As you will know by now Elaine has gone, but the end of her story has not yet been told. I’m Elaine’s husband Mark, and as I am now the ‘last man standing’ from the Blog title, I guess it’s down to me to complete the journey with you that she began just a short time ago.
There are two reasons for my doing this:
1. Elaine herself. To leave things just hanging and unfinished was not her style. She loved writing and the interaction with her readers, and I believe telling of her struggle to stay one step ahead of cancer, intermingled with observations on life and her surroundings really did help to make sense of what fate was casting her way. I know she would want to see the final full stop in place.
She asked me on several occasions to contribute to horse husband cancer, “They’ve heard from the horse, the cancer and from me. I want them to hear something from your side, but I can’t say it for you.”
I simply never got round to it, and neither of us would have envisaged these circumstances for me to begin.
2. Myself. You would think after thirty years to practise I would be fully prepared for Elaine to die. But let me tell you that no amount of prep’ can ready you for the total and utter finality that is death. The fact is she isn’t coming home again, but it’s a fact that I just cannot at present grasp or believe in.
Elaine was simply my world, and I’m left feeling like some future space traveller, able to stand on the event horizon of a massive ‘Black Hole’ , I’m staring down into the abyss to where my life, love, hopes and dreams once existed, but there’s fuck-all left, empty, gone stolen away, and I’ve not a clue as to where to begin looking for any of it.
Maybe writing this will bring me some ideas.
Please understand that I am not the eloquent wordsmith that my wife had become. The only way I can do this is to tell it using my own words and language- I won’t praise it by calling it a style! I have help with the more technical side of this but words, expressions and emotion is 100% me. The events are true.
Elaine was quite candid and open about her illness and treatment, so I’ll carry on in the same vein. Her last post was December 10th, so we’ll pick up the reins from there; Elaine had not eaten properly for some time, nor was she drinking a great deal. She had awful acid reflux and recurring hiccups that was getting on her nerves as much as it was getting her down. Her abdomen had become very swollen and painful. There was also pain in her lower and middle back.
She had a high pain threshold so if she said something was hurting, I knew it had to be pretty bad. We assumed the bloated tummy, (“Looks like I’m full term with twins!”) was due to IBS caused by all the steroids she was on, to counter internal inflammation in turn caused by the Targeted Therapy, but this proved not to be the case.
It was one of the Macmillan nurses who first mentioned a condition called Ascites. This is a build- up of fluid in the lining of the abdomen. The cancer stimulates an over production of this fluid and as Elaine’s lymph system was badly compromised by tumour growth it could not rid her body of the excess. It simply stores the fluid where it can, hence the bloating and the pain. An ultrasound scan confirmed all of this. The fluid would have to be drained.
She had an overnight stay in hospital where they drained off 5 litres of fluid. A week later it was all back.
Always before it had been the treatments to halt the spread of cancer which had caused Elaine most of her health problems. What was happening now meant we could no longer keep our heads in the sand, it was apparent the cancer had upped the game and was cruising in overdrive around her body.
An arrangement was made for Elaine to have a semi-permanent drain fitted. She was quite pleased with the idea of this solution saying to me, “Isn’t it strange how things become appealing when the choices are so limited.”
And so the date and time was set,- and then un-set, as corona virus put staff out of action her op’ was cancelled and re-scheduled for Tuesday 22nd of December.
Lack of sleep was now the norm for both of us. Elaine would go to bed around 10pm, and then be back downstairs about an hour later. She then would try to get comfortable on the sofa or maybe sat at the kitchen table. The painkillers she had seemed to be fighting too much of a rear guard action. She was becoming desperate now as the fluid building up was causing the pain and discomfort to increase rapidly.
I came downstairs one night around 1.30 to find her sat at the kitchen table. In front of her was a small jigsaw puzzle of a plate of Brussel sprouts. Trying to get her mind focused on this was her way of distracting herself from the discomfort and reality of the situation that was now unfolding.
I sat beside her and we tried a few pieces of the puzzle together.
She spoke first, “It’s not looking good is it?”
“Sprouts never do, even in a picture”.
“I don’t mean the fucking sprouts, you know what I mean”.
“Yes I know, I just don’t want to believe all this is true. I want to wake up from this shitty dream”.
“So do I babe, so do I”.
I went back to bed around 3.30. We’d got half of the ‘sprouts’ done by then. Elaine completed the rest on her own.
By Friday 18th the pain had reached new levels as the pressure from the Ascites fluid increased . Elaine was on stronger pain medication but the results were limited so the hospital brought forward her appointment to that afternoon and she was in there by 4pm.
Not allowed to visit, I didn’t see her until I picked her up 24 hours later. When Elaine came out I was full of hope, but this was dashed when I saw her. She walked very slowly and looked so tired and weak. The drain and a small bag with a tap came with her. Nearly 4 litres of fluid had gone already.
“Don’t expect too much Mark, I’m not so good”.
Her words were flat and toneless and I helped her into the car without comment. She wanted to go home via the Christmas street lights in town, she always loved to see them.
A voice inside me was screaming, “She knows it’s the last time.” Somehow I managed to silence this liar.
Despite more painkilling relief Elaine suffered another bad night being unable to sleep for no more than about 45 minutes at a time. Sunday morning saw some relief, as an early call to Macmillan at the Hospice resulted in permission to increase the morphine dose, she even managed a couple of hours sleep.
Elaine kept herself busy for much of the day, at least as much as the fatigue allowed, even now she refused to give in to a situation which would honestly have floored most mortals. The fluid kept draining.
I wasn’t to know it then but that Sunday night would be our last ever at home together. It was an utter bastard…!”
