the last word

You know me well enough to excuse my warped sense of humour; if there was a support group for Poor Humour Addicts, I’d be the leading light.

“My name is Elaine and I find the darkest things funny.”

Alas, it’s a familial trait so I’m both helpless and blameless. My maternal family had genetic cancers and my paternal side had cardiovascular heart disease, so throughout my childhood, relatives dropped like flies, and visiting family homes for Shiva gatherings was a social norm. I became a dab hand at arranging fruit platters and baking kosher biscuits. I also ate of lot of cheesecake. And I mean a LOT. I’m sure it helped the heart disease enormously.

It hasn’t escaped my attention there’s a virus doing the rounds, and in a crisis situation, a sixty-five year old woman with terminal cancer is not going to have much luck in the ventilator lottery. This doesn’t feel as dramatic as it sounds because while I’m in favour of women and children getting first dibs at the lifeboats, I can see the logic that healthier people gain more bucks per breath from mechanically aided living.

The corona explosion has given humanity a glimpse of how a cancer diagnosis feels. Full of shock, awe, disbelief and grief, you can neither see nor think a way around the words tattooed on your eyeballs; I AM GOING TO DIE. Statistics gain new meaning; depending on your situation, you either cling to them for a lifeline or disregard them with contempt. The alien language of diagnosis leaves you as speechless as the prognosis leaves you breathless, and trying to control the engulfing catastrophe is as pointless as panic buying for the apocalypse.

Self Isolation is not unlike chemotherapy, except you get to keep your hair. With an exposed immune system to protect, the norm is staying home, adapting to shrinking boundaries, dodging unsolicited hugs and finding out who your friends are and aren’t. Vulnerability and panic are just feelings, they have their own agenda. My answer is to be exactly where you are, without considering the future or mourning the past.

My only concern is that I didn’t see this coming. In my attempt to organise a painless demise I’ve prepared a hundred good ways to die, and becoming a virus demographic never even made the top forty. Four years ago, I had an appallingly bad reaction to a chemotherapy drug. As I lay in my hospital bed connected to bleeping hardware, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it would be to die; you just had to let go. Letting go of the bad things was simple, and the good things slipped out of reach once you had absorbed them internally. The thing I could not quite manage to do was take my hand off Bruce’s neck. He stayed with me through the long night, supporting me with his horse strength until I was safe. We counted the bleeps on the bedside machine until our breathing became united. You don’t have to ride a horse to be carried by one.

When I left hospital a week later, I stopped all treatment; what cures also kills, and I felt safer with the cancer. After twenty-five years of cancer treatment, I won’t even try to describe the relief of knowing there would be no more drugs, nor the guilt I felt (still feel) for leaving Mark hopeless.

I had a lot of time to think, recuperating in bed at home. As the chemotherapy toxins exited my system, the skin completely peeled off my hands and feet, and I knew I’d made the right decision. When the Macmillan Nurse visited, we made a plan; I didn’t want my heart shocked to oblivion on a hospital bed so I signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. I like being ready. A few weeks later I was out of bed, waving my list of Things That Need Doing Before I Go. There was so much more time in the day without chemotherapy constraints!

Top of the list was my burial and funeral; I didn’t want to leave the organization to Mark, so we made a surreal trip to the nearby Woodland Cemetery. A director greeted us at the door. He had the perfect balance of being businesslike and human, and as he showed us funeral plans, brochures and prices, neither of us felt it was anything but ordinary to discuss my coffin, and sojourn at the mortuary. He took us on a buggy tour of the cemetery, and we chose our burial plots in a section overlooking fields where I have had many beautiful rides. Mark’s burial plot is at the end of the row (to give him a bit more legroom) and I’m next door. We have yet to decide which native trees we will plant. We have never owned land before, so I semi-seriously asked the director if we could make use of the space until we needed it, and perhaps plant some green beans or potatoes. Laughingly, he said that wasn’t allowed, but we were welcome to come and sit on the bench and picnic. Sitting by your own grave eating egg sandwiches might be too morbid even for me.

I’ve chosen the music and orators for my funeral; it’s going to be a sombre affair with a solo violinist playing the Ashakan Farewell. I don’t want brightly clothed mourners and happy-clappy music, because I think funerals are an occasion for grief, and we don’t give ourselves many other chances to express that as succinctly as we do at a graveside. On my last journey from home to the burial ground I want to travel in the back of the pick-up truck (which Mark isn’t keen on) or in a horse and cart. Not a posh glass coach with plumed horses, just a plain old cart like the one in which Captain Troy brought Fanny Robin home, in the 1967 (best) film of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The only problem is, I’ve chosen a wickerwork coffin and I’m not sure what happens if it rains. Do they wrap me in plastic?

Take it from me that planning and paying for your own funeral is very liberating. In times of immense uncertainty, its good finalise something so final. I had accepted my situation. Mark did not feel the same, but I try very hard not to carry the weight of his burdens too. 

Have you ever thought what your last words would be? Probably not, but it might be worth considering. I want to say something profound, something witty that people would repeat with reverence. I would become an internet meme. A greetings card quote. Be immortalised in cross-stitch on an heirloom sampler! But when it comes to it, I’d probably struggle to recall any line I’d previously practised. The drugs would blur cognitive thought, and stop my mouth forming coherent speech. In a last semblance of elegant wit, I’d lift my head, pause and dribble, smile my most enigmatic smile, and Ta Da! just as the room fell silent and all attention was on me, I’d crack out the most enormous fart. How do you embroider that?

A couple of weeks after booking the funeral I started to get restless about dying. Nothing much was happening; the ‘last treats’ had stopped being treats, and eating ice-cream for breakfast quickly loses its allure. Waiting to die was a bit boring. I felt very robust, had an inkling of an idea for a new business venture, and Bruce was looking particularly well in his summer coat. In the early hours of the morning, I began wondering if I’d made the right decision. When I came down for breakfast Mark was sitting on the arm of the sofa looking sombre.

“You okay babe?” I asked, unable to avoid the sorrow in his eyes.

“No,” he replied quietly “I am not”.

I moved his coffee cup to one side and perched on the table opposite him. “Tell me?”

“I don’t feel you’re ready to give up. I don’t think you’ve reached that time yet, and we’re talking ourselves into something that shouldn’t be happening.”

“No, I mean yes” I said. “You’re right, I’m not ready”.

His eyes flicked in surprise as his head did a little double take shake.

“I was thinking about it last night” I continued “and I think maybe its worth one more shot with a different chemo. Dr Chakrabarti said he had something new, we’ll go talk to him.”

Mark and I had reached the same decision separately but together. The oncologist and all the nurses hugged me, and then Mark, when we told them we were back to continue treatment; I think he got huggier hugs than I did. Eribulin was the new chemotherapy drug, it worked, and I stayed on it for three years until I swapped to a specifically targeted treatment nine months ago. I’ve always taken an active part in my treatment, and feeling I have options and a degree of control have served me well. I’m extremely fortunate that my chosen oncologists have treated me, as well as the disease.

Coming off all treatment at that time was the right decision for me. Facing up to the nitty-gritty of death, and knowing I wasn’t ready helped process the reality of living with cancer, and not dying of it. An elective death is no longer a priority, I would rather it was a chance meeting, and I’m in no rush to have the last word.

Selling the Dream

I am a consummate saleswoman, it’s what I do. I expect it’s another genetic trait I’ve inherited, like curly hair and cancer. I could make a healthy living selling assisted dying packages (payment up front of course) on a commission-only basis, and believe my spiel sufficiently to buy a package for myself. I might even stockpile. I’ve managed to sell myself to myself all these years in a convincing game of smoke and mirrors, so could I also sell myself a life without fear? It was a challenge I could not resist.

Like all horses, Bruce has a strict moral code that does not trust sales pitches. My friend Tessa calls her horse the Truth Serum Horse, which is a perfect title. Bruce shut the door in my face each time I presented myself with a re-invented mask and new set of false dialogue; he knew it was still the same me. Eventually he stopped bothering to answer the door, and pinned a notice on the front window that read ‘come back when you tell the truth’. That horse speaks his mind, he is no schmoozer. In the end, the only resource left was to strike a deal and agree we would both tell the truth. Bruce is a stoic horse and he’d chosen to shut down rather than dump the burden he carried, so it wasn’t easy for him either.

My side of the bargain was that if I didn’t understand something I’d say so, stop pretending, and allow us to work together. I promised I would become my authentic self so that what he saw was what he got, although I had no idea who or what that was. He made no such promises because horses aren’t that needy, but basically we were both going to cut the crap, and I would always listen if he wanted to say something. Living with a horse is like living with a four-legged lie detector, and Bruce was definitely going to tell me if fearlessness became another pretence.

When I started my blog, I posted about how changing narrative helped me cope, so the first step for me was to change fear’s name, and see if that diluted the connotations it evoked. I renamed fear Early Warning System; a positive name for something facilitating a safer life and not an inhibited one.

One of the comments on my previous post about feeling fear, was from Susan who asked  “Did you know your fear is afraid as well? Your fear is afraid to stop trying to protect you”. These words really struck a chord with me, because I was a born people-pleaser; my job was to make things better. By fighting it, I’d inadvertently upset my fear and made things worse! Now the dynamic had changed I could be the prime motivator, making amends by helping my fear protect me, because as we all know, it is easier to help someone else, than to help yourself.

Ten years ago when I first had Bruce, I found myself adrift in a minefield of fear and broken dreams. I’d expected my rescue horse to relax and rejoice in his liberation, but misplaced adoration was no substitute for structure. As he took the necessary steps to safeguard himself at all costs, he grew more anxious and bullish and I grew more scared. We were both in a situation we couldn’t handle, and in a misguided struggle to regain the upper hand, I thought false bravado would give me power. I didn’t, but it began the journey towards giving me something much better. Understanding.

Confidence Coach Cathy Sirett had a blog which I began reading, and she wrote about a scale exercise for enabling change. If grade number one is the best, and grade number five is the worst, find what you can do to move one-step back and lower the grade. It was the first time I considered my thoughts unemotionally, and probably the first time I took a breath; it gave me something constructive to do (direction not correction!)  This method has worked in many aspects of my life, and I had a brainwave, tried something different and did the scale from my fear’s perspective. Boy, did that hit the spot! My fear didn’t get more anxious as I got more confident, because it WANTED me confident. It wanted to take a backseat and only went into overdrive when it felt unheeded. My Early Warning System simply wanted to protect me, and then it wanted to sit with its feet up and enjoy doing nothing.

As all good horses are wont to do, Bruce led me towards different teaching methods and better insight. How horses do this is one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time. After a life-changing introduction to Kirsty and her Mark Rashid teachings, he deposited me at Anna’s Relaxed & Forward barn in a cloud of dust. My debt to this horse is infinite, not only did he facilitate my momentous personality overhaul; he also gave me two of the deepest and dearest friendships imaginable.

In a transatlantic Messenger chit-chat with another R&F barn member, Kimberley asked me if I thought at our age, fear was the trade-off for wisdom. De-cluttering books always tell us to discard something old when you bring in something new, but I don’t think fearlessness needs to shuffle aside to make room for wisdom. Maybe wisdom arrives so slowly because we’ve been looking for it in the wrong places? Fear is just a feeling, the same as happiness and sorrow, its part of us and I think we need to celebrate that fact. Selling myself a life without fear isn’t the answer, but I would like to live alongside what I now understand is an ally. I am not pretending (to you or myself) that I’ve suddenly become brave or confident. I’m not telling my horse I can do this, because he knows what I can and I can’t do before that information reaches my own brain.

There are no set plans how to deal with fear; it’s a suck-it-and-see situation because what works one day may not work the next. Everything in life changes; right now this is how fear presents itself, this is where I am, and it feels exactly the right place. Mindfulness teaches us not to hang on to feelings good or bad. All we have to do is acknowledge them and let them pass. Something so simple should be easy but we all know it is not. I think working on letting fear go, and not trying to quell it with dominance is the way forward, however difficult that might be. This morning I talked it over with my horse. He was busy doing the important stuff of eating spring grass and scratching his nose, and didn’t say much while I spoke. As I finished my explanation, he lifted his head, flicked his tail and studied me for a good few seconds, with ears pricked forward. Then he went back to eating. I consider that a yes, because this time, the door stayed open.

Fear of Fear

We all arrive at fear with real and imaginary experiences that are as unique to us as our DNA.

Unlike any other marathon, fear has no common starting-place, no midway point of motivation, and no perceivable end, but if we can gain succour from refreshments offered along the way, we can survive. If we can hear the shouts of encouragement through the deafening cacophony of self-doubt, we have hope. Moreover, if we can accept that our personal best is simply putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll stay the distance, and the absence of a finishing line will become irrelevant.

What are your greatest fears? Mine are incapacitating illness, living without Mark, and I’m fearful when riding my horse. I have not listed them in order of greatness.

Life without Mark is self-explanatory. Being incapacitated means I don’t want to helplessly linger on the edge death; I want to say a quick “Goodbye”, grab my coat, and leave while you still have something bad to say about me.

My most closely guarded secret is that I’m a fearful rider; I could never say riding frightens me, so is there a difference between feeling fearful and frightened, and where do these feelings originate?

I love my horse with all my heart, I love riding, and the joy it brings is like nothing else in the world. Yet, every time I climb into the saddle, all pleasure is obliterated by the voice of fear screaming relentlessly in my head. It tells me I have just signed my own death warrant. Like a spit roast over an open fire, my fear rotates continually, basted by terror and dread. The juices are so intensely flavoured I can taste them dripping down the back of my throat.

So what do we do with fear? I can’t predict what fate has in store for Mark, any more than I can arrange my demise as a speedy episode between breakfast and lunch. However, there’s surely a way to restore the equilibrium of riding my horse?

The fear has been with me for many years; I just chose to ignore it. Ignorance was bliss but it wasn’t constructive. Mind and muscle memories have replayed past events so many times in a vain effort to warn me of the peril, that what started as a feint speck of anxiety has become an overwhelming stain of panic.

When I mount my horse, I breathe deeply, and focus mindfully on my actions. I smile as my body lightly greets the saddle, and sigh like a granny settling into her favourite chair. I thank my horse, check my girth, wriggle my toes, shrug my shoulders and thank my horse again. All is good.

Lightly and politely, I ask my horse to move off. Bruce responds (as always) with a quick snatch of the reins, and a wobbly hind step as his dodgy hip adjusts to my weight. We both breathe through his momentary anxiety, and I thank him again for his compliance, and for being him. We walk down the track to the arena, his steps are guarded as unshod hooves tread on stones, and he re-sets his balance to negotiate downhill with a slanting camber. We’ve done this hundreds of times, and don’t deviate from his favoured route, arriving at the arena in the correct place to neatly open the gate, enter and shut it behind us with well-executed sidesteps and turns.

We begin our swinging, relaxed walk up the long side of the school towards the top, and as Bruce raises his head and pricks his ears to better see the horse grazing beyond, I feel my hands tighten, my face redden, and I’m like a stuck pig in a slaughterhouse, with the blood of fear oozing from every orifice. I have a lucid moment of trying to regain composure, before the panic in my gut rises to meet the panic descending from my eyeballs. I start to sing aloud, and Bruce’s ears flick back to me, as the familiar words of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ follow him around the school perimeter. He walks mechanically forward as if I wasn’t there (which I’m not), and I try to let his solid body soothe me. My panic swirls around, before joining forces with a heartbeat that’s faster than speeding time. It’s a gamble whether I’ll implode or explode, and I grit my teeth awaiting the outcome.

“Breathe…breathe…green bottles…” I gasp “hanging on the wall…” gasp “if breathe breathe green bottles…” gasp “should accidentally fall…” two gasps and an outbreath “and there’ll be nine green bottles” outbreath “hanging on the frigging wall”.

Throughout all this, I smile and pretend. My stoic horse rubs his nose on his knee and pretends; the critical fault-pickers who watch surreptitiously would never know how much each ride costs. When I’ve put myself through enough penury to prove we’re both ‘ticking over nicely’, we halt squarely to dismount, and as my leaden legs reach terra firma, the frustration of my feeble fear kills me slowly once again. I can’t even manage a walk around the arena. Its been a year since we ventured out of the farm on horseback, and two years since we trotted. Once I’m standing on the ground, Bruce shakes himself from head to toe, ridding his body of my burden, and rests his nose on my shoulder; he knows a placatory peppermint will follow the litany of apologies.

