Birth days and death days

 

Birthdays are a strange thing.  In our family we have a guarded attitude towards the special days because they are tinged with sadness and poignancy.

In 1998, my mother died on her 65th birthday. Every year I struggle to get through that day.  Then in 2007, my step-mother, with whom I was also very close, died. On her 75th birthday.   When birthdays approach in our family, we half joke (in that totally inappropriate way which Scots are rather good at) that we hope we get through the day.  Not so deep down, we are very nervous about our own and each others’ birthdays.

When I woke up yesterday, on my birthday, I was in a strange mood.  My recent unexpected health escapade meant that I cancelled my plan to celebrate my birthday somewhere new.  I would be spending my day in Yangon and it was impossible not to associate the day with the birthday I marked not long after arriving in Myanmar in 2009.  It was a Big Birthday – one ending with a zero, and due to paperwork difficulties we were not able to travel, so any wish bucket plans were not possible to realise.  Furthermore, being in the middle of rainy season it meant that travel anyway even nearby was not really a great idea.  So we marked the day in Yangon, visiting the beautiful Shwe Dagon temple in the daytime, and then with a small group of friends in the evening.

I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was nurturing two already significant tumours and was blissfully unaware of the turn life was going to take in a few short weeks.  Now, on my birthday, in addition to the association of birth days with death days, I have the added association of my 2009 birthday with Breast Cancer.  And that starts to explain my mood yesterday, when I found myself fighting back tears before I had even got out of bed.

However, I had decided to take a day’s leave and was determined to have a relaxing and indulgent day.  I opened up my constant companion (my laptop) in anticipation of birthday greetings through email and Facebook.  And it was wonderful – messages had arrived overnight, and more were streaming in from around the world.  There are some things which Facebook is very good at.

As I skimmed through my newsfeed, however, my eye caught an update which I struggled to understand initially.  Then the realisation sank in.  My blogging sister Jenny, author of Get out Gertrude, had passed away the previous evening.  We knew that time was limited for her, but as her family said in the notice it was far sooner than expected.  Those tears which had been on standby behind my eyes sprang into action.

Jenny and I had connected through our blogs and twitter interactions based on our (albeit different) breast cancer diagnoses.  Jenny had been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) which is notoriously aggressive and although Stage 4, she was leading a very full and meaningful life.  She was studying, blogging regularly and a tireless active advocate on IBC.  She tells the full story on her blog.  As the disease has progressed and treatment options limited, we knew that her time with us was limited.  But with regular activity online and her incisive and wise insights, the severity of her physical health was hidden behind a strong vibrant voice.  I will miss her enormously, but value how much I learned from her. Her post on talking to her youngest daughter, who has special needs, is one which will always stay with me and shows her strength, humanity, openness and selflessness.  The fact that she documented and shared this when time and energy were precious, and sadly limited, shows her generosity.

As I am based in Asia, and Jenny in New Zealand we are in a small number of bloggers/tweeters in this side of the planet.  So, for example, while the weekly #bcsm discussion would be underway on Monday evenings in the US, Jenny and I would be joining from Tuesday morning/lunchtime.  I think of us as the “Tuesday bloggers”.  Her passing on a Tuesday is strangely meaningful and comforting to me personally.

It was probably a good thing that I had decided to take the day of my birthday off work.  In my poignant and pensive frame of mind, I could focus on Jenny as well as the preoccupations which had already been crowding my thoughts.  So I moved back to my Facebook feed and the greetings, so that I could attempt to respond to each message individually.  When I was young I was always brought up to send a thank you note for presents and cards, and never seemed to quite finish the task.  So I have tried to redress the balance in this Facebook era.  As messages came through from different parts of the world, the phrase “many returns of the day” and its inference echoed round and round in my mind.  And then one message hit me with an almost physical force as it resonated so much with my emotional place.

“Happy Birthday! I’m so glad you are around for another one!!! :)”

And that was it in a nutshell.  When I found the lump in September 2009, I thought I would not be around for the forthcoming Christmas, never mind birthdays one, two or even three years hence.  None of us has any idea how many more “returns of the day” we will have, but to have three is something I am incredibly thankful for. My relationship with mortality has matured and changed beyond recognition and I do not take these “returns” for granted any more.

So, today is August 2nd.  And here’s another strange coincidence.  Today is Rachel’s birthday. Her close friend Sarah has shared a post which Rachel’s mother has written.  My fears and associations connected with my own birthday, Jenny’s passing and Rachel’s birthday are all joining together in an emotional whirlpool.

