Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

footsteps in sand

I haven’t posted since July 2020, but it is a new year and notwithstanding the recent outbreak of COVID19 in my local area, I am hoping 2021 will be better.

This is actually a reworking of a post from several years ago and if you read to the end, my choice of updating and reposting should make sense. (It’s not just laziness although it is an effort to overcome a lack of enthusiasm and feeling of irrelevance!)

The last six months have been the definition of hell for so many people despite some (including me) attempting to find the glass half full.

I’ve read of achievements, new hobbies, friendships, educational courses, diets and exercise regimes, technology,  books, films, music, imaginative recipes and discovery of  local environmental gems… there were also plenty of negative impacts from panic and fear, lockdowns, isolation, shortage of goods and services, lost jobs and homes, broken relationships and health issues.

The Virus not the Only Health Crisis

For me, health issues loomed large – my last post ended with the news of a stage 4 invasive melanoma diagnosed.  This shock of a recurrence of skin cancer (I had basil cell carcinomas removed when 30 years old) added to the news of breast cancer returning in December 2019, albeit a different and rarer, breast cancer.

A relieved thought (or unvoiced fear) was how lucky can one person be!

It wasn’t the immediate end of the world but I would be lying if I said thoughts of death didn’t loom large. I checked finances and discussed plans with my daughters for  ‘no funeral, just a big party’;  ensured my will, plus medical and financial power of attorney up-to-date.

In the last decade, many health scares, so déjà vu for the Neil household at this regular event!

yearly mammogram

However, the discovery of a brain tumour and the fear it was metastatic cancer shocked the GP who has cared for me for over 25 years. We both fought back tears, our trembling lips hidden by masks, social distancing forgotten as she squeezed my arm in sympathy and murmured about unfairness and not to lose hope because it could be a meningioma.

I’m 67 years old, ironically, the same age as my husband when he died in 2002, (John was 18 years older than me). Whether it is the Highland genes or just my Mother’s Irish superstition, this coincidence played on my mind and also worried my daughters.

Survival rates for cancer vary from person to person but the milestones of 5 and 10 years are always at the back of a patient’s mind when diagnosed. The longer you can go without a recurrence is something to celebrate.

However, survival rates for a tumour in the brain, poor and if an operation required the risk of stroke high.

I was disappointed when breast cancer returned after 9 years but my breast cancer surgeon inspires confidence and he acted quickly and decisively and this time it was a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.

I don’t put off mammagrams no matter how uncomfortable they are and I follow his advice, even if data suggests most breast cancer is not picked up by mammagrams.

Plus, the shock of another breast cancer diagnosis soon eclipsed by COVID19 anxiety and declaration of the global pandemic.

The recovery from the melanoma and skin graft during severe lockdown, and in the middle of winter, took a little longer with travel permissions to worry about and more stringent rules for clinicians and patients. These restrictions lasted well into the next health surprise.

By the time I went through all the tests and consultations for the brain tumour, it took a lot of energy to even pretend to be positive about the future.  I thought back to the deaths of family and friends I’d witnessed or been involved with in the last stages of their life – hence revisiting this post about my friend Margaret.

Will I be calm and accepting? Do I want to prolong the inevitable? What are my priorities and is there any point in a bucket list?

I almost forgot to breathe when the neurologist decided it was a meningioma and not metastatic cancer. In the words of my breast surgeon on my annual visit in December, ‘You dodged another bullet, Mairi!’

How long I can keep dodging is a mystery but I’ve decided to turn the page on 2020 and try ‘business as usual’ along with my mantra ‘this too will pass’.

Digital Distraction

I spent July to December posting photographs and haiku on Instagram after joining at the suggestion of a dear friend in Japan who posts about Bonsai.

Naoko was a writing student of mine at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, when she lived in Australia. She said I was an inspiration to her during a difficult time in her life and even wrote a poem about writing class which I published.

We have stayed connected and she returned any perceived favour by inspiring me to learn a new digital platform (with daughter Mary Jane’s help), indulge my love of photography and the environment, and write haiku, a favourite poetry form!

