Category Archives: cancer

Surviving loss….

What makes a person get up and face into repetitive everyday tasks? I ask myself that question a lot. Life can be a struggle at times and there are days when I do not want to get out of bed and face the day ahead.

There are days when a deep sadness and melancholy can sweep out of nowhere and paralyse me in my efforts to greet each new day and accept my responsibilities. I usually push through it. What other option do I have?

This melancholy has been ever present since the death of my darling sister Annie four years ago this week. Now it is coupled with the added loss of my mother who died four weeks ago. It is always present but usually below the surface where not everyone can see it.

I realise that mourning is part of life and we all lose people that we love. However I expected the feelings of loss after my sister’s death to have passed at this stage but they have not. They have changed, and I can now carry on a conversation about her without crying openly, but there can still be a physical lump in my throat when I speak her name and recount stories about her. I can laugh about funny things that she said and did some days, but other days I don’t want to laugh because the feelings of loss are still so raw.

This loss is acute, yet I never felt that I wanted to die after her. My life is completely different now and the sections of our lives that overlapped with joy and happiness have gone and I miss that.

I miss the things that we shared and the trust that lay between us. I realise that we were lucky in our relationship and I am a better person because of her. Her honesty and diplomacy were the things that I valued the most, and yet her carefree happiness is something that I can picture in an instant. I can still hear her laughter.

Losing my mother has added another layer to this sadness and I recently found myself looking at pictures of us as a family together. There were seven of us then and now there are only four. It can be difficult to see us smiling and laughing in a captured moment and realise that we will never be together again.

At times I want to cover up all the pictures and not be reminded of how things used to be because it just makes me unbearably sad to look at them. Other times I pore endlessly over images remembering happier days and family events. It’s hard to find a balance.

People have their own ways of coping with grief, and well-meaning friends have given me countless books to help me along my journey. I think that we all find our own way through loss and I believe that it will come organically for me rather than by a particular formula taken from a book. I just didn’t think that it would take this long. Was I being naive?

Sometimes I am comforted by poetry, and as I read I realise that I am not unique. I am not the only person in the world who has experienced the loss of a loved one, and I am not so narcissistic as to believe that my feelings are more deeply felt than others. People in different places and times have survived greater grief than mine.

Yet loss is my constant companion for now and never leaves my side. Although I have many special people in my life who love me and are loved in return, these two women, my sister and my mother will be missed and mourned for as long as I am alive.

I will laugh and enjoy life and go out and socialise, yet these two wonderful women will be in the shadows beside me all the time. How can it not be so when I am such a part of them and they are such a part of me.

Annmarie O’Neill Miller 7/11/1970 – 13/2/2009
Monica Furlong O’Neill 27/4/1930 – 11/1/2013

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Monnie Furlong O’Neill. 27/4/1930 – 11/1/2013

Having previously written about my mams terminal illness, it is with a numbed sadness that I am writing now about her recent death.

Reading notices in newspapers about people who have died after cancer, I have always been struck by the language used. “She fought hard” or “he battled strongly”. These words always conjured up images of the said person dressed up in army fatigues, in a war zone, engaged in hand to hand combat.

Dying of cancer may be like that for some people, but I never saw it as a war or a fight that my mother could “win”.

In the earlier days of her illness there was certainly hope, but as the disease progressed, this hope was extinguished and she was left with the stark reality of facing into an uncertain future. Her time for living was limited and she knew that she was going to die.

I believe that facing our mortality must be the most frightening experience ever. We spend our lives planning this and that, visualizing particular outcomes and results. But imagining our own death and what comes after it is mystifying and terrifying, because we have nothing to go on and no images of what happens next. While medical intervention and treatments can make a person more comfortable during their illness, the undeniable fact that life is drawing to a close must be petrifying.

My mam was ill for almost two years. During this time she had incredible support and care from all the health professionals who she came into contact with. She took everything that was offered to her in the hope of gaining more time, and she accepted all treatments and interventions despite them making her feel sick and her losing all her beautiful hair.

By the time December 2012 rolled around, she was increasingly tired and unable to cope with living alone. We sometimes talked about the future, but these conversations were difficult and she confessed to feeling afraid. She was admitted into the palliative unit of the hospice in Harolds Cross in Dublin early in December and she peacefully died in their care on January 11th.

