Month: June 2016

Paying Forward, Paying Back

Being diagnosed with cancer sorts the wheat from the chaff, in terms of people in your life. Some people you thought you’d be able to rely on disappear into the ether so fast they leave a fine coating of dust on your newly-bald head, whilst others who might have only been on the periphery of your life come to the fore in unexpected but incredibly important ways. Others still stay the same – those constant, firm, stable friends who knew you then, know you now, will always know you.

Fortunately for me, the grieving I did over those who disappeared was brief and exact, because I thought I was dying, and there is no clarity like that provided by the bright, white light of your impending doom. And once that grieving was done, the bright light of doom shone on all the people who had stepped forward, and all those who  would always be in the front row. Doom actually started to feel ok, because I was so loved, so supported, so fucking lucky.

One of the people who showed herself to be wheat of the finest grade during my illness was my hairdresser Tracy. We became friends as she gradually chopped my hair shorter and shorter in anticipation of it falling off, and she proved to be such a staunch supporter when times were truly tough, taking me out for lunch, calling, texting, checking in. We realised that her boy and mine liked all the same things, so they too became friends, bonding over Minecraft and Lego. When my hair grew back she guided me through the shock of having curly hair for the first time, having grey hair when I’d always dyed it, and having short hair when for so many years I’d hidden behind its length. She told me I looked chic, and I believed her, because if anyone knows chic it’s my beautiful, stylish friend Tracy.

And now, almost four years on, it’s time to pay forward and pay back. Tracy got the call too, the dreaded, awful, paralysing call to tell her she had breast cancer. She had her right breast (same as me) removed on a Thursday (same as me) a couple of weeks ago, and is about to head into chemo (different from me). We have talked and talked, and last night compared scars while our boys played in another room. Her daughter, young but not young enough not to know, was hesitant to ask me questions, but once she started it all came out and with age-appropriate honesty I showed her that cancer was treatable, beatable, doable. I told her it would be hard, and that it wasn’t fair, but look at me now, four years later. She did look at me, really look at me whilst my shirt was pulled up around my neck, and then said ‘You’re normal!’. As compliments go, it was en pointe – pleasing to hear but distinctly embellished – everything a compliment should be. But more importantly, the moment had shown that gorgeous girl that amongst all the fear and flux going on in her life, there was a chance – a really decent chance – that life would at some point not too far away, go on. No doubting she will be forever changed by this experience, but knowing my boy and his resilience and empathy, that change will likely not detract from who she becomes, but rather make her a more human, human being.

For her mum, there is so much in front of her that will appear insurmountable, but that can, with the right combination of medical science and good fortune, be climbed.  And thanks to medical science and good fortune, I will be there, paying it forward and paying it back.

There is a Light

I wrote this poem almost exactly a year ago for my friend Antoinette, who I met because we both had cancer. Her cancer was terminal at diagnosis, but she was full of life, and love and grace, and lived each day intent on making the most of every moment. I was nervous about showing Annie the poem, because she was the sort of friend who wouldn’t bullshit you, but she loved it, she said it made her laugh and cry and feel all the things in between.

From the day we met we had many conversations about many things, from the mundane to the most exquisitely painful. We talked about her children’s life without her, which always brought her to her knees, but despite her grief she made many, many plans to help ease their way through the world once she was gone. She never took herself too seriously, no matter the gravity of the situation, and I laughed so hard when she told me that she had met with the funeral director, and that he was a nice bloke but she felt a bit awkward knowing that one day he would see her naked.

Annie died yesterday. When I found out I came to  the blog to find the post with the poem, because it gave me a sense of connection to her, but it was gone. I never delete posts, but somehow that particularly precious one got lost in the black hole of cyberspace, and I was devastated. I tried many times during the day to find it, searching WordPress and the Internet and email send items and eventually my entire computer, all to no avail. My inability to find the post fuelled my anger and grief about her loss, but late last night, at the end of a very long day, through Facebook Messenger comes a copy of my post! Our mutual friend Jo, quite possibly the most fucking determined individual I have ever met, did some magic Internet jiggery-pokery and got me a copy of the post, which means I can republish the poem today.

There is a Light

We met in an airport, not like the plot of a romantic movie kind of way, because in movies people with cancer don’t meet in airports,
they lie in tragic beds looking tragic.
Tragedy, it’s hard to bear.
Like a Bee Gees song.

We shared a twin room, my breathing reminded you of one of your kids.
What about my farting? No mention of that …
The courage in you, steely, outrageously so, but then
the vulnerability. Oh that beautiful girl.