To be continued…
I would just give my thanks for all of the lovely comments about Elaine after last week’s post. Also a big thank you for all your encouragement to me at this most difficult time”. -Mark
It is with the deepest sadness that we have to tell you that Elaine Kirsch Edsall passed away peacefully on January 5th at Forest Holme hospice in Poole. Elaine battled bravely against cancer for 30 years.
Her husband Mark was with her, holding her hand. Rest in peace darling wife, dearest friend. You remain forever in our hearts.
Elaine’s funeral was held on January 19th. The words that follow were shared at that service.
“Despite the cancer trying to kill me at annoyingly frequent intervals, I’ve had a lovely life.
I only ever wanted to be with Mark, see my friends, spend time with my horse and do my work…and that’s exactly what I did.
Without the depth and strength of Mark’s love I couldn’t have lived so long; I didn’t know it was possible to love and be loved so much and feel so utterly content in his arms.
My wonderfully loyal inspirational friends who carried me over bad times, rejoiced with me in the good, cried, laughed, giggled, healed, and have always known the best answer to any problem was cake. My life became so much richer because of you, so much better.
Generous horses found me in unexpected ways. They taught me to reach inside myself and find a simpler way of communicating. To listen. To feel. To find my Quiet Place. They showed me joy in small achievements and that no matter how often you start over, it’s where you end that counts.
I nearly became a horsewoman; I ended in exactly the right place to start again next time around.
Work was never really work. I loved the excitement of buying stock, even when doing so meant getting up at some ungodly hour. I loved setting up stalls and selling, but most of all I loved organising the vintage fairs. All the people coming together to create a wonderland, and all the people coming to buy and saying how much they enjoyed it.
I’ve had the pleasure of indulging my passions throughout my life, I’ve made the best of what landed at my feet, and now I fully intend to make the most of dying.
I’ll leave you to carry on living for me.
Make sure it’s good.”
“It’s strange how a life changing moment can arrive hidden in a seemingly ordinary day.
Such a moment came to me some 31 years ago, when I went to help paint a cottage, outside of Wimborne.
On the second day, I heard the words “Hi I’m Elaine” and I looked up. Before me stood a vision in tight blue jeans and a tee shirt, with masses of curly chestnut hair, bright blue eyes and the most amazing sunshine smile that simply lit up my world.
I was lost for words- a rare occurrence- and little did I realise it then- but that smile would be lighting up my world for the next 3 decades.
We bonded over cigarettes and tea, became friends, fell in love and married some 5 years later.
Elaine lived life at full speed; she was always on the go, rarely resting except when she was actually asleep. I was soon roped in to her world of Antique and later Vintage Fairs, Auctions, Boot Sales and later house clearances.
Elaine did the planning- I did the more practical stuff and as we each found our levels, we worked better and better as a team. We must have spent more time with each other than many couples who have been married twice as long as we were.
Elaine’s other great love was her horses. Her last, Bruce, was an injured challenge when she got him but typically, she would not give up on him and he owed his last 11 years of life to her dedication. She was the first to acknowledge what she owed to him. As her health suffered, his needs, both physical and psychological, kept her mind focused on him and away from the darker areas of her own situation.
In her last years, greatly encouraged by horsewoman, author and friend Anna Blake, Elaine turned to writing and discovered a new talent with words and story-telling.
She had work published and also wrote a weekly blog: “A horse, a husband and cancer”, which was full of her wry observations on life, death and all the quirky stuff in between. It was hugely well received. Elaine was working on a book of her life and experiences when she died.
Cancer was ever present in our relationship, but Elaine refused ever to ‘wear it like a badge’. She would say “I want people to see me first and not the cancer”
Some people would come forward with sympathy when they found out- but Elaine would have none of it. There was no time in her world for lowered voices and hushed tones. She just wanted to get on with life and let the possibility of death stay suspended in the background- almost out of sight.
I have lost count of the number of hospital visits, scans, operations, procedures, radiology and chemo she endured. Yet there was no self- pity or “Why me” from Elaine. I knew that it was for us as a couple that she went through it all and it was for us that I stood by her side.
The only good thing about her illness was that it brought us ever closer together in a bond of love that remained defiant to the end. “I won’t be scared if you are there with me” she once said about dying and I promised her that I would be there.
I stayed with her at the Hospice to make damn sure that I would be there and it was a bittersweet privilege to hold her hand as her life gently faded away.
She wasn’t afraid of dying. She would say; “I’m going off to start a new adventure- it’s just that I’ve got to start this one on my own.”
Life was one long adventure with Elaine. There was laughter and tears, hope and despair, humour- mostly black- and tons of love.
I have been blessed beyond words to have had such a partner to love and be loved by, and with whom to face life’s challenges head on.
Elaine promised me that she will be there when it’s my time to go. Sat in the stillness of the hospice at night, I pondered on how this reunion might take place:
I think I’ll ‘wake up’ by the large copper beech tree in our driveway and I’ll walk down towards The Lodge. The truck will be parked outside and fully loaded- in fact it will be overloaded. Elaine will be sat in the passenger seat. She’ll wind down the window and say:
“Come on Ted, where the Hell have you been, we’ve got a fair to go and do.”
I’ll look at the back of the truck and as always, there’s enough to fill several stall pitches… But I’ll just sigh inwardly and walk round to the driver’s side, all the time hoping that she’s remembered the cold beer and Indian takeaway for later on.
I’ll climb in beside her, start the engine, beep the horn twice, and we’ll say “All aboard the Skylark”- A silly ritual we shared and I will look over towards her. And that sunshine smile will come and light up my world once again.
Then we will be off and it’s the start of a new adventure together, only this time it’ll last forever. I can honestly say that I can hardly wait for it to begin.
Goodnight my beloved darling- don’t wander far without me.”