During her time there the staff made her feel so special, and they showered her with attention mixed up with humor and compassion. She was treated with absolute dignity and respect by everyone who worked there including the volunteers who brought tea in the evenings to her visitors. Spending time with her was a pleasure, and it was wonderful to see how she was viewed by the people who all contributed to her care. She loved being there and grew less afraid as time moved on. She told me this several times.

As she grew weaker her beautiful hair grew once more, and it was great to see her give up her wig and to look stylish and trendy with her new cropped pixie haircut. She was with my family on Christmas day for a few hours, and although she was tired we laughed and told stories around the dinner table as we always had done in the past. We could see though that she was struggling.

As a family we had time to spend with her as her life drew to a close. I was alone with her holding her hand when she slipped into a sleep that she would never awaken from, and my brother and I sat up with her through that first night. We whispered together in the darkness as we said our goodbyes. It was a frosty bright night and there were two foxes outside that kept stealing past her window. It was a real privilege to be there with her as she prepared for her journey from this world. She slept peacefully for three more days while our family kept vigil, and then she quietly slipped away while my two brothers and one of her own brothers were present.

She leaves behind siblings, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, neighbours and dear friends who loved her and who will miss her forever. She also leaves us with memories of a wonderful woman who loved life and embraced it with passion and gusto. She spoke her mind and had an opinion on almost everything, and her voice and expressions will echo around in my head for a long long time to come.

Rest easy mam, your long journey here is over, but only you know if another one is just beginning.

My future destiny will always contain elements of my past and this will always include my mother……

The flip side of the coin…

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family”. The opening words of the iconic monologue from the 1996 movie ‘Trainspotting’.

But what choices do we really have when it comes to living?

I believe that life can be a series of accidents and opportunities that are constantly dependent on outside factors that we have absolutely no control over at all.

Take that great job interview that you recently did. You know that you ticked all the boxes. You know that you are qualified for the job. You have the expertise. You presented well on the day and you answered all the questions correctly.

You didn’t get the job.

Outside influences may have played a major part. The Interviewer may not have liked the colour of your hair, or she may have had her best friend’s daughter interviewing later that day. You will never know the reason.

You will go over and over what it was that you did wrong, and never find the answer because it was nothing to do with you, it was to do with someone else making a decision that might affect the rest of your life.

You had decided on a particular path assured in the belief that if you completed A you would progress to B and then on to C. Mapping out our lives is something that we all do. We have goals and aspirations to aim for, and we hope that they will be realised as we all work toward personal fulfilment.

Achievements are celebrated and greater goals are set as we attempt to pilot our way through our lives, providing for our families, setting example by our standards and generally expecting that things will work out the way we want them to because we have worked so hard to make it happen. It’s what we have been taught to do. I cannot visualise my world without order, hope, expectations and dreams.

But life is actually so arbitrary. I realise this now, and it has taken me so long to understand it.

I realise that no matter how qualified I am for a particular job, it’s someone else’s decision as to whether I get it or not.

I realise that being an obedient citizen guarantees me nothing.

I realise that actions and decisions take place that impact on my life all the time and that I have no hand in them.

I realise that most of life is chaotic and unplanned, despite our belief that there is an order to the events that affect us.

I realise that no matter how much I try to protect the people that I love, I cannot keep them safe from harm.

I realise that I have to let go my feelings of desolation because life didn’t work out quite as I had planned it would.

I realise that life can be explained by the simple metaphor of a coin toss.

Heads you live – Tails….

Destiny can just be about flipping the coin of life and accepting where it lands.

At the end of the day………

It’s such a commonly used expression –

Irish people use it all the time. We throw it around casually in conversations….. “At the end of the day she was acting the maggot and I will NEVER be friends with her again”… “At the end of the day the score was even and the ref was SOOOO right”. “At the end of the day he was such a fecker that I dumped him”.

“At the end of the day” is a colloquialism- a part of the popular Irish vernacular, and although a lot of people use it frequently in conversation, I don’t honestly believe that we think too much about what lies behind the words that we are saying.

Circumstances have a way of making you sit up and take notice of what was once ordinary become extraordinary…….

