Sunday, 27 November 2011

A serious story, for a Sunday night

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to write: it’s been a day of life, death, the whole damn thing. I was going to do the abstract thing. I did not want to put what has happened this day into specifics, partly because of the old privacy thing that I write about, partly because when you come up against the far edge of experience, words seem paltry and small.

Then, I was given permission, even encouragement.

So here is the story of the day.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will remember since May, after my father died, there were other deaths. There was another death of a good man, the stretched, disbelieving faces of the mourners, the stupidity of a fine fellow dying too young.

I have not written much about that since, but it has been in my mind. I have thought about the wife and the children left behind. I have wondered how you stitch your life back together, when the glorious, central tree in it has been felled.

Yesterday, the wife of the good man came to stay. I made a special Eastern soup, with lime and chillies and prawns and coriander and mint and shiitake mushrooms. We laughed and talked and ate and everything was amazingly normal, considering everything. We did not talk of mortality, or wild griefs, or the stupid losses that should not happen; she, and The Beloved Cousin, and I, were almost ostentatiously normal.

Today, a chicken was being roasted for lunch. I was making some of my special smashed olive oil potatoes with basil; I was stirring the good wooden spoon around the pan. The wife of the good man said, quite matter of fact: ‘I have breast cancer.’

I did not hear, at first. Perhaps I did hear, and could not believe. Suddenly, there was a conversation about Grade One, Stage Three; there was talk about oncologists, and the Marsden, and doctor’s appointments. And then someone said: it’s too fucking much.

How does that happen? You lose your husband, at a ridiculous age; you get through that, with astonishing grace and courage. You are just, just, getting through it, as much as you can get through anything like that. And then you go to the doc, and you get the news that you have a bloody tumour, and suddenly your own mortality is on the line.

I was not going to write about it, for good reason. Words are my business, but all day, as we have discussed it, I have been lost for words. And then the brilliant, beautiful woman, who has this terrible double tragedy, said: put it on the blog. She said: I’d love to know if there is anyone out there who knows about this. Is there anyone who lost their husband and then, five scant months later, got the breast cancer diagnosis. Is there?
She said: put the specifics. They got it early, but it's fast-moving. What does that mean? Does anyone know?

She said: ask them.

I wonder often what this curious enterprise is for. I often ask you, the Dear Readers: what am I doing here? Am I just clicking my teeth? Is it self-indulgence; is it just a few dog pictures and some absurd racing talk, and a bit of political geekery, and some blah blah about my garden and my love for Scotland and my hill?
It is a tiny thing; life is a great big buggery thing, often too big for me to capture. I sat round the kitchen table all day long, desperately trying to make sense of this thing that makes no sense – too much tragedy for one life, too many demands for one heart to bear – with these two wonderful women, and struggled to make a shape of it. I can’t work things out until I have written them, until I have typed them.

And then, the Extraordinary Woman (as I shall now always call her) said: write it. Put it out there.

I looked at her. I said: ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I want to know what your readers think. I want to know if they have had anything like this.’

As I write this, she and The Beloved Cousin are talking. They are laughing; they are discussing family things. We gave the children the special green soup, and put them to bed. The dogs are slumbering. There is much in this house that is wonderful and normal. We are so lucky in so many ways. We have, between the three of us, had our share of sorrow, but we also have a lot of love and light. But now there is this new Thing.

I don’t know quite how to finish. I always want to give you a nice, neat final sentence, a thought that makes it all make sense. I don’t have one. I think I just press send, and trust in this wonderful readership, and see what happens.

Photographs of the day – I'm afraid are just all dog pictures. I'd love to do some trees and flowers and autumn colours for you, but I like to think the beauty of the Pigeon makes up for everything. It works for me, anyway:

27 Nov 1 27-11-2011 16-52-30

27 Nov 7 27-11-2011 16-51-54

27 Nov 9 27-11-2011 16-51-59

27 Nov 9 27-11-2011 16-52-39

I took these pictures as the evening sun was falling over the Beloved Cousin's house. I was tight with regret and shock. For ten minutes, I looked at this wonderful canine face, and felt better. I said, out loud: this is all too much, even for us. The Pigeon looked up at me, raised her ears, sniffed for rabbits, wagged her waggy old tail, and got on with it. Yes, I thought: we can all get on with it. We must all get on with it. We shall.


  1. I wish I could answer any of those questions. I can't do anything but offer her my very best wishes that she gets through this.

  2. The battalions have returned, and I am in tears for you and your dear friend.

    Life is indeed a great big buggery thing, and it is the tiny things - like Scotland, and the hill, and the flowers, and the Pigeon, and your writing and photography, that makes it less buggery for the rest of us.

