I must have been about 7 years old the first time I recall seeing an adult cry. The adult in question was my Nanny Evelyn and it was on Christmas Day at my cousin’s house. I remember asking my mum with deep concern: “Why is nanny crying?” only to be met with the frankly bonkers answer that “Nanny is crying because she’s happy.” Seeing an adult crying was baffling enough, but the concept of happy tears was well beyond me at that age. I have become well versed in it since, inheriting this strange phenomenon from my nanny, as well as my beloved auntie Eileen whose house we were visiting that December.
Poppy starting school has definitely brought out the happy tears in me. We had a lovely, relaxed and happy summer, and tried to keep the countdown to school light, even though we were secretly feeling that it was a pretty big deal to be starting school, aged 4, whilst facing childhood cancer. Part of that came from not knowing if Poppy would be well enough to attend as planned on the first day, and that’s the place the first happy tears sprung from…walking her in to the school gates and waving her off, I turned away and was hit by a huge wave of relief and happiness that we got to experience the start of school, exactly as it should be along with everyone else, without our day marked with cancer. Something that was simply unimaginable back in March 2018, and has still been hard to picture at many times since.
Over the summer, I heard of many woes from parents feeling that school would steal their children from them, that they’d hardly see them, that they were still so tiny. All valid worries, and ones I may have felt myself before we were dealt our childhood cancer diagnosis. My overriding feeling now is that starting school is an absolute privilege. Not only to be living in a country which offers free education and to girls at that, but because our eyes have been opened to the flip side of childhood cancer. To the children who are too poorly to attend school alongside their peers. Or worse, the children no longer with us, leaving a gaping hole in their parents lives, as they come to terms with the flood of back to school photos every September, knowing their child was not one of the lucky ones. Because that’s what we are. Despite treading this tricky path, we are the lucky ones. The ones still receiving treatment and the ones still heading in the right direction towards that end of treatment bell. It’s thinking of those families not so fortunate that has stopped me writing about Poppy’s experience of starting school. Because I can’t quite fathom the gap between where I thought we would be, and where we actually are right now. And because I feel so desperately sad for all the families facing that reality in reverse.
We were so caught up in the moment of Poppy starting school that I didn’t find a chance to write. The wave of relief I felt at Poppy completing her first day, soon became disbelief when she managed the next two days in succession too. Somehow we had arrived at the weekend, which was due to be quiet and restful to counter balance the busy week, but somehow turned into learning to ride a pedal bike at Westonbirt Arboretum! As if Poppy hadn’t amazed us enough with her determination to conquer starting school, she also mastered cycling that same week with her beautiful gift from Cyclists Facing Cancer. Daisy was gifted a balance bike by them too, in a warm gesture which ensures siblings are recognised for their part in this crazy dance too.
The following week we joined the daily school run, and Poppy managed every morning alongside her classmates. Unbelievable. Slightly more believable is her spiking a temperature on Friday evening and spending the weekend in hospital. Her kidneys were struggling, which was suspected to be the change of water intake in the excitement of starting school and not drinking as much as she would at home. So began a fluid challenge, which Poppy aced and therefore overnight IV fluids were deemed unnecessary. IV antibiotics would continue and it was likely we would be allowed home on Sunday, when I was due to complete my first triathlon. Graham regularly competes in triathlons, and has been trying to get me interested for years. He managed to find one in Cheltenham with a swim in the Lido (the open water aspect of the swim has always been my stumbling block) Not only that but his trump card was that this one was raising money for LINC. I agreed. The girls handing me my medal at my first 10K earlier this year was a proud moment, and I love that they see both mummy and daddy being capable of sporting achievements.
Last year, we were privileged to be the first beneficiaries of an artisan craft charity fair, alongside another family in our town. Our worlds collided when our daughters were diagnosed with cancer within 5 days of each other. Devastatingly, that night in hospital we received the news that Eleri had passed away earlier in the day. She was 8 years old.
Any fears I had about completing the triathlon, vanished in the wake of this heartbreaking news, in addition to the hospital setting in which I heard it. My worries had been mostly logistical – about getting lost or not knowing which way to go, rather than whether I could complete the course. As it happened, I found the run harder than expected, and as I gritted my teeth to get to the finish line, I thought about how lucky I was to be alive and to be given the choice to face my fears that day. The children facing childhood cancer have anything but. They have no control, no choice, no say in the treatment they are given in the hope of saving their lives. Or rather if they do, it’s in the minor details, such as “which yucky medicine do you want to take first?”
None of us know what is around the corner. Facing a serious illness has helped us take stock of what we have, and as such, made us feel very grateful for each day. That doesn’t mean we’re happy all the time, rather that we’re learning when to embrace the sadness and when to let it go, and also how to celebrate achievements and milestones in the moment they occur.
Last weekend we were back at the craft fair, running the cake stall and raising money for two different local causes, one of which was Shine Bright Support. During Eleri’s treatment, her family set up this charity dedicated to supporting families facing childhood cancer. Their mission is simple: to provide the much needed gaps in support services required to navigate the trauma of childhood cancer by funding mental health nurses, counselling and packages of care. They are a small charity with big plans, and they are already making waves in an area which is so desperately needed and so very close to our hearts. Earlier this year, Poppy was invited to design a T-shirt for them to help raise funds – you can buy one here or make a straightforward donation here. Your generosity is as ever, much appreciated x