At the end of the day on Wednesday I learnt that my mother’s terminal cancer had spread to other organs in her body…

At the end of the day I realised that her treatment had not halted this terrible disease despite medical interventions and chemotherapy….

At the end of the day I was alone with her as we were told that the results of her recent scans did not herald good news…..

At the end of the day we were sitting together quietly in a hospital room hearing words that extinguished all hope….

At the end of the day I was sitting with my mother the moment that we realised that the actual end of the day was coming sooner than we thought….

 

I am currently confused about the meaning of Destiny…..

Care and kindness in unexpected places

According to all the current reports in the newspaper and on the TV, our Irish National Health Service is in shambles. There are stories featured almost every day about the heartbreak and suffering that vulnerable people have to endure at a time when they need care the most. There seems to be little praise for the services and for every bad story that is heard, there are another five waiting in the wings for their day in the spotlight.

I realise that no newspaper ever refused ink, and that good news rarely makes the front page, but I am heartened by my own recent experience with the Health Service and particularly with St James Hospital in Dublin where my mother is currently a patient.

I brought my mam (who is also terminally ill) to the A & E department of James Street hospital in Dublin late on Monday night June 18th on the advice of her GP. Her condition didn’t appear to relate to her current illness, but her GP quite rightly didn’t want to take any chances. From the waiting room she was triaged within five minutes and was admitted almost immediately. The care and attention that she received during the next few hours was of an exceptionally high standard, and was in contrast to previously heard stories about this particular department.

Despite being overcrowded with patients on trollies, there was one cubicle that was constantly kept empty during the night. Trollies were moved about by the staff with the dexterity of chess pieces as doctors came and consulted with, and diagnosed their patients. Each patient was wheeled into this empty cubicle in order to have complete privacy as doctors examined them. When the consultation was over, they were wheeled back out again leaving the cubicle ready for the next patient.

All this movement/ shifting/ wheeling/ tugging/pushing was carried out by the staff with constant cheerfulness and maximum efficiency. My mother was wheeled into that cubicle three times during the hours that we were there before she was eventually transferred to a ward. Being the beneficiaries of such a high level of privacy and dignity in the middle of a hustling busy A & E dept. was so welcome and so totally unexpected given the horrific experiences of other patients that are constantly referred to by the media. The current health service is hugely criticised most of the time- but my mother’s recent experience was one to be highly commended.

The unit that she is still on is staffed by dedicated people who look after her with diligent care, kindness and professionalism. Her every need is catered for and we are so lucky that her care team are so thorough in their work and expertise.

Since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, the care and attention that my mother has received from the medical staff in St James Hospital has been nothing short of excellent. Her treatments and appointments run like clockwork, and she has always been present at the heart of every consultation and meeting about her illness.

Kindness, affection and good humour are the added bonuses that the staff provide, and my mother and the rest of my family are so grateful that she is being looked after with such compassion, thoughtfulness and consideration.

I have nothing but praise for all the health care professionals that surround us at the moment as my mother struggles to remain upbeat and as well as she can be given her fragile state. I have no doubt that while the Health Service in general is struggling and needs reform, St James Hospital as a centre of excellence is currently demonstrating how best practice can actually work as my mother and consequently the rest of our family are the recipients of this care.

Destiny can lie in the hands and hearts of unexpected people who come into our lives when they are needed the most.

Emigration – Ireland & Me….

Reading newspaper articles on the emigration of Irish people in recent times, I have been caught up in the many tales of heartache and separation that occur when such a drastic step is taken. Many of the stories are about economic emigration because it can be difficult to see a future in the harsh landscape of Ireland in the post Celtic Tiger gloom of the present. Other stories are about bravery and vision and a belief that life will be better away from this small Island that has a huge history in shipping out its talent and youth and sending our best to the far flung corners of the globe.

When I was engaged to be married a life time ago, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago in America with my fiancé. He had an uncle who would sponsor us and we were assured of good jobs, accommodation and a loving family member who would be thrilled to watch over us and to help in any way that he could. My fiancé wanted to go but I didn’t. I loved living in Dublin at that time and being a young and naïve 19 year old, I didn’t want too many challenges or to be separated from my family and friends. My argument was that we would go, work hard and have a life, but would never be able to afford to come home for our parent’s funerals if they died. Travel was expensive in the early 80’s and this was a valid argument in my mind. We didn’t go and the dye was cast on our life in Ireland.

