I’m sitting up in bed with the dappled early morning sunshine spilling through the open window behind my head to make patterns on the doona. The warm breeze is stirring the leaves of the fig tree shading this side of the house.
I’m so locked into this state of despair and dread that I can’t see my way clear to get out of it, I write on the next blank page in my journal, I try to write and find the words don’t come anymore, there’s no point, all has been subsumed by this other, this terribleness that has taken over my life so that I feel as if I’m behind a wall and can’t talk to anyone, can’t communicate and feel too raw to want to anyway.
Finally, it’s easier just to get out of bed, shower and be on my way. The oleander tree in the front garden in so laden with white flowers I have to bend down to go under the heavily drooping branches. It’s such a magnificent sight, however, I am more than willing to put up with this slight inconvenience. Never before has this tree bloomed so prolifically. I figure it’s the result of cutting back the hedge to within an inch of its life last year enabling the oleander tree to virtually take over this small pocket handkerchief size space with a vengeance.
There’s so much traffic along Lygon Street these days I risk life and limb just crossing the road to pick up my mail at the post office box. I draw out a handful of letters including one from my daughter, I’m pleased to see. Plenty of reading to keep me occupied on the way into the hospital. I glance up, notice a tram bearing down towards the intersection and make a dash for it.
I’m looking forward to seeing you in July, my daughter, Petra, has written, you can tell me all those stories, once again, about when I was born, over your endless pots of chicken wings...
I lower the page and can’t help smiling. When she’d rung on Xmas day to tell me she was just pregnant I’d tried not to get too excited in case something happened to prevent it in those first crucial couple of months. Besides, it takes some getting used to this idea that I am going to be a grandmother in few month’s time. What do I know about being a grandmother? I’ve never had one myself, both sets of grandparents having died long before I was born. And as my mother died of cancer when my daughter was six years old it means I only have a very vague idea of what is involved from her all-too-brief example.
Not that I am adverse to learning how to grow into this most important role. On the contrary. As a lesbian on the dole, I am not only used to making up my life according to my own needs as I go along, I positively revel in the opportunity of defining a lifestyle that suits me, as opposed to conforming to a set of rules that have nothing to do with the kind of radical feminist I am in any way whatsoever. Indeed, I rather fancy myself as a lesbian grandmother and feminist matriarch, now that I think about it.
I get off the tram at Grattan Street and make my way to the entrance of the Royal Women’s Hospital, past the cigarette butts littering the footpath outside the cafe (where I used to do volunteer work in my twenties) through the foyer (where just last year the circus group I belong to did a small performance as part of the Breast Cancer Day activities) to the lifts.
Maybe there isn’t such a vast difference between the young wife and mother of two I was then, I muse as I press the button for the oncology and dysplasia ward on the fifth floor, doing volunteer work and knitting layettes for raffles to benefit the hospital, and the unpaid collective work I do now and knitting socks in support of feminist activities. The politics and the lifestyle might be completely different but essentially the sentiments and the capacity for martyring myself to the cause are much the same.
Walking down the corridor, past the autoclave and pan rooms with the familiar hospital smell tingling my nostrils, reminds me of those long ago years when I was training to be a nurse. When even the excitement of moving into the nurses’ home and learning more in those twelve months than I did in the five years I subsequently spent at uni was not enough to outweigh my disgust at the medical hierarchy, the unnecessarily strict discipline based along military lines and the downright barbaric healing practices we had to follow back then.
Not that all that much has changed as far as western medicine is concerned. But in this ward, anyway, I’m allowed to come and go whenever I feel like it, lounge on the bed (unheard of in my day in case the bedspread got creased) and even hang about and watch any and all of the nursing procedures from changing the dressing to being present when the doctors make their rounds.
“Hello, Agatha,” I say to the Chinese womyn on the way past. She’s looking so much better that she did a mere day or so ago when she lay moaning beneath the oxygen mask with her false teeth out. Now she smiles back, her teeth firmly and properly in place, and makes a joke about Heather being asleep.
She is too, with her head back on the pillow and her mouth open, gently snoring. I stand quietly by the bed to observe her dear face and she opens her eyes.
“Hello, darling,” I bend down to give her a kiss on the mouth. There’s no problem here about being out as dykes, which is a good thing.
“Hello, my lovely,” Heather runs her tongue around her mouth to moisten it, “Guess what?” and reaches up to grasp the handrail to pull herself up, “I had half the staples out this morning.”
