Memories of a stubborn young lady

Not so young, actually…

Cancer or the sword of Damocles

The first time I heard about cancer I was about nine. I was alone, having an avocado for dinner and watching a Telethon dedicated to genetic disorders and raising funds for gene therapy. They were presenting sick children in a stable with horses showing how that relationship with the animal could encourage children, boost their morale to fight the disease.
Children were visibly sick: their faces were swollen, their eyelids dark, or their heads were bald. But they were smiling, and not naively. They were totally aware of the preciousness and fragility of life. They were like too young philosophers giving a lesson to adults. I felt sorry for them. I found them strong and wondered how I would do in their shoes and under their hats.
They gave statistics that I didn’t try to understand but I imagine that it could also happen to me. An uncontrolable fear started to haunt me.
My mother came back home and as soon as she opened the door I changed the channel, my eyes full of tears. The last words I’ve heard were “nowadays scientists haven’t found yet a remedy to AIDS, cancer and other genetic diseases.” And for some reasons I associated these diseases to numbers. 1 for AIDS, 2 for Cancer and 3 for other genetic diseases. For many years these numbers and these words have been floating in my mind like a mortal podium I had to avoid at any price.
I think at that age where other kids make fun of you about anything I was as shocked by the consequences of a chemotherapy like losing hair as I was by death itself. When you are a child, humiliation is a little death.
My mother looked at me and asked “don’t you finish your avocado?” I said “I’m not so hungry anymore.”

Second time I have met cancer was when Isabelle’s mum got it. I was eleven. My paternal grandmother talked about Monica being sick. She was an artist painting on glass. When I think about her I see that dove carrying a flower in its beak, one of the pieces she had created and offered to my granny. It is a symbol of peace to me.
I asked if it was serious and it looked like it and the word “cancer” being said, atmosphere became heavier.
So Isabelle came more often to my granny’s place who was her neighbour, to do her homework and sometimes to play with me. Monica just started her chemotherapy and needed support to take care of the girls, Isabelle and her sister Laura. Their dad was working a lot as a teacher in town.
I was happy to see Isabelle at my grandmother and not only at school. Until that day when Isabelle wanted to get one book from her house and I came along with her. While she was looking for her book I went to the bathroom. There, I discovered the wig on its head stand. I felt embarrassed and intrigued at the same time. I peed and left the room. Should I pretend I didn’t see or ask for more information? I asked Isabelle what was that wig and she explained that her mum just received it after ordering it and that soon she will be wearing it. I fell terribly guilty for asking that question since I knew the answer. I think I did it because I couldn’t believe that all that was happening here and now, so close to me. And I liked Monica who had always been nice to me and I didn’t want Isabelle to be sad. Isabelle quickly changed the topic of the conversation and I never dared to talk about wig or cancer with her after that episode.
The following months Isabelle was regularly missing school and sometimes she didn’t visit my granny. And her marks were worse and worse. She talked less and less. Sometimes when I got a ride and had a view on the village I checked Isabelle’s house to see if she was at home. But most of the time windows shutters were closed. I wondered if I would see Isabelle again.
And one morning Mr Morzynski announced to the class that Isabelle’s mum died and that we won’t see the girl for a while. It was sad although I knew it but that confirmation made it real.
Weeks without seeing Isabelle, she finally came back just before Summer holidays. I met her again in junior high school but she wasn’t the same. She grew up too fast but somehow stayed stuck at that precise moment when her mum went away. Like if her childhood had been petrified. And our friendship died.
It was the first time cancer proved to be fatal.

