A Long Game

Since October last year, when I was declared five years cancer free with nil evidence of disease and discharged by my oncologist, things have been going along swimmingly. There’s been no literal swimming, as that would first require a bodily deforestation akin to the complete obliteration of the Amazonian rain forest, but there’s been lots of gently breast-stroking (singular) through life’s currently churn-free waters. My new job is proving equal parts challenging and rewarding, Dave is one week away from heading to Nepal to climb to Everest Base Camp, and Hugh is busy being almost 10 years old, loving computer games, playing piano like Liberace on crack, and teaching himself to draw cartoons.

My new office with the Charles Blackman on the wall feels a bit more lived in now I’ve been in it for a few weeks. Most days I go home with a brain that’s either fried from dealing with multiple competing priorities, or buzzing with possibilities for new projects and concepts. I’ve had some wins and made some mistakes, but given that nobody dies if I bugger something up, it’s all chalked up to experience. Given I didn’t work a single day for eight months through multiple surgeries, chemo and radiation, and then worked part-time for almost a year, I feel incredibly fortunate – and also very proud – to be sitting where I am, doing what I do.

The Everest Base Camp trek has been planned since Dave turned 50 last year – in fact it was my birthday present to him. He is going with a mate, and has steadily worked on his fitness over the past 9 months, to the point where he is trim, fit and ready to go. It is a massive physical and mental challenge, but knowing Dave as I do, I have no concerns about his ability to complete the trek. Of course altitude sickness is the big unknown that can bring Everest trekkers unstuck, and I will no doubt worry incessantly for the 16 days he is away, but I am so incredibly proud that he is going to give this his best shot.

Hugh is in year 5 and is still, for the most part, an utter joy. Most people comment on his smarts, politeness and his easy-going nature, whilst other people (specifically his mother) comment on his disorganisation, eye-rolling and distaste for vegetables. But he is a good kid with a cracking sense of humour, who is growing into the sort of person you’d genuinely like to hang out with, and that makes me incredibly happy.

He was four when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and will soon turn 10. He doesn’t talk about my illness, and to the naked eye would appear to be completely unscathed by it. Then, yesterday, his teacher sends home his English assessment – the first chapter of a fantasy novel. It’s really good – interesting, well-written and punctuated within an inch of its life (apple meet tree). I start reading it and my heart starts filling up, for I do love words and images and the power of story-telling. And then, bang, I’m hit and can’t catch my breath and suddenly need to lean against the kitchen bench as my eyes trace over and over these words:

Hugh story

Cancer is a bastard. It is insidious, inveigling, and continues to whisper its own name, over and over, into the ears of people with whom it has no business. I had forgotten that for a while, but have been roundly and soundly reminded.

It’s a long game.

A very fucking long game.

My Word

The written word provides me with many things. Sustenance, knowledge, comradeship, heartbreak, solace, agony, ecstasy, joy and escape. I devour, with a fervent hunger, books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, Facebook posts, everything. The only exception to this has been when I was going through chemo. I only read two things through the entire eight month treatment process. The first thing was a text-book on breast cancer which my surgeon gave me after I asked him one too many tricky questions. I read that book cover to cover, sinking deeper into the mire of my disease with every word, which seemingly rendered me completely incapable of setting my mind to reading anything else. That text-book, like the cancer itself, took me over.

The second thing I read whilst I was in the depths of the disease was a children’s book, called Mr Chicken Goes to Paris. Hugh was 4 at the time, and quite obsessed with this book, which tells the story of a giant, top-hat wearing chicken who takes up his friend Yvette’s invitation to visit Paris. Every night I’d read the story to him, and he would try out his French accent repeating words like ‘bonjour’ and ‘magnifique’, and then ask me, every single night, if we could go to Paris. I would always say yes, of course we can, and then once he was asleep, get into the shower and cry until the water ran cold because how could I go to Paris with my boy if I was dying?

Then slowly, gradually, I started taking my life back from the claws of cancer, and with it came my love of words, and of reading. Rediscovering my love of words lead me to rekindle my love of creative writing, right here on this blog. I always wrote stories as a child, I wrote poetry as a teenager (and had some of my work published in an actual book), and then did two degrees in English Literature. But then, unleashed into the real world, I had to turn my love of words into earning money, which involved learning to write in very technical ways. My first ever ‘proper’ job was working in a publishing house (where one of my tasks included walking the managing editor’s dog), and all of the things I’ve been employed to do over the past twenty-something years have involved writing, but not the sort of creative writing that makes me feel vital and excited and free.

At the same time that this blog has re-opened my own mind’s eye to focus on writing, my now seven-year old boy has also started to bloom as a reader and a writer. Under the gentle guidance of his wonderful teacher Mrs Mackenzie, along with constant encouragement from Dave and I, Hugh has developed a love of reading which sees him having three novels on the go at the same time. He has favourite authors (and authors whose work he doesn’t like), makes up alternate endings to books once he’s finished reading them, and talks about what book characters would do in real life contexts. All this fills my heart to bursting, and I am keenly aware of our shared genetics. Then he tells me that he loves reading more than ice-cream, and I realise that as similar as we are, we are also very different. I’m still proud of him though – enormously so.

This week he brought home a book review he did for assessment. I’ve included picture of it below, but as seven-year old boy handwriting can be hard to read, I’ve transcribed it here. Word for word, no editing, no embellishment, no fixing.

Banging! Pursuing! Tricking! Elizabeth is the main character from ‘The Paper Bag Princess’ by Robert Munsch.

Elizabeth is all dishevelled and has tangled hair. She wears a dirty, old, paper bag and a bent crown perched on her head like a bird’s nest.

She wears a dirty old paper bag too, because the Dragon burnt all the sterotypical princess clothes.

Elizabeth thinks things and she does them correctly. She is very ingenious, so she can find the dragon and outsmart the dragon. I think Elizabeth should get a thank you or a well done from pitiless, vain Prince Ronald. Elizabeth made the right choise by not marrying Prince Ronald and did not accept Ronald’s poor behaviour so she could be joyful and free. Elizabeth is a character that stands up for herself.

story 1 story 2

My boy, the child of my heart. My word, oh, my word.