But mixed with that emotion is a sense of bittersweet gratitude.  It is the day after my birthday. and I am overwhelmingly thankful.  Thankful that I did indeed wake up today!  Thankful that there have been returns of the day which I feared there would not be.  I am thankful that I am most clearly around for another one!

And most of all, I am thankful for the rich friendship of very special women like Jenny and Rachel.

 

Ethereal voices

It is approaching one month since the online community I spend a great deal of time in was convulsed by the shocking loss of two smart, articulate and wonderfully snarky women on one day.

It was evening in Yangon, and I was already in a rather fragile frame of mind as it was only a few days since my father had taken ill.  I was just checking my email for family updates before sleeping that Monday evening, 6 February.  After checking email, I flicked quickly through news and updates from my online friends for the last news of the day. I caught sight of a few tweets which stopped my heart – they were messages of loss and condolence.  With a sense of dread mixed with a need to know, I scrolled down through the tweets, my fingers trembling.  My heart stopped.  Right across the world, in New Jersey, where it was early morning, our dear friend Rachel had been taken by cancer.  I was unable to read the flurry of tweets, and the Facebook tributes which were flooding in, because of the tears in my eyes.  I knew she had been very ill, but how could this happen when her online voice was so strong and full of vitality?  The words on her blog posts, her Facebook updates, Tweets and other online interactions told clearly and factually of the toll which metastatic disease was taking on her body.  But her voice was another matter.  A combination of humour and a feisty spirit formed a voice belying the gravity of her illness.  It was simply inconceivable that such a voice be silenced.

Sleep eluded me that Monday night, unsurprisingly as I tried to rationalise and process this.  Still I headed for my dawn swim on Tuesday morning, ploughing up and down the pool, my mind on Rachel, my father, before returning home.  After breakfast, I opened up my window to the world, my laptop.  Because of the time difference, it was approaching time in my corner of the globe for the weekly #bcsm Tweetchat, which takes place on Monday evenings in the US.  I knew that we would have an emotional discussion, as Rachel has been a vocal and lively participant in the sessions and I steeled myself as I signed into the discussion.  Nothing, however, prepared me for the tweets in front of me. Tweets full of pain, disbelief and anguish broke the news to me of the unbelievable loss in one day, of Susan as well as Rachel.  The discussion was dedicated to these remarkable women, both of whom advocated tirelessly and tenaciously on the subject of metastatic breast cancer.  How on earth could these women, whose words were written with such passion and vitality, be taken?

This transported me back over a year in time, but to a similar emotional space. That of a crushing disbelief when I learned that my friend Bad Fairy had been taken by metastatic breast cancer in October 2010.  Bad Fairy and I had been diagnosed a few weeks apart in 2009 and started blogging around the same time.  Our experiences were very different but we connected through our blogs.  She would call by my blog and leave a sprinkling of fairy dust, and I would leave a classy gecko calling card when I visited her blog.  Her writing was refreshing, her ideas original and although she was dealing with metastatic cancer her voice was strong and full of life. At the time I did not realise that I would read her words, not truly comprehending the gravity of her disease.  The words told me how ill she was, but told with such a bright voice I missed signals that she was terribly ill.  I was unable to access blogspot at that time, and missed the last couple of posts she wrote.  When I learned finally through her husband’s post that she had been taken, I was bereft and utterly unable to comprehend her loss.  I could not equate the strength of her voice with the frailty of her physical body.

Another contradiction in my connection with Bad Fairy, was that I did not even know her name.  This reminds me of my friendship with Rachel.  We initially knew her as Anna, Anna Rachnel.  And then one day, I read her post about chest pains.  I was so caught up in her account of the investigations, fear and trauma of the chest pains that I almost missed her revelation.   I had to read it through more than once to catch the enormous step she was taking.  This was when we learned that her name was in fact Rachel, and not Anna.  Her footnote to that blog posting, written some time after the event, talked through the big step she had made of opening up and revealing her real name.  it took me quite some time to make the shift, but now I find it hard to think of her as Anna.  And I only learned Bad Fairy’s name in the last comments on her blog. There are so many complexities in our online relationships.

That sense of disbelief and even misunderstanding does not abate.  That disconnect between the voice and what it reports.  It compels me to question why I have difficulty in relating a voice with the actual language and content of the story.  Why is it that the unwritten elements of our communications convey such a strength and vitality and how can it be that they override the actual words?  I cannot pretend to understand why, but I most definitely know that it is so.

That contradiction between voice and body brings us something tangible though and that is a powerful and enduring legacy left of and by our voices.  The words have been written and cannot be erased.  The voices of our friends live on, in the online and other spaces storing them, but more than anything else, those strong voices live on in our hearts and minds.