Where did this fear begin? In the beginning is the only answer. Countless horses over countless years have done things that scared me, but I always coped with whatever they did. Bruce added his substantial weight to the fearload; from the start, he had an unpredictable streak that belied his steadfast appearance, and when he accelerated from fright to flight quicker than I could anticipate, it took a chunk of courage to sit still. When I recall the events without emotion, I clearly see I coped competently, if not entirely effectively, but fearful feelings cloud logic. I’m not frightened of the horse; I’ve managed the worst he might do. What frightens me is the feeling of fear.

My confidence waxes and wanes with the stages of my treatments, but I recognise the real Me differs from the chemotherapy-induced wraith, who wouldn’t dare put foot in a stirrup. I no longer have anything to prove, least of all to myself and in a skewed way, fear reminds me I’m still alive. Perhaps its time to accept that fear is as much a part of riding as limbs aching the next day? My fear is mine, and I’m grateful for the reminder not to do something dangerous, but like an auto-immune condition, fear doesn’t know how to stop. So is the answer to work on its responsiveness and not its potency? A stronger bit is never the answer for a horse, but perhaps walk-halt-walk transitions would work, direction not correction? Partnering Bruce began when I learnt to sit still, breath and trust, instead of trying to control with dominance; as simple as it was difficult. Could fear be diluted by guiding it to a place of acceptance, rather than obliteration?

Today I’ve shared my secret, aired my fear, and I feel lighter. Life is a work in progress, and perhaps by keeping our enemies closer than our friends, we can chose when we visit them, instead of having them hammer on our door demanding entry. My horse, my ride, my fear. My choice.

Gathering the Herd

laying the foundations

From the beginning, books and ponies were my entire life. I read every book I could find on how to look after ponies, ride ponies and train ponies, and every storybook about girls who had ponies. Today my imaginary pony was Black Beauty’s friend Merrylegs. Merrylegs and I flowed through our paces with effortless movement, schooling over jumps made of twigs. We were as one, and I could effortlessly see a stride.

With small hands holding double reins, a willow wand stick, a silver trophy and the biggest rosette imaginable, we cantered our winner’s lap of honour around the garden; physically and mentally moving as one entity.

I dismounted and put my arms around my pony, thanked him for being the best, and led him, prancing, and dancing, to the make-believe stable. We squeezed through the narrow gap between two trees, and I re-arranged the bracken bedding and settled him for the night. After feeding him a ‘bucket’ of mash from a flowerpot, I went indoors for my dinner.

Donkey was grey, and had an unusually broad brown Jerusalem cross, reaching from tail to withers, with crossbars that ended below his knees. Such vivid markings made him a church favourite at Easter and Christmas, and although he was not heady with fame, he certainly knew his own mind. Donkey lived at the pig farm where my school friend Maureen kept her pony. I helped her in the evenings, and the farmer thought we might like to ride together. I found riding Donkey a mixed blessing, but he was REAL, and a huge improvement on imaginary predecessors.

I put the grooming kit I’d bought especially for him in my bicycle basket, and cycled twenty minutes to the farm, lifted his felt saddle-pad and bridle from the hook in the barn and carried it out to the field. Wherever Donkey was standing in the field was where I brushed and dressed him, because I quickly learnt it was pointless to suggest somewhere different, no matter how many times I told him he was handsome and good. The first time I put his bridle on I thought he was going to die; as I slipped the headpiece over his ears he began to splutter and heave, with huge internal bellows pumping overtime. I stood back thinking his sides would explode, until he turned his head towards me, and uttered one huge monotone out-breath bray, which was loud enough to split the atom. He did this at every bridling, moving closer and closer to my own ears, which seemed to amuse him. Once mounted, we trotted round the perimeter of his field three and a half times. He was intransigent about the pace, direction and number of laps, and it was a while before I questioned his authority. . .

One morning I decided we would like to go for a walk outside his field. He decided we wouldn’t. As we walked though the gate, he planted three hooves on the ground and one front hoof directly on my foot. Half in and half out, I was trying to hold him, hold the gate which swung towards us, and move him off my foot. No matter how much I pulled, pushed, cajoled or chastised, he remained motionless and stood with his ears pricked and eyes fixed on me. I can clearly remember his look, and I swear he was smiling. The pig farmer walked past us, with a sow on its way to the slaughterhouse, and nodded in our direction. Not wanting to lose face, I pretended I was petting Donkey, and standing mid-gate was a predetermined destination. Some time later, the farmer walked back, and didn’t seem surprised we were still ‘petting’. Without saying a word, he took hold of the gate so I could move my aching arm, and made a hissing noise at Donkey, who swished his tail, turned round and walked back into his field. I un-tacked him, hung everything back in the barn and placed his grooming kit next to the saddle pad. I limped to my bike and pedalled slowly home.

Elizabeth was horse-mad too, so she was my best friend at school. When we turned eleven, our parents agreed we could have riding lessons every other Saturday with Miss Bush. We lived and breathed for those Saturday lessons. Built like a tiny sparrow, with weatherbeaten features and curls of soft white hair, Miss Bush was a dynamo of wiry energy. Born into a wealthy family, the Victorian family house and stables became hers when her parents died, but there was little money for upkeep. Everything had an air of neglected grandeur, but she was a local legend and her teaching was superb. Along with a string of patent-safety ponies, she kept three chestnut thoroughbreds stabled in the old cobblestone coach house. We girlies worshipped the big horses, and if we rode particularly well in our lessons, our reward was to groom them; it was joy beyond words to touch that velvet skin, and brush the silken tail of a proper horse, like the ones who showjumped on television. I saw Miss Bush again years later, shortly before she died, and she didn’t look any different to that first day in 1966. She was eighty-seven, and she died wearing her riding boots just as she wished. 

My grandmother died when I was twelve. Nana lived with us and knew that horses were my world. She bequeathed an item of precious family jewellery to each of my cousins, but left me the most precious gift of all; one hundred pounds to buy a pony. A pony!! A pony of my own!! None of my family is, or ever was, in the least bit horsey. Mum used to take me to the saddler so I could spend my savings on a brush, or halter, or saddlesoap in readiness for my own pony, but when I began to look at local ponies for sale, Elizabeth and I cycled to see them on our pushbikes. We rode the pony and asked pertinent questions, but most suitable ponies were above my budget. On the cycle ride back home, we discussed the pros and cons, and as soon as I was indoors I wrote concise details in my Pony Book; sitting and writing that book at the dining room table was a hidden memory, that came floating back as I type this on the laptop.

The advert for Jimmy appeared in the Saturday edition of our local evening paper: 13.2 h.h dark bay New forest pony gelding for sale, 7 years old. Good with traffic, farrier etc. £75.00 including tack. I phoned the seller and arranged to see him the following morning. Elizabeth was going to church so I cycled there alone.

Something intangible connected me to Jimmy the first moment I saw him, and it gave me a sharp rush of adrenaline. None of my pony books had mentioned this happening. Its a pattern that’s been repeated with all my best horses, leading to logic being chucked on the muck heap, and the famous words “I’ll have him” being blurted without forethought. Jimmy was a neat stamp of pony, true to type for his New Forest breeding. He had a small white star and mealy coloured muzzle, and of course, he had the sweetest breath and kindest eyes ever bestowed on any pony. The woman selling him saddled up her own horse, and took me for a ride to try him out. His steering was very wobbly, his balance ungainly, and I fell off as soon as we started cantering. (I later discovered he was actually rising five and just broken). But I adored him and he was within my budget so I got back on and said I would have him, and next day Mum wrote the cheque. My life was just about to begin; I owned my very own pony. I found a field and stable to rent for him, and a week later we rode the eight miles to his new home, with mum following in her car. Today, the very thought of riding a four year old just-broken pony with no steering, along those busy roads makes me cringe, but back then belief triumphed over everything, and no harm came to us.