Elaine would want to thank you for reading this blog , and for the time being, I am going to keep the blog running, to tell how it was in those last days with her and to try and convey my own personal feelings and my take on how things are now in my life without Elaine. -Mark
Depending on whether you’re a glass half full, or a glass half empty type of person, I’ve either had a very good week or a very bad one. There’s been high drama, hospital procedures, a lot of humour, incredible kindness and emotional turmoil that’s gone beyond visceral and chartered the unknown territory of unbearable. I’ve been the centre of attention and I crave some peace.
I want what I can’t have. I don’t want to deal with what I do have. I yearn for what I had. I’m getting bored with cancer. It’s taking over my life (pun not intended).
A Horse A Husband and Cancer. The horse has gone, the husband is fragile and needs to work things through in his own way, and cancer is boring. So where does that leave us? It’s not the end of the blog by far, but I think it needs a tweak. It needs to find its own words again, because right now I’ve lost mine.
Midwinter melancholy is chipping around the edges, I’m dying on my feet and I need to start living again. If you’ll bear with me while I cast about looking for direction, we can grow together as friendships do when they move side-by-side through new adventures, instead of relying only on past experience. A Horse A Husband Cancer and Us. Its a start.
A new cancer drug has a frisson of excitement impossible to ignore, and multiples of new drugs are excitement beyond belief. But as we’ve all found from experience, every yin has its yang, what goes up is certain to come back down (generally with a splat on your head), and as everyone with cancer knows, new drugs are huge divas, always accompanied by a gaggle of groupies touting side effects like there was no tomorrow.
My Targeted Therapy drug failed and in September I stopped taking it. It certainly lived up to its Wonder Drug epithet (after the first few months of hideous SE’s) but it gave up too soon for my liking. Its successor took a month to prove its mettle before floundering at the first fence; those fences might look flimsy but they’ve repelled everything to date including the test of time, so I bear it no malice.
Next in line is Carboplatin Platinum Therapy. Even dressed up as a fancy-schmancy Therapy it’s still a chemotherapy with chemotherapy pros and cons. I last used it in 2011 and it worked. These days it’s accompanied by a new level of support drugs which I’m about to road-test. Re-using a drug has the drawback that cancer might remember the best way to avoid a prolonged discussion, but these days slowing the disease is good enough. I no longer build expectations, re-cycling is very fashionable, and who am I to turn down an opportunity?
And so, through a long series of tiresome events (a whole other blogs-worth) I was sitting in a hospital bed on Tuesday having a blood transfusion. It’s a time-consuming affair, especially when the blood arrives some hours later than promised (did they first have to catch a donor?) and I’d already been in hospital for four hours before the bags arrived. Time to wait is also time to think, something I’ve avoided for the past few months, and here I was staring it in the face with nowhere to hide except watching Homes Under The Hammer on TV.
The debilitating abdominal and back problem I’ve had for the past few months is the first time in twenty-nine years my actual cancer has caused me pain. I’ve dealt with enough medication complications, side-effects, reactions, and over-ambitious treatment to make your eyes water, and nursed enough post-operative wounds to make Florence Nightingale proud, but until now I’ve never felt my body physically abuse its self. I’ve joined the generals making decisions and avidly read war reports, but I’ve stood outside watching the war raging within without stepping into the arena.
Since September, I’ve blamed everything except cancer growth for the pain. Some things rightly – high-dose steroids, gastritis, Bruce’s dying, IBS. As a result I’ve not dealt adequately with palliative care. Why would you need morphine when you simply have gas? I have never avoided the blatantly obvious to such an extent as I have for the past twelve weeks. Until yesterday, when I stared at it from a hospital bed.
If I’m being drawn in to war I need armour and fighting togs. My first weapon of choice is eight hours uninterrupted pain-free sleep, and regular bowel movements are second (I’m sure Boadicea never had this problem). Concise geography of the battlefield is an advantage because chemotherapy may carpet-bomb the entire site, but guerrilla battles will be fought in the rubble. I have yet to choose my fighting attire, suggestions welcome. I’m fighting For Us.
The palliative-care nurse visited this morning and I have a prescription for my armoury. I’m studying my scan reports against Dummies Guide to Anatomy to better visualise the cancerous-lymph-node barracks, along with the routes the outriders are scouting. Yes, they’ve gained ground, but it’s a war neither of us will win. It’s taking part that counts.
Cancer Under The Hammer? Cancer had better get his tin hat on. He’s gonna need it.
It’s horrible not being appreciated, and nobody feels this more than Days do. We say we don’t like Mondays (poor Monday, he’s got quite a complex about it) and we can’t wait for our holidays, or Saturday, or Christmas day, and along the way we completely ignore the day we’re having, which can be just as special if we give it the attention it deserves. The truth of the matter is that Days suffer from massive expectations, and overload is common in their workplace. They need space to offload the stress of having to be Special and feel the joy of being Just Another Day. A weekday, a normal day, but a glorious day nonetheless.
Producing a stunning sunrise is a huge drain on Daily reserves. It has to be stunning and precisely choreographed, and unexpected OCD (Overcast Cloudy Day) can ruin everything. The sun must rise, breaking through optimum amount of cloud to give a rosy glow at the exact moment a flock of geese fly past, honking for home. As the sky turns from drenched dawn to azure blue, clouds are puffed into unicorn heads and poodle tails, and the air adjusted to reach ambient breakfast temperature. The morning chorus of birds begins, and then, at a single tap of the conductor’s baton, it falls silent.
Everyone scurries out of bed, into the shower, checks the weather on their phones and drives to work. The worldwide office switch-on reveals numerous screensaver pictures of sunrises and honking geese, while outside, Day taps vainly on shaded windows whispering “look outsiiiide . . .”
Lunchtime is not happy hour for Days. Two diva stars have demanded 24/7 shining, and Day has spent hours patiently explaining why this cannot happen. (Night really should exert more discipline). All this troubleshooting has made Day late getting everything ready for the crescendo of midday’s half-time score.
The best weather must be arranged because people don’t want to walk in the park in the rain or the blazing heat. Days and Weather politely exchange a Secret Santa at the Christmas party but inter-departmental collaboration was only ever viewed as cost-cutting, not a universal panacea, and in order to get a decent lunchtime forecast, Day has had to call in a few favours which will need repaying in kind.
Mid-afternoon is spent arranging the sunset. Planning starts early because there’s no overtime in a Day’s day, and sunset has to be spectacular. In between juggling shades of red-and-pink, paperwork has to be filed, a conference call fielded and ozone repairs overseen. The holes in the ozone layer might actually last if they were still allowed to use cotton-wool infill instead of organic thread, but Upstairs says no, and at least the endless cloud mending keeps the elves employed. A strict early evening deadline leaves Dusk and Evening holding the fort until Night arrives in all its starry glory, and Day makes a few last minute tweaks to the sunset before sinking into a comfy chair and having a well earned cup of tea.
Weekends are just as arduous. Perfect Days are expected for brides, Sunday walks, BBQs in the garden and outdoor activities. If things don’t live up to expectations the blame is laid firmly at Day’s door.
“Oh it was a terrible day.”
“Rotten day, nothing went right.”
“Thank goodness today is over.”
These comments resound through the ether making our Day want to sit and weep at the ingratitude, if only it had the time to spare. Days work a seasonal rota, one season on, one season off. No sick-leave or free weekends and burn-out is rife. Working practices are archaic, but training to be a Day is a vocation not just a job, and I haven’t dared mention the Holidays; Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays. Pandemics are not Day’s fault either, they’re a whole different department, but of course Day gets the blame for long lockdown days.
We on the ground must stop taking Days for granted. We could volunteer for Day Care; its easy work. Just send kindly thoughts for the Day itself, respect the work that’s gone into making each Day special and give thanks for those elven clouds and sunrises even if you don’t see them. Store precious memories from the red-letter Days, try to have a nice Day and carpe diem the rest. Lets appreciate all our Days and live them with open hearts! Days, we love you and we appreciate ALL of you!
Sammy Nutkins is a poet. He’s also a ginger cat, but we all need to find our own place in life even when it follows an unconventional path.
A particularly handsome ginger cat, with a slightly academic air and symmetrical marmalade stripes, eyes the colour of liquid amber (when they’re open), and an elegantly long tail which harks back to his Siamese ancestry. He is well aware ancient Egyptians would have worshipped him.
Being a poet cat brings numerous problems; Sammy’s main bugbear is his little sis Rita. Rita is tortoiseshell, as mad as a box of frogs, and as boisterous and in-your-face as he is pedantic and thoughtful.
When he’s not asleep, Sammy spends a lot of time sitting and thinking. Maybe he’s pondering rhyming couplets, or maybe he’s wondering if there’s time for a nap before tea?
A Time to Ode
A hearty breakfast and tummy tickles
then sleep on the comfy chair.
My little sister stalks the house until she finds me there.
She snuggles up and steals my space, snoring in my ear
and doesn’t move the whole day long, til supper doth appear.
The humans love to stroke and pet
we have to grin and bear,
always laying on our backs to show our tummy hair.
We’re tempted back to sleep some more, endorphins make us purr,
‘pon waking, we always wash and dry our crumpled feline fur.
Then sister says she wants to play,
running round the house
the humans shout and reprimand, they think we have a mouse!
I always win the fighting game, my stature is much higher,
then I need a little rest; in the comfy chair I retire.
But now the woodburner’s well alight
logs and hearth are warm,
to the fire for evening sleep, sis and I are drawn.
I sit and watch the flames a-flicker, and think of words that rhyme
I’d like to ode the whole day long . . . if only I had the time.
It hasn’t been easy since Bruce died. There, I said it. My horse died and I’ve been struggling. It’s taken me some time to admit I am only human after all. I seem to process things in hindsight. At the time I think I’m fine and then I realise it’s just me who believes that. Those I hold dear have held me close enough times to know how it works; I pretend I’m okay in the hope it’ll become reality. It doesn’t, and they’re there to catch me. Every time.
Things got more complicated than just Bruce because I don’t have a single life-shattering event, I have a series of them. Mark and I know by now to stay under the kitchen table until the world has stopped crashing. And then we come out with caution because snipers are more common than you think.
Shortly after Bruce died my routine CT scan showed the cancer meds had stopped being effective, and the cancerous lymph nodes in my abdomen had grown and multiplied. It sounds positively biblical. It’s tactfully called ‘progression’. I had higher hopes for this new Targeted Therapy I was on, but my cancer is a clever fellow and it only took him a year to figure out how to bypass blocked DNA. He’s got more adept at freeing himself from the ties of treatments as the years have passed. If it wasn’t cancer and it wasn’t inside me I’d applaud his brilliance. The thing he hasn’t quite twigged is if he kills me he kills himself, which is my rather black trump card. Unfortunately I won’t be around to say GOTCHA!
My inflammatory levels were running very high and I was on large dose of steroids to control them, which caused severe gastritis. The gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) was extremely painful and eating was difficult. My weight plummeted and the steroids stopped me sleeping; hungry and tired is a foolproof recipe for misery and along with the progression, it sent me into a spiral of OMG-I’M-GOING-TO-DIE. The fact everyone has heard it all before doesn’t make it any less real, to me at least. I looked gaunt and the bags under my eyes were more like portmanteaux than carry-ons. What I now know was referred pain from the lymph nodes pressing on my gut, caused constant pain in my back, sides and shoulders, and I wasn’t a happy bunny. It’s the first time my cancer has caused me actual physical pain, it’s usually caused by the surgery or treatments. I had to keep reminding myself that feeling shite is probably better than feeling dead, although at times it was a fine line between the two.
I had a consultation with the nice oncology Professor to explore treatment options including chemotherapy, and I’m afraid I swore at him. I keep forgetting I have limited treatment choices and I should be grateful there are still options. He said I could swear as much as I wanted, which just goes to show how nice he really is. A PET scan, a barrage of blood tests, and an endoscopic biopsy followed in quick succession before the Prof made his decision to start me on Fulvestrant injections combined with Palbociclib tablets. Neither are drugs I’ve used before so it will be interesting to see how their side effects compare with others. The injection is intra-muscular, which means a monthly jab into each buttock, and yes it is as painful as it sounds.
The culmination of everything has given me IBS. I look (and feel) like I have Winnie-the-Pooh’s big tummy, and to be blunt, the worst problem is gas. When it was trapped it was okay for everyone else but not for me, and now it’s liberated itself I’m more comfortable but others are suffering. This is one of the downsides of cancer they don’t tell you about.
I’ve spent two months at rock-bottom. I know Mark was worried sick about me and I was worried sick about me too. Last weekend, sometime between trying to fart quietly and pretending everything’s okay, I realised it actually is. Really and truly okay. This is as good as it gets. I trust the new drugs will work, my gut will recover its robust good humour and I’ll regain my strength and zeal for new projects. I’m back on track, just don’t walk behind me.
January dawns with the promise a new year brings; 365 new days, 365 new chances. Sometimes we jump in and take a chance, sometimes chances jump out and take us.
February, lighter in days but darker in mood, carries the weight of expectation on hunched shoulders. Country-wise elders rub gnarled hands and mutter “February fill dyke,” as water rises in the ditches. Every drain overflows, every inch of rain-sodden ground is mush, every waterproof coat succumbs to its leaky seams.
Then, like a dominatrix at a soggy party the Polar Queen gatecrashes from the East.
Wearing a coat that could freeze hell, she watches as water turns to ice, the country skids to halt, and her March escort roars his arrival like a banshee. In like a lion and out like a lamb, his vortex rises, and as primroses show their faces beneath sheltered hedges, his vortex falls. With a last breath he passes the baton to April.
April: traditionally the harbinger of hopeful spring. Hope is drowned by incessant showers. Pleasure is washed aside until the sight of Easter eggs, yellow daffodils and matching chicks brings wry smiles to chapped lips. Yellow is the brightest colour the human eye is able to see. It’s the colour of sunshine and happiness. It’s also the colour of caution.
May carries blossom scent on the breeze; tiny pink and white flowers smother newly leafed trees in a fleeting embrace. Bluebells nod their heads and nesting birds sing with joy. Everything sighs. Everything looks upward.
June. Oh June. June and July walk hand-in-hand under endless blue sky and sunshine. We eat outdoors, we linger in the sheer deliciousness of life. And as we fan our faces with the backs of our hands, we complain about the heat.
Slightly frayed at the edges, August gets blamed for sunshine fatigue. August cannot do right for doing wrong. It treads the fine line twixt summer and autumn like a child-woman, not yet one but no longer the other. Who’d be August?
September. Indian summer. We hang on to the word summer because we dare not think beyond that. In traditional Chinese medicine this is the season called Late Summer, the transition from yin to yang. A time to reflect, bring in the harvest of the year so far. Celebrate yet remember. A time when the pendulum reverses its swing.
October’s crispy leaves; the orange red yellow and gold of autumn. The forward march of time as clocks and day lengths change. All change, summer has reached the terminus. Everyone disembarks. The fast train to winter arrives at the station.
November is the new month, greyer is the new grey. We look inwards for warmth and find none. Cats don’t leave the hearth. Bed is snugly in the morning gloom, tempting us to stay a little longer, tempting us like a selfish lover. We are weak and succumb to just five more minutes.
December and the bitter-sweetness of Christmas. Half-heartedly we buy gifts for loved ones, thinking we have all the time in the world. Then we realise we haven’t and the panic rises to crescendo pitch. Turkey fills the shopping trolley, sweet mince pies fill the oven. Love for the season may or may not fill our heart.
And then the year begins again, like it has done for time eternal. As we breathe in and out the days pass to weeks and the weeks to months. The years have seen it all, been it all. When our present crises are blurred paragraphs in a history book, the years will still be rolling by. Presidents, viruses, parliamentary mayhem, come what may.
The pain? It’s truly indescribable so I’m not even going to try. And if that’s not enough, I have never felt so frigging ill in my whole life. If this is Karma and I’m paying for past transgressions then many earlier versions of me are now debt free.
I’m on the floor, clutching at the pattern on the carpet and banging my forehead against the chair leg. The razor-sharp wire wrapped around my chest is tightening like a garrote, and if my eyeballs could sweat, they’d sweat blood.
In as calm a manner as I can muster (because ironically I don’t want him thinking I’m ill) I suggest that Mark “calls someone.”
“Call who?” “Call the fucking ambulance.”
He recounts my symptoms to the emergency service until the call-handler interrupts to ask vital questions. His replies are quick and concise.
“Yes, she’s breathing. Yes, she’s conscious. Lying on the floor. No, not blue. Like this for some time.” When he repeats “She has stage 4 breast cancer” the questions halt abruptly.
“The ambulance is on its way.”
Those relief of those words cut through the wire like a sword through butter. I grasp and gasp the offered breath. By the time the ambulance parks in front of the house, blue flashing light reflecting though the windows, the resounding pain in my chest and back has dulled to an acute ache. I hear the medics carry their cumbersome equipment up the stairs. Colour rises in my cheeks, am I being a Drama Queen?
The two medics look about twelve years old. They work efficiently and in an instant, I’m plugged in to machines monitoring every vital organ.
Reading the print-out they say in unison “it doesn’t look like a heart attack but you’re going to need more tests, bloods, observation, and with your history I don’t think we should take chances. Hospital for you.”