    I have no answers, either. I haven't (thank goodness) those experiences (although one-after-other has happened in less severe forms). I do know that today, as I am sitting fearful and self-critical and full of panic over a situation that is starting to outstrip my capability, and feeling like giving up and hiding in a corner, I have in quick succession had a helpful image from a friend on Facebook, and your story to remind me that I am so fortunate.

    No answers, but every love and good wish.

  3. I have no advice but wanted to say I am thinking of you all xxx

  4. I have a friend (and still do) who was 34 when she was diagnosed with a very similar stage of breast cancer. Being in the US, with her husband self-employed, she had to keep her job through chemo, surgery and restorative surgery, in order to keep her insurance. She had a 1 year old when she was first diagnosed.

    She said that she was one of the few in her support group who decided to keep her job. She was also one of the few to not end up on anti-depressants. She's a very plucky lady, but she felt having something outside herself to focus on really helped.

    I hope her story is helpful.

  5. Tania, I quite agree with Cassie, that when the big things are too big, then it is the tiny things one must focus on for strength. Your soups for instance. A friend of mine is heartbroken, so I told her about your green soup. That is what is so wonderful about our interwoven world, I don't know you, you don't know me, but my dear friend now knows about soup (You'd like her. She is the Eminent Physicist). And the point of me telling you this is that I have another dear friend in New York who has another dear friend in Hertfordshire who writes another blog called the Evil Crab about her battle with breast cancer. And she also writes beautifully and has just been declared cancer free. There's always hope, as I believe you might have said before.

    With love to your friend,

    Rachel (@happylittleant)

  6. So horribly horribly sad.

    I have never before commented on a blog, but wanted to today in the hope that another's tragic experiences may give strength to your friend somehow and know that she isn't alone in her suffering. I used to work with Lindsay Nicholson and this is her story of her battle.


  7. I don't think I'm particulary special, or unusual when I tell of the the very bad year. When beloved sister came days away from death and six weeks later Mum died and six weeks after than beautiful, 17 year-old nephew was killed in a car crash.
    Too bloody much? too bloody right.
    But the Universe does not judge. Its all simply what it is...and in the middle of it all, younger sister and I flew to England to be with elder sister and created beautiful, wonderful moments and memories. And we stood tall and proud as the bagpiper piped Mum across the void. And we held our brother and each other tenderly as beautiful boy's ashes were spread into the air from a small plane.
    Life isn't fair. Life is beautiful.
    and the beauty of sharing the story of this Extraordinary Woman, is that now we will carry her in our hearts, and we will pray for her...and the Universe will listen.

  8. Tania, apologies if you get this post twice, I hoped I'd commented then it was lost in the ether...

    I just wanted to echo Cassie's comment, that when the big things are too big, then one must turn to the tiny things, for strength. The tulips or your soups, for instance. I don't know you and you don't know me, but your green soup is consoling a heartbroken dear friend (the Eminent Physicist - you'd like her very much).

    The little things really do make a difference. But the reason I wanted to comment was also to tell you that I have another dear friend in New York who has another dear friend (who I do not know) in Hertfordshire who also writes beautifully - a blog called The Evil Crab, about her battle with breast cancer. I'm sure your Extraordinary Woman would find it very easy to google the words of another Extraordinary Woman. I don't know if it will help, but she writes with grace and humour and I can tell you that her latest post tells us that she has just got the all clear. So the last little thing, is hope. One little word, via dear friends of dear friends. I send much hope and love,


  9. I can't claim it happened fast on the heels of a deeply significant bereavement, but I have had breast cancer treatment and the five years since it all happened are just up. My tumour was Grade 1 Stage 1, and was removed cleanly by a lumpectomy. Afterwards I had some radiotherapy as a discouragement to other breast cells from getting any silly ideas.

    The care and attention I got from the NHS was wonderful, the surgery was easily bearable, the radio was fine, and to be honest the sweats and flushes of the five years of hormone therapy has been the most trying aspect of the whole thing.

    I was 49 and only three years into my second marriage, a happy marriage for me for the first time, when I was diagnosed. I can honestly say that watching my darling, still rather new lovely husband trying to cope and sometimes not coping was the hardest part of it. I thought it was so unfair on HIM, to have to worry about maybe losing me sooner rather than later. This was whilst were were waiting for the details of the diagnosis, by far the toughest time. Once the treatment was scheduled I was very much up-and-at-em, couldn't wait to get on with it.

    I think your friend's children will be very scared. You don't mention their ages. They need to be told everything in the clearest and least worrying way possible, no hushed secrets or confusing whispers. They need a dedicated adult other than their mother they can ring, text or e-mail whenever they want to talk about their mother and what's running through their minds. If they are too young for that they need regular play dates or activities where they know it's all right to have a little cry or a chat with someone your friend has asked to be in loco parentis.

