Colonoscopy: There’s no pretty way to say it

I am so proud of myself for crossing ‘have a colonoscopy’ off my to-do list. With a strong family history of bowel cancer (my dad was diagnosed at 60, died at 63), I have been surfing on a gentle wave of unscreened guilt for a few years now. I did tell myself that doing extra blood screening could fill that gap, but the further I move into my fifties, the more I know that it isn’t enough.

As it happened, the specialist told me that I was only a borderline case for using a colonoscopy as screening, because family history isn’t as much a predictor of contracting bowel cancer as I had assumed it to be. But I live in a time and a place where a borderline case for screening does lead to screening so screened I was.

The preparation was a disgusting as everyone says it is, and even now, three days later, the thought of that drink is still making me gag. But as for the procedure itself, well all I can say is that weirdly it was the best sleep I’ve had for months.

As I came out of that sleep I found myself in a strange place emotionally, and feeling extraordinarily sad. But as you probably know if you are human, sadness has many nuances. This was a very pure, uncomplicated sadness, and this is the loveliest of all sadnesses to experience because it is the sadness that rubs so closely alongside love. I’m sure this sounds incredibly cheesy, and I hope one day to come back and write this more fully. But for now, I simply want to record it so that I don’t forget it.

The nurses kept asking, ‘Are you okay?’ until the one who was a little older than the rest said, ‘Is it because of hospitals?’ And that seemed to be the most complete explanation I could give for now and I was grateful to her for giving it words.

I tried hard to take in the physical surroundings so that I could write more completely. Obviously I didn’t have a notebook, and I probably didn’t have the strength in my hands yet to write anyway. And I didn’t want to ask for my phone, which felt like something of an intrusion into the experience anyway. I thought I would try to remember things by going through the alphabet and assigning something to each letter. Firstly though I even had trouble fighting through the fog to think of a word that matched each letter. A for anesthetic was okay; b for blue because goodness me everything in that room really is blue; c for ceiling … then I would lose my place and when I went back over it, I’d lost half the words anyway.

So in the end, I let myself lie there, taking notice of where I was, but not berating myself for what I couldn’t do. The best part of the day was, of course, the white-bread sandwich and the cup of tea. Such comfort in such food, I did cry again.

As it happens the screening was justified because he did find, and remove, a polyp which was of medium size. (I was disappointed to read in the report, however, that the bowel prep was only judged as ‘good’ and given how carefully I followed the instructions I feel slightly aggrieved that it was not judged as ‘excellent’ or even ‘outstanding’.)

On discharge I was reminded once again that for the next 24 hours I should not drive, drink alcohol or make big decisions. So the next day as I was taking this as permission to take it very easy, I was processing this, that and the other and the profound impact of this procedure began to dawn on me.

Leading up to the day and the procedure I had felt a sense of sadness that my dad had not done the screening which meant that by the time the tumour was discovered it had had too much time to not only seed itself, but also to sprout and to send its runners through his body.

I felt like I had actually changed one potential outcome of my life. Not in a sliding doors or a road less taken kind of way, but in a much more concrete and tangible way. I am not overstating it to say that it felt profound.

So that’s a big tick on my to-do list. Unfortunately the results mean that I have to go back again in three years and not in the five or even ten that I was hoping for. But on the plus side, that sleep is something to look forward to.

One foot in front of the other

Yesterday, as we were watching the final soccer trials, I moved from chatting to conversation with a woman I would count amongst my Abu Dhabi friends, though I don’t know her all that well. One thing led to another, as it does, and we were discussing fortieth birthdays. She is approaching hers and, as you know, for I am fairly certain I have acquired no new readers in the last three years, I had my 40th not so long ago.

‘Did you find it difficult?’ she asked. ‘Turning forty?’

And here is where I found another sign that my state of mind is greatly improved because I felt no need whatsoever to tell her of everything that happened in the year or so leading up to my fortieth birthday. What details I did tell her, I chose carefully and consciously with absolute awareness. As I spoke I was seeking no particular reaction or response and needed nothing from her.

This time last year, I would not have thought twice about what I told her. This happened, and then this happened, and then this and this and this and before I knew it I was living in Abu Dabi, I would have said. Confession was a compulsion. I have no idea what this compulsion was supposed to achieve, but there it was, all ready at the slightest hint of an audience.

My life, or at least my focus, has expanded.

The mister must have noticed things have changed, because last night, when he came home and I said, how was your day, he said, ‘You know, so-so.’

I don’t remember the last time he told me he’d had a bad day. Or perhaps I don’t remember the last time I heard.

Every cloud and so on

I’ve had an interesting realisation this afternoon. Another sign that I am moving on, that my life is no longer dominated by my grief.