We agree the pain is no joke and its intensity not subsiding, so the medic suggests I take two paracetamol for the journey.
I look at Mark trying not to look at me, and nod.
“Can you walk down the stairs?” “Yes I think so.” “I’ll wait in the hall while you gather some things. Does your husband want to come with, or follow in the car?” “I’ll follow,” says Mark.
I can’t think of what to take with me, so I put on some clean undies and hope for the best.
The ambulance is cold, the ultra-thin blanket sparse but surprisingly warm. We bump slowly along the rough track that we call our driveway before lurching onto the potholed country lane. Without being able to see the route I try to calm myself by guessing where we are, and as soon as the bumping stops, I feel we’re on the main road. The driver takes a circuitous route suggested by satnav, and by way of explanation the medic says “the driver’s from New Zealand.” We smile conspiratorially; two locals bumping along together in the back of an ambulance.
At the hospital, I’m unloaded into the chill evening air and the winter breeze dances on my face. In the busy corridor, I’m transferred to a trolley and parked under a bright overhead light, next to a radiator. The ambulance staff write-up their notes electronically, wish me luck and hand me over to the nursing staff. Then they’re gone.
I’m well illuminated, sweatily warm, and very uncomfortable- the paracetamol hasn’t even touched the sides of the pain. There’s a queue of trolleys ahead of me, and at the end of our destination ward signs say Critical, Resuscitation and Majors. I start to feel very scared.
I’m lying on my own trying to breathe slowly, when a young girl comes marching along the corridor. She’s wearing leopardskin print leggings and gold gladiator sandals which make me smile because of their sheer audacity.
“Are you Elaine?” she asks brightly, stopping at my trolley.
“Yes” I reply meekly. I know doctors are getting younger, but . . .
“I’m Sarah from reception” she says, “and I’m pleased to meet you! I have your friend Julie at the front desk. When no one’s looking I’ll smuggle her through. They don’t like people out here but you look a bit lonely”
I nod. I think I’m going to cry. Sarah touches my shoulder, and I cry.
Julie perches on the end of my trolley. We hold hands and giggle and when it turns to tears, we just hold hands. We’ve been together thirty years, together through absolutely everything.
“Mark phoned me before he left home and told me what happened,” she says, rubbing my hands with hers. “I was just sitting down for the evening with a glass of sherry, John offered to drink it for me but I poured it back in the bottle.”
I apologise for the call-out, it’s not like it’s the first time and we giggle again. We agree how useful it is she lives near the hospital. I tell her I’m scared (again, not for the first time) and she says she knows I am, and we laugh-cry-giggle for a few indulgent minutes in our own little world, letting the reality of the situation pass us by.
I’m feeling less scared by the time Sarah appears again, this time with Mark. She tactfully suggests a visitor swap. As Julie and I hug and say our good-byes and our love-yous, a nurse comes to admit me to Majors. Julie and Sarah walk back down the corridor and as they turn to wave, we go our separate ways and I’m wheeled into the bustling Majors Ward.
My trolley is parked in a bay by the doctor’s desk, and the curtains drawn around me. Beyond the curtains is a cacophony of bleeping machines, phone ring-tones, trolleys wheeling to-and-fro, and many-accented voices.
The nurse clears the detritus from the previous occupant, sprays everything with disinfectant and lays fresh linen on the bed before asking me if I can move myself from the trolley. I nod, and slide over. The nurse raises the bed-head higher, and places pillows behind me.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he says, disappearing through the gap in the curtains.
Mark sits in the single adjacent chair and we look glumly at each other.
“I fed the cats before I left home,” he says.
“What time is it now?” “Seven forty-five. The ambulance man said they’d do some blood tests and we should be home by midnight.”
In the midst of trying to smile more-brightly-than-we-feel, a high-pitched voice from the patient in the opposite bay drifts through the curtains.
“I’m a transvestite you know! I wish I’d worn my feminine attire, this outfit isn’t very flattering is it?”
“Each to their own” is the reply from the nurse, followed by a deep sigh.
No amount of pain can stop me wanting to laugh. It’s going to be a long night, but things are looking up.
The nurse returns, with a doctor and an intern and I’m plugged back in to the monitors, recite my list of current drugs (lengthy) and medical history (even lengthier). They need to take blood. My veins collapsed after much chemo and I had a portacath inserted under my collarbone to make needling easier. The medics look confused when I show them, and after a lengthy confab they call another doctor.
She examines the portacath and says “what size needle do you use?”
“I don’t know I’ve never asked” I reply. “They just put the needle in. I didn’t know there were different sizes.” She peers closely at my arms and hands hoping to find a vein to use as an alternative, but finds none. She sighs before exiting through the curtains.
“I’m in an awful lot of pain” I say to the nurse. “Can I have something?”
He nods, and while he’s gone to find pain-relief, the doctor re-appears with a student nurse and shows him how to take blood from the portacath.
“What size needle did you choose?” I ask
“The smallest. Best to start small and work upwards” she replies.
The first nurse arrives back with codeine.
“I’m sorry, I can’t take it” I say, recalling my past out-of-head-and-body experiences.
“Ok” I’ll be back.
The second offering is Oramorph, together with pills for anti-sickness and gastro-guard medication. I swallow the pills with water and empty the phial of sickly-sweet morphine directly into my mouth.The pain recedes, my face reddens, and for the second time that night, things begin to look up.
“When do you think I’ll be discharged?” I ask Mark.
“Oh”, he says wearily “midnight-ish?”
“Uh huh, sounds good. The pain’s gone, I feel fine now.”
He looks weary and doesn’t share my optimism.
“I think I need to pay more attention to my food,” I say brightly.
I jabber away happily in my drug-induced gaiety; food, decorating styles, hairdressers, all random subjects that suddenly seem interesting. I distinctly, and embarrassingly, remember asking his opinion on constipation and piles.
