HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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The uneasy dance of life and death – my fifth cancerversary

I am so often struck by the stark contrasts of this world, and particularly how sorrow and joy seem to be able to move together in a sort of uncomfortable dance, each one rising and receding in turn. It seems to me that life and death are so often the couple intertwined in this dance and I find their uneasy coexistence difficult to wrap my head around.

It is one of those weeks where I have a heightened awareness of both life and death. Life – because today is my cancerversary and marks five years since the day that rocked my world and I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. But also death – because yesterday I attended the funeral of a vibrant young woman called Sarah, who had recently celebrated her 32nd birthday and who got married last year and whose life was claimed by breast cancer just a few weeks ago. Yesterday we celebrated her life by marking her death.

The unfairness of this situation is not lost on me. As I sat in the church at the funeral yesterday wondering how granny was getting on with planting strawberries with the boys, I was reminded that it could quite easily have been my funeral that friends and family were gathering to attend. I was reminded that it didn’t have to have turned out like it did.

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As the family processed out of the church yesterday I was so struck by just how soon her life was claimed as her husband walked down the aisle out of the church, this time with no bride on his arm. This time he walked alone. I was struck by her untimely death by the presence of her grandparents at her funeral. Grandparents should not be burying their grandchildren. It’s just the wrong way around.

For me cancer plays a smaller and smaller role in my day to day life. But a few times a year when my hospital appointments roll around I have to engage with it once more. Almost two weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. It is always an event that I dread, not just because it is a pretty uncomfortable experience but rather because it always throws up worries that maybe all is not well after all. Perhaps the cancer has returned. This year I had my mammogram in the morning and in the afternoon we went away on holiday. We had the most glorious week away in the Cotswolds. The weather was gorgeous, the kids slept well every night and the days were filled with really fun outings. It was blissful, but occasionally the thought of my mammogram would creep back into my mind and I would wonder whether the postman had dropped a letter recalling me to the hospital through my post box yet.

The very first thing I did when we got back on Saturday was gather up the post and go through it all with a fine toothed comb looking for an envelope stamped with the hospital address. It wasn’t there. I hadn’t been recalled and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow been granted a more time away from the clutches of this disease.

Sarah was the fifth young women in my sphere that has died from breast cancer in the past 12 months. Every few months I have been heartbroken at the news of another life taken and so celebrating my cancerversary this year feels very bitter sweet.

I am SO THANKFUL for another good year, to be healthy and to have the opportunity to enjoy a bit more of this life. I am so thankful for my family, my friends, my little business, opportunities to serve at church and in the community. I am so thankful that I am well enough to live a normal life and I feel blessed beyond measure. But today, in amongst it all I also feel so sad. I feel so sad for the lives gone, for the young children who have lost their mums and for the families who have lost daughters, sisters, aunties and friends.

I don’t know what it all means and I don’t know how to reconcile the unfairness of it all in my mind. I find that all I can do is cling on to the knowledge that it won’t always be this way and that one day all things will be made new and there will be no more sickness or crying or pain. But in the meantime, in the middle of the mess, these women encourage me to press on, to be thankful for each day, to run the race marked out for me and to choose to participate in the adventure.

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But Mummy, I want to go to my old home!

Yesterday morning was that morning that I had been anticipating since we’d moved whilst all the while hoping it wouldn’t come. Yesterday morning Jonty was completely inconsolable and kept saying, “Mummy, I want to go to my old home”… the crying and this phrase (along with “I want my Daddy”, who was not at home as he was already at church) was repeated for about an hour… A very long hour!

I tried everything to calm him down…cuddles, food, getting cross, trying to rationalise, crying with him out of sheer desperation… But nothing seemed to work! My heart broke for his little two-year old heart that has understood that we have moved, but doesn’t quite understand why we can’t go back and see his little friends again. 😥

I felt utterly helpless in the face of his distress. This was not something that I could kiss better, as I usually do when he has hurt himself. This sadness we had to ride out together until it eventually passed (and he allowed himself to be consoled with two slices of Marmite toast).

But… It did pass and since then he has been fine, and in fact quite delightful!

I guess, in his own little way he was grieving what has been lost. As a parent, I now know that I need to recognise that he is grieving and allow it to happen, rather than trying get it to stop straight away, as grieving is important and the sadness will pass and he will move on to Marmite toast, or his helicopter toy or possibly an episode of Octonauts.

I love how children are able to express their emotions and haven’t learnt yet to suppress them to reflect how they think they “should” be feeling.

There is a huge lesson in this for me. When I was poorly, I spent a lot of energy trying to keep myself together, I think as a self-preservation tactic more than anything else. Grieving is exhausting, so although I grieved for what had been lost, I did so in quite a measured way (and to be honest I think there might be some residual grieving that still needs to happen).

I think part of the reason I only allowed, and still only allow, myself such “measured” grieving times is because I am aware there is a fine line between grief and self-pity and once crossed it is so easy to slip deep into the self-pity zone which is a place I most definitely do not want to end up! It ain’t pretty down in the self pity zone and it is hard to get out of there!!

But my little Jonty has modelled for me unhindered grief, that had to express itself, but that also allowed itself to be comforted, and this was such a helpful (if heartbreaking) thing for me to experience with him.

The Bible is full of beautiful imagery of how God is both our comfort and our refuge. So, I have nothing to fear when I need to grieve because I know that as I bring this grief to Him, I will be comforted. I know that I will be held and loved just as I hold and love my own child.

Psalm 91:4 is one of these beautiful images of comfort. I love the idea of finding a refuge in the shadow of God’s wing!

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