We stayed here, married, raised a small family and lived a small life surrounded by the people that were important to us. We educated our children and hoped that they would eventually acquire the skills needed to become independent and to continue to live here and not to be included in the statistics of people who emigrated and had to leave Ireland’s shores. We wanted them here with us and I believed that I was rearing them to become the new generation of Irish people who were going to continue into the new century with pride and a skill set that was worthwhile and valuable. Sustainable living in Ireland was our hope for them and I never gave a thought to them leaving this country.

My children are grown now and are independent and working. They are maintaining their own lives and homes against a backdrop of savage austerity and hardship. Tax cuts are biting deep and there are harder days to come. There are Increases in the cost of living, health insurance, fuel and other day to day products as well the introduction of stealth taxes on property and other items that reduce their disposable income every day. There seems to be no good news on the horizon for Ireland and for this new generation of citizens the emigration figures are climbing higher and higher.

Looking back at my own opportunity to emigrate, I realise that I was young and scared. I was afraid to take a step into the unknown, afraid to take a step into a different country, afraid to leave behind all that was familiar, afraid simply to take a step. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been that way, and I really admire the people who have taken the plunge and have gone on to make lives for themselves and their families in so many places far from this land. They possessed the courage that I lacked.

As an Island state, Ireland cannot continue to sustain its population indefinitely and so will continue to provide the rest of the world with educated young people who will search out better places to live and to settle in. I will always want my children close by, but I am beginning to see myself as being selfish in not wanting them to go where life offers better possibilities. They have not mentioned emigration, but it’s something that I may yet have to face.

Home is somewhere that you carry in your heart and distance cannot change that. I always want them to be happy in their choices and not to be scared like I was when I was their age. If emigration calls them I don’t want them to be shackled to me or to the past, I want them to look to their own future and to find that special place that they can live and prosper in no matter where in the world it is.

I will also have a few bob put aside for them just in case they need to fly home for my funeral!

Destiny can be about evaluating the past and reshaping the future……

New View…..

When I was recently having surgery to insert intraocular lens into my eyes I was worried about my eyesight. Would I see things differently afterwards- would I see colours as I remembered them- would this surgery restore my sight to what the experts promised it would be? These questions were the biggest things on my horizon when I embarked on a journey that was frightening and uncertain. My distance vision has been impaired since I was about 15 years of age and so I’ve worn glasses all my adult life. This has never bothered me at all.

In the past few years however my near vision has deteriorated rapidly, and as I was not suitable for varifocal lens more radical steps were required. I have since had the surgery and have had a revolutionary procedure that has resulted in my distance vision now being better than 20/20 and my near vision being restored. I can now see the world in a sharper and clearer way.

I still had the bandages on one eye when my mother got the news this week that her cancer is terminal. Her breast cancer has spread to her lungs and as she is a frail 82 years of age, her surgeon sees no point in putting her through the trauma of the originally proposed mastectomy. She will be treated with oral chemotherapy to try to contain the disease to her lung and breast in the hope that it will not travel further.

Bravely- she asked the question about how long she had to live- and unhesitatingly her Oncologist answered. Two years.

Facing an uncertain future is something we all live with but we push it away and pretend that we have years ahead…. My mam is now faced with a finite date on her life and is determined to be as strong and upbeat for as long as she can be. She is wilful and stubborn and I realise that she will do it her way and not mine or my sibling’s way because she is an independent strong woman and despite a million and one rows that we have had over the years, I wouldn’t have her any other way.

Thinking about my own eyesight fears seem so petty and small compared to the struggle that my mam is going through and I wish that my new eyes didn’t register the worry and uncertainty that I saw on her face today. I wish I didn’t see the tiredness and I wish I didn’t see the effort that she was making to chat and remain upbeat.

I collected her and her sister to bring them to lunch and I kept an eye on her through the drivers mirror as I drove along. She was in the back seat of the car chatting with her sister when she leaned through the seats and said “I never realised how beautiful your cheekbones are- I never noticed them before because you wore glasses”.

Compliments from my mam are rare and treasured. Today we both saw each other differently and I wonder how that view will change in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Destiny is a path that changes all the time….