When I was 12 and hormonal changes started to transform my body I thought I had breast cancer. It was probably inspired by television and Monica’s experience. I used to practice that self-examination each night in my bed and I could feel some glands that I associated to lumps then to tumors then to breast cancer. And I cried in silent until I fell asleep. And that for maybe three months. I thought I had cancer but didn’t dare to discuss about it with anyone. I thought that my parents would make fun of me and I imagined the conversation: “Mum, Dad, I think I have a breast cancer.” “What a funny idea, to get breast cancer you have to get boobs, and it’s obviously not the case. Breast cancer! Ah ah!”
So I kept it for me. Also, I didn’t tell my friends because I wasn’t so intimate or even close to them. I was living in the country side without any access to public transportation and Internet was unknown to me. So I tried to live without thinking that I would die sooner or later.
I don’t even know how that idea of having breast cancer left my mind. Maybe my teen boobs revealed themselves.

When I was maybe 26 my uncle died. Of cancer. His disease was kind of mysterious in the beginning. My father, since my uncle was my dad’s brother, talked about troubles, exams, treatment, operation, diet, new treatment, new troubles… It lasted for months. I asked him many questions at first, I didn’t get answers. Was it a taboo? Most probably. Then he said it was possibly carcinogenic. Then it was cancer. Not a small one but a lethal one.
I wasn’t very close to my uncle since geographically we had always been far away from each other. I actually didn’t know him so well. But I used to meet him each Christmas Eve dinner as a child. He was a good cook. He loved wine and jokes. But he was always so serious that I always took him seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t have and it was only modesty. I was slightly afraid of him I think. I saw him in a terrible anger when I was a child, telling his two daughters Lisette and Gabrielle off. So when he was sick I called him once or twice to say hello, happy birthday or happy new year. But not that special year. During these months of suffering I didn’t want to get suddenly closer whereas I had been distant in the past. As distant as he had been. I thought it would have looked condescending or shown a sign of pity. I wanted to show love and compassion but nothing sad as pity. So I kept the place I had always had and I hope he didn’t mind. Maybe he didn’t notice anything. How to react face to someone sick or dying? Should we adapt our behaviour or keep the same? What does the person is expecting? More or less attention? Do they want to share their vulnerability or even become food for guilt or Judeo-Christian good conscience? They might want to be considered as they have always been, they might want to spend the rest of their short life with their closest friends and loved ones, without parasites’ good intentions. They might want to be seen as human beings, not as sick people. They don’t want to be assimilated to death. They want to be remembered for the positive things they’ve done and the nice moments they had.
My uncle was finally retired after having worked so hard for many years but he didn’t have time to enjoy this retirement. My auntie thinks he never digested my cousin’s death and that it killed him.
He spent New Year’s Eve at home surrounded by his wife and daughter. The day after he left that world for (maybe) a better one.

So cancer is there, in the air, waiting for its next victim. There, just in the corner, when you don’t expect it. The lifetime risk of developing cancer in the United States for example is 38,17% for a woman and 44,81% for a man. Which means that more than 1/3 of the US population is at risk.

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How my dream birth vanished

I had imagined my baby’s dream birth. I watched dozens of videos of births on YouTube when I was pregnant and I started to believe in these orgasmic births or at least I wanted to believe there was an alternative to biblical pain

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

and artificial painkillers. I had read testimonials of women and I knew what I wanted.
I aimed at directing my child’s birth, not being the passive actress of that magical moment and even less a puppet on drugs who is just following a nulliparous midwife’s instructions.

So I enrolled for that “Stork Nest” section of the Maternity dedicated to natural birth. I went there for parental training at first with my little-boyfriend-future-daddy Toby and my huge belly. I’m not telling my boyfriend is short. I only mean that at that time he came back to me eight months after he broke up with me so he felt little compared with my baby. In other words, I was so happy that he came back that I didn’t realise it. A miracle happened and it seemed too beautiful to be true. I underestimated my feelings not to be hurt again I guess.

