Category Archives: Cancer

Plodding along…

While I am writing many blog posts, all the time, in my mind, sadly they are not getting to the magic publish button stage on this page.

This of course has nothing at all to do with the fact that I am training for the NYC Marathon in 24 days from now……  However my other blog One Mountain, One Marathon does have a few more recent posts than here. So if you want to follow along drop over and see how it’s all shaping up.

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I miss my Mum

My cousin is having a baby, it’s her fourth, she has three boys, this one is a girl. Due in November, I found out about it on Facebook yesterday.

My Aunt has moved house, I’m not sure when, she recently had a fall and is now in hospital awaiting surgery on a brain aneurism. It’s tomorrow, or today in Australia. I am hoping it goes well. Found out about that by emailing another cousin whose news I used to know, but the regular information source has been missing for the last nine months.

Someone else has moved interstate, I’m not sure exactly where but they have bought a house and are renovating, she’s an architect. Her mother and my mum were the closest of friends. They were high on the news rotation in our calls.

Despite how plugged in I am and remain to the online world, I don’t know the back stories or the tidbits that fill in the gaps. I see the outlines and scraps on Facebook or a sentence in an email and I feel disconnected where before I felt connected to them and their story.

These are the conversations I miss with my mother, filling in the gaps.

The other day I went for a ‘long run’ in marathon training terms and it was hot, it was hard and I was probably a bit dehydrated at the end. I collapsed on the front step and cried a bit because it was hard, because of the reasons I am training for the marathon, because I miss my Mum.

My six year old daughter appeared

‘What are you crying about?’

‘I was thinking about Mumma and how I miss her’

‘Oh, are you still going on about that? That was months ago!’

We’ll leave the empathy lesson for later, I know that’s how the world sees it as well, she was only speaking the truth. It still hurt.

We have new neighbours Mum would love, she would want to know that some of our regular Thursday night drinks crew on the street corner have moved on and the people who bought their house have a daughter in my daughter’s class at school. Because she came to stay last summer for three months she would be able to picture the people and the houses I am talking about and she would have questions and comments aplenty.  The new school year has started, she would want to know about classes and friends and coping skills.

I went to BlogHer recently in Chicago. I was looking for my tribe. I’m not sure what I found but I did love the conference, the city and the people I met. One of the speakers was Sheryl Sandberg, I am a bit of a fan girl. When she spoke she pitched the whole thing perfectly to her audience, as you would expect a speaker of her experience to do. Before she spoke she spent time in the audience meeting and greeting some people and learning their stories, then she used, with their permission, those stories in her speech.

Many people spoke of how they admired her approaching it that way and found it impressive. I found her a great speaker, but I guess I expected that she would do that. That was Terrie Baxter to a T, it was how she did it, her role as the International President of a Public Speaking organisation may have had something to do with it, but it is the standard I expect.

There are so many things in my every day life that remind me of Mum and they are hard. Lately I have been thinking about them, a lot. My relationships with my other family members, my father, my mother in law and even my brother have suffered in the last nine months as I try to adjust to this change in my life. I will get there, I think I just need a moment or two to pause and collect myself, or another one…

Recently a special friend sent me a message

I thought of you today sweet, as I often do. You need to get Gold Dust, the ministry of sound version, to run to. If uninspired, it’s a fab song. Hope all is ok, from personal experience, this is when I found losing Mum really, really hard. Hope you are doing ok sweetie, I really am thinking of you often.

Haven’t got the song yet but the rest of it is spot on.

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Cindy and Njabulo

For some of us just landed and still in confusion, there can be a secret benefit to expat life depending which country you have arrived in. There might be someone who can help you with running your household, ease your acclimatisation just a tiny bit quicker than if you have to clean your bathroom, vacuum the floors or iron your own sheets.*

While you’re trying to work out how to connect the internet, buy the school uniforms and where to find the right ingredients in a plethora of new supermarkets and speciality shops, someone is at home – making it just a little more homely and welcoming for all.