Naoko’s Instagram is #bonsai_sana and mine is #mairineil

Walking the dog each day around Mordialloc, I focused on everyday sights, let my imagination and thoughts wander and in the evening, inspired and guided by the demands of the form, I wrote haiku.

The anxiety, fear and dark thoughts about health and death receded as once again my passion for writing became therapeutic and a distraction. It gave me a focus and a project.

beautiful sunset creek

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

pathways

And for many, death comes too soon…

Farewell To A Friend

The telephone call came out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris.

I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by chatter; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  Body trembling, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses.

Determined not to spoil Lisa’s day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but here’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked, and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom apartment – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time.

How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while Margaret spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, in palliative care, her lifespan numbered in weeks rather than months – or days, if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

A  picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973, was shared in a recent post.  Tall slim Margaret centre stage.

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She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news, too confronting and scary. I think back to the apartment we shared, and shiver. That old house divided into three and this news means all of the women living there, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now Margaret with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster?

A problem for another day…

Bad News Travels Fast

During Lisa’s celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight.

This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer, came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with Margaret as she adjusts to the effects of radiotherapy and the news of having limited time.

She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as saying goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of husband, John’s last days – the irony of our busy vibrant house,  constant comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts, and endless cups of tea and coffee surrounding someone dying.

We share meals with Margaret, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’

Margaret agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again.

Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave, I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   Margaret manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer providing higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked Margaret for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeat similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish Margaret had another 23 years to sort out her life…

I wanted the last few days with her to be surreal and someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream. But of course I faced the reality of saying goodbye and dealing with my grief.

Now, with the reality of declining health I’ll hopefully adjust with similar dignity as Margaret when the inevitable must be faced – with luck still in the distance.

Then again, 2021 may hold bigger surprises than 2020 and they could be good!

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

Literary Non-Fiction – Marrying Creative Reminiscing with Factual Events when Writing Memoir

Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…

There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.

Phillip Lopate, 2008

This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of  ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.

We flatted together when I  lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel.  I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.

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Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.

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Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated.  Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.

When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends. 

And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001,  husband John’s death 2002,  Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time,  I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…

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I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.

Mordialloc Beach 2013

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.

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At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low.  I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums.  Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.

Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of  leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at  a particular time, or about a particular experience.

All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life –  that’s what I tell my students  – and so it is true for me too!

meaning-of-friendship-quotes

I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others.  Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

footsteps in sand

I haven’t posted since July 2020, but it is a new year and notwithstanding the recent outbreak of COVID19 in my local area, I am hoping 2021 will be better.

This is actually a reworking of a post from several years ago and if you read to the end, my choice of updating and reposting should make sense. (It’s not just laziness although it is an effort to overcome a lack of enthusiasm and feeling of irrelevance!)

The last six months have been the definition of hell for so many people despite some (including me) attempting to find the glass half full.

I’ve read of achievements, new hobbies, friendships, educational courses, diets and exercise regimes, technology,  books, films, music, imaginative recipes and discovery of  local environmental gems… there were also plenty of negative impacts from panic and fear, lockdowns, isolation, shortage of goods and services, lost jobs and homes, broken relationships and health issues.

The Virus not the Only Health Crisis

For me, health issues loomed large – my last post ended with the news of a stage 4 invasive melanoma diagnosed.  This shock of a recurrence of skin cancer (I had basil cell carcinomas removed when 30 years old) added to the news of breast cancer returning in December 2019, albeit a different and rarer, breast cancer.

A relieved thought (or unvoiced fear) was how lucky can one person be!

It wasn’t the immediate end of the world but I would be lying if I said thoughts of death didn’t loom large. I checked finances and discussed plans with my daughters for  ‘no funeral, just a big party’;  ensured my will, plus medical and financial power of attorney up-to-date.

In the last decade, many health scares, so déjà vu for the Neil household at this regular event!

yearly mammogram

However, the discovery of a brain tumour and the fear it was metastatic cancer shocked the GP who has cared for me for over 25 years. We both fought back tears, our trembling lips hidden by masks, social distancing forgotten as she squeezed my arm in sympathy and murmured about unfairness and not to lose hope because it could be a meningioma.