Anyway, I had planned my journey there and met a wonderful midwife involved in her job and in women and babies wellbeing here in Europe but also in Africa where this white mamma called Johanna has an adoptive family and culture. She is a Sun with a smile between the beams. And more than comfy: A Sun that speaks my own language!
They had my records and all the information they needed. They knew that ideally I wanted to avoid drugs and tried natural pain relieves such as birth singing, bouncing ball, African hips moves or bathtub. Actually I secretly dreamt of giving birth in the bathtub…
Johanna explained me how this room would become ours and she mentioned we could personalize it with pictures, music, etc. I really liked this idea of birth and I was very confident towards that first birth. I knew that I would know how to do, I had 100% trust in my mammal, maternal, womanly and human instinct. Yes, I was confident. Maybe too much.

My boy’s arrival on that sick but wonderful blue planet was due on the 11th of March. I had received the Maternity package offered to each family before their child’s birth, some very nice clothes and accessories to be used from birth until the baby is one year old. I had been offered some baby clothes, baby bottles and a babycook robot from my family, some baby socks from my Toby’s family, and lent some basic baby material such as a bathtub, a crib, a baby carrier, some breastfeeding pads, etc from young mummies friends of mine.
We were only missing a pram but I wasn’t too much concerned since Toby decided he would come and live with us in our minuscule flat in the “Nordic Everglades” from the first of March. I was glad and relieved to know that we would have time, even a little, to prepare the final details for our newborn boy.

On the 27th of February, I had left my language studies (remember I am supposed to study the local tongue) for my maternity leave two weeks before and Toby was going to school and working as a freelance for a web design company at the same time. He was quite busy but sweet enough to spend all his evening with my belly and myself instead of heading to the gym although he was worried his own belly started to follow mine’s trend.
On this evening of the 27th of February we decided to buy a second-hand pram we saw on the net for 110€. It was cheap and probably old and slightly broken but it was better than nothing and we didn’t have much choice being broke.
Once the shopping done we came back home by bus with that empty pram eating this delicious mix of nuts, chocolate and raisins by Den Lille Nøtte Fabrikken as we were starving.

I could feel my baby’s head pressing my cervix but it wasn’t the first time and it was less painful than strange as a sensation.

Finally home Toby cooked simple eggs as it was the last delicacy left in the fridge. It suited me well. While I was explaining a recipe made of eggs called Mimosa to Toby I suddenly felt very wet. I told him with a naive and excited smile on my blushing face. I went to the toilets for a closer look and further examination of the present substance. It wasn’t urine, blood nor discharge. It could only be amniotic fluid so I called the Nest. Johanna asked me if my water broke. I said “I think so. But it’s more of the shy leak rather than the Niagara Falls, if you see what I mean.” And my mission then was to keep her informed and especially go there with my luggage as soon as the contractions would start. No need to say that this never happened.

After spending a wet night at home without contractions we called the Nest a last time and we headed to the Maternity for some exams and monitoring.
I spent the night of the 28th there, in the classical Maternity Yard, excited and anxious. Toby was sent home.
In the morning of the 29th of February, a midwife that I had never met before, barely polite and who doesn’t speak very much, even less in English and nothing at all in my mother tongue as expected.
And there she comes with her rubber gloves and she pierces my sack like if it was a supermarket plastic bag. As a back up she mumbled: “it might hurt a bit but we have to do it to make the contractions come”. I kept quiet, just thinking “well, I guess I don’t have choice”.
I stayed alone in my room, tired of boredom, and after I tried all the positions and features of the bed I decided to call my double agent stayed in the Nest: Johanna. She said she would visit me as soon as she can. It was out of her courtesy and kindness. She didn’t have to. So waiting for her I watched TV shows whose language was alien to me until a nurse entered the bedroom. Remember that there you have no privacy. They knock at the door and come in just after without waiting any sign of agreement. So that nurse came to tell me that I could get ready to enter the birth room. I asked her to wait for Toby to be here around noon and she gave her approval. So I asked again: “Where am I going? Is there any chance I can join the Nest?” And she answered: “I am not aware of that. I have only be asked to tell you to get ready. By the way, a midwife student is coming to introduce you a new birth chair so you can sign and use it if you are interested.”
So the student came and actually didn’t make any presentation but gave me a prospectus of the revolutionary “RelaxBirth”, this kind of modern medieval torture device. Well, not exactly, let’s say a mechanical swedish stool but with comfortable arms.