In Hong Kong that someone was Gina, our dearly loved nanny, housekeeper and all around superstar. The third parent in my children’s lives, who ran our house like a machine, which we are forever grateful to her for. Gina was from the Philippines and so lived with us in our apartment in Hong Kong and became a part of our family and our lives over our six years there.

When we moved to South Africa, Gina came with us for three months, to ease the transition.** This was mainly for me as I transitioned from full time working mother to tennis morning, school run and mountain climber in training mother.

In South Africa we met Cindy.  Where Gina was gregarious and outgoing, Cindy was shy and reserved. Where Gina was forthright, Cindy held back. She was initially overwhelmed by the boisterousness and noise of my children, it took quite a few weeks to have a conversation of more than three or four sentences with her. I am an extrovert, Cindy was an introvert. We had to take time to understand the rhythm of each other as with any new relationship. It was OK, we had some of that.

Cindy travelled to us from her home in a township every day in a series of taxis, two or three depending on which route she took and the time of morning. Taxis in South Africa are small mini buses that hurtle along the roadways at alarming speeds and ferry the workforce around over the course of the day. She was proud that she owned her own four room home and could provide for herself and her son Njabulo.

Njabulo was her pride and joy. Many of our conversations over the three years were about our parenting experiences. Regardless of the differences in our nationality, culture and economic situation, parenting has universal themes. Health and education were recurring topics.

Cindy and Njabulo on the day we moved out of our house

Cindy and Njabulo on the day we moved out of our house

At one stage Njabulo had a cough that wouldn’t go away, even after visiting his local clinic and being administered antibiotics. The fear was tuberculosis, prevalent in South Africa and particularly Kwa-Zulu Natal where we lived. We decided to take him to our children’s doctor and have chest x-rays done if needed. Njabulo came to our house with Cindy for the day and when it was time for the doctor’s appointment, she didn’t want to come. On reflection it was such a privilege for her to trust me with her 15 year old son visiting various doctor’s offices over the course of the afternoon.  X-rays and spit tests thankfully revealed the all clear.

Next up was a girlfriend conversation. She thought he had one, what kind of things should she talk to him about? Safe sex obviously – with any teenager anyone in South Africa HIV is an important topic. There are various statistics but African males in Kwa-Zulu Natal are extremely high risk. We worked on various opening gambits and reinforcement statements. I think it went OK, he insisted he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time but at least he got the talk.

The day we left our house in Durban, Cindy, Njabulo, Zanele (Cindy’s sister), Noluh (Zanele’s daughter) and a friend pulled away in a utility vehicle piled high with household items we weren’t taking with us.  It was a happy parting of ways.

Cindy, Zanele and Noluh with a cameo by WASYO

Cindy, Zanele and Noluh with a cameo by WASYO

In December last year, I got a message from Cindy, she had been diagnosed with cancer and would need to undergo a month of chemotherapy. She was worried about Njabulo, she didn’t feel well.  I kept in sporadic contact, she had the chemo, got very sick from it, there was no feeling any better.

On March 16th I received a message from Zanele, Cindy had passed away.

Njabulo is in his last year of high school. He no longer has his mother to take him to the doctor or to give him talks about safe sex practices, or talk to him at all. He is 17, the same age Cindy was when he was born. His aunt Zanele now has a teenager and a 2 year old to provide for with less than half the household income they had previously when Cindy was working full time.

Cindy wanted Njabulo to graduate from high school and if at all possible attend University. Our family has committed to help him do this. We aim to set up a foundation to provide support for his educational future. I am currently researching organisations or groups that can help provide mentorship and guidance on the ground in Durban.

The starting point is this year’s school fees. These fees need to be paid in order for him to receive his final examination scores and submit them to University for acceptance.

I invite everyone to share this story and help us to Educate Njabulo.

