Starting Over


On Friday, September 13th last, I had surgery. It was gynae surgery – of the kind I’d already had a few times. I knew I wouldn’t bounce back, but I didn’t expect to nearly die afterwards, either.

On the following Monday, I decided it was time to get back to normal and I went upstairs to put laundry away. I’ve sometimes joked that housework will be the death of me, but I never thought I would be nearly right. I felt I needed to cough, but I couldn’t complete the it, and I had the weirdest pain in the centre of my chest. I didn’t know whether I needed to stand up, lie down, or curl into a ball to make it go away: I had no instinct on how to ‘cure’ it. I stamped on the floor of my bedroom, and my eldest daughter came running in. Ishthara’s great in a crisis, and had just finished a First Responder’s course, so she rang 999, and gave my history. In the middle of that phone call, she uttered a phrase which will forever live on in family lore:
‘I think you need to know this, but I’ve just realised my mum’s turning blue – and that’s not her normal colour.’

Within ten minutes, there was a First Responder at the house; doing his best to assess the situation and to take over the burden of responsibility from Ishthara – or at least share it with her. Within ten more minutes, there was an ambulance crew with equipment running tests, and within a further five, a doctor was sprinting up the stairs. There I was, five men in my bedroom before 11am on a Monday, and all I could do was worry about the fact that I hadn’t put the laundry away!

That was the rather dramatic start of a few months of health difficulties. I’d never been in an ambulance before September 16th, but I’ve got frequent flyer miles now! By December of last year, my reproductive organs, my lungs, my heart, my brain and my kidneys had all had little ‘episodes’.  It’s like every major organ/system in my body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ and re-booted. I’ve been told by several doctors that they are amazed I’m still alive; and also that it’s incredible I’ve managed to come through all this without doing any lasting damage to any of said organs/systems.

I’m really lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be alive with the prospect of full recovery. I’m really lucky that my friends are incredible, and looked after me so well while I was ill. Most especially, I am indebted to my friend, Jane Travers who – as soon as she heard I was hospitalised – and why – hopped on a plane and came to Dublin until she was happy I was well enough to be left. (Ishthara explained Jane to her boyfriend like this ‘Jane is wonderful. She’s so lovely. But – once she gets an idea into her head just…..don’t bother arguing’). I’m really lucky that my girls are wonderful young women who cooked, cleaned, minded themselves, and the cats, and each other, and me, for months while I was unable to do any of those things myself.

The initial recovery plan would have seen me returning to ‘normal’ life in March, but then Covid-19 hit, followed shortly afterwards by the lockdown. I had been looking forward to two things; getting back to swimming, and visiting the hairdresser. I hadn’t sat in the salon chair since August, and it was time!

My hair was starting to annoy me mightily. I’d lopped a few inches off it in January, but it needed a skilled professional. During the week, I was marking assignments and just  got to the point where I couldn’t put up with it any longer. If I don’t like something, I change it. So, I picked up the nearest scissors, and cut off as much as I could – not in a fit of pique, but rather because it just felt like time . Then I went upstairs, and finished the job off with a blade.

The relief!

It’s not a statement. It’s not a Covid-19 Lockdown Haircut. It’s starting over. It’s a new  beginning. Sometimes, modification isn’t enough. Sometimes, there is nothing to salvage. Sometimes, what you’d salvage would not really be worth saving. Sometimes, you need to just start all over again.


Things I Am Learning From Recovery

Those of you who follow me on social media will be aware that I have had a difficult month health-wise.

For those unaware, here’s the quick version:

On September 13th, I had fairly routine surgery. It was of a type I’ve had before, so there was nothing unexpected. (In fact, it was so routine for me that I even wrote a piece here for other women who might find themselves facing similar).

Three days later, I collapsed at home and started to turn blue. Thankfully, my eldest daughter doesn’t have college on Mondays, so she was there to call an ambulance. Once in hospital, I was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs. A scan confirmed that there was a significant number of clots in each lung. It was stressed to me by no fewer than seven doctors how lucky I was to be alive – and how unusual it was for the experience not to have been fatal.

After being extremely well cared for in Connolly Memorial Hospital, I was discharged on Thursday, September 19th with medication and some Serious Medical Advice. I was told it would take six months until I’m back to (my version of) normal. I was warned that I need to take it easy; that I need to stay on bed rest until I feel able to do more. I was entreated to monitor myself, and that any change in symptoms, any bleeding, any falling over – anything that is out of the ordinary – necessitates seeking medical attention immediately. The earnestness with which a number of doctors gave me this information impressed on me the necessity to take it (and them) seriously.

Within 24 hours, however, I was transported (this time in the back of a squad car because an ambulance would have taken too long) back to hospital. Unfortunately, the  staff at the nearest hospital – Tallaght – wasn’t keen on even triaging me, so my friend Jane drove me back to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. Twice that night, my friend and family were convinced that I had died in front of them. I know I came dangerously close.

Once back in ‘my’ hospital, the team sprang into action, and I received the care I needed for what turned out to have been a neurological episode.  Again, I was discharged after a few days, with even more medical advice; and previous advice emphasised.

I took the advice seriously, and took up residence on the couch in our living room. I slept and napped between sleeps, dozing between naps. Visitors were received with much delight, and I was grateful when they realised that an hour of being chatted to while upright was as much as I could manage before I’d have to lie down again, and possibly nap.

This Wednesday just past, October 16th, I was – again – in the back of an ambulance.  Breathing had been hard all day, and the Nurse on Call advised calling an ambulance to return to hospital. Reluctantly, I did so. Transported by very kind paramedics – Eoin and John – back to Blanchardstown, I was diagnosed with low haemoglobin, and the start of an infection.

I don’t think my physical health has ever taken such a knocking, and I’m really not used to being unwell (save for the migraines every 3-6 weeks) – never mind being so unwell for so long, and knowing that it will be months before I’m fully functioning again. I’m very grateful, though, that I have managed not to do any permanent damage to myself. I’m also very grateful for the fact that I will get better. For a lot of people, there is no moving out of the wheelchair (I have one of those now), there is no moving beyond the mobility scooter (I have one of those, too; it’s  on standby for when I ‘graduate’ out of the wheelchair); and there is pain – often constant pain. I am not in pain. I’m just exhausted, often breathless, and incapable of doing very much beyond resting.

Recovery is happening, though. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t shower without taking a rest and turning it into a Two-Act event, after which I’d need a nap of about an hour.  These past few days, however, showering has reverted to being a One-Act event, with a mere half hour lie-down afterwards.

Recovery is also teaching me. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

1. It’s really hard to do nothing.
2. The doctors were right. I am still seriously unwell. I have had to learn what that means.
3. People are incredibly kind.
4. My daughters are amazing human beings.
5. I am finding it very difficulty to accept how ill I am.
6. I’d better accept it, and quick, or I’ll set my recovery back.
7. Nobody expects as much of me as I do of my myself (my PhD supervisors have said this
    to me before, but I didn’t really understand it until now).
8. People are wonderfully kind.
9. Haemoglobin transports oxygen around the body.
10. There are pills you can take for all sorts of things, but there is no pill you can take to
       speed time up.
11. There is tremendous kindness in people.
12. Being unable to do much for oneself is incredibly humbling.
13. It’s still really hard to do nothing.

The Baby Trousseau

Looking for something else entirely this morning, I came across this. It’s a short story I wrote a few years ago. I thought I might as well post it here. 

Dr. Joe has been my doctor for four years. I really like him. Bill, my husband, likes him, too. Which is a good thing. It’s important to like a man when you’re watching him touch your wife in her most intimate of places. Dr. Joe has been in charge of helping me get pregnant since I turned 32. Until then, no doctor took me seriously. They pooh-poohed my desire to start a family, airily telling me that I was young and had plenty of time. Like the fact that I wanted to have my family young was irrelevant. Like the fact that I wanted more than one child – I was aiming for three or four – was of no importance.

Dr. Joe took me seriously, though. He understood that I was one of life’s ‘Mammies’ and that I ached to hold a baby in my arms. One I didn’t have to give back. He promised to help me – and I suppose he did his best. He started with the tests. Nobody had bothered testing me before this. They had just given me clomid and told me to go home and have lots of sex. Dr. Joe, on the other hand. rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. Not literally, you understand. He just did the things his colleagues had neglected to do over the previous twelve years.

It started off with blood tests, ultrasound tests and sperm tests for Bill. Then came the other tests – ones I’d never dreamed existed; mucous tests, ovulation tests, post-coital mucous tests, followed by key-hole surgery to have a look inside. Key-hole surgery. It sounds innocuous. Like you’re hardly having surgery at all. Pity they don’t tell you how much it hurts – how they pump you up with gas and how painful that is when you come round. How you can’t really bounce back into your life the following day. It’s still surgery and it still hurts and it still takes a few weeks to get over.

Then there was the IUI. Four rounds of that. Daily injections, scans every three days, a final ‘super’ injection just before the egg popped, and then your husband’s sperm injected into your womb at the optimum baby-making time.

Then a few months off. Well, not really. We just monitored ovulation ourselves and had very carefully-timed lovemaking. Or ‘intercourse’ as the doctor clinically called it. After that, we scraped the money together and went the whole hog – the IVF route. The same as IUI except that my ova were very painfully extracted and mixed with Bill’s sperm in a Petri dish before being reintroduced into my body as embryos. That, we tried three times before Dr. Joe told us our chances would not be improved by further rounds.

Still, it was worth it. Or it would have been if I’d become a mother at the end of it. But I hadn’t. Month after month, year after year, all the years we have been married, we have been trying to have a baby. Bill has been fully on board. In that much I am lucky and I know it. He wants to be a daddy as much as I want to be a mammy. He understood as much as a man could. He didn’t hate me because my eyes cried in tandem with my womb every month. He got excited all the times I was late. He went to the late night pharmacy to get pregnancy tests. He held me and comforted me and told me he still loved me and reassured me that I was still a real woman even though I didn’t feel like one. He agreed with me when I said it was time to stop trying. And he agreed with me a few months later when my internal Court of Appeal overturned that decision. He even understood when I added another item to my ‘baby trousseau’.

The baby trousseau was an idea I hit on during our second year of marriage. It was based on the old idea of a wedding trousseau. The way a woman would add a little something to her collection of clothes and accessories and practical bits and pieces for years before she was even engaged – never mind married. So, every time I got my period, or a negative pregnancy test, or a friend or relative announced her pregnancy, or even whenever I saw something really pretty on sale, I added it to my baby trousseau. I ended up with a wardrobe full of stuff. Just a single wardrobe, though, I wasn’t unrestrained.

We were married when I was young and people assumed we were putting off having a baby. Then we celebrated our ten-year anniversary and people started to make comments about how it was time we started thinking about having a family – we weren’t getting younger, they would joke. That wasn’t a joke. The joke was the fact that we’d been trying so hard for so long, we were exhausted.

Then, last week, I hit on a solution. No, not adoption. We’d looked at that already and, despite what so many people think, it’s not like going into a pet shop and choosing the most adorable puppy. It’s hard and it’s expensive and, given that Bill is ten years older than I, we’re deemed ‘too old’ to adopt a young baby. No, my idea is better than that. Far, far better.

You see, I have realised that I have been living all this time on hope. ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope’, people say, in effort to be upbeat and rallying. That’s bollocks. Hope is bollocks. Asking someone to live on hope is exactly the same as asking a starving person to be satisfied with the smell of bread, rather than handing them a loaf. It’s simply not good enough. Far, far better is the honest route. It’s kinder in the long run. Tell the woman with cancer that she won’t live to see Christmas. Tell the parents of the boy on life-support that he’s never coming out of a coma and they might as well switch the machine off now. Tell the wife of the man who has been in an accident that he’ll never walk again. Tell me that I will never hold my own child. And make me believe it.

I don’t want to live with hope anymore. I want the threat of hope removed. I want Dr. Joe to perform a full and complete hysterectomy and ovarectomy. It is a reasonable request and a very rational solution. I wonder why I didn’t think of it before. If my leg were withered and useless, many doctors would consider amputating it if I asked them to. If I had a spare digit on my hand, it would be practical to remove it. If something is useless and is, by virtue of that fact, causing stress, you remove it, don’t you?

The baby trousseau is all packed up for donation to my favourite charity shop. Some children somewhere will have lovely things, lovingly picked by a loving mammy.

I am thirty-six years old and I want my life back. I want to stop living for, and loving, a child who will never exist. I want to count my blessings and feel truly blessed – not have my inner voice go ‘Yes, but…..’ I want to stop feeling as though I have been stabbed in the heart every time someone I know – or even someone I don’t – announces their pregnancy. I want to stop feeling as though I have been stabbed in the heart and in the back when someone announces their pregnancy and then blithely adds, ‘I don’t know how it happened – we weren’t even trying!’

I want to stop feeling as though there is a ‘conception queue’ and everyone else keeps jumping it. I want to stop my judgmental eyeing of junkies with kids they’re too drugged up to even notice they have: My equally judgmental eyeing of middle class mummies who shove rubber nipples attached to plastic bottles filled with the poison that is formula at their babies, while they have coffee with others of their ilk. I want to stop caring that my thoughts on raising children are dismissed by those of my friends who are parents because I am not. I want to stop holding my breath.

Dr. Joe welcomes me like an old friend. He is warm, genial and sympathetic. I expect that he is expecting me to talk about my longing – to ask him if there anything I can do that I have not already done. There are two boxes of tissues in different areas of his office. Women cry a lot here. I have cried a lot here. Dr. Joe probably expects me to cry today. Or is at least aware of it as a possibility. But I won’t cry today. Today, I am made of steel. Today, I have come, not to beg for solutions, but to provide one. Today, I am not beseeching. Today, I am powerful.

In calm, measured tones, I issue my request to Dr. Joe. He is shocked. The colour leaves his face. He tries to tell me I can’t mean it. For the first time, I hear how Dr. Joe treats me like a child and it irks me. I tell him that I have given my situation much careful thought and have arrived at my decision. I tell him that because he has been my doctor for so long, and has been through so much with me, I would like him to perform the procedure. Implicit in my request is my knowledge that, should he refuse, there are other doctors in other cities on this island who will whip my womb out for me if I ask them. Some even do it to women who don’t ask.

The doctor asks me if I have spoken to my husband about my intended course of action. Of course I have, I snap back at him. As if I’d consider having part of myself amputated without talking to Bill. My conscience pricks at me slightly. I haven’t actually mentioned it to Bill. My plan was to meet the doctor and then talk to Bill when I had a definite date for the surgery.

Slowly, as though speaking to a retarded child, Joe tells me that my womb is not diseased. It would be unethical to remove a perfectly functioning part of the body. Bitterly I counter that it’s not perfectly functioning. It if were, I’d have four kids by now.

‘Just whip ’em out, Doctor,’ I say to him.

‘I understand your frustration,’ he tells me.

‘No you don’t!’

The doctor shakes his head almost sorrowfully and proceeds to tell me about a woman who attended him years ago. She had been trying to have a baby for ten years. Then she gave up. The next Joe saw of her, she was in for her annual well-woman check-up. She thought she had started the menopause, but Joe was able to give her the happy news that, actually she was pregnant!

I roll my eyes, not politely – not inwardly – but physically. Right in his face. I am not interested in this patient of his – I don’t even care if she’s real or fabricated. I am not interested in anyone else’s experience. The only experience that interests me is my own. And I want to be back in control of my own experiences. I am still young enough to carve out a career for myself. I am still young enough to enjoy many more years with Bill. I am still young enough to enjoy my life without the weight of longing hanging like an albatross off my heart.

Joe is deaf to my reasoning. He refuses to understand and accept my logic. I am annoyed with him. Suddenly, a thought crosses my mind. Joe is reluctant to help me because to do so would not just remove my hope, it would remove his. While I am still in possession of my all reproductive organs, he can tell himself that he has not failed. His ego need not take a hit. Once I realise this, I realise that further discourse with this particular doctor will yield me no satisfaction.

Driving home from Joe’s office, I experience a twinge of regret that our relationship has come to an end. But it is momentary. I have other things to think about. This is Ireland. Paternalistic, misogynistic old Ireland. The only country in the world where the CEO of a maternity hospital is called a ‘Master’. I know I will find a doctor here who will be ‘sympathetic’, who will nod with understanding and who will do what I ask. I know he’s out there, I just don’t know who he is yet. I set myself a goal: By the end of next week, I shall have a new doctor and he (I am sure it will be a man) will perform the surgery that will make a new woman of me.