I was speechless but it didn’t feel awkward since the student wasn’t the most talkative. She asked me to think about it, I said yes but I had already made my decision. My initial plan was a natural birth, although I couldn’t join the Nest, I didn’t need R2D2 to give birth to my little boy. I would do it myself with the power of my pelvic and love, like a big girl so “thanks but no thanks”.

Later I called someone to ask why I wouldn’t go to the Nest. I was starting to get annoyed with that lack of communication they finally called “language gap”. A nurse came and said that I couldn’t go to the Nest because that birth wasn’t simple anymore and that they feared I had an infection I could transmit to the baby during the birth. And she tried to comfort me saying that at this floor they had professionals as good as there in the Nest.

I still hadn’t have any contraction or any painful one. I didn’t know anymore. I felt like my baby’s birth was slipping out of my “hands”.

Johanna came and gave me a session of acupuncture. I can visualize it: the small needles in my feet, the sun warming up and lighting them, like if they were a sanctuary of birth power. The snow started to melt outside and the fire to burn in me!
My dream birth vanished but I will live a new dream!

So we went to the room and they were going to inject me oxytocin when out of lucidity Toby asked: “don’t you examine her or check the contractions first?” They looked at him like “we know what we are doing and we don’t have any advice to receive from you” and they said “we can do it if you feel more comfortable but we don’t have to” and I heard “we can do it to please you, motherfuckers, but we follow the same matrice, the same plan for each client patient so please don’t mess with our program, usually clients patients shut up so you’d better do the same.”
So we confirmed we wanted to know how open was the cervix and if the contractions were strong enough.
The midwife had a look at me, said I was 4cm open and that if it didn’t hurt it meant I had no clear contractions. After that they followed their plan and the student installed a catheter on my hand. She failed at first and a little geyser of blood sprayed out the room. It gave a touch of colour to that clinically sad and clean white room.

And everything got faster and faster. It started to hurt a little. And big time. Toby became my best ally and he started to sing with me. The pain became harder so I requested the mask. It helped in the beginning. After that and as my bubble was broken I decided to try the hot water injections in the back. It felt good but didn’t last. After a few visits of the toilets (the baby’s head was pressing and emptying each single inch of my guts) I felt like an anal implosion or explosion maybe. I wasn’t sure, I was confused. The only thing I knew: it was a pain in the ass! And they asked if I wanted the epidural and I said yes because I didn’t know how long it would last. Toby said that the baby was coming but I felt so miserable and especially when they didn’t leave me the choice of the position and forced me to stay on my back, that I yielded. I should have trusted him.
They told me that each contraction stopped the baby’s heartbeat so we had to give him birth now.
So I was on my back, handy for them, I had the epidural running in my body, I didn’t feel the pain nor any other feeling, they sprayed some anesthetic lotion on my perineum explaining that if they had to cut and make an episiotomy it wouldn’t hurt. But I wasn’t naive: it was part of their plan. I was tired and I hated them. I just wanted to hold my boy!
So they cut and I pushed and I pushed and I… “Don’t push, I saiiid!”
Have you recognized the angelic voice of the midwife?
The baby is there!! And it’s a boy. Still a boy. We knew it.
So after that they took some scissors and I told them off because first I didn’t know their intention and Toby was the only one allowed to cut the cord. Also because the scissors so close to his penis was a scary view and I was afraid they would take the penis for the cord and I know it sounds ridiculous but who knows exactly what drugs they injected me.
So while the boy was scaled and measured, the midwife was pressing on my belly to expulse the placenta. I tried to breathe out each time she pushed but she didn’t get it. She was just pressing like a lunatic.
The boy was brought on my chest when they were sawing my perineum. It was stinging and I didn’t care.

My baby was so beautiful! Oh boy! We could finally touch him. He was so small and shy, like a little animal. He found refuge in my breast, cute little frog. He had marvellous big eyes. I was in love with him and his dad too. Awww…Our leap year baby!