    One final practicality - ask her to think carefully who she would want to ask to be their guardian, and make some arrangements. Her Will needs updating to include this, and for the setting up of Trusts, etc. Better to arrange all this and not need it than try to manage it if she got really poorly.

    I also suggest you visit her and make batches amd batches of your soup for the freezer for her to use when she comes out of hospital, and then again if she has to have chemo.

    Sorry if this rather unsentimental comment doesn't hit exactly the right note, but you asked for advice, not sympathy. You have the latter too (my friends were stricken when they found out and our house looked like a florists for weeks...I had to promise an old uni friend faithfully that I wouldn't die on her!) but I'd rather be of use if I can be, at all, than just murmur oh, how sad.

  10. Sorry to hear such dreadful news.

    I read a blog called My Pear Tree House. About a year ago Jane the blogger was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 40s.

    She recently wrote a segment called FAQs about cancer which is shown as a side bar on her blog.
    It is calm, practical and wide ranging information/advice presented in a most accessible way. (She touches on some of the points made by goldenoldenlady in the comments here.) I hope your friend might find some help there.

    Warmest good wishes to you

  11. Such wonderful comments; as always, the Dear Readers rise magnificently to the occasion. Thank you so much, and I shall particularly pass on the excellent practical advice. And get my soup-making hat on.

  12. My whole heart goes out to the Extraordinary Woman and her family. Dearest EW: You WILL beat this... Sending you love, light and healing.

    Our story: We're going through it now. My Dad died of an aneurysm while on a business trip 11 years ago. My beautiful mom ran his company for 4+ years before selling our multi-generation family business. We put the pieces of our lives tougher and we became the 3 musketeers. We worked together, played together, grieved together, honored my father's life by living fully. Then 10 years to the day of my father's death, my younger brother died of an aneurysm driving home from work. Mom again was the executor of the estate. Amazing brother founded a software company, in the US, UK, India & Japan. Our hearts broken, we again grieved and lived and tried to find our way. We were doing it day by day, and 2 months away from closing his estate, beautiful mom was diagnosed with lymphoma. Just devastated. I don't have words. From CEO w/busy life to oncologist appts and trying to live life while going through chemo. We are hopeful. She is finished with 4 of 6. chemo treatments. We are fighting together. We are mother-daughter, and Best friends. We will make it and we will live. But we are forever changed by — This.

    I am the end of the family. On my dark days I ponder what it is like to be the end of a family... Who are you? Who shares your memories? Who knows you? Who will I talk to? I'm terrified of it. I am and was so blessed to have such an amazingly close, wonderful family...but I don't want to be the last one. Every simple pleasure is treasured. Every moment we cherish and we expect to have many more years together. We are healing... faith, hope, prayer, love, positive energy. We count our many blessings every single day. It sounds strange, but we do have so much to be thankful for.
    Did grief/sorrow cause this? I don't know... maybe. It certianly took its toll and changed us in profound ways. But my Dad and Brother would be devastated if their death(s) caused my Beautiful Mom's lymphoma. I can't think this way.

    Tania, this blog is a "real" refuge. We love your writing, photos, the beauty. You have truly touched us. Thank you.

  13. Tania...I thought about this overnight - as I wanted to comment if, for no other reason, than to show empathy for your Extraordinary Woman. You see, being the pessimist that I am, I expect bad things and treat good things with scepticism sometimes.

    Of course when bad things happen to the multitude of what you describe, even my pessimism knows bounds. Surely this is just too much for one person? I can't offer much; empathy and the news that I know of friends who have also had that most frightening diagnosis and who have gone through a year of s**t and come out the other side intact and stronger. Most importantly these women are vital and vibrant and the bad thing is now behind them.

    The spectre of 'badness' or misfortune is around all of us and does pounce; we must be strong and look it in the eye, I guess. I did also read a very good summary of living with breast cancer on the blog 'My Pear Tree House' where a very lovely lady called Jane talks candidly and I always thought when I read it: if I could recommend this to someone I would. So there you go.
    Lou x

  14. Tania,
    About two years ago my mother was diagnosed with a fast-growing breast cancer. She had surgery and chemo. The doctor said that if they had found it even a month or so later, it would have been different. But she went through the whole thing, even commuting for her chemo treatments (long story). Then, my aunt went in for a checkup and she found she had breast cancer, got treated, and is ok now.
    They have some really really great treatments for cancer these days. The one thing I'd suggest is to have someone staying with her for the first few days after chemo (it gets worse successively). One of the best things my mother did for herself was hire a personal chef who came in twice a week, and cooked really healthy things....