Life with a pony settled into the routine I had meticulously planned in my dreams. Every evening after school, I cycled to Jimmy’s field; my favourite journey because everyone would know that a bucket balanced on the handlebars, and saddle strapped to the back of my bike meant I had a pony. I fed and groomed him and loved him more than anything in the world. At the weekends, we went riding on the heath and that was where my fantasy abruptly ended. In reality, riding Jimmy scared the daylights out of me. Loving a pony doesn’t stop you falling off, and nothing had prepared me for riding an uncouth, unschooled bundle of nervous energy. Time after time I lay winded in the heather, watching him gallop home, and gradually I realised he would never be Merrylegs. Sadly, his sweet breath and mealy muzzle didn’t make that realisation hurt any less.

With un-horsey parents and nobody on hand to help, I took him to a Pony Club rally hoping for tuition. I bathed and brushed him and trimmed his hairy bits. Despite having a new white school shirt to wear with my jodhpurs and shoes, we were still the scruffiest among a field of expensive show ponies, immaculately dressed little girls and matching mothers. Nobody picked us to join their teams, and none of the instructors sensed my problems, so we never went again. Instead, I decided we had to work this out ourselves. We ignored all the pony books and made it up as we went along, spending rides doing what felt right for us. Eventually I learnt to sit and he learnt balance; more of an achievement than I knew. We taught eachother to jump which wasn’t pretty, but like everything else, it worked for us and that was what mattered. Jimmy never became Merrylegs; he became something so much more, and the only dreams that became reality were that we moved as one.

In 1976 I wanted to travel abroad, so my friend Sheila took Jimmy to use in her riding school. He became a firm favourite with the school clients, and forged a lifelong friendship with Mickey, a lookalike New Forest pony. When I came home from my year in Canada I used to visit and ride Jimmy regularly, and Sheila gave me the job of taking out experienced clients on a ‘fast ride’ while she accompanied the beginner walkers. No matter how many other people rode Jimmy, we never lost our bond or our own intuitive way of doing things, and the self-judgement of ‘proper’ riding never replaced the joy of free-wheeling. Jimmy died when he was thirty-four, shortly after Mickey.

By my mid-twenties, I was newly married and living in a North Dorset village nestled in the outstanding beauty of Cranborne Chase. Horses surrounded us, and my husband began taking lessons at the local riding school. Quite by chance, an acquaintance-of-a-friend told him about a mare for sale. We weren’t planning on buying a horse, but saw no harm in just going to have a look. Just a look, nothing more. . .

The following evening, we drove in through the huge gates of a very smart country house, which was like a photoshoot in Country Life. As we parked the car outside the stable block, the seller came to meet us. She said she was expecting an important phone call, pointed to Astra grazing in the paddock, gestured to the stables, gave us a halter and said to take as much time as we wanted, and come to the house when we’d finished.

Astra was a gorgeous mare; 14.2 Arab crossed with Welsh Mountain pony, like a dapple-grey rocking horse with fine features, elegant limbs, long flowing mane and flag tail. She was for sale as an unbroken four year old, so I thought there couldn’t be much wrong with her. As events unfolded, I lost count of the times I ate those words.

The mare seemed very complaint as we walked into the field, caught her, and led her back to the stable. She stood quietly as we inspected her, she moved backwards and sideways when we asked, and trotted up soundly with beautiful flowing paces. When we turned her back out in the field, the three of us stood looking at each other. My husband and I knew it was a done deal. I could complete her training, and if she wasn’t suitable for me, she would be easy to sell. I was at that wonderful age when failure was still an unknown concept.

Astra settled quickly into her new home, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. I wrote a plan for her education, and showed John how to do everyday tasks. Astra was quite bossy around food, but I didn’t realise how bossy until the morning she came flying at me with her ears flat back. I flung the breakfast bucket at her, and exited the stable as quickly as I could, closely followed by a splinter of wood as her hooves double-barrelled the door. Mareish? I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Later that week I was grooming her as she dozed in the sunshine. As I turned to brush some dust from her quarter, searing pain tore through my shoulder; she had bitten me hard for no apparent reason, ripping my tee-shirt and my skin. I tied her shorter to prevent further accidents, but as the weeks went by, she began to cow kick with vengeance; she had perfect aim and a deceptively long range. Each time something happened, I made another excuse; that she was in season, ticklish, or maybe the flies were worrying her. One afternoon we were lunging in the arena when she stopped, looked me in the eye, turned and galloped straight at me. I threw my arms in the air and waved the lunge whip at her, but she kept coming, and I jumped out of the way just in time. Afterwards, she stood calmly while I gathered the lunge line, and walked back to the stable as if nothing had occurred. I even began to doubt it myself, until the same thing happened when I went to catch her in the field. Suddenly I understood why the seller had ‘been on the phone’, and given us the halter the day we went to see her.

After a thorough workout, the physiotherapist pronounced Astra ‘as sound as a pound’. The vet found nothing wrong with her teeth or eyes, and gave her an internal exam. She behaved impeccably for both people, and I suspected they thought I was exaggerating, so I carried on pretending her outbursts were normal because I didn’t know what else to do. Praising good behaviour and ignoring bad certainly wasn’t working, but if I shouted at her, she reared up and boxed at me with her front legs. The one time I smacked her, it was as if I’d unleashed Satan’s child, and I never did it again. In the end, I just tried to keep out of the danger zone, because when she was good she was fantastic. She took to saddle, bridle and riding without batting a long-lashed eyelid, which I put down to her quick learning, and my good handling. Many years later I discovered she’d been broken-in at three and turned away to mature, so she already knew everything I later ‘taught’ her. Unfortunately, the financial recession necessitated her being sold prematurely, and in the year before we bought her, she had changed homes four times.

Astra worked diligently in the arena and out on rides, and muscled-up into a stunning horse, an absolute showstopper. We had jumping lessons from a visiting instructor, who said she showed real talent. As she gained confidence, her cranky behaviour worsened, and I felt like an abuse victim; being bitten and kicked had become normal. Needing a professional opinion, and hoping Astra would benefit from experienced training, I chose a well-recommended schooling yard, where the owner agreed to take her for an assessment month. She went to Rosemarie’s with a danger warning! 

Two weeks into Astra’s training, I made a pre-arranged visit to the yard, and found everyone praising her progress. Rosemarie suggested I brought the mare out of her stable and pop over a couple of jumps in the school. The moment I entered the stable alone, Astra turned her back on me and fired a warning kick. Her hoof made sharp contact with my knee, and I doubled-up in pain, stifling a scream. It was mortifying that a horse bullied me, I was certain it was my fault, and too embarrassed to ask for help. Trying not to wince, I led the mare to the mounting block and as I slowly swung myself into the saddle, Astra hunched her back, and turned and snapped at my leg. Rosemarie saw the snap, shouted loudly, and Astra went straight upon her hind legs. Luckily I had both feet in the stirrups, and I clung to her mane until she was back on the ground.

Rosemarie raised an eyebrow, and held the mare’s bridle while I steadied myself. “She’s not done anything like that since she’s been here,” She said with a grimace.

“No,” I sighed, “It’s just me”.

As we warmed-up in the school, Astra’s floaty paces felt more elastic and confident, and she trotted over a row of ground poles without missing a beat. She popped over a couple of rustic uprights like a pro, and Rosemarie pointed towards a spread fence, which stood about three feet high. As I turned my waist to see the jump properly, Astra gathered herself together and transitioned smoothly into a powerful canter. She approached the jump with perfect ease, and cleared it without breaking rhythm. I had a childhood flashback to watching Horse of the Year Show on television, and grinned from ear to ear.

“Crumbs” I said. “She’s good!”

Rosemarie smiled, nodded, and held Astra as I dismounted. “I’d say she could go far. I can sell her if you want, but she’s the best horse you’ll ever have. Why not give it a bit more thought?”

“I’m just so fed-up with her crankiness” I replied. “I’m covered in bruises”.

But I did as suggested and gave it more thought. The indescribable elation of her powerful paces was such magnetic motivation, and I wanted to feel it again and again. It stuck a primeval chord of connection between woman and horse, one that I had never felt before. Two weeks later Astra came back home. Unfortunately, rhetoric painted a rosier future than reality could create.

To be continued. . .

boobs

part two

By the age of forty I’d had breast cancer twice, and a generous helping of the side dishes that came with it. I felt I’d done enough to appease the gods of unlucky statistics, and would live the rest of my life in boring equilibrium. Ha! Once again, the hand of shite reached down and pointed at my breast. While washing in the shower, I found a lump on my right breast. Rather than waiting for a doctor’s referral I phoned the oncologist’s office directly, and was admitted to hospital where guiding wires were inserted in my breast under ultrasound, and the lump removed with local anaesthetic. The procedure was every bit as unpleasant as it sounds! A week later, when the oncologist gave us fab news that it was a benign cyst, I asked him the chances of cancer occurring in my remaining breast. He replied the chances were twenty-five percent.

“Well, you know you offered me breast reconstruction” I said, sitting up straight because I felt I had to sell the idea, “I’ve been thinking if have reconstruction done, they’ll have to operate on the other breast to level it up, or else one will be pert, and the other pendulous.” I paused, and Dr. Goode nodded. I took a deep breath before continuing, trying to make what I was saying sound like a request and not a question. “As there’s a high possibility of still getting breast cancer, could you take the other one off and reconstruct them both at the same time.” This was seventeen years before Angelina Jolie made preventative mastectomy fashionable, and genetic screening made the reasons more obvious, and my request was breaking new territory. Dr Goode wrote some notes in my file, and said he thought a woman in Bournemouth had recently had a prophylactic double mastectomy, and he would raise the issue at the next oncology meeting. I knew I could trust Dr Goode to do his best for me, and three weeks later, I got an appointment to see Mr Hobby the plastic surgeon.

The plastic surgeon cupped my remaining 34DD breast in his hand and asked me what size I would like to be.

“A perfect 34C please” I replied, and he nodded approvingly.

He explained the lengthy procedure, which took pads of latissimus dorsi muscle from the shoulders and swiveled them around to the front, to give support for the breast implants while maintaining the blood supply. They would remove triangles of skin from the centre of my back to shape the breasts, and graft nipples from skin on my inner thigh, for an authentically coloured areola. He said he would insert the implants slightly above the breast line, allowing them to drop into their correct position. I was worried about silicone leakage and toxicity, and we had a lengthy discussion about my decision to have saline filled implants; my biggest concern was falling off my horse and rupturing them. He said he didn’t have another patient who rode after reconstruction, but reluctantly agreed with my reasoning. He must have been both baffled and amused by my priorities.

On December 29th Mark and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary with overflowing glasses of champagne and wry smiles; some year eh? If we were still laughing after that first year, we would conquer anything, and two days later, I was booking into hospital for six hours of breast surgery; Mr Rowe-Jones would do the mastectomy, then pass my body to Mr. Hobby the plastic surgeon for reconstruction. New Years Eve was the only free date in their schedules, and the nurse recounted later how they both arrived and left wearing their black dinner suits, ready to celebrate New Years Eve. Two suave surgeons, dressed in formal attire for my surgery!

A nurse with a kindly face held my hand tightly in the freezing cold pre-theatre room, as the anaesthetist pushed the plunger on his syringe. It felt cold inside my veins, and then the next moment, Mark was standing over me as I woke-up in the recovery room. There was a white pony wandering between the beds, which nobody had noticed, and I told Mark to catch him QUICKLY! Mark walked to the next bed, slipped an imaginary halter on an imaginary pony and turned to me with a look of real-life confusion.

“Tie him up to the end of the bed!” I said with exasperation. “What is it with everybody here”?

I remember feeling excruciating pain as they tried to move me from the hospital trolley to my bed. In a dreamy far-off land, I heard bloodcurdling screams and someone swearing vehemently. Nurses darted about holding tubes, moving wires and issuing commands, as they slid me in ungainly style onto the cold white sheets. Exhausted from pain, I couldn’t catch my breath with the oxygen mask covering my mouth, and was uncertain who or where I was (or even if I still was?) I saw Mark on my right side, jostling for space between the equipment and the nurses; he looked terrified. The nurse showed me how to press a button on the morphine drip for pain relief, then Mark showed me, then the nurses showed me again. “Press the button Elaine” was all I could hear, but I couldn’t understand it. What button? Then nurse Christine with the kind face took charge, and as I pressed the button she winked at me. I wished her Happy New Year before pressing the button again and slipping into cloudy oblivion.

I spent my birthday in hospital, and shared the ‘celebration’ with my new breasts, which were one week old. .I was napping on the bed when a nurse woke me. I’d barely opened my eyes when all the nurses came into the room, carrying a pink iced birthday cake with blazing pink candles, and sang happy birthday. Such a lovely gesture and I was deeply touched by their kindness, but I hated it; I was feeling grumpy and emotional and not in the least like being the centre of attention. I thanked everyone profusely and cut half the cake for them to take to the nurse’s station, but all I wanted was to curl-up, and stop trying to be strong. I knew I should celebrate every day but it was such hard work, and cancer clouded so much. I wanted to ride my horse, and breathe into his soft neck and feel alive again, but here I was, in hospital, on my birthday. It was one of the few times I’ve felt total, wretched despair, and I didn’t know how to climb out of it.

The despair got worse when the surgical dressings came off, exposing skin as pink as the birthday cake. The right breast reconstruction was neatly shaped, but the left implant sat extremely high, with a weird lopsided overhang at the top. The doctor explained again that the implant would gradually settle into the correct placing, but in later months it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. Eventually the consultant opined radiotherapy and surgery had compromised breast tissue quality, and the implant was unable to move. I knew things weren’t going to look perfect, but I wish I’d known about encapsulation so I could’ve been prepared. It was my first big lesson that you don’t get answers if you don’t know the right questions to ask; a lesson that set me in good stead for the future.

My daily excursion around the hospital corridors had progressed from a hunched, protective-mode shuffle to a brisk walk, made easier once the drains came out, and the bottles didn’t bounce around in my pockets. The incision and the skin graft on my back were numb, which meant sleep was more comfortable, and the elasticated bandage bound my breasts would stay on for another three weeks; I felt an uncanny empathy with Frankenstein’s monster. Pain meds made no impact on the hundred small knives stabbing my insides when I moved my arms, picked anything up or tried to push down. I imagined all the severed nerves irrevocably parted to front and back, frantically waving and calling in vain for their Other Ends. Eventually they ceased calling. With strict instructions to rest, I was discharged from hospital ten days after surgery. Pain was a compelling threshold to cross, and I did too much too soon. I still haven’t mastered the fact that recuperation takes time.

In the spring of 1998, a friend was staying with us, and we were happily sitting around the supper table, laughing eating and drinking, when for some reason I looked down at my bosom and saw only one breast. With an overwhelming sense of panic, I made an excuse, dashed to the bathroom, and tore off my clothes. My left breast was intact, still perched high above my bra but my right breast was just a fold of loose skin with no filling; the implant had ruptured. I phoned the hospital but it was ‘out of hours’ and there was nothing they could do except confirm I must have leaked, and tell me to call again in the morning. There was no pain, and the saline would just disperse into my body, but I felt so angry this had happened to me. For some reason I also felt embarrassed. I clamped my arm firmly across my chest, returned to the table and drank several large glasses of wine. Next day at the hospital, the plastic surgeon looked aghast. Yes, the saline implant had leaked and a pair of fresh implants would need fitting; he was adamant he’d use silicone, and I couldn’t really argue.

If only it had been that easy. Breast reconstruction following mastectomy is now a standard option with cancer treatment, but back then, it was a fairly new procedure, and the NHS were reticent to replace the implants. The implant supplier discovered a batch of implants had leaky valves, which meant the saline wasn’t completely sealed; if I wanted, I could sue them but litigation would take some time. I needed something done quickly, so I went on the warpath and phoned the hospital and plastic surgeon daily. I made allies of the medical secretaries who were tremendously sympathetic and helpful, and got the implant suppliers to reimburse the NHS. A month after Waterleakgate, I got an operation date, and spent four nights in hospital for what is now a day-case procedure. My stay was unmemorable except for the nurse who attempted to remove my drain without first removing the holding stitches; that pain was worse than all my surgery! I left the hospital with a new set of scars, but on the positive side, I had two evenly placed silicone boobs.