* What, ironed sheets? You’re right, I don’t iron my own sheets, never did, but nearly twelve months on I still miss the luxury of freshly laundered and ironed sheets on a bed I didn’t make myself. The ULTIMATE expat princess perk. Roll your eyes, mock me and then try it for nine years and see how easy it is to give up.

**Super expat princess alert

25.3 kgs

‘Your bag is overweight, I’m not going to charge you this time, but be more careful next time. It’s 25.3 kgs’
The Delta check-in lady using a stern tone.

‘Did ya do a lot of shopping while you were home?’
The assistant checker-in person joined in. The strong Aussie accent dressed in a Delta uniform somehow seemed out of place even though we were standing in Sydney airport. How quickly I have come to expect an American accent.

Tears welled up – I had no control over them.

‘No, its my Mum’s stuff, I came back for her funeral.’

Murmured apology from Team Delta, awkward moment, both suddenly looking closely at the computer screen. I felt I had to let them off.

‘Doesn’t everyone about to spend 13 hours in economy on a plane with no spare seats cry?’

Ha ha – good one, they could look up at me again and we finished our transaction in a more relaxed fashion.

Of course I didn’t come home for her funeral. I came home to do the unthinkable, to say goodbye. A carefully timed trip, cancelled once, designed to allow time with my mum but also not leaving my husband and kids alone too long in a new country with no support system in place.
Clinical, horrifying.

The kid’s anxiety of their mother leaving indefinitely, knowing when she came home it meant their beloved Mumma would no longer be in the same world where they could talk to her on the phone and  run past the computer when she was on Skype. Photos and memories would be it. Thankfully we have just had two months with her, the memories are fresh, I can’t think about six months or a year from now when they are not.

My husband had to juggle full time work and full time carer responsibility for an unknown quantity of time. His work requires up to fifty percent of his time traveling, on hold indefinitely.  A perhaps uniquely expat moment bringing the family unit under pressures it had not previously faced, not knowing how we were all going to get through, it seemed impossible.

We’ve made it so far, my husband was given a 7/10 and an 8/10 by the kids for his efforts. The six year old (7/10) booked herself into after school care because apparently I said she could before I left, that gave the nine year old (8/10) peace after the school bus trip home to do his homework and have his one hour screen time before the whirlwind returned.

It wasn’t a funeral, it was a ‘Celebration of Life’.  I wore a bright blue dress, there were pinks and blues and reds everywhere. The ‘Celebration’  was held at Glennifer Brae, a special location, the school my mum attended, taught at, where we lived in the cottage on the grounds when we were very little, later after the school shut and it became a venue for public functions we were married there.  Then the property passed to the Conservatorium of Music (Wollongong) and it was closed to public functions. There were special envoys to council, special permission had to be granted to hold a function there. For mum there was no other option, it was Glennifer Brae or bust. It was one of the last days and her close friend Cookie raced up the stairs to the bedroom to sit by her bed and tell her the good news, she smiled so hard, for an hour at least.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun shone, it was predicted to be cloudy and possible showers, someone must have had a word. There was no celebrant, our Mistress of Ceremonies was a close friend of mum’s with a perfect background and experience to set the tone and engage the crowd. There was a choir that sang a four part version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and later the Glennifer Brae (SCEGGS Wollongong) school song along with the impressive number of old girls in attendance. My brother and I got through our words without breaking down, my mum’s sister got through her own toast similarly unscathed. We celebrated her life with French champagne, as she wished it to be.

Two days later I was standing at the Delta counter heading back to Atlanta with a suitcase that was 25.3 kgs, 9kgs heavier than when I arrived. The sum total of ‘things’ I bought back that belonged to Mum is 9kgs.

Two nights later I am still awake at 2am trying to work out what actually happened. Today (since it is 2am) is Thanksgiving, our first in the USA, I am thankful to be home again with my family, but it doesn’t feel enough. I am hoping the haziness will pass with the jetlag. We’ll see.