There is a light –
I’ll always see it, because it was so glaringly bright.
I didn’t need to look for long.
Now I can see it even when my eyes are closed,
And I’m in another city, hours away,
Months later.

I’ll carry a little bit of you, a tiny bit.
In my eyes.
I’ll look at things, maybe something funny or a news story
about a stick-up, and my eyes will see it with that little bit of your light
glinting in the corner.

I have no idea why things happen as they do, I think
maybe one day, on the flip side, you will know and I can only
hope that it’s a really fucking good reason.
Because right now, nothing springs to mind.


Antoinette was an incredibly private person, who made the difficult choice of publicising her story so that others might not suffer the same fate as her. Please read her story here, and share it widely with your friends and family.

Annie, it was an honour and a privilege.

julie and antoinette

Fete with an E

What happened to the fired-up, earnest blogger writing posts about feelings, and cancer, and racism and cancer, and pets, and chiko rolls and miscarriage and let’s not forget, equality? Writing regularly, nearly always doing a post every weekend and publishing it on a Monday – the blogger loving interacting with her readers and feeling so bloody high on the feeling of having her words out there, floating free?

Well, she’s been touched by the hand of fete. Fete, with an e. For better or worse, I put my hand up to be the convenor of my boy’s school fete, and for the next couple of months until Saturday, August 20 rolls around, pretty much every spare moment of my day is given over to thinking, talking and doing about the fete.

Dave and I are pretty staunch supporters of public education. We are both products of the public system, and both now work in the system in different ways – Dave as a teacher in a state school, and me in a government-funded university. Our ideological principles mean that we chose for our son to attend the local public primary school, where he has been happily flourishing both academically and socially for the past few years. Hugh has had such positive experiences in our state school, thanks to wonderful, engaged and engaging teachers, committed support and specialist staff and forward-thinking school management.

The fact is, though, that public schools across Australia are underfunded. There are not always enough support or specialist staff, the facilities are often raggedy and old, and things that fall into the ‘would like to have’ basket stay there because there is only enough money to fund the stuff in the ‘must have’ basket. I find it irksome – in the extreme, actually – that private schools are funded from the public purse – that essentially our ‘would like to have’ basket remains full to overflowing with no hope of being emptied because government funding is paying for private school kids to get lots of ‘would like to have’ type stuff. I would have much less issue with public funding of private schools if public schools had all the resources that they need and want, but they do not, so I remain irked.

It’s all well and good to be irked, but it doesn’t actually lead to anything changing. So apart from supporting the public school system by working in it, using it, and voting for those who support it, there is one other thing I am doing to support free, quality education in Australia. Last year, I joined the P&C Association at my son’s school, and was immediately elected Vice-President, not just because of my impressive resume in people and resource management and my can-do attitude, but also because I was the only one who nominated. Our school is blessed to have a small group of highly motivated parents forming the P&C, and we decided late last year that we needed to undertake a single, large fundraiser to fill our coffers, which were (happily) depleted by assisting the school to put in two new multipurpose courts for the kids to play tennis, basketball, netball and volleyball.

As soon as the words ‘large fundraiser’ were uttered, I knew there had to be a fete, and as soon as I uttered the words ‘there has to be a fete’ I knew that I was going to be running it. Because the first rule of P&C:P&C meme

So, instead of spending my lunch breaks and evenings and weekends contemplating my navel and crafting blog posts about how hard my navel was to find or how much my navel has changed since cancer or how neither chiko rolls nor dogs have navels, I am organising the school fete. My head is full of fun ideas like rides and cake stalls and dunk the teacher, and the not so fun stuff like asking for sponsors and learning about event insurance.

It has been a learning curve for me, finding out about how much hard work volunteering can be, but also how rewarding. People in our community are being very generous in their support of our school, but there is no doubt that fundraising for the type of money needed to make a significant difference in a large school is complex and challenging. But I’m determined, as are the other parents working on this Fete, that our kids will get some big-ticket ‘like to have’ things at their school to help them explore their interest in computer programming, or their love playing the double-bass or their aptitude for tennis. And to that end, we’ll continue to work our butts off in every spare moment to make this fete a rip-roaring success.

So, to those of you who had gotten used to at least semi-regular posting, apologies for what is likely to be intermittent action over the coming months. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one-boobed woman madly cross-checking a bunch of spreadsheets, door-knocking businesses and bossing about other unsuspecting other parents.  In the meantime, if you’re an old hand at this fete gig, please, leave me a comment or send me a message with your tips and tricks. Oh, and if you happen to have a business local to Toowoomba and want a sweet deal on the sponsorship of a wonderful community event, step right this way …