In Search of Perfection

Nobody directly told me but I understood: I had to be perfect. I didn’t know what perfection was as a child but I wanted to please to be loved. I needed recognition. I wanted to please my parents, especially my mother, my father looked satisfied or at least he didn’t express disappointement.

I am officially a second child but since my older sister, that I haven’t had the chance to meet, died at birth, I was offered the role of eldest child. As my sister’s death has been a trauma, a painful event, a kind of failure, I had to balance the trend.

Of course I didn’t know until someone in the family talked about it during a dinner thinking I was aware of it. I was a teen when I have been told what happened to the baby. I felt that it was a sad memory that I shouldn’t have dig.
So I didn’t ask many questions, which is not of my habits, and I imagined how life would have been with her in the family. And sometimes in the anxiousness of night I had imaginary discussions with her, in my mind.

My mum wanted me to be good at school not to become a cashier nor a scavenger and not to have to depend on a husband although it would be pleasant to find a rich and handsome man.
That implies that some people are superior or inferior to some others, that money makes happiness and that I would be a straight woman liking men and that I would like to officialize that with a conventional contract.

She also wanted me to be slim and tall and blonde and good at tennis so I could play against her.
She wanted to be my confident but I didn’t trust her. I didn’t trust her because she didn’t trust me and wanted to believe I was a clone of her.

She was full of contradictions. She played the hippie woman but she wasn’t free. Prejudices ruined her way of thinking.

She kept commenting and showing her disgust when seeing fat people in the street. People are fat because they are lazy and glutton. But did she know about dietetical rules? I don’t think so. My little sister and I have been fed with carbohydrates all our childhood. Potatoes, pasta and rice to sum up. Of course we also had some meat and fish. Fish fingers and chicken nuggets. Junk food for children. Once a week on Sunday lunch we had an elaborated meal. It was the unique meal we were sharing with our parents.
My mum was working in the farm in the morning when we were having breakfast and in the evening when we were having dinner.
And my dad was working in the city until the evening when he gave a hand to my mother, feeding and milking the animals.
We never had these shared meals in family where to discuss. TV was the master of ceremony of our food routine.

We had snacks but they were rationed out. So we would eat more than expected.

I remember that time when my grandparents used to scale me each time I was going to their place. I was about eight and they thought I was too skinny so they made me pancakes. My mum used to say that I was picky. Well, between canneloni and spaghetti I didn’t have much to explore, for my defense.

So I was lost. I couldn’t be too skinny but it would be awful to become fat. So I was asked to gain weight but not too much. Just enough.

My parents used to smoke cigarettes and actually my mother still does. Eli and I asked them hundreds times to quit. My mother used to say: “I will remind it to you when you will be older! I’d better never find you with a cigarette in your mouth!” It sounded like a threat.

I used to be good at school. Not the first but far from being the last one. But my mother loved to compare me with the other pupils. She liked to show me that some did better than me. She also used to say that I could do better if I wanted and during the meetings between teachers and parents she once told my teacher that I was lazy. While my teacher was complimenting me on my writting skills my mother was criticizing me and swearing that I never read books. I just wanted to disappear at that point. I felt like being in the Court suspected of a murder and before I had time to explain the situation my mother would appear screaming: “She is a killer!”.

My “happy” childhood

If you asked my parents if I had a happy childhood they would answer “yes” without any doubt. They would tell that I didn’t need anything else than what I had.

Let me tell you the truth. First I have been bullied at school. The little kids’ school, the one you go to when you are between 3 and 6. The school which is supposed to make you socialize, discover your skills, be curious… Well, this is only a theory. Because actually when you get there you are taught how to bully other kids, the golden rule of “bullying not to be bullied in your turn”. Teachers humiliate you in front of your little mates. Divide and rule. They compare pupils. They have their pets and they feed them with condescension. They kill your innocence and creativity. They want to put you in a box and if you unfortunately don’t fit they will shape your mind, your wings. So you’d better fly away.