12 Days

It’s surreal, to be training for a marathon that’s 12 days away – at the same time on a 24 hourly decision making process to fly to Australia.

Anyway, that’s what I’m doing.

You can read all about it here.

Cancelled

Six hours before I was scheduled to fly to Australia today I cancelled my flight.

That sounds so simple.

It was a complex decision in what has been a most difficult week. There are people that support this decision and the others. I don’t have the words. I feel numb.

I booked the flight less than 48 hours ago, so sure I was going to take it that I didn’t consider insurance. I spent the last 36 hours in a frenzy of planning and list writing, bill paying, car registration, pantry stocking, Halloween shopping and possible activity planning, given the kids have half days this coming week due to school parent / teacher conferences – and making up the guest room for my Dad and his wife who are due in town tomorrow.

The time difference with Australia is crap at the moment, not that its great normally. 4pm here is 7am Australian Eastern Standard daylight savings time the earliest I can really call and find out what happened overnight. 6am here is 9pm there, almost always too late and definitely too late by 7.24am here when the kids step onto the bus to school.

Last Sunday I got a message, Mum was back in hospital. A girls weekend away at Hyams Beach, half a day in and a 2am trip to Nowra Emergency dodging Kangaroos on the drive into town by four capable ladies (including two nurses), one in tremendous pain from another blocked bowel. I’ve done that drive here with my Mum, not knowing where the hospital was, not fun.

All week I have called at 4pm and then spent the next eight hours speaking, texting and Skyping with various family members and the most important person, the star of the show, my brave and wonderful mother, taking any and all information in and processing, calculating, wondering what to do, when to pull the trigger to fly home.

Every day she sounded stronger, yet the blockage didn’t clear. The palliative care team and my aunt now all set up at another relative’s house, managed the pain (mostly) and adjusted the drugs in such a way as to assist if at all possible to clear the blockage. Don’t know if you’ve ever had a bowel blockage – I haven’t but I’ve witnessed it twice and it looks painful beyond measure and requires large amounts of serious pain relief that don’t always work. To watch someone you love suffer it is difficult beyond belief or description.

On Wednesday Mum told me she didn’t think it was going to clear, this being her third time round the block I rely on her past experience to gauge these things, I told her I would give it 24 more hours, on Thursday I booked my flight, Friday morning I called and she told me a magical thing. The first step in a bowel blockage alleviation, the passing of wind, had happened. Its not often so many people get excited about a fart.

This doesn’t mean the blockage is clearing definitely, it doesn’t mean there is a long term, or even a medium term, Mum sent an email and updated her own blog earlier this week letting  people know that her fight continues but that the bad guys are winning, it does mean there is more short term up for grabs and she will grasp it with both hands.

I will go to Australia to be with my mother, maybe it will be tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe in three weeks time – I will be there when she needs me. Today wasn’t the day. My brother is with her, her sister and brother, her 92 year old father and a daily stream of visitors spending precious minutes with her sitting in the sun on the balcony.

Time is precious, I know that. We were able to have two months of her all to ourselves, not having to share with anyone. I didn’t take enough photos, I didn’t want to break the moments we were sharing. Regrets.

I cancelled my flight, I cancelled death for this week.

It’s not all beer and skittles

We had not yet moved into our new house in the ‘hood but were making use daily of the community pool, given the scorching Hotlanta summer and the seemingly endless school holidays. The accents used loudly across the pool by brother and sister made us a stand out and the small community targeted us as the ‘new people’.

Introductions were made and stories shared, friendly folks who oohed and ahhhed at the countries we have lived in, shared their love for all things Aussie (a welcome change to our last country of residence) and admitted to having always wanted to live in another country.

‘But we couldn’t do it, our parents are here, they’re getting older, they could get sick and we wouldn’t take their grandchildren away from them’

Stab, stab, stab.

Unintentional stabbing of course, but it hurts all the same.