A blergh thing happened today, and it’s left me a little blergh. But just now I realised that this will happen. Every now and then, for as long as I live, blergh things will happen, and I will feel a little bit blergh. Nothing to do with the death of my father, nothing to do with living somewhere I don’t want to live, nothing to do with homesickness. No need for intense inner reflection and pulling myself off the couch and reminding myself one foot in front of the other and better not open another bottle of wine.

A blergh thing happened, and now I feel blergh because that’s what life is like. Not all the time, but every now and then.

And I can’t tell you how good it feels to be feeling a little blergh.

One year down, one to go

I took the lads back to Berri (the mister’s home turf) via Adelaide for Christmas while the mister stayed here Abu Dhabi.

Landing in Australia, putting credit back on my Australian SIM card, I felt the relief that you feel on arriving somewhere that takes no real effort. The relief that comes from knowing the language, the laws, and what to do if you lose your purse. We could get sick, robbed, lost, but it would be okay and, anyway, we wouldn’t get sick or robbed or lost, because we were home.

Except I was a little bit lost.

Well of course I was.

I’d just taken my lads to Paris for what must surely be, even if I am only half way through it, one of my life’s highlights. I’d dropped in at Abu Dhabi just long enough to remember how incomprehensible it is; to have a farewell coffee with a wonderful friend who won’t be here when I get back; and for the mister to wash my knickers and shove them back into my suitcase not-quite-dry. Then I pulled my clot-preventing socks back up and collected my boarding pass.

Back in Adelaide, I found, as people always do when they return, that everything was all at once different and the same. The light and the smells and the sound hit me with their forgotten familiarity. The air was dry, no crane in sight. But our house is rented out; we wouldn’t be spending the Christmas-New Year break on Kangaroo Island; the people who bought my Grandfather’s house have knocked it down and built a new one in its place; and a few days after I arrived in Adelaide the sale of my Dad’s – our family – house was settled. Dusted and done.

I was home, but not.

Mostly though, I was lost, because this was the second Christmas after Dad’s death. The second Christmas of being parent-less.

I think that in the grieving cycle, seconds are a bit more complex than firsts. Maybe not for everyone, but for me. In the second year, it all becomes real. In the second year, the shock has worn off and the protective numbness is receding. In the second year, that loss has been layered by births, illnesses, marriages, break-ups, break-downs, deaths, graduations, birthdays, bushfires, redundancies. Life has gone on as it does, layering our experiences minute by minute, days at a time. And so, at the second Christmas, you look around and you realise that this is how it is. He’s gone.

Intellectually, I know that I am a middle-aged woman without parents. I know this. But emotionally, I’ve lost my bearings, and I’m still not quite sure where I fit in this post-parent age. Even physically, I have to adjust, because my body still feels the absence of my parents as an emptiness above and around me. Somehow or other I have to work out how I can grow into that space.

As much as I try to keep Christmas low-key, it as at Christmas time that absences loom large. I do have places to be and people to be there with. Other families, of which I am a part, love me, welcome and care for me. Really, it’s quite something and even just thinking about how beautiful people were to me, I cry. But the absences are still there.

I’ve got welcoming places, but I haven’t got parents. I have safe harbours, but my anchors are lost.

Still, however lost I did feel, however overwhelmed, I was always glad that I’d made the trip. I watched the lads play with their cousins and have sleepovers and trade pokemon cards and go for swims in the river. I sat in backyards and in cafes and on the beach with my aunties, uncles, my step-family, my in-laws, my cousins, my friends.

I drank too much and stayed up way past my bedtime every single night (one time, almost til dawn, and it wasn’t even New Year’s Eve – brilliant times). One of the things I especially liked was sitting with my cousins and my friends, the ones who are around the same age, people I’ve known a long time or through tricky times, all of us who have looked, or are looking, around and thinking, ‘my goodness, look where we are, how did this happen and what are we supposed to do now?’

We cried and laughed over the years we’ve just had and the decisions we’ve made and the things that have turned out right and the things that have turned out wrong and the things we’re glad we’ve done and the things we should-oughtta have done. I wallowed, then get over myself, then wallowed, then get over myself again.

And it’s interesting, that even as each conversation acted like a little anchor, each one adding to the other, giving me more and more steadying weight, I felt myself able to leave them again, able to return to this incomprehensible place and say to the mister, ‘We should go and buy a bougainvillea to plant in the courtyard this weekend.’

Holiday reading


‘It’s as beautifully sad as a Paul Kelly song,’ I said to the mister when I went back inside to get a mid-book snack (dried peach) and refresh my cup of tea (green).

We’ve known each other a long time, the mister and I, and I could see him thinking to himself ‘oh, fuck’ and I could see him not saying, ‘Do you think that’s a good idea?’. Now, I don’t know what preparations the mister made for himself, but he was right. I was headed for a meltdown. Two days later I hit one of grief’s brick walls, which, for  days has left me paralysed with fear. I’ve got not parents. Fuck. It’s the worst I’ve been since Dad died (which, I note, was barely three months ago, so, you know, it’s to be expected and all).

