Monday, 23 May 2016

Horses and Wolves

We all experience setbacks and challenges. These are invariably painful. The most encouraging response is to surmount your fear and try again: as the saying goes ‘when you fall off a horse, you have to get back on’.

I’ve actually fallen off a horse only once. I was ten and I vividly recall lying dazed and winded at the edge of the lane as the fat pony I had been trying to ride trotted off home for its tea. The pony was owned by a lad in the village and I had been pestering him for months for a ride. It took me a good while before I got the courage to try horse riding again. On our recent trip to Cork and Waterford I had to get back on a (metaphorical) horse after twice falling. 

In April 2011 I was admitted as an emergency patient to the City Hospital and then told that I had a large tumour which would require very major surgery. I lay in my hospital bed, dazed and in fear, and was given a series of procedures and invasive tests in preparation for the ‘big op’. I had to cancel everything I had planned for the months ahead. One of these was a reading tour of Ireland and Britain I had arranged to promote my first book of poetry, launched just four months earlier.

My recovery from the ‘big op’ was prolonged and challenging, and intensified by my then partner leaving me after three months. One of my coping strategies was to try and restore some of what I had been forced to cancel. I managed to rearrange only a couple of my poetry readings, the first of which was at O Bheal in Cork in April 2012. Unfortunately I wasn’t in good form, I was still taking daily painkillers, and the reading didn’t go too well. Afterwards I tried a farmhouse B & B in West Waterford, but despite the good hospitality at Kilcannon House I spent an unhappy and sleepless night there.

In November 2015 I was diagnosed with a recurrence of the same cancer which would require further surgery at the City Hospital. I had to again cancel everything I had planned for the months ahead. But the big difference in my recovery this time was that I now had a deeply supportive partner who helped me every step of the way. Thank you so much dearest T, I don’t know how I would have coped without you.   

Our recent trip South was first for a poetry reading at O Bheal and second for a short break at Kilcannon House: encountering the two horses that had dislodged me previously. At O Bheal this time I felt good and read a series of new poems, which seemed to be received very well. At Kilcannon House we were given the same marvellous hospitality and slept in the same room as I had done before. This time the stay was lovely. After an extremely tasty five course breakfast, I hired a bike and went cycling through country lanes between Dungarvan and the River Blackwater. T had an extended cookery lesson with Gertie our hostess, she was trained as a chef by Jane Grigson and used to run a local restaurant. That evening’s three course meal was prepared entirely by Gertie and T, it was delicious.

On the way back, at our host’s recommendation, we stopped at Curraghmore House near Waterford. This huge estate with beautiful gardens and woodlands has some of the grandest trees in Ireland. In the gardens were four impressive and dramatic sculptures by Pierre Rouillard, who was celebrated for his animal pieces in 19th Century France. A snarling wolf was paired with an angry hound, at either side of a leafy avenue. We strolled, picnicked beside the lake and then drove home. All in all it was a fine trip, with T’s support I had overcome my fears and got back on the horse – twice.

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Bonfire

It’s been a busy week, a transitional week and the first week of Summer. The festival of Beltane was a week ago (on 5 May), the halfway point between the Spring and Summer Equinoxes that marks the beginning of Summer. On this day I saw my first swallow of the year, soaring and diving for insects after its 6000 mile return flight from Africa. And on this day the warm weather arrived, building in heat day upon day to reach the dizzy heights of 25 degrees Celsius (according to the thermometer in the shade in my porch on Monday).

Sustaining us through the bleak, damp and relatively colourless Winter is the promise of return. That warmth will return, that migratory birds will return, that deciduous trees will again come into leaf, that blossom will again flourish and bumblebees will pollinate it to bring forth fruit.  These natural cycles persist despite how we feel. We may be fearful and down but the blackthorn will still be the first tree hereabouts to spring into delicate white blossom. And fear and depression are in themselves phases that also pass, despite how pervasive and unchanging they seem when in their midst.

After making the bee garden I embarked on a sustained bout of catch-up gardening. Since last Summer there had been plenty of work not done due to the return of my cancer. First I pruned the natural hedge at the side of the house and stripped out all the briars that were choking its growth. Then I cut the back hedge, a row of Castlewellan Gold’s that have grown together and need to be pruned regularly to keep them to a manageable height: they are about six feet high and almost as wide as they are tall. After all this the lawn became piled with cuttings and briars.

T and I dragged the piles to the back of the garden shed, but found the dump there already full with branches and sticks collected from the lawn after a succession of storms and two seasons of prunings from my apple tree. We needed to have a bonfire. We then hauled all the debris across the stile into the corner of the next field. A couple of scrunched up newspapers, some dry sticks and the bonfire was soon alight. T was delighted to be in charge of feeding the flames. I had to withdraw due to my asthma which is irritated by smoke. From the safety of the lawn I watched the flames and smoke rise into the bright sky. In a couple of hours we had burnt all the debris accumulated from the garden over the past year or so.

Beltane is traditionally celebrated by a bonfire. The flames, smoke and ashes were thought to have protective powers. People and their animals would circle the fire or jump over it. All the fires in the house would be doused and then relit from the Beltane fire. Although a few days late, we circled the bonfire and made wishes. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Bee Garden

I’ve planted wildflower seeds in a corner of the garden near the pond. First I strimmed and raked the rough ground. Then I laid a layer of topsoil: four barrowfuls dug out, ferried down and shovelled across the ground, strenuous work. After that I sowed the seeds and laid another layer of topsoil. Finally I watered the new garden with the hose. As I admired my handiwork, I imagined the many flowers that would be out in two months time and the bumblebees that would be buzzing between them. Then a thought floored me, would I still be here to see it next year?

Living under the ongoing threat of cancer is not easy. You try your best to live a normal life, but being in this situation is far from normal. I try to cope by staying in the here and now. Yet, living day by day is not at all normal. It’s normal to make plans for the weeks and months ahead. It’s normal to respond to invitations to join others in their plans. That is everyday social life. It’s all about participating in and making plans. Living in the here and now is somewhat oppressive and disabling. It sets you apart from most others.

Although I have been told that I am at high risk of recurrence, as far as I know I am currently free of cancer. Whilst difficult, that is a good category to be in. I have a scan in about a month, at which time two other categories become open: the cancer has returned and is treatable or it has returned and it is untreatable. Both of these are obviously bad places to be. And it is important not to waste the time you have now imagining that you are already in either of them. I know of someone who is in my situation who has not been able to cope with the constant threat. She has become convinced that the cancer has returned when the scans tell otherwise and is under the care of the mental health team.

I have begun to go and see a counsellor who works for Cancer Focus. She is very helpful. Indeed, she was the first person I spoke to about my problem when I got cancer the first time round. At our first session this week I told her about my medical situation and how difficult I was finding it to live with this threat. I also told her about the bee garden. After that we spoke about the challenges of living in the here and now. A recurrent theme was that many things in my present life were maybes. This was a very helpful insight.

I began to see that this provisionality was true for almost everything I was able to know at present. The experts couldn’t tell me whether the cancer would come back in months or in years. They were confident that it would come back but they couldn’t be sure. This helped to open the space for other maybes. Maybe I would be here to see the bee garden next year. Maybe, like my father, I would live for twenty five years after my cancer treatment. Maybe, maybe...