A quick chat with any expat will reveal many reasons why they love the life they lead with its swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, opportunities and experiences they and often their third culture kids would never have had if they stayed ‘at home’.

By extension this often also applies to family and friends who visit the expat adventurers in a new and different country, one they may have never been to with no good reason to visit, or just needed an excuse to return to a favourite destination. These are special and cherished times, when the visitors get an insight into the life of their hosts, sharing experiences they may never have otherwise had. We as hosts push the boundaries of our day to day to make sure everyone has a most memorable trip and send them home to sing the gospel and  spread the word to make sure our calendars with penciled in possibilities become concrete conversions into visitors bearing jars of Vegemite and Strawberry Freddos.

There are so many special memories from the visitors we have had in our time away, friends who honeymooned with us in Hong Kong – delaying their trip so we had time to return to our flat from their wedding in the Blue Mountains, my cousin who swore to never live anywhere else but her home town became a regular visitor for ‘the shopping’ and since then has moved twice overseas with her husband and kids. To this day she remains the only person I know who shopped Stanley Markets from opening until closing.

Then there was the travel pack who visited and required a mini van to ferry around. My cousin (of course), her two kids and another of their cousins, her husband, his aunt, her parents and my grandmother, 88 at the time. It was a special day shopping over the border in Shenzhen introducing her to all our regular shopping haunts and telling all the shopkeepers about her very auspicious age. I think we got actual real discounts that day in deference to her age and agility and gracious charm with the locals.

The best man from our wedding and his wife and baby – discovering en route that the baby had inherited his father’s peanut allergy, my brother and his then partner, her terrified of bird flu every time we stepped out of the house, my husband’s sister and brother-in-law came and we popped off for a blissful grown ups only trip to Kota Kinabalu.

My Dad and his wife on more than one occasion – once sailing through the harbour on the Queen Mary and of course my Mum.

South Africa was lighter on the visitors but again my brother and Mum put in appearances. I am pretty sure my brother will never forget the elephant that just wanted to say hello, his first lion spotting or sidling up to the penguins in the Cape for the best photo opportunity.

My mum was the first visitor we had here in the USA, arriving the same day as the container full of boxes. Our first two months in the new house was experienced together. The drama of the pre-school vaccinations and medical checks, the first day of school, the slight changing of WASYO’s accent to move to a short ‘a’ sound and a rolling of the ‘r’s, drop offs and pick ups at a real yellow school bus, weekly drinks on the street corner, WASYO learning to read, Mr 9 saying he quite liked the new school (relief), introducing the local kids to fairy bread at the event where WAFYO became WASYO, she experienced it all at the same time we did. She arrived armed with my childhood set of Winnie the Pooh books and read them to her eldest grandchildren each night before bed, she did jigsaw puzzles with WASYO and talked to Mr 9 about his views on life and video games and became our personal laundry lady – daily collecting the clothes from various baskets around the house and returning them later washed and folded – apparently I have to get used to no ironing (that’s a story for another time).  After proclaiming to get lost in the house on the first few days, as we pulled away last Monday on the way to the airport she said she’d come to like our home. It has been a lonely week since she has left.

Regardless of what happens next, the choices to be made about visits, before or after operations, when, where, how and who with, all five of us will have that special time in our memories. Two months where she was part of our everyday life. Daily this week more than one resident has said ‘When Mumma was here…’

It is hard to be away from family in another country, especially when every phone call or text message could be news that puts everything on hold while you plot a course home, but if we lived in Australia, an hour and a half away by car it is unlikely we would ever have spent so much time together or that our kids would have kissed their Mumma goodnight every night for two months (except for those two pesky hospital visits).

Life goes on here, next week is my husband’s birthday, the following week my Dad and his wife are visiting, Halloween is shaping up to be bigger than Ben Hur and there’s some marathon in New York on November 4th I’m running in, but family near and far are always top of mind. You take the good with the bad and hope the decisions you make, when you make them, are the right ones and that holds true no matter what country you live in.