Thursday, 3 July 2014

10. Sudden Collapses in Public Places

What a brilliantly titled collection of poems by a woman with breast cancer. When I heard of it last week, I wanted to stand up and applaud, because that is exactly what happens: sudden collapses in public places.

If you've followed this blog, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I've sobbed my way through the past few months. In truth, I usually look (and often feel) fine, which confuses and even troubles my friends.

It's OK to cry! they say, encouragingly. You don't have to be strong all the time! If ever you want to talk... (and, by implication, weep and wail on my sofa...)

The thing is, I cannot book my emotions into the diary like that.

Yes, I often suppress them in order to cope with daily life, but I also know that tears must find a way to the surface lest they drown my insides.

I do try, looking forward to having that time of quiet solitude or meeting that wonderful lifelong friend, stacking up on the hankies in anticipation. But when it comes to it, I find that I am either too tired to talk or cry, or that I am looking at my trials and tribulations with genuine laughter (because honestly, life does often look rather ridiculous at present).

The tearful collapses spring up on me when I'm not looking.

They come at moments when I think everything is under control, I have accepted my lot, I am OK with it.

I. Am. OK. Really. I. Am.

And then something happens - a snippet of a thought, a snatched piece of music, a kind gesture, an unkind gesture, a tiny insignificant setback that seems large and unsurmountable - and there I go. It can happen anytime, anywhere.

There I was the day after my diagnosis, in the office, trying to get a research funding application sent off before I was being sent off for surgery. Wandering the corridor, clutching a form that needed filling in, look, I am competent still, I am doing forms. Can't you see me smiling?

"What are you doing with that form?" a colleague asked sternly, whisking it out of my hand. "You are NOT doing that. Give it to me, we will do it for you."

"Oh," I said.
"OK," I whimpered.
"Thank you," I whispered, admitting defeat, in sudden tears.

There I was, yesterday, at a school music concert. Merrily chatting to one of the mums, until she said how she, and lots of other school mums, would be more than happy to keep me supplied with healthy meals once I'm laid low with chemo. It was only a small collapse, but it was very unexpected, very sudden and too public for my younger daughter's comfort.

But my most spectacular collapse in a public place happened in a shop in Holland, the week before my mastectomy and shortly before my mother died. It makes me smile every time I think of it, and the story gets pulled out of the bag every time a friend worries that I am being "fine" far too often. It went like this...

"What are you planning to wear to the funeral?" my sister asks.

Ah, well, I’ve already got my outfit, it’s in my suitcase, tights and handbag included. But of course things have changed. My mother disapproves of the idea of dying so much that she is taking her time over it, so I will have to carry the dress and the smart shoes back to England. I am now looking at a post-mastectomy funeral. 

Is my lovely dress going to be too close-fitting and revealing? 

I have had to pack quickly, but given enough time, I would have gone shopping for something new. My sister wonders about something with roses. That had crossed my mind too. My mother has always loved roses. ("Don't let anyone bring chrysanthemums to my funeral!" she has been threatening me for decades. "I hate them! I'll get up from my grave!")

Given enough time? Unexpectedly, there seems to be enough time now, with my mother in no rush. Almost in unison we pronounce: 

"Truitje Kopen!"

Truitje kopen. Literally: "buying a jersey", but that doesn’t do justice to the idiom it has become for us. In a very distant past, when my sister was going through a challenging exam period, her tutor suggested that Truitje Kopen was the perfect antidote. If your mind is sufficiently overloaded, the extravagance of splashing out on a top that you don’t really need is fully justified.

Let’s call it Top Shopping.

If ever there was a need for Top Shopping, this is it.

Briefly released from weeks of worry, we hit the shops in a somewhat giggly mood, like absconding school girls. We have no idea what we are looking for. Shirt? Dress? Jacket? Skirt? We walk into the first clothes shop we come across, "for inspiration" we tell each other, because clearly this is the Wrong Shop. We would never otherwise contemplate going into the kind of establishment that exudes Mature And Dignified Ladies.

