Why some days are like that

I wrote this the other day. It’s a little melancholy…I’d been feeling it. I didn’t post it because the sheer act of writing it changed something for me, and helped me see my world a little differently. I love that about writing, about blogging in particular.

I’ll share it with you today though. It’s no less true than it was when I wrote it, even though my deep melancholy has passed. I’ve learned something this week, and this is it:

Life is a journey. Don’t despise it.

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Some years ago, when my daughter was very young, I belonged to a MoPS (Mothers of PreSchoolers) group that met at my church once a fortnight. My role was the welcomer, so I’d get there a little early and set up the name badges and the registration and welcome everyone as they came in. I got to see them all as they hauled snotty toddlers across the road from the car park, and listened to their stories briefly as they took a deep breath and put their “church faces” on. The stories were nearly always the same. It had been an awful morning. An awful night. No sleep. Tantrums. Screaming. And then there were the children. After a while I learned to predict it; knew even in my own family that if it was a MoPS day tomorrow then I’d be in for a rough night, a rough morning. It’s just how it happened.

The thing is though, we always had a good time. Everybody came back, no matter how stinking our mornings had been, because we all knew that when we got there it’d be okay. And it was.

Some months ago, while we were in the US, I had a different stinker of a morning, that led to a bad day, topped off at the end with a series of annoyances and a bitter disappointment. I followed that with some jet lag, some more sad things, another disappointment, some hunger, some sleeplessness, a dream let go, and yet another disappointment. By the end of that weekend I was wrung out in a way that I’d never been, lost and tired and stretched way beyond my ability to put on my “church face”. I bawled in a toilet for half an hour, then went upstairs to try and find a spare one, or at least a moment of quiet where I could find myself again. And then a miracle happened, something that may have positive ramifications in my life for quite some time. Something good.

Sometimes I think about that miracle. I wonder whether it would still have happened if I hadn’t been at a point where I was beyond my ability to cope in my own strength. Would it still have happened if it wasn’t for all those disappointments? Probably. But the point is, it happened after a stinker of a weekend.

I know the pattern now. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. There’s not many times in life when I lose my ability to bounce back, my ability to seek God in spite of my circumstances. There’s not many times when I’m so overwhelmed by what’s going on that I can’t cope with…well, what’s going on.

I haven’t coped at all well this week. I’m not bouncing back. I’m finding it hard, once again, to see past the emotions that that weekend of deep disappointment brought me. They swirl up in a way they shouldn’t, and that’s not like me.

But I know the pattern now. There’s change ahead for us, big change. I may be like the kid in the story shovelling poop to get to the pony, but nowadays when I’m feeling that kind of fear and disappointment and knowing that things are absolutely beyond me and my fragile self…I know that there’s a good thing coming.

I believe in miracles, and in the stinking times that precede them.

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On self judgement and new couches

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On Thursday I bought a new lounge suite (in case you were wondering, yes, this is part of it. And in case you were wondering, no, it didn’t break the bank. We bought it second hand for a fraction of the cost of a new one, and although I still can’t say I’ve ever had a new couch I really don’t mind. And yes, it IS as comfortable as it looks!)

The coolest thing though is that it fits our lounge room in a way that nothing has before it. I move furniture around when I get bored of it, and I’ve always struggled with the fact that my lounge room just felt wrong. Too small, too unwieldy. Too many uncompromising bits like big fireplaces, small windows, doorways. Now though, now I see it wasn’t my room that was wrong, I just needed furniture that fit it better. Now, with a big new lounge suite, my lounge room is perfect.

Yesterday morning I had another thought, although it took a while for me to realise the thoughts were related. I grew up under a lot of judgement, and all of it said pretty much the same thing: I was wrong. I was too loud or too quiet or too silly or too unkempt or uncouth or whatever else my obviously-extremely-perfect grandmother thought of me. Too wrong, really. My grandmother has been dead a number of years now, but that hasn’t mattered. I’ve proudly kept up her tradition of criticising me. Never missed a day.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I got it. Yesterday I realised that it wasn’t ME that was wrong at all. I’m a perfectly lovely lounge room. My grandma was simply trying to make me fit with the wrong furniture.

That’s all I need to remember. Here’s to non-judgement, dead grandmothers, and things that fit. Here’s to a right furniture future!

What I learned up north about unconditional love

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This is me with my friend Yvonne. She, it must be pointed out, is not dead. I tell you this because often we don’t say these things about people until they are, and then they’re not around to hear them and then we have a big moan about how we should have said them while they were still alive and all that. So I’m saying it now, while Yvonne-the-undead is still very much in the land of the living. Because, it must be said, my friend Yvonne is categorically wonderful.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, waaaaaay back when I was a teenager, I went to a church Youth camp up in the north of the state. From memory I was sent to get me out of the house while my grandparents were coming over Easter and because of it I a) decided I was quite interested in this Christianity thing and that it wasn’t just for boring old people and b) met a rag-tag bunch of people who I’ve stayed friends with for more than twenty years now.* I met Simon, and through Simon I met his brother Iain, and somewhere at the end of camp we all swapped addresses and started writing letters to each other. They all lived up north. I didn’t.

We didn’t write about much. There wasn’t much to write about. School. Friends. Cars. Boyfriends. What we planned on getting up to at the next camp. They were fun letters to get, and good memories of friends who, back then, back before the days of mobile phones and Facebook–heck, even before the internet–and well before I got a car or a driver’s license, we didn’t get to see.

I don’t remember when it was, but one day Iain invited me and a few others to his house to stay. Probably for a night, probably before or after a camp, the details are lost to me now. I was pretty shy–okay, very shy–but he assured me that his mum wouldn’t mind, that she loves having people over to stay, and there were a few of us, anyway. We’d all camp out on the lounge room floor. It must have been fun. It must have gone okay, because pretty much every holiday after that I spent a few days at Iain’s house. Sometimes there wasn’t even a camp on and I’d be making the two-hour trek north to go spend a couple of nights hanging out with Iain and his family.

Iain’s family was large. He had four brothers, two of which didn’t live at home any more, and a whole crowd of other “brothers” and others, mates who’d come for the night, and then another, and another, and eventually, for one reason or another, moved in for a season. I met them too. I listened to them all talk cars…and more cars. They took me downstairs to the driveway and popped the bonnets (for my non-Aussie readers that means…oh, I don’t know…opened up the bit where the motor is) and tried to explain to me how cars worked, which I vaguely understood. Iain took me driving in his white Gemini, and just laughed when he slammed on the handbrake as I narrowly avoided walls.

And Yvonne, Iain’s mum, as long as she knew who was going to be there in the evening, fed us all. She never once complained about the excessive amount of food that a crowd of teens and twenty-somethings ate, or the ludicrous amounts of black currant cordial she must have had to buy. She must have gone through about seventeen packets of Weetbix a fortnight, but not once, to us at least, did she grumble about me staying again. I loved her for that.

Yvonne taught me to cross-stitch, showed me how to light a gas stove, taught me folk art painting. She told me all the stories about her grandkids, about her boys when they were smaller, taught me word puzzles from her local paper, and clipped out some spares for Iain to send me with his next letter. I loved my time with her, and more than once I wished I lived up north, wished I could have stayed forever.

And then we grew up.

Iain got married. I got married. We didn’t write any more. Iain drove buses, and when he drove down south he’d drop in and we’d catch up. Sometimes we’d make the trip up North again, and we’d drop in and say hi to them, and sometimes to Yvonne. We had babies, and lives, and mobile phones. Sometimes we’d text. Occasionally, when there was news, we’d call. I’d think about Iain every time I saw a white Gemini, and every so often I’d run into one of his “other” brothers who’d say “Have you spoken to Yvonne?” and I’d feel a sharp pang of guilt because I hadn’t, and a fierce regret, because I’d let life close over that  door to the north where magic used to be.

And then we went away.

This is the thing that changed for me: I went to America. And Canada. We drove hours upon hours to visit beautiful friends in a very different shade of north, and each time I had to say goodbye I missed them terribly (and still do), and dreamed of visiting them again (and still do), even when we went back to our little island on the other side of the world. Missing them made me remember how I missed Yvonne.

Here’s the thing: Yvonne is still alive. And she doesn’t live on the other side of the world. Suddenly, when you’ve driven your kids six hours to see someone, driving them for two hour’s north in your own state doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all. I sent her a message, and Iain a message. Last Thursday I bundled the kids into the car and made the journey north again, just as I’d done all those years before.

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Yvonne’s house hasn’t changed. Well, the floors have, and the TV is new, and the couches. But the magic is still there.

Yvonne

 

It’s not magic, not really. It’s the feeling of familiarity, of home, of this-is-where-I-once-belonged, of where, after all these years, I’m made to feel I still belong. It’s the magic of an unconditional love that never once frowns at me or makes me feel guilty for not being in touch sooner, or more often, but opens its arms and says “welcome!”

When I grow up I want to be just like Yvonne.

*Let this be a lesson to all you parents out there. Be careful about sending your kids to church camps. You never know WHO they’re gonna end up getting involved with. You might find these people at your house STILL, some twenty years later. I don’t think church prepares you for that properly.

This is Iain, drying out after a wade in the pool with his little fella on Friday. Thanks for everything, mate! I owe you one.

This is Iain, drying out after a wade in the pool with his little fella on Friday. Thanks for everything, mate! I owe you one.

The reason I’m not posting deep and scintillating thoughts even though it’s Monday and I should.

It’s January. It’s Summer. We’ve been here:

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…and here…

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And we’re packing up the boogie boards and the bathers and going again this morning.
It’s a hard life, this Summer holiday parenting business. But hey, someone’s got to do it.
See you next week!

The #1 Reason I’m Still Alive, or Why You Should Check Stuff Out

I had a mammogram the other day, and it left me a bit shaky. I put a stupid post up about it on Facebook which I kind of regretted because it made everyone rather worried about me for a little while, and there’s no reason really to worry. Not any more. Once, though…

Let me tell you a story.

I was 23 when I started writing my first novel. It may have been terrible, and certainly unfinished, but that novel, quite literally, saved my life. It was about a young guy meditating on the meaning of life and family during the final weeks of his life. He was dying of cancer, and, as I knew nothing about death and dying or about the progression of cancer through the body, I did a lot of research. One book I read said that women, from their early 20s on, should check their breasts regularly. I was 23. I thought I’d give it a go.

There was a lump there, maybe half an inch or so. Right under the nipple. I had no idea if that was normal for me, I’d never felt my breasts before. All I knew was that the left one didn’t have one and the right one did, and I probably should get it checked. I waited a few weeks, you know, to see if it’d go away. It didn’t. (I think I waited until I had reason to go to the doctor again, “Hi Doc, I have a flu I can’t shake and oh please could you check out this lump here?”). My GP was a breast cancer survivor herself, so although she reassured me that at my age it’d only be a cyst and nothing to worry about, she felt a responsibility to make sure, just for her own peace of mind. She sent me off with a referral for a biopsy in a few week’s time.

That biopsy hurt like hell. They took a thumping huge needle and stuck it through my nipple, without any anaesthetic. It came back clear, which was good and done until the surgeon contacted me some months later for a repeat performance. Apparently, back then at least, they couldn’t let strange lumps reside in young women’s breasts without suitable explanations. They wanted another biopsy. I said no. They said “we can just take the whole lump out?” I said “sure!”

I had surgery, a lumpectomy. It hurt, too, because they did it under a local anaesthetic and didn’t always stick to the designed path (yes. Ouch). I was kind of scared to look at the scar, and I still hadn’t taken the dressing off four days later when my surgeon called me into his office at my earliest convenience.

He was very apologetic. It’s cancer, he said. We got it wrong, he said. I asked him about the biopsy, the clear one, and he explained with some blu-tak and coloured paper how there was a cluster of normal cells in the middle of a cancerous mass. It was just a fluke they’d gotten the wrong bit. Just sheer change, you could say, that that biopsy hurt so much that I considered a lumpectomy in the first place.

They booked me in for full surgery as soon as they could, some weeks later. A sectional mastectomy, where they cut out a whack of stuff around where the lump had been, to ensure they hadn’t missed any stray cells. The lump had grown since the initial consultation, not in that mad, aggressive way that you hear of some cancers growing, but it had grown enough to make everybody sure that it needed to come out, and soon. My surgeon briefed me on how they had to remove some lymph nodes from my armpit, that that would be how they’d tell if the cancer had spread further through my body or not, and treatment would progress from there.

My lymph nodes came back with a “shadow” on them. It wasn’t a guarantee that the cancer had metastasised but they weren’t taking any chances. My oncologist arranged six weeks of radiotherapy treatment, and six months of chemotherapy treatment. The chemo would be fairly mild, I was unlikely to lose all my hair, although it did come with a risk of infertility later in life. He referred me on to a fertility specialist, who offered me advice and arranged for me to have my eggs harvested in case they were needed for future pregnancies.

And so life went on. I had radiotherapy, chemotherapy, amazing people who held my hand through the experiences, cooked us dinners, drove us places, called up and left messages on our answering machine to say they were thinking of/praying for us, and hoping everything was “tickety-boo”. (I had that a lot. Apparently tickety-boo is what you say to cancer patients…maybe in the absence of anything else making sense).

I am tickety-boo. I, thank the Lord, have remained so, and cancer-free. I took that for granted for a number of years, that it was a “mild dose”, that I “shook it off”, the way one might shake off a head cold, or a particularly nasty dose of chickenpox. But it’s now, having a mammogram, that I realise how lucky–how blessed–I was, how lucky–how blessed–I AM to be alive still.

1. I’d never checked my breasts before. It had never even occurred to me to do so, and I probably wouldn’t have until I was approaching 50, by which time it would most likely have been too late.

2. My GP doesn’t routinely send young women with breast lumps for biopsies. If it wasn’t for her own experience with cancer she may have reassured me that it was nothing and sent me away.

3. If the biopsy hadn’t been so painful I would have agreed to another one, which may or may not shown any cancer cells again. I don’t know how long my surgeon would have monitored the lump for it it came back clear a second time.

I’m acutely aware of those who have died, for whom the cancer was more aggressive, or didn’t respond to treatment, or for those who just didn’t know until it was too late. Any of these could have been me.

The moral of this story is simple: be aware of your body, and any changes it makes. Check it out. Take it seriously. And…well…if you’ve ever dreamed about doing so, write a novel. You never know, it may save your life.