Part 18: Last Christmas

Last Christmas I was 2 weeks out of surgery and harboring an infection to my wound that meant I was still struggling to walk and sit up, sleep or go to the toilet. I was still wearing maternity trousers – and would continue to do so for a month or two at least.

I was scared and sore – more sore than I needed to be having been discharged with no aftercare advice or wound coverings. I was bleeding into my clothes, and struggled through Christmas dinner and subsequent games, but was determined to make the most of being surrounded by my surrogate family, and forget, for a while at least, that I had cancer.

On Christmas morning I donned my new Christmas dress (a gift from my Steve) over my maternity tights, pulled on my Christmas pudding beanie and toddled slowly and painfully up the road for our annual Christmas walk. The sky, in my memory, was clear and blue, the air crisp and cold, icicles glimmering off the grasses and hedgerows reminding me how lucky I was to be alive. Nobody grumbled when I asked to turn back.

Left: Doug, Hannah, me (grimmacing) and Steve in the foreground on our Christmas walk. Right: My oozing wound.

We returned to a breakfast of smoked salmon bagels and brie and cranberry parcels and spent the day prepping yet more food and listening to carols, the wood burner blazing so hot in the background we had to open the doors and windows, welcoming in the refreshing winter chill. I remember bustle and laughter and chatter and the odd debate over exactly how to cook this side or that accompaniment, all interspersed by the needling tendrils of pain radiating from my bellybutton that every movement, every chuckle increased. But I felt warm and loved and cushioned.

And then there was this Christmas.

The steam train that was my return to work on December 3rd meant that the lead up to Christmas kind of passed me by. I had planned to share with you what it was like to return to college life after over a year on sick leave: the total mind blow of emerging from my sanctuary into the realities of teaching in a post-covid world; I wanted to share how exciting it had been when I learnt that, despite my previous fears of facing a full GCSE re-sit timetable, I would actually be mostly teaching A Levels - Philosophy and Language – and the heavy reading and preparation load that brought; I wanted to share my frustrations, when, after getting myself emotionally prepared to return, we went into a second lockdown and I had to meet and begin teaching my new students virtually as I was still considered Critically Extremely Vulnerable; I had planned to tell you how strange it had felt, finally walking back into that building after so long; I wanted to explain my fears of teaching through covid, despite the masks and open windows and hand sanitiser – how after having spent so long putting my health at the forefront of everything I did, walking into a college environment felt like (still feels like) a kamikaze mission. And I wanted to tell you how going back to work has heightened my awareness of how amazing my friends and colleagues have been to continue to deliver face to face teaching despite the danger, after a long year of battling through the challenge and increased workload virtual learning had already brought with it.

But, as was inevitable, my life got overtaken by learning two new specifications, and preparing to teach two new subjects, by marking GCSE November re-sit exams and by the determination not to let anything get on top of me…I am sad to say that writing took something of a back seat. I still managed to think about cancer though; I still managed to see every twinge or strange feeling, or slight change in bowel habit or my menstrual cycle as evidence of my cancer’s return. And around all of this, the covid wave reared again, coming down with more force, more destruction, and bringing its tide closer than it has ever felt before.

It has been very easy, returning to work, seeing people again, to forget how serious it could be. And as you see your own habits slip, you see the defenses of those around you fall too. In fact, you start to feel a little silly for certain decisions you make or precautions you take; you feel social pressure to meet people in situations you know put you at risk or break guidance – I mean who wants to be ‘that guy’: the one who complains and objects and does everything by the rules? It begins to seem even stranger that you can't share a meal with family, when you can share a small classroom with groups of 20-odd students.

However, in the background, more and more of my friends and people I know have become infected – many of them despite living in relative isolation as a result of health conditions or vulnerable family members. All their stories have been unpleasant – they have been very ill, for a prolonged period and have taken weeks to bounce back to their normal selves. And none of them occurred as a result of carelessness or the breaking of social distancing.

And then a close friend and colleague tested positive; a friend and colleague I’d been in close contact with just days prior to their symptoms developing. My knuckles were consequently rapped by my employer and the dangers brought home in the wake up call I probably needed. I have said so many times that I have not lived through this last year of ‘worst days of my lifes’, to succumb to covid too. And I am definitely not going to be responsible for passing it on to anyone else either. And even more importantly, I refuse to add to the pressure mounting on the NHS that has already seen the cancellation and deferment of life saving cancer treatment for many, with serious and often fatal consequences. I am reminded, as ever, just how lucky I was to have been diagnosed last year, and not this. One friend I’ve written of before, diagnosed at the start of the pandemic, not only had to face the reality that delayed treatment (as a result of the first wave) meant his cancer had spread requiring far more intrusive surgery than should have been necessary, but had this subsequent surgery delayed a further three times - each time just days before he was due to go in. Preparing yourself psychologically and emotionally for major surgery is draining; to have to go through that over and over again, is almost unimaginable.

Left: a more socially distant Christmas walk for 2020. Middle: Arlo at 5 months! Right: Roo eyeing up our Christmas duck.

And this is why my Christmas 2020 was quiet and reserved. We decided, as a family, that despite the relaxation of the rules, we would spend the majority of the day safely in our own homes, doing our own private Christmas dinners – so very different to the bustle of last year when the house of Steve’s parents was full of offspring, their partners, grandchildren and their (our) dogs. We still met Steve’s parents for a morning dog walk, but instead of a family dinner we met both sides of the family on Zoom to open our secret santas, eat our puddings and share glad tidings. For us, there will be other Christmases, so it was the least we could do for others who may not be so lucky.

So, please don’t ask me to break the rules or push the boundaries, because, perhaps now more than ever, cancer has made sure I know just how precious life is - I don’t care how pedantic this may seem to anyone else - I am not going to take any unnecessary risks. I bring no judgement to anyone else’s choices - but personally, I can’t bear the thought of wasting another minute of my life being sick, if it can be avoided and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for bringing illness to anyone else’s door. So, for now, stay safe and sensible, and maybe we can meet again on the other side! Who’s up for a big old Christmas Party in 2021?

In the meantime, here's a picture of a puppy. You're welcome! ;)