Epiphany; A moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.
A friend asked me recently why I sometimes recalled the journey of my cancer and especially the year of my Interferon treatment. Surely, she said, it just brought back all the fear and sickness and would I not be better putting it behind me and getting on with my life.
But for me the year I was diagnosed was the turning point of my life.
It was my Epiphany.
And like a revelation I can only be happy it happened.
In recalling and reading back over my diaries of this time, I stop myself falling back into old negative and destructive ways and remember the promise I made; To live in the present and relish the day that’s in it, for there is no certainty beyond the ‘now’
Last night I had a thought!
Maybe the miracle of turning water into wine was a metaphor.
Maybe it meant taking something we take for granted and turning it into something exceptional.
From the moment we are born we are heading towards our death.
What is in between can be good, bad, lovely, sad, happy, disappointing, boring, challenging, wonderful, exciting, even frightening.
Naturally we don’t spend much of that in ‘between time’ thinking of death though unbeknownst to us we spend a lot of our living dodging it.
Some of us get hit by it unexpectedly without any time to think, others (like myself) get a warning, which gives us a chance to ask the famous question! (What is life all about?)
Others again live to a ripe old age but even then are not prepared or interested in dying.
I remember getting off the table following my first ultrasound and crying to the radiologist ‘I just want to live. I’m too young to die’! He laughed in a kindly manner and replied ‘I’ve had 95 year olds say those exact same words to me’
We cling to life long after we have reproduced our genes.
We cling to what we know.
The familiar is our certainty
But is it?
On the 21 april 2009 I wrote in my diary
My worst fears confirmed!
Two uncertainties beneath the blue april sky;
How far has the cancer spread and how long now my life?
The only certainty is that I am sitting here,
Watching the dolphins swim and circle in dublin bay
The first swallow has appeared.
I decided at that moment, uncertainty was not good.
I had been spoilt by certainty!
I was used to my car starting.
Used to my paycheck coming in.
Water coming through the tap
Food in the shop shelves
I was certain of light at the click of a switch.
I took for granted that I would wake up each morning breathing. That my legs would work and get me out of bed. That I would see my way to the kitchen, say good morning to whoever was there before me and hear the reply.
For the first time it struck me how lucky I had been up till this.
In one day everything was on hold and all had changed.
Now I felt I was just existing.
Waiting to know whether I would live for another few years or only another few months or even just weeks.
Sitting on a rock that day in April, looking out to sea watching the dolphins circle and leap, I lay back on it’s smoothness and turned my attention to the sky and admiring the first swallow, I decided I wanted to lie here forever. I didn’t want this sadness. This unfairness.
I started to cry, grieving for the certainty I thought I always had.
But after a while the rock began to feel hard, and something sharp was jabbing my back. I was starting to feel cold and I realized that for now my body was going to continue to live whether I liked it or not.
And as I sat up it occurred to me that actually uncertainty is always there and essentially nothing had changed except my realization of that fact.
I had also missed an important point!
I could go on living whilst I was waiting. After All I had’nt lost the use of my legs or I wasn’t in heart failure.
In fact I felt extremely healthy.
(I will tell you now, there is nothing worse than been told, when you are feeling well ‘actually you may be dying’. This maybe one of the reasons why patients diagnosed with some cancers shout ‘NO’ the loudest when hearing their diagnosis. They always continue by exclaiming in a puzzled manner ‘It can’t be so. I feel so well’)
I had also forgotten about something else.
When you Face your worst fear you realise you have two choices.
You can lie down and die or take it on the chin.
On that day in april I sat up, stuck out my chin and hoped for the best.
How wonderful nature is.
It has it all worked out for us.
Grieving is a well thought out process.
I recognised its stages as they occurred
Denial : ‘No’ I shouted putting my head in my hands when my surgeon uttered the words for the first time and afterwards, surrounded by friends, I kept thinking ‘this can’t be true this has to be a dream, any second i will wake up and go on living in my old nonchalant way’ But those days of denial were working, buffering the shock, giving me time to let the knowledge sink in.
Anger : I thought I didn’t go through this but I recognise now that I did to a small extent. I remember seeing a girl walking on the street laughing and thinking angrily ‘I hope she is not laughing lightly’!! Later laughing at something my daughter said, I remembered that girl and thought, maybe she too was in the process of dealing with illness or loss. How was I to know what anyone else had to come to terms with in life.
Bargaining: God take this away from me and I’ll do this this and this. I returned to spiritualism. I lit candles in every church I passed.
Monkstown became my favorite.
I decided there was no harm in praying to some saints.
My Mother advised me that Saint Anthony was my best bet.
After searching a while I found a statue of him just inside the door hidden behind a pillar. He was holding a child and a lily.
I described the statue to my mom.
She groaned throwing her eyes up to heaven.