Of course it wasn’t the book that caused the meltdown. I believe that my subconscious knows me so well that it lead me to pack my reading material carefully, knowing that the meltdown was building and would probably come at the end of a week’s holiday.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I went away for a week, and during that week spent a lovely morning reclining here, listening to the sea and reading Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life. It’s been on my to-read pile for quite some time – I would have said around a year – but I’m almost certain I first heard him on The Book Show and ordered the book pretty much straight away (as an aside, I very often love The Book Show as I did the day they were interviewing Willy, but sometimes that show makes me so mad I can’t see straight – does that happen to you, or is it just me, I’d be interested to know).

The backcover blurb says, “Narrated by Frank Flannigan, The Motel Life tells the story of how he and his brother Jerry Lee take to the road when bad luck catches up with them.” That’s a pretty fair description. Then, because this isn’t a first edition, the cover – front, back, inside and outside – is peppered with quotes and snatches from reviews. “A hugely compassionate, wildly original road movie of a novel…”, “courageous, powerful, wonderfully compassionate, this is a very fine novel”. Actually, I think they’ve gone overboard on the quotes. I agree with most of them, I just think, ‘All right already let the book speak for itself a bit’.

My subconscious did an excellent job because for me, books like this are perfect for times like this. Not that I want to wallow, but “plaintive ballads” of books provide me a way of giving into it all. Of letting it be. Of getting to the heart of things. Without wanting to get all overly-romantic on you-all, my mum was something of a Paul Kelly song. Complex and fascinating and strong and vulnerable and flawed. It’s what’s made me mad at her when I was fifteen and what makes me miss her now.

And it’s what made me love reading this book.

Plus, I like stories about vulnerable young men who make my heart ache (that’s inherited from my mother for sure). I like writers who make us think about the spaces in our relationships and what those spaces mean. I like page turners of books that make you beg of the characters, ‘Please don’t do that’.  (Just now as I’m writing this, it occurs to me that’s what Vonnegut meant when he said “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages” – though admittedly he was talking about short stories – but I’ve struggled to understand what he meant by that).

I was also reading this book in a way I’ve never read before and with a different awareness of writing than I’ve ever had. Because for the few days before we left on our holiday, I worked like the clappers to get the latest draft of my manuscript back to my editor. I’m at the fairly detailed editing stage, rather than the kind of structural things I’ve been doing until now. I am in no way comparing myself to any published writer, but I’m reading very carefully to see how experienced writers deal with different problems I know I’ve got.

It’s an exciting way to read.

For example, I was paying very close attention to the dialogue. I’ve got much more dialogue in my manuscript than I realised. Which is fine. As long as it’s good. And as long as it’s not punctuated with endless ‘stage directions’. Which mine was. So much biting of lips and flicking of hair. Oh, my. By the time I’d taken out all the flicks of the hair and the curled lips and the blinks of the eyes I’d lost about 4 000 words. Thank goodness.

Anyway, there’s lots of dialogue in The Motel Life and it’s good, and I see that it sits just nicely without endless decoration.

I think my writing style is what people often call ‘spare’. By which they mean (I assume) spare as opposed to ‘not baroque’ not spare as in leftover. So I was reading this book with a very strong awareness of that spare style – and I noticed that it has more dangers than I had realised. For example, “I turned on the radio, put a can of soup on the hot plate, and sat down at my table. I lit a candle I kept and ate”.

I reckon that last sentence is shit. You can love a book and still see that every now and then something doesn’t work. That sentence is clumsy and awkward, and made me stumble even though I was only reading to myself. But that made me think. Is it too pared back? Is it too spare?

Mostly though, as I was reading, I finally understood what a couple of people have told me over the last year (as they’ve been rejecting my new work). You can be a bit too enigmatic, leave too many spaces. You need to give the reader more. I wasn’t entirely sure about that, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. But while I was reading The Motel Life I ached for more about the relationship between the brothers. Not much more. But more (oh. I think we’re back at that Vonnegut quote again). Just a childhood incident here or there. Just a bit more reflection on Frank’s part about Jerry Lee as a person.

And then of course I fell into a funk – oh god, he’s got the odd awkward sentence, but all of mine are shit, what made me think I could write blah blah blah.

But then, I would’ve taken another sip of tea and moved on. I can’t have dwelled on it too long, because my overall memory of this book – no, I should be more precise about that – I should say that my overall memory of the experience of reading this book – is a good one.

Good. What does that mean?

It means I was completely absorbed and fully alive and knowing that life is hard but good.

Although, if it was me, if I’d had the final say, I would’ve ended the story two sentences earlier. Which didn’t stop me going to the bookshop when we got home and buying Northline.