When I look back, wonky breasts were the least of my problems. Cancer came back in 2004, 2010 and 2011 despite extensive surgeries, and a steady supply of anti-cancer meds (all with their own side effects). Mark and I continued trying to live life alongside our foe, and not let it live life for us. Through a series of events that I’ll describe in another post, Bruce the horse came to me in 2010. He had anxiety issues that I didn’t handle tactfully, and together with my cancer recurrences and treatment, we both struggled. On New Years Day 2012, I had just completed a particularly harrowing course of chemotherapy, and I decided to take him for a walk in hand, across the fields. As the walk progressed, we both became extremely agitated; with eachother, with our circumstances, with the icy wind whistling though our ears. Eventually, in a field miles away from anywhere, we both boiled over. Bruce was bouncing sideways, setting his neck and using his shoulder to keep me as far away as possible, and I was terrified, gripping his bridle like a predator clinging to prey. As we turned to come back home, the Perfect Storm erupted; he reared up and I yanked him back down, screaming obscenities into the wind. He spun round and took off at a gallop, with me hanging on to the reins for what was only seconds but seemed an eternity. Of course, sixteen hands of Irish Draught strength won, and as I let go, he put his head down and bucked. I was directly behind him with a fence to my side, and had nowhere to go; in that strangely surrealistic way that one vision sums up a complete event, I remember how perfectly shaped the inside of his hooves were, as they came flying to meet me with unstoppable force.

I took the full impact in my chest. It shattered a breast implant, broke three ribs and punctured a lung, before hurling me to the ground. I landed forcefully on one shoulder and the back of my head, and as I lay looking up at the winter sky, I tried to figure out why I bothered to stay alive. At the hospital, the story has become legend; notoriety for all the wrong reasons. It took months for the damage to mend, and when I could eventually have yet another replacement implant op, the breast surgeon said she had never seen so much silicone splattered over such a wide surface. It seemed that being “fitted with airbags” had prevented worse damage to my lungs and ribs, and had possibly saved my life.

Strangely enough, the entire episode (for which I accept all responsibility) drew a line under my life before. In order to stay safe with Bruce, I had to find a new way of dealing with both our anxieties, because what I thought was ok wasn’t working for either of us. I had to find a better way of thinking, a better way with horses, and I had to help him find a quiet place in his mind. In doing so, Bruce led me towards finding my peace; he needed what I needed. They say you get the right horse at the right time, and a better phrase has never been said. To help him, I enrolled in a mindfulness course, practised Tai Chi and tried to meditate. I learnt to breathe, to pause, and to clear my mind; the simplest things but all so difficult to do. Bruce started to breathe out when I breathed slowly, we both became less reactionary, and Kirsty introduced me to a way of riding that focused on breath, energy and clear thought. Along the way, I found it easier to be around myself; I showed myself compassion, and accepted that the cancer wasn’t my fault.  It took a very special horse to deliver a new future. He literally re-booted my life.

boobs

part one

One morning mum suggested we go and buy a bra, for me. I hadn’t noticed I needed one, but when I looked through my white nylon school shirt, I could certainly see her point. Or two. It was a short bus ride to Cox’s, the local ladieswear shop, where Mrs Cox showed me to the fitting room, and busied herself measuring my budding breasts. Mum and I left the store with two soft triangular cups of blue check gingham called a Berelei Beginner.

By the time my teens arrived, baby breasts had transformed into a pair of pendulous knockers, and dainty blue gingham had given way to matronly white lace, with staunch straps and three hook back fastening. I’d obviously bypassed the rosebud stage and gone straight to full bloom. It was the early seventies, and I embraced hippydom with the desperation of a teen trying to belong somewhere other than where she was. Free-falling hair worn with a headband was a heaven-sent style for me, and I flowed ethereally, draped in patchwork and velvet.

Aspiring to be a feminist, I read Cosmopolitan Magazine, but stumbled at the first hurdle of liberating myself from my bra. One sunny afternoon, as I bounced along Bournemouth’s Old Christchurch Road wearing frayed Levis and an antique blue silk kimono, I noticed the bus I wanted to catch was about to pass me. I made a run for the bus stop at the top of the road, but as I began to sprint, my liberated breasts ricocheted their way out of the kimono. All the builders working on an adjacent site downed tools and cheered, cars slowed, people turned to watch, and as the bus passed, I saw open mouthed passengers staring at me as I desperately tried to run, whilst stuffing two heaving watermelons back into a thin wisp of silk.  Red faced (probably red breasted too) I clamped my arms firmly across my chest and made a sharp left turn down a side road, heading straight back home. My breasts were deposited back in the security of their formidable Cross-Your-Heart custodian, never to bounce freely again.

I’m short and slight, and by the time I met my first husband in my early twenties, my breasts were a full double-D cup size. They used to arrive in a room a good few seconds ahead of me, but my husband wasn’t complaining so I packed them away as firmly as I could each day, and risked a black eye if I turned quickly in bed at night. Big-breasted girls were not yet fashionable; I think Gossard were the first company to produce a larger size underwire bra in colours other than black white or beige. I remember buying a plum coloured one in the wonderful lingerie shop ‘Just Jane’ in Salisbury, where the strippers and fetish-wearers shopped. For the first time since blue gingham days, my boobs felt special, and they looked glamorous too!

Mark and my breasts had a year to become acquainted before my first cancer surgery. I didn’t feel particularly disfigured by the crater-and-scar reminder of the tumour site, but radiotherapy left me with breast swelling, burnt and discoloured skin which never quite healed. Between 1991 and 1995 I accrued a couple more ‘false alarm’ lump biopsy scars on the same breast, so it wasn’t a complete shock when we received a cancer diagnosis in 1995 requiring a mastectomy; the shocking part was the pre-wedding timing, and the realisation our honeymoon would also be my breast-leaving-party. I granted them a final day of unfettered freedom when we returned home to face surgery and chemotherapy. I could have burnt my bra, and everything else along with it.

We arrived at the hospital at midday for the mastectomy surgery. The nurse said my op was last on the list, so she would collect me from the ward and take me to theatre around five o’clock. Sitting quietly on the hospital bed the drama of the past few weeks began to flood in, and as the afternoon passed I got more and more anxious about everything that had happened, and what the outcome might be. At four o’clock, the nurse gave me a pre-op sedative and I quickly drifted into deep sleep. I woke three hours later and drowsily told Mark I had no pain at all. He replied that the surgeon was delayed, and I hadn’t had the surgery yet!  

I spent a week in hospital. Due to a complication caused by removing more underarm lymph nodes, the drains wouldn’t stop draining. I received so many flowers, they overflowed into the corridor, and had so many visitors I felt quite exhausted. It was the first time I’d been a captive audience for other people’s cancer fears, and their ‘uplifting’ stories about friends-of-friends who made miraculous recoveries; why did they have to dump all this on me? I became heartily sick of people telling me I must stay P O S I T I V E.

Mr Rowe-Jones the breast surgeon had left me with a neat horizontal scar on pancake flat skin, which contrasted sharply to my mum’s mastectomy scar performed in the 1960s. It undoubtedly saved her life, but the jagged line running from shoulder to navel was butchery at best. I wrote my surgeon a thankyou letter; it was the least I could do. I was concerned about Mark’s reaction when I revealed the damage. Soon after surgery, I stood with my back to the basin in the privacy of the hospital bathroom. He had his back to the door, and I watched his face as I carefully took down the bandages; he didn’t flinch.

“That doesn’t look bad at all” he said. “It’s very neat. Are you okay with it?”

“I think I’m fine” I replied through the tears “I’m fine now you’ve seen it”.

Mark wrapped his arms tightly round me (narrowly avoiding the drain tubes) and we stood for a long time, together in the bathroom.

I left hospital with a wad of tissues stuffed into my bra, and got on with life as best as I knew how, under the cloud of imminent chemotherapy. The breast care nurse visited to check the wound, gave me a soft breastpad, and said she would make an appointment for me to have a proper prosthesis fitted. I started riding my horse again, but found the underarm surgery restricted movement, and got quite upset thinking it would be permanent.

