Wednesday, 9 July 2014

13. Owl, Pig, Bear and the children

There are so many stories milling around in my head, waiting to burst out.

Profound stuff, like musings on Body image and How your life story affects your cancer story.

Interesting stuff, like What (not) to say to a cancer patient and What makes a helpful doctor/nurse.

Mundane stuff, like How an errant Softie can make you look like a Picasso painting and When should I go back to work?

Backdated stuff, like How did I find the cancer? and How did the children react to the news?

But I mustn’t overload you or keep you from your work/shopping/bedtime. I decided that it’s time to put first things first. So the next few blogs are going to be about Owl.

First up: How Owl has helped my children.

Almost as soon as I had given my newly stitched Owl cancer, I became aware of his huge potential as my personal therapist. But that wasn’t the original intention.

Owl was given cancer in order to help my daughters.

You will need to put this into the context of our family life.

Projecting events, feelings, emotions and opinions onto a soft toy is nothing new in the Tuffrey household. The men have excused themselves from this perhaps rather bizarre phenomenon, but I freely admit that I have entered into it with gusto.

My now 14 year old daughter has Pig, who has joined in with everything for over 13 years. My 11 year old daughter has Bear, who is 7. He, too, is always there for her.

Bear and Pig have their own school uniform. They come on holiday with us. They cry at films.

Giving them a voice may have been my fault, as I used to talk for Pig before my daughter could speak. As soon as Pig could begin to use her voice, he would only ever speak in Dutch (even though my daughter always spoke to me in English). I think that was because Pig spoke Dutch when he used my voice, so she must have thought he couldn’t speak English. (He can now.)

I am delighted that Bear and Pig are still going strong even though their owners are now teenagers, and I secretly hope that they will visit me even when my husband and I are in a nursing home for the elderly.
I can highly recommend giving children a deliberate alter-ego like these two animals.

It has enabled them to express difficult emotions. It’s much easier for a Bear to say “sorry” for misdemeanours than it is for a young girl.

When my older daughter had just started primary school, she came home with the news that she’d had a horrible lunch. Didn't they have nice things to eat? Well, yes, but she hadn’t dared ask the dinner lady for what she wanted (so was given a ladle full of yuk).

“Oh dear, that's awful,” I said. “I wonder what Pig would have done?”

“He would say very loudly I DON'T WANT THAT, I WANT THIS!” she said.

“Well,” I suggested, “next time you get given something you don’t like, why don’t you pretend to be Pig?”

She did, I think. Pig has made her braver.

So over the years, my daughters have learnt that you can use external aids to understand and express your feelings. Pig is mostly retired now, but his help has been, and often still is, invaluable.

It was in this family context that I decided Owl should mirror my cancer journey.

My children are old enough, of course, to understand what is happening to me without the help of Owl. It has been unexpectedly useful, however, to put Owl through everything I’ve gone through.

There has been the MRI scan and the heart test and the hospital admissions. He has shared my trials and tribulations through bandages, scars and markings.


Owl and I, marked up for the lumpectomy,
and with a plaster where a radio-active dye injection had been given
(to light up the key lymph node during surgery)

In fact, Pig has come out of semi-retirement to take on a new incarnation in recent months. He now fancies himself a Cancer Support Nurse to Owl.

As soon as I have to go through something difficult, my older daughter says cheerfully, "Hang on a minute, I must get Pig! Owl needs his Cancer Support Nurse." 

(“I don’t know much about cancer. Sorry,” Pig has admitted. “I'm not a very good nurse. I only know how to do support. I can give hugs.”)

In the same way that it is easier for Bear to say “sorry” than it is for my daughter, it is much easier for me to say “Owl is feeling sad about losing his wing” than it is to say “I am feeling sad about losing my breast.”

In fact, Owl made it surprisingly easy to tell my younger daughter that I needed a mastectomy. (For my son and older daughter, grown-up explanations and discussions were more appropriate).

I was shaky and upset about this news. I felt very strongly that all three children had to be told as soon as possible. I spoke to each of them in turn as they came home from their respective schools.

All I had to do was put Owl prominently on the kitchen table, and tell my younger daughter that Owl needed to go back into hospital, because the doctor had discovered more cancer in his body.

Of course, she knew immediately that this news was really about her mother. Owl has enabled questions and discussions about this.

My younger daughter seems utterly reassured by the fact that I have an Owl to keep me company throughout my treatment. It is quite wonderful to see how through Bear’s care and concern for Owl, she is able to express her own care and concern for me.

Miraculously, I am now able to help her understand that adults have worries too, without it being distressing.

I don’t think it would be right for my children to worry that their mother is anxious or frightened. Somehow, having these emotions contained in a small fabric owl makes them manageable and acceptable.

I have been profoundly moved by my younger daughter’s unspoken insight into all of this.

One day, when I was getting ready to go to a hospital appointment, she reminded me: “Mum, do you have Owl?”

I had almost forgotten him, so I went to get him and held him up before putting him into my handbag, making him quiver.

“Look! Owl is a bit frightened about going to the hospital. He is worried about what the doctor is going to say.”

She rushed over to him, arms outstretched, eyes full of compassion. She took him out of my hands and kissed him all over.

“Oooohh, don’t you worry, Owl!” she said. “Your mummy is frightened too. So you are not alone.”

The get-well-card my younger daughter made for me and Owl


  1. Wonderful things, owls. And bears and pigs, and whatever you find to give a voice to things that are difficult to say or think. I wish we'd had them when my children were small. When we read Northern Lights we all wished we had shape-changing daemons, a manifestation of our animus/anima. Now there are owls to fulfill that delightful function.

  2. Dear Irene,
    I read your blog from the beginning, sometimes with difficulty because of language and my poor English. I am deeply sorry for what happened to you and I think a lot about you. A friend of mine, who was a psychologist in palliative care, had this experience to switch the position of caregiver to the patient with cancer and her thoughts about it was interesting and disturbing.
    I am moved to read you and I am admirative to your creativity. Olw is a great idea. I have 4 children and our two youngest daughters are the same age and I can well imagine your dialogues.
    I leave tomorrow for the Congress in Vienna and I deeply regret not seeing you again. I go with my oldest daughter 20 years, and next work, I hope to enjoy some of the city with it. I especially think of you there and hope you will can travel again soon.
    Courage and good recovery
    Anne Dusart, Dijon, France

    1. Bonjour Anne! How nice to hear from you. You are, as always, much too modest about your English! I am glad you find my blog interesting.
      I am very sorry that I can't be at the IASSIDD congress in Vienna this week. There are so many friends/colleagues there, from all over Europe. I am grateful that several people have agreed to step in and do the talks I was planning to give. Look out for presentations by David Oliver and Karen Watchman, as well as our excellent poster on the launch of the International Society of Cancer and Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities.
      Above all, enjoy Vienna with your daughter!