  15. Unlike some of the stories, my one does
    not have a happy ending, but your friend did want
    to know if there were other people out there who had
    had similar experiences. There are. I could hardly believe it
    as I read your blog this morning. I had a friend whose husband
    died of a heart attack, at home, when he was 39 years old.
    She was left with two children, both under ten. Like you,
    Tania, I took her soup; it was about all she could eat at
    the time. A few short years later, she was diagnosed with
    breast cancer. She battled it for many years. A group of
    six of us, who met at mother and toddler group, started to meet nearly every
    month for a meal, chat, laughter and updates on our offspring.
    Sometimes our friend had hair, sometimes not. Sadly, the cancer
    spread and she lost her long battle just two years ago. The sight
    of her two late-teen children standing at her graveside is one I will
    never forget.

    I am sorry that this story does not have a happy ending, for many
    reasons. I don't honestly know at what stage my friend's breast cancer
    was diagnosed; it may well have been at a fairly late stage when it
    was first discovered. I do also have friends who have had breast cancer
    and are now completely well.

    Wishing you and your friend good things in the times to come, including
    delicious, comforting soup.

  16. I found out about my husband's affair of over a year, and within a very few months of that, got a diagnosis of (thankfully) very early-stage breast cancer. So I had to go through cancer treatment with him sort-of there, not wanting to be there, knowing he was in love with someone else and wanted to be with her. My entire world and all my future plans were upended. I only had to have a lumpectomy and radiation, but it was still horrific. It is still horrific.

    I dealt with it by reading, and actually have a blog about it: I don't know if that will be of any help to your friend. My heart goes out to her.

  17. Tania,
    I read this late last night and went to bed thinking of your friend.
    When I woke I realised that I do know someone who went through similar. Her husband died of a heart attack at 43 and about a year later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don't know her well, but I do know she made it through, has two daughters, a close sister and has regained her career. Goodness knows if that helps in any way, but wanted to mention.
    Everyone has been so eloquent in their comments and I hope your friend feels, from seeing all the support and excellent suggestions and thoughts, that she did the right thing to put it out there via your beautiful words.
    Wishing her and you well.
    And to the anonymous commenter, I have recently become the end of my family and can't deny it is very hard. Much more so than I could have imagined. Trying to figure it out and find a new way of living. A work in progress.
    Re: Pigeon, I am not sure I could leave that face either, and am not even on dog island (tho suspect a matter of time). There will be a glorious welcome on your return.


  18. No advice, just hugs. To all concerned - you, The E.W., all who posted here, and all who read but did not comment.

  19. I have no advice either. Just my very heartfelt best wishes for your friend and her family. Sometimes all we can do is keep on going on, day after day, as best we can. Some days will be ghastly, other days will be better. I think the thing is to just get through them.

  20. I wanted to write and send love and good wishes to your friend the Extraordinary Woman.

    I haven't been in her particular situation myself, but 2011 has been a bit of a battering year. My grandfather died just after Christmas, my beloved great-uncle finally lost his battle with breast cancer in January, then we spent the following months attempting to help nurse my aunt on one side of the family, and my uncle on the other side, both of whom were diagnosed with cancer.

    They both passed away in the autumn, and the grief upon grief upon grief was exhausting, and frustrating. One of the hardest things was having the kindest of friends and colleagues asking solicitously "How ARE you?" In a very English way, I could keep going, as long as I wasn't asked to talk about things.

    I think as a family, the repeated shocks have cracked us open, the kind of cracks that the light gets in. We have changed. We all cry so much more readily, in front of each other, and have suddenly become a Family That Hugs - and receives hugs. I think we're all more emotionally open.

    On a bleakly practical note, we've also all made a start on putting our houses in order, after having to clear too much Stuff. And we are now assertive about funeral planning to make the experience as personal and honest as it can be.

    Occasionally though there are days when I just feel angry and hurt about what people have missed out on - even though I'm grateful they're no longer in pain. I don't know if I can offer any advice, beyond to say that far more people than you'll ever know have some sort of personal family pain - we just don't tend to talk about it.

    The one piece of advice I might offer is that you set boundaries on your time and energy to protect yourself. Perhaps ask friends and loved ones to come and visit you, if you don't feel up to journeying to see them.

    Maybe make a list of things that you would like to happen - dog walking, garden work, soup-making, a manageable time like 20 minutes of cheerful conversation, so that when people say unhelpful things like "If there's anything I can do, you must let me know" you can respond with "Yes! You can return my library books!"

    Get a Continuing Care Assessment as soon as you can. The Marsden is amazing, as are Macmillan nurses. Try asking for as much support as you can. (This was particularly difficult for us, as a family of mustn't-grumblers.)

    I wish there were more useful things I could say, but I want you to know you're in my thoughts. With love and best wishes to you, your friends and family at this difficult time.


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