“Can I see?” I discreetly lift one corner of the sheet and peer down at the now-familiar long, red radical hysterectomy scar running from the shaved pubic mound, across Heather’s stomach to deviate round her navel, every second staple still in situ.
“It’s looking good.”
“I should hope so. I don’t want anything to stop me from leaving as soon as we get the pathology results tomorrow afternoon. I’m bored shitless hanging around here. All I want to do is go home for some decent food and a proper rest.”
“A sure sign you’re well on the mend, my love. And not only that,” I pause for effect, “I started bleeding this morning, dammit,” this has become a running joke between us. Each time I declare I’m menopausal, after months of not having a period, I start bleeding again. This time I thought I was safe, my last period having been during the time I was attending the International Women’s Forum in Beijing last year, “Just as well I didn’t throw away my red pads, that’s all I can say.”
Heather chuckles, “I know I had to cheat to do it, and I hate to gloat, but do you realise that I actually got to menopause before you did, after all?”
“Bloody hell,” I say, mock-severely, “Is nothing sacred? As I’m eighteen months older than you I’m supposed to reach menopause first, you know that.”
“Oh well,” she slowly reaches over and plucks a stray oleander flower from my grey hair, “look at it this way, in one sense I could just postpone it indefinitely with a course or two or three of Hormonal Replacement Therapy.”
“You’re not, are you?” I try not to sound too alarmed, “Is that what the doctors are recommending you take?” I can understand why. Heather’s body is in enough shock already from all the drugs, the anaesthetic and the operation without the sudden loss of hormones on top of everything else. Instant menopause indeed.
“They’re recommending, or suggesting, I should say, that I could take progesterone if I want to. But they’re not as concerned about that so much as that I seriously consider having radium treatment and / or a course of chemotherapy once I get out of here.”
We’ve talked about this before. It seems to be standard procedure to make sure any lingering signs of cancer are completely gone but I think I’m taking longer to absorb all this new and quite frightening information so haven’t quite taken the full implications of this on board, as yet. Besides, we won’t know for certain whether Heather will need any post-operative treatment until we get the results back from pathology. The eternal optimist, me.
“You’d think they’d have come up with less inhumane forms of treatment by now though, wouldn’t you?” I say, moving restlessly in the chair. However, I manage to temper my usual political tirade about the inadequacies of western medicine to add, “Still, I suppose cancer’s not something we can afford to be too complacent about either, is it?” I squeeze Heather’s hand as tears start rolling down my cheeks. It’s her body and her decision, when it comes down to it.
“Let it out, darling, that’s the way,” Heather soothes.
As I fumble in my bag for a handkerchief I come across the booklet I’d picked up on my last visit. I blow my nose and decide it’s time to change the subject. “See this?” I hold it up, “You know how Petra wants to have her baby here at the Royal Women’s,” I haven’t been near the Royal Women’s Hospital in years and all of a sudden it’s become the focus of my attention in a big way, “I thought I’d send her this so she’ll be prepared. It’s full of all the information she needs to know, apparently. Although some of it I don’t quite understand. For example,” I flip through the pages to find the right one, “it says here that amongst the items the support person needs to consider bringing to the birth are bathers and a towel,” I lower the booklet to grin at Heather, “Now, I know they do things rather differently these days but I can’t even begin to imagine why anyone needs to wear bathers to attend a birth, can you?”
“Seeing I’ve never ever wanted to have a child in the first place, let alone had one, how would I know?” Heather mutters.
“I wouldn’t mind being there at the birth,” I reflect, “I wonder if would let me?”
“Count me out,” Heather says firmly.
“You’ll make a great grandmother,” I tease, “I can see it now. Nana Heather, she’ll call you and when you hold her she’ll pull at the hairs on your chin.”
“Bloody hell,” Heather smoothes them down, “do I have to be a grandmother?” But I can tell she’s getting to like the idea.
“Of course. Rest assured, in a few months time you’ll be as much a grandmother as I will be.” Which reminds me, with a jolt, that this will be about the time, if the results are as drastic as the doctor seems to think they will be, that Heather might be coming to the end of her chemo treatment.
Heather has had the same thought, “The doctor says I will definitely lose all my hair,” she murmurs reflectively.
“Just as well bald heads are quite acceptable in the lesbian community,” I say gamely.
“I’ve already had several offers from friends who are prepared to knit beanies to help keep my head warm over the winter,” Heather adds.
Now this image of the lesbian community busy with their knitting needles is almost as mind boggling as the thought of myself at the birth in my bikini. And I laugh out loud.
© Jean Taylor 2014