Through the now opened curtains, I watch as the transvestite straightens her unflattering clothes and leaves the ward in a flurry of flounces and showboating. A new occupant is wheeled into the vacant bay. “You’ll be sure to tell my husband I’m here won’t you,” she asks the nurse earnestly. “He’s watching television and won’t know where I am.” The nurse nods.
“And my handbag- I’ve left my handbag somewhere” The nurse gives a cursory glance over the bed, floor and bedside locker.
“No handbag here, darling.” “Oh, it’ll be with my slippers then, or my husband might have it. Now, I need to brush my teeth . . .” She struggles to get out of bed.
“No, you need to stay in bed darling.”
“But my teeth.”
“Never mind your teeth, you need to stay in bed.” She wriggles down the bed, dangling her legs and feet over the end, just as a nurse wheels another patient along the narrow central aisle. He slams his trolley to a halt precariously jolting his patient, and shouts something in a foreign language. A swearword still sounds like a swearword in any language. Together, the two nurses move the two patients back up their beds.
An assessment doctor arrives and shines a torch deep into the woman’s eyes before checking her neck brace and head bandage dressing. The patient knows her own name, can count backwards from ten, and knows she’s in Poole Hospital because ‘she’s been there for the past three days’. The doctor asks her to remember the address 42 West Street, which she promptly forgets, but does remember she fell while walking her dog. Then she says “No, I don’t have a dog. Why?”
A new nurse, arrives at my bed with another doctor. “Hello darling” he says, “I’m Ghio. Could I get you a cup of tea?” He has a kind way and a gentle voice.
“I could murder a cup of tea” I say. “And biscuits?”
“I’ll see what I can do, darling.” He turns to Mark, “tea for you?” (For a moment I think he’s gong to call him darling). Mark shakes his head.
“Have you had an ECG?” asks the doctor.
“Yes, I had one when I arrived.”
“Did, you? I don’t have a record of that.” She scans her notes. “They must’ve lost it, I’ll get the machine and we’ll do another”.
The sticky tabs are stuck back on my skin and I’m plugged in again.
“We also need to do another blood test.” “I had one of those.”
“Yes, but it needed a longer time lag, it was done too soon after you arrived.” I show her the portacath with the canula still attached for when it’s needed again.
“There’s no-one available who can use that” she says, “we’ll use a vein.”
“I don’t think you’ll get one.”
She examines my arm and shakes her head doubtfully. “Can we go in your hand?”
“It blows up like a balloon,” I say, trying to avoid hunt-the-vein scenarios played out so often in the past. “That’s why I had the portacath fitted. . .”
Ghio takes my hand, moving his thumb lightly over the skin.
“I was a phlebotomist in Mexico,” he says gently. “If you trust me darling, I can get a vein no problem.”
“One try only” I reply.
“It’s all I need darling.”
I don’t feel him insert the needle; it’s the sweetest blood test I’ve ever had, and he hits bullseye first time. His skill, his tea and his packet of biscuits merit eternal gratitude. Being called darling is a bonus.
To my left, two daughters are comforting their elderly mother, who has a suspected hip fracture. All she wants to do is pee but she can’t be moved to use the bedpan, so the nurse tells her to wet the bed.
One sister is the Carer. The other looks like the Bankroller and is obviously feeling completely out of her depth, witnessing the grim reality of her mother’s situation.
“Mum, just pee in the bed, we’ll change sheets soon” coos the Carer, while the Bankroller turns her head and inspects the wall.
The assessment doctor shines her torch and ascertains the patient knows her own name and location, and can count backwards from ten. She also remembers the address 42 West Street, and when asked her date of birth recites today’s date, proudly stating it’s her ninety-ninth birthday.
With touching spontaneity, everyone in earshot smiles and shouts “Happy Birthday!”
She continues to pee in the bed which begins to overflow. The awkward daughter has a panic attack and faints, and the nurses lift her onto a trolley next to her mother. The Caring daughter catches my eye, shrugs, and smiles.
A man with a continuous nosebleed is admitted. He’s covered head-to-toe in blood and leaves a red trail along the ward to his bed. He is trying to make a phonecall, but has so many pads and towels wrapped around his face, all that comes out is a muffled “hhhmmmmmmnnpppppfff.”
A young doctor comes to ask my medical history and the events leading to my admission. I give an abbreviated version of both. She says the blood tests show I have elevated liver function, and they’re trying to find out why. A nurse takes my blood pressure, and the next moment I’m transferred to a wheelchair and wheeled along the corridor for a chest x-ray. The midnight discharge time has passed. Mark and I re-assess our guess, saying 2a.m sounds more likely. We are both wide-awake and over-awed by the horrific yet mesmerising drama around us, which is still unfolding.
And we are part of it.
Mark gets up and goes to the toilet along the corridor, and comes back to say all hell has broken loose. Nurses are rushing victims of a car accident into the Emergency Ward and the corridor is full of police officers and screaming relatives. En masse, all our doctors disappear into the Emergency Room.
For a few moments, a sense of calm descends over our ward as the nurses quietly bustle from one patient to the next, checking dressings and giving drugs. Their trainers making little or no noise on the floor. The nosebleed is slowing, the woman opposite has her neck brace removed (all the while asking about her husband and handbag), and the fainting daughter in the next bay recovers enough to move from trolley to chair.
A piercing scream shatters the silence. An elderly lady in the end bed, brought in from her care home with a bladder infection, is resisting an injection.
“Now, Mary, this won’t take a minute,” says the nurse patiently.
“Fuck OFF” screams Mary. “And don’t call me Mary.”
“What shall I call you?” “Mrs Scrivener. My name is Mrs Scrivener. M I S S US”
“Ok Mrs Scrivener, I need to give you this injection.” “Fuckofffuckofffuckoff.”