‘For God’s Sake Stephanie ! THATS not Saint Anthony! YOU PRAYED TO THE WRONG SAINT’.
And I, Forgetting the irony of it, lept onto the yellow bicycle and cycled like mad back to the church to check, nearly getting killed in the process.
Ha! I was right! It was Saint Anthony! At least it said so on the plaque at his feet.(Unless the cleaning lady had mixed up the name plaques whilst dusting! If she had she would she have a lot to answer for.)
It seemed I wasnt the only one bargaining.
As I became more familiar with the church, I noticed a small alter over to the left on which was placed a framed picture of Padre pio, a book and a pen tied by a piece of string to a small railing (yes theft can happen in a holy place even if only a pen)
Curiosity overcame me and I opened the book!
In contained hundreds of handwritten requests for help.
Sitting there in that quiet church reading, I lost track of time and as I turned the pages I forgot about my own grief.
A grandmother praying for a kidney for her grandson in renal failure.
A mother praying for her daughter who had leukaemia.
On and on they wrote.
Some so sad and helpless, mine became insignificant, and I cried for those with such burdens.
There were simpler requests too (I am sure padre pio sighed with relief as some of the pages lightened his load)
A wife praying that her husband would give up drinking.
A teenager praying she was not pregnant.
A woman praying that she was pregnant.
A school boy praying he would pass his leaving cert even though he admitted to having a great social life and had not done a bit of study.
A man praying he would get a job;
A girl praying that a boy would text her.
A missing cat.
A barking dog
Dear Padre pio. my parents say if my dog doesn’t stop barking at night they will give him away which would break my heart. he’s my best friend and I know if they would let him sleep on my bed he would never bark! please make them.
There were even some curses!
Please Padre Pio, curse the county council workers who took away the wild bantam hens in dunlaoire park, I loved them and fed them everyday. p.s I know it wasn’t a fox. They lived in the tree’s and brought color (and some eggs) to my life. I will say five decades of the rosary if you do.
This piece was signed by frank who described himself as a lonely old age pensioner.
To everyone their concern was significant and they all bargained for a good outcome and I realised as I added my prayer (just in case the cleaner HAD mixed up the labels and, as my mother feared, I had been praying to the wrong saint) that I was covering all eventualities, leaving no stone unturned.
Oh You may laugh! but when your life is in jeopardy you can’t afford to sneer at any means of help.
I also realised that by praying and bargaining psychologically, I was calmer, maybe because I felt I was doing something.
But I did not put all my eggs in one basket!
My spiritualism was not just reaching towards christianity! I veered towards buddhism too. Meditation and yoga became a big part of my day. I sat and contemplated. Stretched and breathed consciously and slowly I began to change from the wild mad yoke, careering around on a yellow bike, to a calm soul cycling more awarely and meditatively.
I looked to see what other religions had to offer and realised all were singing from the same hymn sheet. Live with a kindness towards others and keep hope in your heart.
Depression; I didn’t have time to be depressed because it had dawned on me that my cancer was not a bad thing but was actually a privilege. A chance to re look at my life and make changes for the good and suddenly I was careering towards….
Acceptance; Yaaaaay I had reached the end of grieving so on with my life and what was left of it.
At that point my eldest daughter stepped in with her advice on the subject.
‘Mom, don’t google! you’ll only frighten yourself! You are not a statistic, you are unique! Put yourself in your doctor’s hands. They are the best in the country. Do exactly what they tell you. Then if you do die, at least you can’t blame yourself!!
‘Here I am. Make me better’ I said to my surgeon and later my Oncologist.
And the huge weight of grief, stress and worry that I had been carrying fell off my shoulders and into their hands.
I lay complacently on the table and had my surgery.
When my surgeon had finished his side of things he breathed a sigh of relief and handed me over to the Oncologist.
Sticking a needle that will surely make you feel ill, into yourself when you are feeling well, goes against the grain.
And that is what I was going to have to do for a whole year.
I had promised my daughters I would do as my Doctors said and I was determined to keep that promise.
Of course it didn’t help that it wasn’t a certainty Interferon even worked. But in activating natural killer cells and macrophages (which engulf pathogens and digest them) I could understand the rationale behind it’s use.
For my part my thinking was that, these cancerous cells, though mischievously refusing to die, were part of ‘me’ and I didn’t want to fight myself.
I decided that to manage the year of Interferon, I needed to take a different approach.
I lifted my pen and put a line through the words fighting, battling, winning in my diary and instead inserted the softer words of gentling, cajoling, chastising.
Oh and Engulfing and dijesting.
End of part one.
I hope I haven’t bored any of you by this self indulgent piece, but I reckon If I did you wouldn’t be still reading HOWEVER if there is anyone out there starting on a similar journey I wish joy in living in the present because if you are reading this then you are still alive and ‘now’ is all we can be certain of.