Lessons learnt

I think everyone can agree that once you’ve had to face your mortality and you survive to tell the tale, you are not the same person afterwards. This is of course going to sound very clichéd but people mention this over and over again because it is simply the truth and undeniable. The sun really does shine more brightly, the sky appears bluer than ever, a birds song more lovely than you had ever realized before. Your senses are heightened and when you open your eyes upon waking in the mornings, you celebrate the fact that you get to spend another day with your family and friends. Every day that dawns is considered a special gift not to be taken for granted, but to be lived to the fullest. I would like to share a short story with you. It is one that I wrote based on a dream that I had one night not long after my treatment had finished, and that has repeated itself many times since. I hope you enjoy it.

What a wonderful life

Getting out of bed I notice that my knees are not hurting like they normally do. What a refreshing change. Upon opening the curtains my suspicions are confirmed. It is a lovely sunny day, and outside my bedroom window is a majestic looking oak tree. This time of year the leaves are green and lush. On one of the branches I see a row of little grey birds sitting there and chirping to each other. They are normally very ordinary looking birds, but today they somehow yield a beauty I’ve never acknowledged before. I also notice a little squirrel nervously scuttling around at lightning speed on one of the lower branches. It holds a small acorn between its paws and holds its fluffy tail high in the air. Two beautiful white stripes flow down the centre of its back, starting from the top of the head and following through to the tip of the tail. The squirrel stops and whips its head from side to side, sensing danger. Perhaps it can feel me looking at it. Turning around and walking to the bathroom, I realize that my back and hips don’t hurt that much either. I turn on the shower and start to strip out of my pajamas, while I stare at my face in the mirror. Not bad for forty. I climb into the shower and close my eyes, feeling the gooseflesh appearing on my skin as the warmth of the water soothes me down to my bones. Opening my exfoliating body wash, I revel like never before in the delicious smell of the raspberries, while buffing my body to perfection. Getting out, I dry myself and throw my luxurious, thick white towel on the floor, not caring to hang it up as normal. I do not pay much attention to my appearance today, just throwing on a pair of light blue denims with a figure hugging white T-shirt. My favorite since it shows off my slim silhouette that I take great pride in, especially after becoming a mother. I leave my hair soaking wet and un-brushed.

I bound down the stairs almost like a sixteen year- old. I haven’t been able to do that for many years. Breezing through the dining room and opening the sliding door that leads out into the garden, I am very intent on going outside into nature this morning. Normally I prefer to just stay in bed and read a book or watch some television. My husband and I like to lie in like that over the weekends. Just after we got married we would wake up, put our sneakers on and pound the pavements, while watching the sun make its first timid appearance on the horizon, surrounded by the scattered, rich hues of orange and red adorning it. Fifteen years, a child and illness have put a stop to what now seems like a distant and dismal attempt at a healthy lifestyle. Walking towards the deck chair, I look over at the swimming pool. The dark blue and crisp looking water looks so refreshing and inviting. Without hesitation I run and dive into the water. The sudden coldness almost sucks all the air out of my lungs and stings the surface of my body like sharp pin pricks, but somehow it does not seem to matter. I am so in the moment as I fully embrace the shock of the icy water, feeling the bubbles tickling my skin. I swim under the water, reaching out to touch the floor of the pool and brush the smooth tiles with the tips of my fingers, while I make my way to the other side and get out. Making for the deck chair I lie down and quite enjoy the contrast of the cold, wet clothes on my skin against the intense warmth of the cushion. I lie back and sigh, as the comforting heat from the mid-morning sun settles onto my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flower bed filled with sweet-peas that I planted at the beginning of the summer. I get up and go over to them, bending over to smell them. The intoxicatingly sweet smell floods my nostrils, as I take a deep breath in an attempt to take in as much of it as possible. These have forever been my favorite, and I always make a point of putting lots of them in vases around the house when we are expecting guests. There is simply no better fragrance.

I decide to go and get changed out of my wet clothes. Walking through the sliding doors, I hear screaming and crying coming from up stairs. In a sudden panic I bound up the stairs, taking two at a time with my new found strength and agility. As I am halfway up the top flight of stairs and look up to the landing, a horrifying scene greets me. My husband has his back to me and is kneeling over someone lying sprawled on the floor, totally limp and not moving at all. My eldest daughter is kneeling on the other side of the person, grasping a hand with both of hers. Frozen to the spot by paralyzing fear, I cannot bring myself to walk further up to see who it is. I am too afraid to know. My husband has the phone in his hand and he shouts into it.

“When is the ambulance going to get here…I don’t think she’s breathing and I’ve tried everything. I’ve done exactly what you asked me to do and it isn’t working. Please hurry, I beg of you!”

Without thinking, in utter frustration and desperation, he throws the phone against the wall. Pieces of black plastic and small electronic parts shoot in all directions, as it smashes into a million pieces. He is now sobbing out loud as he lowers his head onto the person’s chest and says, “Please breathe…don’t leave me now just breathe, please hang on, they’ll be here soon I promise you, oh God NO!”

