Tuesday, 29 July 2014

23. When Owl had surgery

I’m on holiday. Properly, it seems. The kind of holiday that has medieval castles in it, and antique markets, and daily swims in the sea/helpings of ice cream/bottles of wine. There is an un-British amount of sunshine punctuated by some very British showers. I’m even halfway through a novel, the first one I’ve managed in four months. Very gradually, the Winnie-the-Pooh problem is receding. (Let's hope it doesn't strike again.)

A proper holiday does not include cancer, so I’ve tried not to think about it.

With reasonable success. I am not composing any blog posts in my head. I’m pretending that the pixie cut is my own free choice. (And not a bad choice, at that. Gentlemen, you don’t know how lucky you are with your crew cuts. The time saved! The quick transition from shower to I’m ready, let’s go! And that’s not just a jokey way of making light of my limited hair length. It’s the truth. Let’s just gloss over my sharp intake of breath every time I look in the mirror.)

But now I need to take a short break from the holiday, because the hospital scanning machines are awaiting my arrival tomorrow morning. I have left my family at the seaside and made the two hour train journey to London. 

I want to stay in holiday mood though, so I am not writing anything new. Instead, let me empty my drawer of back-dated Owl stories.

My surgeon

This story about Owl’s surgery starts a week before I was due to have my mastectomy.

We did not yet know that it would have to be postponed. I’d had a lumpectomy three weeks earlier. Owl had his stony lump removed even earlier than that, on the day that I created him out of scraps of fabric and a few handfuls of fluff. Now, unexpectedly, we were facing rather more invasive surgery.

My daughters had been wondering how such a flat chested animal could have a mastectomy.

We briefly considered and then rejected the possibility of giving him breasts. Even if I could manage the technical challenge, he would look ridiculous. Instead, I thought, I would just have to bandage him up, mimicking my own plasters, pretending he was similarly scarred.

Then, one night, I suddenly woke up at 4am, thinking about all this. The solution just popped into my head. I would unpick and cut off part of Owl’s right wing. I would have to do it the day before going into theatre, so the children would find him, like me, with a missing part.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by tears at the thought of such mutilation.

I had been completely open and honest with the outside world about the impending loss of my breast and my decision not to have a reconstruction, and I didn’t doubt my choice for a moment. If anything, I felt increasingly positive about it, glad and relieved that I could be so confident about my body.

I was sure I would learn to love my scar, and I had been very upbeat about it. Bring it on! It’s nothing, really! No-one will love me any less!

So there I was, 11 days after being given the news that I would lose my breast and six days before the surgeon’s knife was written into my diary. I had convinced myself that I was absolutely fine about it. I would just go through it all and emerge physically mutilated but emotionally unscathed.

The thought of having to cut off Owl’s wing, however, was unexpectedly devastating.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I told myself. “It’s only a bit of stuffed fabric.”

But I knew why I was so upset. My feelings about Owl were simply a reflection of my deeper, perhaps inadmissible feelings about myself.

Of course I knew I wouldn’t love Owl any less without his wing. If anything, he would be loved more, for having lived through such trauma and shared it with us.

Even my rejection of reconstructive surgery was echoed by Owl. I knew I wouldn’t want to sew on a perfectly matched new piece of fabric. He would be fine with a prosthesis, an un-matching piece of fabric. He would also be absolutely fine with nothing at all. (And as it turns out, none of us have so far felt the need to fill his wing-gap.)

My positive thinking around living without a breast was real, but it was not my only truth. I hadn't allowed myself enough space to grieve. Too much of a For goodness sake, pull yourself together, it's only a breast attitude.

Thank goodness I allowed myself to howl over Owl instead.

I took myself downstairs and sat on the sofa with an extra-strong cup of tea, clutching Owl, crying and crying for our tough journey ahead.

A few days later, my mother started dying and everything changed.

Instead of undergoing the mastectomy, I travelled to Holland to be with her.

When I returned to London, the impending loss of my breast was the last thing on my mind. It didn’t matter to me. I was just relieved that it would be done soon, so that I could go back to the much more important business of being my mother’s daughter.

I felt none of the distress that had been so prominent a few weeks earlier. My Go ahead, let’s get this over and done with attitude was reflected in Owl.

It was almost midnight. I had flown back to London that day and I was due in the Surgical Admission Lounge early the following morning. My heart was full of the farewell I had just shared with my mother.

Suddenly, I remembered Owl’s wing.

A few weeks earlier, during the 4am sobbing episode, I had envisaged a profound and moving ritual, where I would use the symbolism of cutting his right wing as a way of saying a final goodbye to my right breast. I would take my time over it. There would be reverence and tears. Knowing me, you might even expect candles, incense and bell-ringing.

Instead, I made a quick trip to the sewing box. It was a matter of detached cutting, snip-snip, there we are, done, can I go to bed now? I hardly looked at the result. The result didn’t matter.

I don’t think I was suppressing my deeper feelings, as I had clearly been doing prior to the 4am drama.

Like my own mastectomy, Owl’s surgery had simply become one more thing on my to-do list.

The children’s reaction to his new scar mirrored the way they reacted to mine.

When his bandages came off a week later, they were simply interested to see what he looked like, without judgement or emotion: “Has his wing been cut off? Oh, let’s see then!”

Similarly, when I showed them my own fresh scar revealed by the removal of my plasters, they had a good look and then went off to do something more interesting.

It made me marvel at young people’s ability to take things on board. Their days are full of new information, new ways of looking at things. Owl’s amputated wing and my lost breast were simply becoming part of their world.

Although, admittedly, now that the swelling and the multi-colours have subsided and my chest is settling into its forever-future appearance, they do notice that things are different for me. Only a few days ago, during rush hour in the bathroom, my daughters looked at me emerging from the shower, and the younger one said with feeling: “I don’t want to get breast cancer.”

I’m with her on that one.

If anything, how on earth could she ever bear to put her scissors to Bear?

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