On a bleak midwinter day, when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, the appointment arrived. I couldn’t pretend this insult to my body was okay, as if making my outward appearance ‘normal’ somehow mended the inside. I postponed the date, and then postponed it again. When the dreaded day arrived I wanted someone to accompany me, but I also wanted to go alone and wallow in the misery of my situation. My brother, who was living in Kathmandu in order to ‘find himself,’ had written me a letter explaining the cancer was due to my suppressed anger, and the only way to stay alive was to drink my own urine. He might have been right but its delivery on that morning was ill timed, and played on my mind. I suppressed my anger long enough to tear the letter into tiny pieces, and drove to my appointment in tears.

The Breast Prosthesis Department was actually a Portakabin in a car park. I rang the doorbell, and an immaculate woman in a starched white hospital coat ushered me in, and directed me to a seat in her windowless office. She sat one side of the desk and I sat on the other. Her hair was an impossibly uniform shade of auburn, and sat on her head like a metallic helmet, accentuating her thickly powdered and rouged face, arched eyebrows and vermillion lips.

“Today we’re going to fit you with a breast prosthesis” she said, gesturing vermillion-painted nails towards stacks of boxes on shelving that ran the entire length of the room. “But first I need to take some notes”.

I sat glumly, answering questions about operation and treatment dates, and size and shape of my remaining breast, before she asked me to remove my top garments. After recording my measurements, she surveyed my remaining breast from different angles, and gave me advice about buying a non underwire bra to better support the new prosthesis. She then walked to the shelves and returned with three identical boxes, and as she laid them on the floor by my feet, I had a sudden vision of buying new shoes in a shoeshop. I desperately tried to suppress a giggle, which came out sounding like a giant gurgle, but she didn’t bat a thickly mascara-ed eyelid. She removed the protective cardboard from around the first box, revealing a small black patent carry case. Inside, quivering in a nest of black satin sat a beige coloured, breast-shaped, silicone filled prosthesis, looking remarkably like a large chicken fillet. I was surprised at its weightiness as she slipped it into my bra cup, and re-fastened the back hooks.

I stood, turned and bent as instructed, before she shook her head. “That’s really not good enough. Let’s try the next one.” She put the fillet back in its case and read the name on the second box. “Ah yes, this is the Doreen; it’ll be a better shape for your small back.” I thought I might be expected to shake hands with Doreen as she was hoisted from her box, and dug my nails into my palms in order to remain sane. Alas, Doreen didn’t fit, neither did the Elizabeth nor the April, and by the time we got to the June, I was ready to stay flat-chested.

“I think we’re going to have to consider a Special,” she said, frowning at the boxes on the floor. “You’re quite deceiving, but we must get it right. . .” She moved a step-stool towards the shelves, and reached boxes from the top shelf. The Special case looked identical to the others, but had a red satin lining. I half expected a trumpet fanfare as Special Marguerite was uncased and fitted, and declared an outstanding success. TaDa!

I was issued with a ‘How to Wash Your Silicone Prosthesis’ leaflet and two cotton prosthesis covers, and left the Portakabin carrying Marguerite in her red-lined case. Later that night in my sleep, I heard the most guttural, heart-wrenching sob. I woke with a start, and in the depths of solitary darkness, realised the cry was mine. I got out of bed and quietly felt my way across the bedroom to where Marguerite’s box sat on the dressing table. Opening the cupboard door, I silently buried her in the furthest darkest corner, underneath seldom-used suitcases. I climbed back into bed, and snuggled into Mark’s back. As I listened to his steady breathing, I tried to forget everything about Marguerite, and all the fear she brought with her.

Chemotherapy settled into a three-weekly rhythm. I had intravenous treatment on Friday afternoon and was sick for the first week, returning to work and life for the second two weeks, before starting again. I don’t want to re-live it here; suffice to say it felt like hell with no end. On the fifth cycle, I refused to go to hospital and Mark physically picked me up and put me in the car. The oncologist said if I could bear this one more treatment, five out of six cycles would be sufficient, and we could finish. I had worn the same set of clothes for each treatment, and after that final cycle, I made a bonfire and burnt them all; I didn’t want to see, feel or smell them ever again. I also said I would never put myself through another course of chemotherapy. It took a lot of courage fifteen years later to change my mind.

By the time summer arrived, things began to return to how they were; I went back to work full-time, and back to riding regularly. I got used to my new appearance; the missing breast didn’t feel strange, but the remaining one looked odd and isolated without a partner. Eventually I exhumed Marguerite from the cupboard. She was quite weighty to wear; I hadn’t realised how voluminous a breast can be. Despite the cotton cover, the silicone became very hot and sweaty, so I tried a bra with pockets to house her, but the weight dragged the bra forward.  One glorious sunny morning, I was mucking-out Teddy’s stable and vigorously sweeping the yard, dressed in shorts and a vest top, when Marguerite flew out of my bra, swooshed across the concrete and landed in a wobbly heap by the water bucket. Teddy shot to the back of his stable, snorting at the alien missile, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As I stuffed her back in my bra, Farmer Jim (who owned the stables) walked round the corner, looked at my hasty re-alignment, looked at my face, turned round and walked back again. I saw him every day for many years afterwards, and he never mentioned it. A few weeks later, I was at the osteopath, and as I bent forward for him to check my pelvis, she slipped out again, landing with a quivering plop in front of us. There was a moment of stunned silence before I began to giggle, and I was comfortable enough with the osteopath to enjoy the ‘shared moment’, but I knew it was time to think seriously about breast reconstruction.

I’ll post part two next week. . .

dropping the baton

raindrops on decaying flower heads

My dad didn’t believe that simply being good at something was good enough, you had to be Best. Oh how I must have disappointed him. Childhood me failed to stay cute, failed exams, failed to grow into a demure young lady. Adult me failed a first marriage, failed to provide grandchildren, failed to live conventionally, even failed to stay solvent.

But I hit my stride when I got invasive breast cancer, with the highest grade tumour for starters. The treatment choices on offer were a mastectomy, or lumpectomy and radiotherapy. I quite liked my breast so I chose the latter; the cancer returned within four years, so that choice was probably a failure too.

A dervish-like approach to coping overshadowed any fear of cancer. Everything I could possibly control was micro-managed and governed with an iron fist. I became the Dictator of my own mind, certain that mental discipline was the key to survival, and my default setting was being best at fighting cancer.

It was an interesting approach, and a coping mechanism that worked at the time. With hindsight we learn the tighter the grip, the harder the lesson. Life doesn’t necessarily obey your will, however much you crave a parental pat on the back.

Dad died in 1994 in circumstances that showed his whole ethos was less ‘do as I do’ and more ‘do as I say’. His fear of failure led him to his grave and from there, he reached out and passed me the baton of his impossibly high standards.

Being a control freak brings many benefits; namely burying the real picture in minutiae of managing detail. I called it ‘dealing with cancer’, called myself a ‘workaholic’ and carried on regardless. The day of reckoning came in the form of a mental breakdown, and true to form, it was spectacular; the best implosion I could possibly manage.

Psychotherapy, talking therapy, medication, holistic therapy, horses husband and friends pulled me through. I am very lucky. One momentous day, I shed my armoured coat and walked in my own skin. It was a shaky start, and I admit I wasn’t very good at it, but not being good felt ok and the world didn’t stop turning.

Of course, I’m not the first to realise this, it is summed up perfectly in the famous C.JoyBell C quote “It’s the hard things that break, soft things don’t break.” I’ve found the key to staying soft is noticing when I’m not. I can manipulate and forcefully manage if I choose, but I notice it doesn’t really work; other people don’t follow your expectations, life often doesn’t go the way you want, and horses have their own agenda. There’s more to be had from gaining knowledge to better cope with a situation, and make informed choices that stack the odds in your favour. Inevitable change stays inevitable however many barricades you build. I still don’t like things that happen to me (who would), but by managing myself I feel more in control than I ever was before, and at the moment I feel the best I can possibly feel.

Sorry dad; I failed to carry your baton, but it was the best failure I ever made.

husband

I really like my husband. It goes without saying that I love him more than anyone else on earth, but I also genuinely like him.

I don’t agree with all his views, his politics or his taste in food, but we’ve come to a tacit agreement that he voices his opinions, I certainly voice mine, and if contentment means sometimes cooking two separate dinners, then so be it.

I wouldn’t call him my best friend because I have friends who are that; we have a unique bond that is part spouse, team-mate, partner-in-crime, lover and friend.

We first met back in the 70s, and re-found eachother twenty years later. Quite quickly, we both concluded that somewhere back in time we’d been together forever, and this was just another chapter in the same book. Even so, it took him a while to say he loved me. This man treads slowly.

The slow tread took me a long time to respect because I dash everywhere, on foot and in my head. He does something properly the first time, while I return repeatedly to stick patches on a rushed job. I walk quickly, while he sees where he is going and doesn’t fall over the kerb.

Mark is also completely true to himself, which I admire and envy. He never alters his persona to fit a situation, and his job has never defined him. My personality and my status are contained in what I do and without my job, I’m lost. Mark is simply himself and work is a means to money, not self-recognition.

We had ten months together before cancer arrived, too soon into a fledgling love affair, but when would have been a good time? We survived it side by side but separately, and continued finding our togetherness. The second cancer diagnosis (on the day before our wedding), was definitely ill timed and the hardest to bear, but with hindsight it set the benchmark that made subsequent recurrences easier.

Chemotherapy, mastectomies and debilitating surgeries are a fair way to test the strength of any marriage, but being unable to have children was the blow that felled me; my husband would’ve become a wonderful father. He didn’t say much about it at the time, just that he understood my distress. We got used to it together.

We used to be more adventurous; I wonder if these days we cling to our routine and comforts to lessen the effects of things we can’t control, or whether it’s a natural progression for two aging earth signs? I’m just grateful for evenings spent on the sofa, reading our books, with the cats asleep in front of the woodburner. I have no hankering to see the Seven Wonders when I have domestic bliss under my nose.

I can’t really tell you how Mark treads the balance of living with death, because having dealt him that blow I feel too guilty to look deeply. We deal with practicalities as a team, and employ the Humour of Doom to lessen the bitterness of unpalatable topics. I notice that sometimes the whisky bottle empties quicker, and I know when he lays awake at night. We both think we’re good at hiding things from eachother, but we’re not. We just hang on by our fingernails to what we have, trying to ignore the fact cancer is hanging there with us.

best medicine

Today’s bitter wind and watery sunshine broke the tedium of a dismal start to February where everything stayed grey, and the rain fell with sullen monotony.

In past times, I’d have taken the opportunity to saddle up and blow away the cobwebs with a fast ride across the fields, splashing through puddles and jumping fallen branches. Feeling that rush of adrenaline at the sheer joy of being out on a horse, ignoring the cold wind that lights up your cheeks and freezes fingers to reins, and returning home so exhilarated that you are immune to anything life throws at you. But nowadays my options are more sedate and I try very hard not to feel a pang of loss for those rides. I remember my new mantra, that thrills are found in having the time to notice detail. Physical curtailment can bring with it unexpected mindfulness and new ways to process things. Writing has become my way of feeling I have given something all I’ve got.

I thought we’d go for a walk around the farm where Bruce lives, and seeing as this is a new blog, I thought you could come with me.

I gave Bruce a slow groom, putting hair conditioner in his tail to ease the tangles, and using the brush softly on his tickly bits. We stood quietly in the sunshine, grooming until his black coat shone, and I made time to scratch his withers while he wriggled his nose in pleasure. Then I offered him his halter and long lead, and waited for the ‘give’ as he lowered his nose. He also wears his leather bridle when he’s ‘working’ as it feels important that he still does a job.

I’ll let you into a secret. When I began riding Bruce, I had his bridle made-to-measure; it was three times more expensive than a shop-bought one. It’s nothing fancy because we’re not a flashy couple, just fine English leather that fits like a dream and is perfectly shaped around his ears so it doesn’t pinch. When Bruce was hunting with his previous owner, he was restrained with quite a harsh bit and contraptions to keep his head down and his mouth shut. A plain bridle with a French Link snaffle seemed significant to his new start, and I wanted him to have something really special.

The wind was sharp enough to cut you in half. I remember an old farmer who called it a lazy wind ‘because it went through you instead of round you.’ I put two padded coats on, a woollen bobble hat pulled down low over my forehead, and pulled a scarf up over my chin, and we set off, Bruce’s front legs moving in unison with mine. I breathed deeply as best I could through my muffler, and after a dozen strides, he dropped his head and blew out through his nose. My shoulders and his poll relaxed at the same time. We walked alongside the paddocks to the bottom farmyard, where the ancient haybarn roof rafters remind me of cathedral arches,

past the old dairy where the wonky walls are reinforced with brick buttresses, and the floor still has its original cobble stones.

Pausing at the farm entrance to check for traffic, Bruce halted on my out-breath, and stood quietly. I patted his neck, and we turned right, following the privet hedge bordering the farmhouse to the gate opposite.

The low wooden gate was tricky to open and stiff on its hinges. Bruce nibbled the hedge while I swore loudly and muttered about the ‘good old days’ when we’d have been tempted to jump it instead of opening it. Once I’d shoved it into a passable gap, he shimmied his way through, with me following behind. We ambled along the grassy track and over a bridge where the drainage ditches have become a flowing river, until we reached the beehives at the top, but active bees buzzing about surprised us both so we made a hasty retreat!

Turning back on our tracks, we crossed the road to search the hedge for for rosehips. Bruce found and ate two, and on the farm track towards home, we found daffodils flowering in the shelter of the near-derelict old garden gazebo. As I bent down to take the photo I felt hot breath on my hand, and quickly moved Bruce away from taking a mouthful!

It had been a lovely walk and I felt quite tired, so while I got his stable ready for the evening, I put Bruce in the jumping paddock to graze. However, he had other ideas and had a long roll and wriggle in the mud. I brushed him again, put his rug on, and he went out in his field to spend the rest of the day with his mates. When I got in the car to go home, I noticed how rosy my cheeks were and how exhilarated I felt. And it made me smile out loud.

what’s the plural of diagnosis?

For my family, the first time I had cancer was total shock and awe, but for me, I’d simply followed self-examination instructions and hit the jackpot.

Sitting in the bath on Good Friday evening 1991, the lather parted on my left breast to reveal a marshmallow-sized lump. A strange calmness washed over me as I greeted my destiny

“Oh, so that’s it then”

I didn’t share my discovery with anyone until I saw the doctor four days later.

What followed were days and weeks of worry. Biopsy and lumpectomy surgeries, six weeks of radiotherapy, and all the sleep I could muster. I filled the freezer and labelled each bag with clear instructions.

I was thirty-six years old. I’d just miscarried a desperately wanted baby. My unsupportive marriage was crumbling around me, and in a set of circumstances worthy of Mills & Boon fiction, I’d begun the most unexpected love affair. There wasn’t much time to think about my cancer; so I didn’t.

My family were spared an immediate response to my second diagnosis five years later, because my dad was dead, my brother living abroad, and it was the eve of my wedding day.

When the consultant faltered reading the biopsy results, Mark and I knew our pre-nup was going to be more Sickness than Health.

After biopsy surgery the previous week, I’d modified the low neckline of my wedding outfit; the only thing now required was the ability to keep a secret, a large smile and a larger drink.

We did all three with aplomb, and even kept the smiles in place through our three-day Devon honeymoon. When we returned home to face the music, we drove very slowly.

What followed were days and weeks of worry, a mastectomy, six months chemotherapy, a second mastectomy with bi-lateral reconstruction, and all the sleep I could muster. I planted fast-growing flowers and wondered how many I would pick.

My dad had died suddenly within a week of my uncle (swiftly followed by my beloved cat), my mum needed all the support I could give. I’d just got married and there wasn’t much time to think about my cancer; so I didn’t

With a nine year interval, there was even less family to herald the arrival of cancer number three. After beating breast and bowel cancer, my lovely mum suffered a devastating heart attack and never recovered. I‘d just made the heart-wrenching decision to have my horse put down at the ripe old age of twenty-three. Comfortably numb, there was no emotion left when a routine check-up located a lump in my armpit.

Worry, two rounds of surgery, a massive allergic reaction to the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen, sleep. I gave up gardening and bought ready meals for the freezer.

Deeply mourning mum’s tragic death, desperately missing the magical bond of horsiness, reeling from my sister-in-law’s diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, and supporting a friend battling leukaemia- there REALLY  wasn’t much time to think about my cancer. And I didn’t.

Not until the fourth diagnosis did all that not-thinking come back to bite me. . .