My daughter is now wailing. Pain, agony and helplessness are clearly audible in her cries. She is tugging at the person’s arm screaming, “Wake up, you can’t go anywhere now I need you… come on!” What a wonderful life Page 4

I hear men coming up the stairs behind me, and instinctively move out of the way so that they can pass through. My husband jumps up so that they have space to do their job. He takes my daughter by her arm, and tries to help her up to get her out of the way, but she won’t let go of the person’s arm. She is now hysterical and screaming. One of the paramedics helps him to heave her up with force under her arms, and swiftly moves her aside. They stand aside and wrap their arms tightly around each other and sob, their eyes large and wild with fear and disbelief at the situation. Their faces are ashen from shock and horror. There are too many people hovering around and I cannot see who it is. It seems like an eternity that the paramedics spend, trying to help whoever it is that is in such a desperate situation, but when one of them leans back with a look of despair on his face, and lets the paddles drop from his hands to the floor, I realize it is all over.

One of them looks up at my husband and daughter and shakes his head.

“I’m so sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.”

My daughter drops to her knees and crawls over to the lifeless body, and putting her head down on its chest, she emits a guttural cry as if she has been mortally wounded. My husband just stands there, looking down with a look of utter devastation and defeat consuming his face, his mouth agape. The tears fall silently down his cheeks. He backs against the wall and slides down onto his haunches, resting his head on his knees while wrapping his arms around his legs. His shoulders shake as he sobs.

It is at that point that I get to see who is lying on the floor. I see all of her scars that she accumulated along the way, as she bravely fought her own private battle with cancer. I realize that my husband and daughter are crying about me. It’s me lying there. My gaunt and wasted body is whitish-grey. My finger and toenails have become blue from lack of oxygen. My eye sockets are framed with purplish-black rings, a testament to how exhausted and sick I was.

I suddenly jerk awake and sit bolt upright, gasping for breath. I realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, and that the same awful nightmare has played itself out again. I have been plagued with this dream for weeks now. Wiping the tears from my cheeks with my fingers I hear the heartwarming chirping of the birds outside, and realize that it is morning. Getting out of bed and wandering to the window, I feel the familiar pain and stiffness in my joints. I open the curtains and sit down on the chaise longue, appreciating the size and grace of the oak tree outside my window as well as the fretful activity of the birds on the branches.

I am still alive and living with cancer. I have been battling with a dark cloud that has been hanging over my head, ever since I discovered that the cancer had come back two years ago, living in fear as to what will happen next and wondering when the end will come. No matter how many times in the past my doctor has told me that everything will be alright, this dark frame of mind has still relentlessly prevailed, like a double edged sword hanging over my head.

I think more about this awful dream, and realize that I am being pushed to breaking point. Either I can relent and take the easy way out, or I can try to figure out what this dream is trying to tell me. I know that if I choose the easy way out, it will torture my husband and child for the rest of their lives. I have fought so hard thus far just to stay alive, and it can’t be all for nothing. I realize I have to change my mind set. I cannot go on torturing myself this way.

I know that if I am to go on to be a loving and successful wife and mother, then I need to change from pessimism and despair to optimism and hope.

They say that your attitude can make all the difference to how long you live after your diagnosis, but it is much easier to make a statement like that when you aren’t the one living with the cancer inside your own body.

I remember something my late mother always used to tell me when I was inconsolable about something trivial that had happened to me when I was a child.

“What is the point in worrying about something, when you can’t do anything about it right now? All you are doing is wasting precious energy, energy that you could be using doing other much more meaningful things. You are not meant to know what the future will bring, only to take it one day at a time; one moment at a time.”

It suddenly hits me that living in the moment is what I’m supposed to be doing, not harping on about the past or fretting about the future. Living in the moment is the only way I can be truly happy, and give the love to my family that they truly deserve.

I make a promise to myself to move forward, and to treasure every moment of every day that I have left. Doing anything less than that is not honoring what remains of my life. That way, when my end eventually does arrive, I can look to the heavens without any recriminations and know that l have also taught my daughter to live her life to the fullest, and to have the courage to stand up to whatever obstacles she comes up against. When this is all over, she will know better than anybody else how fragile life is. That it is never to be taken for granted, and is to be treasured. That every morning when you wake up and realize you are still alive, it is a gift and a reason to celebrate.

The bedroom door opens ever so slightly, and I hear the little tinkling bell hanging from the collar around my beloved cat’s neck. He wonders in nonchalantly and rubs himself against my leg. I pick him up and flipping him onto his back, I bury my face in his soft and furry white belly, giving him a few kisses. He starts to purr loudly and I hoist him onto my shoulder and close my eyes, focusing on the blissful sound. The wonderful aroma of brewing coffee with toast, bacon and eggs reaches my nose which explains why my husband is nowhere to be seen. I hear my daughter’s laughter coming from down the passage way.

I get up and putting my dressing gown and slippers on, I take one last look at the oak tree and smile. Four weeks to go till Christmas. It is time to hang up the decorations. I think I will put them up a bit earlier each year from now on. I turn to head downstairs to the kitchen. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and what a wonderful life it is!

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