Wendy Woolfson

No Intention Of Dying

You are an unexpected visitor in my body. You’ve come at an unexpected time and taken me quite by surprise. I was in the flow of life and enjoying the challenges ahead of me. I knew what I had to do and life was feeling settled. I was getting into a groove, something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Then you arrive in my head like you’re just meant to be there, the Queen of everything, set to disrupt, and you tell me I have to slow down. I’ve to down tools and leave all my work behind. You tell me I’ve to rest and be still, to take it easy, drink cups of tea, meditate, sit under the willows in the garden and listen to the music of the wind and the songs of the birds. I have now to spend my days in quiet contemplation with little to do but rest, write and craft when I can, which is becoming more and more difficult as my eyesight is messed up, and of course, I must manage pain. Then I say to myself, “Why Wendy, is this not what you always dreamed of, to craft, write and be in the garden doing what you want, when you want?” Only I can’t, I’m tired all the time, I can’t drive anymore because of all the medication and my vision is half gone because now you’re touching a nerve that controls my eye and it’s gone squint giving me double vision. I’m too tired most of the time to do anything. The winter months set in and it’s too cold to sit under trees, so I’ve barely been outdoors in three months. And to receive the gift of time in such a painful way seems unfair. I was just getting into my stride. I could see a path ahead, it was a difficult one and not always ideal, but it was still good, and we can’t expect perfection anyway.

I saw you on the scan on the computer screen in the surgeon’s office. I stared at the screen as he showed the white outline surrounding your shape. You looked roughly oval, and he showed me how you are attached to a vessel that leads into my brain which is why he can’t cut you away. You’ve made your bed behind and below my eye, underneath, and attached to my brain. You’re there now as I sit and write this and I wonder what you’re thinking. You looked like a slightly misshapen fruit hanging from a branch of a tree, and on a different scan, more like a marauding mass, spreading across the cavity and filling up any available space you can find, pushing at anything in your way and pressing hard on all my nerves. Now I can see why I am in pain. You have been blossoming and growing there for nearly two years, as it turns out. I had put up with mild symptoms of hearing loss and finally went to the GP after a year to have it checked out when I started getting headaches and my right eyelid began to droop. An urgent referral to ENT was made but it would be another six months before I was seen; more time for you to bed in and get comfortable. Get really comfortable.

I know you’ve come to teach me lessons in being patient, peaceful and calm. To learn about recovery, grief, and loss. You are my pain; you are all my childhood losses and abuses. You are all the love I never had and all the pain I ever felt. You are the dark and lonely nights and, in my despairing moments, I don’t know how I’m going to recover from this, and if I even will.

I’ve changed my diet, drastically. I take vast amounts of medication and supplements. I’m attending hospital for treatments. A visit to the optician reassured me and a new set of glasses put in place with the right lens frosted out and a varifocal lens in the other so I can function relatively normally again and writing and walking aren’t quite so problematic.

I’m painfully aware of the impact of this on my family and how my children’s mum is now in bed a lot of the time, my wonky eye a constant reminder of what’s there. We laugh about my wonky eye though, trying to make light of it, help them to not worry, but they do. Are you going to die mummy? asks my youngest. And I have to stop myself from immediately bursting into tears. Instead, I check my emotions and I smile broadly and reassure him saying, “No, I have no intention of dying.” (Not lying). “I’m doing all the right things to get better, and I have no intention of dying.” (Reinforcing the idea). I change the subject as quickly as possible, trying to be slick about it and not obvious, although I’m sure he sees right through me. He’s observant this one, canny. We do have some darkly humorous moments making light of it all, and I love that, when we can relax about it, and dip into our usual sense of humour, and the love this has brought can feel like it’s worth it. We all appreciate each other much more and take more care of each other. It’s nice. But it’s not nice.

The sensations in my face are intense at times. I feel my skin crawling, the nerves set on a knife edge, skin tingling and creeping with pain. A cacophony of stabbing, sharp, numb, ache, dullness, explosion. Separately and all at once. On and off for hours or not at all for hours. Break through pain meds administered when needed. Slow-release morphine a constant throughout the day. I feel lucky to have them all because I know what it feels like without, and I would prefer death to that. Excruciating doesn’t even cover it. The most recent and worst part is having my speech affected. With half my face numb I can no longer clearly articulate my mouth and my speech is often slurry, swallowing is more difficult, eating and drinking more of a challenge.

Having cancer is weird. Having stage 4 cancer even weirder. I’m hanging by a thread right now as we turn the corner into early summer and the birds are singing in the garden, which is blossoming beautifully. I get out into it when I can to take care of it and keep it going in much the same way as I must keep me going. Each plant I tend to a part of me to care for. Each weed I pull a piece of trauma to leave behind. Each part of the willow I weave another part of my story being told.

The thread is there to pull on and unravel if I choose to do that. I don’t want to unravel. I’m working hard on staying optimistic and positive but that’s hard to do all the time, and sometimes I just feel a bit crumpled and needy. I try so hard to not complain. I believe I am here to live, not die which is why this part of my story seems so impossible and why it feels like it must be true that I will live through this and not succumb. Much like the children’s story, We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt, says; I can’t go over it, I can’t go under it, I have to go through it. I will go through this and when I come out the other side I will be a different person. I think I might even be a better person for having gone through it, and all those threads that I thought would unravel will instead have woven themselves into a story I could not have otherwise imagined.