I’m 67 years old, ironically, the same age as my husband when he died in 2002, (John was 18 years older than me). Whether it is the Highland genes or just my Mother’s Irish superstition, this coincidence played on my mind and also worried my daughters.

Survival rates for cancer vary from person to person but the milestones of 5 and 10 years are always at the back of a patient’s mind when diagnosed. The longer you can go without a recurrence is something to celebrate.

However, survival rates for a tumour in the brain, poor and if an operation required the risk of stroke high.

I was disappointed when breast cancer returned after 9 years but my breast cancer surgeon inspires confidence and he acted quickly and decisively and this time it was a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.

I don’t put off mammagrams no matter how uncomfortable they are and I follow his advice, even if data suggests most breast cancer is not picked up by mammagrams.

Plus, the shock of another breast cancer diagnosis soon eclipsed by COVID19 anxiety and declaration of the global pandemic.

The recovery from the melanoma and skin graft during severe lockdown, and in the middle of winter, took a little longer with travel permissions to worry about and more stringent rules for clinicians and patients. These restrictions lasted well into the next health surprise.

By the time I went through all the tests and consultations for the brain tumour, it took a lot of energy to even pretend to be positive about the future.  I thought back to the deaths of family and friends I’d witnessed or been involved with in the last stages of their life – hence revisiting this post about my friend Margaret.

Will I be calm and accepting? Do I want to prolong the inevitable? What are my priorities and is there any point in a bucket list?

I almost forgot to breathe when the neurologist decided it was a meningioma and not metastatic cancer. In the words of my breast surgeon on my annual visit in December, ‘You dodged another bullet, Mairi!’

How long I can keep dodging is a mystery but I’ve decided to turn the page on 2020 and try ‘business as usual’ along with my mantra ‘this too will pass’.

Digital Distraction

I spent July to December posting photographs and haiku on Instagram after joining at the suggestion of a dear friend in Japan who posts about Bonsai.

Naoko was a writing student of mine at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, when she lived in Australia. She said I was an inspiration to her during a difficult time in her life and even wrote a poem about writing class which I published.

We have stayed connected and she returned any perceived favour by inspiring me to learn a new digital platform (with daughter Mary Jane’s help), indulge my love of photography and the environment, and write haiku, a favourite poetry form!

Naoko’s Instagram is #bonsai_sana and mine is #mairineil

Walking the dog each day around Mordialloc, I focused on everyday sights, let my imagination and thoughts wander and in the evening, inspired and guided by the demands of the form, I wrote haiku.

The anxiety, fear and dark thoughts about health and death receded as once again my passion for writing became therapeutic and a distraction. It gave me a focus and a project.

beautiful sunset creek

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

pathways

And for many, death comes too soon…

Farewell To A Friend

The telephone call came out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris.

I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by chatter; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  Body trembling, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses.

Determined not to spoil Lisa’s day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but here’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked, and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom apartment – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time.

How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while Margaret spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, in palliative care, her lifespan numbered in weeks rather than months – or days, if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

A  picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973, was shared in a recent post.  Tall slim Margaret centre stage.

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She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news, too confronting and scary. I think back to the apartment we shared, and shiver. That old house divided into three and this news means all of the women living there, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now Margaret with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster?

A problem for another day…

Bad News Travels Fast

During Lisa’s celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight.

This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer, came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with Margaret as she adjusts to the effects of radiotherapy and the news of having limited time.

She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as saying goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of husband, John’s last days – the irony of our busy vibrant house,  constant comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts, and endless cups of tea and coffee surrounding someone dying.

We share meals with Margaret, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’

Margaret agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again.

Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave, I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   Margaret manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer providing higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked Margaret for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeat similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish Margaret had another 23 years to sort out her life…

I wanted the last few days with her to be surreal and someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream. But of course I faced the reality of saying goodbye and dealing with my grief.

Now, with the reality of declining health I’ll hopefully adjust with similar dignity as Margaret when the inevitable must be faced – with luck still in the distance.

Then again, 2021 may hold bigger surprises than 2020 and they could be good!

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson