Tuesday 15 May 2012

Celebrating life to date

This is the third in a series of posts from ex-OU academic Dr Jill Reynolds on living with a shortened life expectancy. See How do I tell friends I have cancer? for the previous post and What if I die before I get old? for the first in the series.

What the statistics couldn't tell me was how long I actually have, or what the quality of my life will be at different points on this cancer journey. I wanted to have some kind of party, and while it might be nice to put off the timing of this, I might not actually be up to it if I left it too late. So I fixed on a date towards the end of March as giving space for me to get the three cycles of chemo over with, and time enough to let people know it was on. We planned to go and live in France for our next step, and enjoy more health-giving sunshine.

From the Folk Club I belong to, some years ago a number of us attended a kind of wake or celebration of the life of one of the members who died suddenly. It was a very warm and vibrant occasion, people gave tributes, spoke of memories, sang or played their instruments in honour of Bill. I thought at the time how much I would like something similar and what a pity it would seem not to be able to enjoy it in one's lifetime. So I planned a celebration of my own, that I hoped I would be able to attend. An old friend told me she thought people taking part might find this quite hard. Everyone else I spoke to reacted very positively, some pointing out that the most important consideration should be that I enjoy it.

Not all my close friends were able to attend, and all the contact with people spurred on sub-sets of get-togethers both before and after this event. These were all great occasions too, and some people used their inability to take part in the main celebration to deliver an accolade on what knowing me had meant to them; I tried to respond in kind. You know how each Christmas you get dozens of cards from people wishing the best for the new year and saying 'let's make it next year that we see each other'? I used to read these, and think, 'well, if I were to spend a week-end with each of them that would be 60 weekends committed'. In contrast, this year I must have seen hundreds of the people who mean a lot to me; while that's not everyone, it feels like a great achievement.

The celebration went wonderfully. People came long distances in order to join in, from Scotland, Yorkshire, Norfolk and from all parts of my life, people with whom I shared different enthusiasms and interests.
Family, school friends, those I was close to at
university, members of my cycling groups, folk club
musicians and singers - a whole entourage of fabulous people. I will attach some video extracts here and more can be found on YouTube.

One friend, disappointed not to be able to be there in person, wrote a poem in my honour (look to your laurels Miss Joan Hunter Dunn!) and coached a mutual friend who was planning on coming in how it should be delivered. Edith Piaf was conjured up in 'Je ne regrette rien', the King Stone Rappers invaded with their sword sticks and did a rapper dance in the remarkably small space available, and a whole panoply of drunken intellectuals was invoked in 'The Philosophers' Song'. Exceptionally talented individuals from our folk club and elsewhere played and sang all sorts of terrific music, some penned by themselves.

People's competitive streaks became apparent as they focused on finding the answers to Quiz questions all about myself - and had to talk to those who had known me at different periods in my life.
The answer to 'In how many different countries has Jill visited the A & E department' (usually after falling off bicycle) turned into something of a movable feast as those present remembered places I'd now forgotten!
We sang and chatted for four hours - some people had to leave before they had a chance to perform and I was disappointed to learn that my brother had come ready to present 'The Cobbler's Song' (a favourite of our father's) but didn't get to do it.

It was a truly fabulous celebration for myself and Dave. Did some friends find it hard and was it like a wake where I was able to be present? I'm not sure - one friend explained later that she and her partner had left early because she was in a state where she could not stop crying. Another who I hadn't seen since learning that I have cancer needed to express how upset she was to hear it, and seemed unable to leave the subject alone. I became aware of the coded middle class ways we have of dealing with these sensitive matters. Are there conventions about how much it is OK to say and when? Often it's just a matter of a hug, a pat, a squeeze or a look that conveys that the other knows it's not business as usual.

So there wasn't a series of speeches about precisely how wonderful I was ... and that's probably no bad thing. We passed round a guest book in which people could write comments and there were some delightful ones. I also got a lot of cards, now installed in the same book. Dave's favourite had a picture of a glamorous 1920s woman in furs and JILL inserted in front of the words on the card: 'Queen of friggin' everything'!

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