Today is my birthday. It’s also one day short of the anniversary of “when things went wrong”. Let’s focus on the birthday for a moment.
I love birthdays, I always have. A birthday in summer, away from the city and school friends, meant I never had a kids’ birthday party except for the year I turned 8. That was the year I decide to invite all the kids along the beach where our cottage is. Mostly that was family or my “summer” cousins, and all but three of them were boys, but I wanted a party! It wasn’t until my aunt called my mother and asked if she “could help with Dia’s party, there were going to be so many children there!” that my mother knew anything about it.
Won’t lie to you… Mum was mad. But she was also actually kind of cool about it. I don’t think she’d ever understood that out of all of us, I was the one who didn’t get that kid birthday event, or even birthday gifts (other than, and thank goodness for, grandparents’). Our summers were tied up in swimming and games on the beach and just having the usual kid fun, that my birthday, MY special day, just sort of… slipped away. Aside, of course, from always having hamburgers and angel food cake with my grandparents; god, I love angel food cake, especially with whipped cream and bananas, like Gram used to make every year.
So, going back to the party, the kids all showed up, we ate copiously of corn and potato salad and hot dogs, and there was watermelon, and a chocolate cake (knowing that angel food cake was coming on the weekend with my grandparents and father). We played silly games I didn’t know my mother knew, we went swimming (of course!), and I got real life birthday presents from kids. That was so important to me. None of them were big or expensive, but they were fun or silly or sweet (Cam, I still have the elephant!).
I have had other lovely birthday parties and surprises since, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them immensely. And I’m looking forward to a whole lot more – I hope! But last year… not so celebratory because I couldn’t drink and wanted to eat very lightly before going into hospital the next morning.
I was facing surgery (hysterectomy) for suspected uterine cancer. Two uterine biopsies were inconclusive (bloody painful but inconclusive), although an ultrasound did show a couple of polyps/lumps. Combined with a few months of bleeding, my age, and the ‘best by’ date having expired some years since on my uterus, my gyns and oncologist and I decided surgery was the best choice.
Good news first. Although I did have cancer, I do not now. The operation removed the tumour, and other than a Pap smear every six months for four years, and an annual chest x-ray (when uterine cancer does metastisize, it is almost invariably in the chest; this is how my angel food cake baking grandmother died) for the next four years, I’m not living with a fear or shadow of cancer.
I am however, living with what happened during and after the hysterectomy. First my bladder and/or kidneys were nicked in the surgery, which meant 24 hours after the first surgery, I went back under general anaesthesia to have stents put into my kidneys, where they stayed for just over a month, four weeks of which time I was catheretised. Having the stents removed was my fourth experience in the O.R.; the third one was the scary one.
Number three is when I almost died. Not going into all the details, but if I say that basically my abdominal muscles blew up, no one noticed for maybe 36 hours, and the fact that I was septic (dangerously infected) when they finally did, will you understand some of what was going on? What was supposed to have been four or five days in hospital turned four rounds of surgery, three of them in four days, one of them in the middle of night because I was so injured/ill. I was in ICU for four days, hospital for three weeks (lying immobile for most of that time, post surgery three) and prison for a month.
The facility prefers I call it rehab; I don’t. I was so angry, so distraught at being sent there rather than home after so long in hospital, I thought I was going to cry myself to death that first night. Except I couldn’t really weep hard because of the wound. The surgery that was done to save my life didn’t leave enough of me to suture close so a “wound vac” was used, and that gizmo was part of my life from August 23rd to the end of December. With it, amongst other challenges, I couldn’t bend over – and I still can’t, really. The damage to the muscles was so severe my doctor says I cannot lift or push anything more than 5 – 10 pounds (less than 5 kilos) forever.
In hindsight, and albeit still grudgingly, I understand I needed some time to learn how to move with Giz (as he was fondly referred to in our house) and to re-gain some of my completely depleted strength. I also know that Jeff also needed time to figure out how to take care of me at home, because when I was finally! released at the end of September, I really needed care. Three times a week, wonderful nurses came to the house and change the dressing in the wound, keeping Giz doing his job of “sucking” me closed. As a result, my scar isn’t an “outie”, it’s an “innie”, making my abdomen look like my butt. Seriously. Cover up the other bits and you can’t tell the difference.
It was early this spring that I finally felt I was getting my mind back. The body healed a whole faster than my head did, although I don’t consider five months so fast! A combination of some 10 hours of general anaesthesia, shock from having so much go wrong, discombobulation at being away from home for so long, and a near-complete lack of remembering what had happened to me, has given me a form of PTS. Mild but disconcerting, and it lead to some severe sleep problems (once I was off the meds – those kept me sleeping a lot!), and most disconcertingly, kept me from reading books. I could manage magazines (over a few days) and newspaper (slowly, through the entire day) while I was in prison, but I couldn’t do books again until November. Me, without books. It’s just so… wrong.
I live a belly button free life now, but I’m living. I’m cancer free. I’m getting, slowly slowly, back to who I was and, with the continuing help of my docs, and a huge amount of love and support from Jeff and extended family, not to mention a wonderful and surprisingly large group of friends, I’m working on being even better than that.
Birthdays are about celebrating life. This birthday is going to be especially celebratory. Here’s hoping I can blow out all the candles!!