At school there was not racism. Indeed, all the kids were white. So they had to find something else to reject you. Are children cruel? Well, they aren’t born cruel but their parents teach them how to become heartless and if not the parents, the teachers will take pleasure into doing that perverse task.

If you are not black, muslim nor asian looking, you still have a chance to be discriminated. You just have to be chubby, wearing glasses or other prothesis, have curly hair or eczema. You might also have a lisp, or your parents might be farmers or gypsies, the kids won’t spare you.

As a child of four I have been shocked by the behaviour of adults. I remember when the teacher commented on that little boy drawing: “Why is your sun brown? Have you ever looked outside? The sun is yellow. It’s always yellow. Look at your schoolmates drawings.” This child’s father was in jail. I guess it wasn’t easy for him and the only way he could express himself was criticized. I am sorry that I haven’t had the balls to go to the teacher and explain her how art is not made to reproduce reality but to express oneself, our universe, what we are going through. This is something emotional. I didn’t have the words.

That teacher didn’t like me either. She thought I was stupid and she mentioned it in front of other pupils. I blushed. I felt embarrassed. I wanted her to like me. I wanted to prove her that she was wrong. She kept on humiliating me. When I was 6 I didn’t know the days of the week. For her it was apparently a big deal. So she forced us to sing that horrible song including the visit of an emperor, his wife and a little prince. They come everyday to meet the narrator who isn’t at home and they come back the day after. This is repetitive and terribly annoying.

I admit I was different. For example I hated naps. During the afternoon naps I used to wake my schoolmates up. Not to disturb them or to be mean. Just because I was bored while pretending I was sleeping and I wanted to check if they were really sleeping. I was full of energy and wanted to spend it. I was young and wanted to conquer the world! I didn’t want to count any imaginary sheep while listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. To me it was the definition of being old. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to be an Indian or a queen, something different. I wanted to open the chest full of costumes and play another role since being a child was annoying.

And I have been punished, sent to the corner of the classroom. But the temptation was too big, too close, too caressing for my child’s mind and I happened to chat and kid my little comrades. What a crime! Then I have been relegated to the toilets’ corner. And regularly I went to the classroom to ask if my punishment was over. And I was sent back to the toilets. So I started to explore the cupboards. There was the cleaning lady material, a robot made of cardboard boxes, aluminum foils and other recycled components.

And I heard the school bus was coming. I felt “saved by the bell”. But nobody came to pick me up. I could hear the childrens’ screams and steps, the sound of their anorak zips and the door shutting.

I felt like paralyzed and I decided no to run and join the other children. I decided not to do the teacher’s and assistant’s job, not to save their greasy bacon.

I was shared between the feelings of guilt and fairness. My mum took her car to pick me up from school, which was four kilometers from home, and I felt like I was wasting her time. The teacher had not been punished for forgetting me in the toilets and that made me realize that my parents were on the teacher’s side. I also felt silly not to think about it earlier. Of course they are adult! And I made a promise to myself of never becoming an adult. And that fear increased while I was gaining centimeters. So each night in my bed I was praying whoever could hear my prayer not to grow up.

And I kept quiet when Amélie, the Little Fat Red Hood Girl, came to steal my snack. I felt guilty for giving her the food that my parents bought with their money. But I tried to convince myself that I was generous and that sharing is loving even though I disliked that kid who made me starve. After a while I got used to hide to eat in peace.

I kept quiet when we played the Farmer in the dell and I ended being the cheese. In our version the cheese wasn’t standing alone, it would have been too kind. In our version the cheese was beaten. All that with the benediction of the school teacher. Incredible in the twentieth century!

I don’t mention all the rounds and raws giving opportunity to children to fight or flee not to hold that certain child’s hand like if he or she was pestiferous, the same way nowadays people avoid to seat next to the homeless guy in the metro because he smells too bad and dares to talk to them.

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