and shut out the world they hold me up and comfort me and pull my leg and rub my shoulders and give me ginger hugs – they hug me gingerly so they don’t hurt me. And all the while we keep our English gallows humour.

Oh yes, my lot are effing brilliant. Milla with her needle fear held my hand during the biopsy. Romy left Paris and now studies from here. She has pretty much taken over the housework. Both the girls come with me everywhere, make sure I understand everything and ask the doctors questions when my brain fogs over and my tongue ties, which happens a lot. I am cradled in an extended cocoon of care from my wider family, a few true friends, thoughtful gifts and help, surprising kindnesses from acquaintances and some fantastic doctors and nurses to help me do the work. It’s going to get harder and messier before it gets better and I sometimes feel obliged to tell people if you can’t stand the mess, get the fuck out of my way. Most are up to it but some others are frightened by the word cancer or simply oblivious to the impact and don’t know how to behave towards me, which saddens me, but it is what it is. I can’t control others.

***

I had a lumpectomy with a sentinel lymph node removed.  I bought along my sketchbooks, journal and little Olympus camera to pass the time while in hospital. I try to take pictures in the bathroom mirror but the stupid thing won’t fire without adequate light so I have to do what I can. The day before I was injected with something radioactive and was told to massage my breast for 5 minutes. Why is it always young men doing these kind of procedures? I felt ridiculous lying on my back rubbing my knocker and I kept giggling to myself. They pick out the lymph node with sound and mark it with a sharpie. X marks the spot. The next morning as I wait for surgery my stress levels are off the scale. I try concentrating on my breathing but in the end I imagine I’m lying in a mountain meadow full of horses by a river, with waterfalls and deep pools to swim in. A black horse lies next to me, his glossy ribcage heaving up and down and his gentle breath on my face. The anaesthetic kicks in and my heartbeat slows…

That night I’m wide awake, my drip catching on the sheets and unable to get comfortable. I watch the moon and the stars until the sun rises, and listen to the birds singing the whole time as light pollution messes with them. I desperately want to be home, where night time means moonlight streaming through my window, only owls hoot and the hunting dogs howl.

The tests on the lymph node was negative but those for the tumour were inconclusive, so after more tests and more waiting my fate was decided. Chemotherapy, herceptin and radiotherapy. I’m dreading the chemo. I know rads are no doddle but I’ll be honest, even the word chemo terrifies the bejeezus out of me. Fear can often be stared down until it skulks off whimpering, but last night fear got me in it’s grip. Sometimes I feel isolated from everyone else, and despite their constant love and weight-bearing,  I have to do this alone.

Listening to Harry Potter night after night as I lie in bed I think just like Harry I have my Ron, my Hermione, my Sirius, Lupin, Dobby and even my own Luna but ultimately I am the only one who can triumph. Cancer is a shit ton of horcruxes that are down to me to destroy.

“Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so he felt more alive, and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart?”

***

Every day, I go down to the river to calm my soul and feel alive. Back on a winter’s day, when it was still just unconfirmed fear and free-floating anxiety, I walked there alone. I caught my breath at a flash of brilliant turquoise and orange – a kingfisher burst through the water’s surface with a tiny fish in it’s beak and darted off into the trees.

It somehow seemed important and significant. Later I find out the kingfisher, the halcyon, symbolises peace, love and prosperity. My halcyon days are yet to come.

***

The Ewok in crocs tells me he uses a harpoon and a ‘fil d’ariane’ Ariadne’s thread, to find and remove the tumour. So now I imagine a kingfisher and it’s harpoon beak and a golden thread tied around him, flying into the labyrinth of my cells to destroy the cancerous horcrux. It’s a picture I draw over and over in my sketchbook. I sew myself a tiny kingfisher with gold thread and he comes and stays with me at every appointment, during my hospitalisation, and close to my heart.

***

I’ve no interest in my darkroom anymore. I need colour, sunlight and chitchat. The thought of being sealed up in the pitch dark, inhaling fumes with only the radio for company does NOT float my boat. I’m filling my days with paint, pencil and paper in the studio with my daughters. I’m shooting colour film again and filling sketchbooks. I’m rolling back to the things I loved 7 years ago, something I can have control of. How did I lose my way so badly?

***

It’s a busy week ahead. Today I see a dietician for help with maintaining my veganism, specifically as I’ve been told not to consume soya and soya products, to cope with the road ahead. Later on I have an echocardiogram, and an appointment with the oncologist to set up my chemo and finally a kind soul, an aromatherapist, is going to massage me. This is the one thing I’m looking forward to.

It’s like I said before, I’m changed. I’ve never been braver, stronger, felt so deeply and my capacity for tolerating bullshit is zero. After so long being a people-pleaser, I’m surprising myself at who I’m becoming. And after exhausting weeks of my body being trapped in fight or flight mode I’m choosing fight. Fight like a girl.

“We don’t reach the mountaintop from the mountaintop. We start at the bottom and climb up. Blood is involved.”

sentinel lymph node biopsy post-lumpectomy hospital sunrise

Olympus XA1 | Ilford HP5

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