“But Mary . . . Mrs Scrivener . . .” “Fuck off.”
The nurse retreats and fetches Ghio who approaches the bed with a bright smile.
“Hi Mary darling, I’m just going to give you something for the pain. OK?”
“Yes” she replies, “that’s okay.”
At four o’clock Mark and I laugh about our 2a.m expectations, and at five o’clock I ask if he could go across the road to the all-night petrol station and fetch a pack of peppermints. While he’s away, a doctor pulls the curtains around my bay, and asks me my medical details once again. Slowly I repeat the same answers to the same questions, and ask if there are further blood tests results.
“We’re still trying to find the reason for the elevated levels,” she says “so we’re going to admit you to a ward for further tests and observation.”
My heart drops. I want to go home.
“How long will I be in?” “It depends on what they find.”
When Mark returns I ask if he could go home and fetch my cancer meds, and some sweat pants and tees for a hospital stay. He looks as crestfallen as I’m feeling.
Together we’ve weathered this night – no, not just weathered, but been part of a parallel universe that must occur in every hospital, 24/7. The way the nurses work as a team and the doctors seamlessly change from one patient to another is awesome, and it doesn’t matter what the political funding and resources debate says, it’s the people that make the situation bearable. It was emotional. And the scan showed I have gallstones. I was home by teatime.
An early morning walk is my new normal because the need to be outdoors, to feel the morning air and the grounding presence of a world larger than mine is overwhelming. It feels strange to walk without the footfall of a companionable horse, but this is now and that was then, and I’m trying to focus on being where I need to be in this part of my life.
The kissing gate leads to a steep footpath through the woods, shaded from light by mature trees. When I pass the tree I call Tall Man the sun breaks through the canopy, and I walk looking up instead of down.
Following the narrow path and avoiding badger setts, I reach Lady’s Walk and the back gate of St. Stephen’s church.
Henrietta Bankes was the chatelaine of Kingston Lacy House. In 1906 her husband Walter Ralph Bankes gave her £5,000 to build the church. Lady’s Walk was her personal path the north door where she’d sit in her own pew, leaving as the last hymn was sung to avoid mixing with the hoi polloi.
The Bankes family have lived in Dorset since the 17th century when they were considered one of the most powerful families in England, owning both the estates of Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy. In 1643, the Royalist Lady Mary Bankes stayed at Corfe Castle while her husband fought in the Civil War. Corfe Castle was the only Royalist stronghold left in Dorset, and when Parliamentarians attacked, ‘Brave Dame Mary’ held the castle for three-year siege until she was betrayed from within. In recognition of her bravery, the Parliamentarians allowed her to keep the castle seal and keys.
When Henrietta and WRB’s son died in 1981, he left the 16,000 acre estate to the National Trust.
The front of the church catches the full morning sun, and I sit a while on the bench or in the sheltered porchway. The church has no graveyard, just trees planted with plaques of remembrance and a tall stone memorial cross for Mr. Bankes.
Like characters from a Thomas Hardy novel, Mark and I walked the same wooded path from home one July afternoon to renew our wedding vows in this church. The vicar was an eccentric scholar who studied Judaism, and with great tact and understanding he accommodated our wishes of a G-dly but not devoutly Christian service. The three of us stood in an otherwise empty church, I held a posy of flowers cut from Julie’s garden, and it was a most beautiful service. Afterwards we drank a champagne toast, and the vicar provided a napkin to wrap a glass so we could stamp on it and shout l’chaim! Then we went home for tea and cakes.
Leaving the church, I turn right onto the narrow lane. From February ’til early summer the high banks are covered in snowdrops primroses celandine daffodils and bluebells, and natural springwater runs freely down the hill. It freezes in winter which is quite treacherous.
Through a perfectly placed gap in the trees there’s a fantastic view of the fields leading down to the river.
The 19thC forge is a working forge. It laid empty from 1945 until Giles began working there in the mid-nineties, using many of the same blacksmithing tools and techniques in a tradition unchanged for hundreds of years. It has quirky windows made from small panes of overlapped glass that I always want to touch; its like touching history.
The exposed roots of fallen tree remind me of extracted tooth! When I reach the little thatched cottage at the bottom of the hill I turn off the road and walk across the fields.
Ruby Red Devon cattle have grazed here since the 19thC. When the last member of the Bankes family to live at Kingston Lacy gifted the estate to the National Trust, he asked that that herd of Red Devons would always be maintained on the estate. They graze outside our house and their colour and solidness always makes me smile.
I was taking a picture of this tree framing a fallen tree (sometimes I go and sit on the fallen tree) when I heard a rustling behind me
and as I turned round, a startled deer stood motionless for a second before fleeing to safety.
In the grass there’s a fairy citadel of fungi, a row of freshly dug molehills, and a cluster of stinking iris. I Googled why they have such an unfortunate name and its because the leaves smell disgusting if you crush them. For some reason, the birds never eat the berries.
Now I’m on the downward path towards home
and when I reach the low-spread copper beech branches, there’s the first glimpse of our house.
The ancient copper beech tree has initials carved on the bough, it makes me wonder who these people were, sitting with their back against the tree, maybe planning their future together?
Our house is tucked away under the trees and gets little or no sunlight until springtime. I really miss the warmth and cheer.
At the front of the house is our dear fallen hero, the Victorian cedar tree that came down in the rain and high winds just before Christmas. We heard him crash at three in the morning. Some of the roots remained intact, and thankfully the greenery has begun to grow again so he continues his life, albeit from a different perspective.
And back to my own front gate where tea and toast and two cats are waiting inside. Thankyou for coming with me today, it was lovely to have your company and share my walk with you. Perhaps next time we’ll have a walk around Kingston Lacy House and I’ll show you the treasures? xx