Within minutes, however, my sister hits on the perfect jacket. White roses embossed on a dark background. We discuss colours, sizes and availability with the shop assistant, who enthuses: Lovely jacket! So handy, goes with anything, jeans, skirt, you can wear it to any occasion… parties... or how about this one… 

In order to put a stop to a string of unsuitable rose-free suggestions, my sister explains: "Actually, we are trying to find something to wear to my mother’s funeral. She’s not dead yet but we’re getting ahead… It’s got to have roses because her name is Rosa and she loves roses."

"Oh I’m so sorry," says the stricken shop assistant. "That’s given me goose pimples all over."

We reassure her, smiling cheerfully: don’t worry, it’s all fine, we are ready for this. (Because we are. We think we are.)

Whilst my sister goes off to pay for the jacket, I idly leaf through the racks.

Suddenly, there it is. My funeral top. It’s not just perfect, it has been made especially for me on this occasion. Beautiful fabric, just the right colours, lovely rose pattern: my mother would have adored it. 

And it’s exactly my style, but with a twist. This top shows rather less cleavage and has an extra, flattering piece of fabric that loosely covers the breast area.

I grab it off the rails and run into the fitting room because there are sudden tears rolling down my cheeks. Here is a top that is not just perfect for my mother’s funeral but also for covering a fresh mastectomy. 

I may announce to the world that I have accepted the loss of my breast before it’s even happened, but this vivid, tangible evidence of what awaits me forces me to look at it with too much honesty.

I can hear a voice in the shop, "I just need to find my sister, I’ve lost her." I wave a feeble hand through the curtain, "I’m here," and my sister rushes in to find me slumped on the floor wearing the perfect top, dissolved in tears.

It's not just a metaphorical collapse. It is an actual collapse. My skeleton simply refuses to hold me upright.

She drops her bags, staying with me. No need for words. She understands immediately why this is such an emotional find.

The shop assistant can hear me sobbing and thinks she also knows why I am crying  – but of course she literally only knows the half of it. She peeks in, helpless: "Can I get you a glass of water?"

My sister points at the puddle I’m making on the floor. It actually makes us laugh whilst almost choking on tears, because this is just utterly ridiculous. These are tears of someone who never ever cries properly in the company of others, let alone sitting in a crumpled heap on a shop floor, let alone in sufficient quantities to cause a slipping hazard. For good measure, I add a bit more to the puddle. Might as well do things properly now that I'm at it.

I don’t even check the price tag. We take a deep breath, get the hanky out (I make sure I take it everywhere these days, as I never know when I might suddenly need it) and smile at each other, heading for the checkout. Pfff, what a state of affairs we find ourselves in. You couldn’t make it up.

The shop assistant is visibly moved by our shopping requirements and makes noises of sympathy and understanding.

I can’t help myself. I start to say "And that’s not all…" but I catch my sister’s eye. She’s shaking her head and she is right. What could the shop assistant possibly do with my bit of information, except feel even more miserable? I bite my tongue, I pay, we leave.

Afterwards, we sit down on the grass eating an ice cream (plenty of time on our hands, this was the most efficient Top Shopping ever), laughing and laughing. That poor woman, she’ll never be able to sleep tonight... it was bad enough having customers who are looking for something to wear to their mother’s funeral without me saying Oh and by the way, it also has to cover up next week’s mastectomy.

"Truitje Kopen" will never be the same again among our idioms. 

Exam stress is nothing compared with this. Top Shopping has definitely gained in status and significance.

And we didn't have to wait long to wear the new tops. Clearly, my mother approved. Less than two weeks after the mastectomy, I packed a new suitcase, this time with a rosy outfit.
My sister and I, following my mother's coffin out of her room


  1. Lieve Irene,

    Mag ik je zo aanspreken? Ik waag het erop, omdat je mij als onbekende lezer van je prachtige blog, toelaat in je leven van dit moment.
    Ik be een collega van Ingrid, wij studeerden samen voor onze bevoegdheid als rondleider in Artis. Ing heeft ons, haar collega's, op haar volstrekt eigen wijze deelgenoot gemaakt van de opeenhoping van zware gebeurtenissen die jullie als familie trof. Daardoor wist ik van jouw ziekte, en haar grote zorg, bovenop die voor jullie moeder.

    Jouw blog werpt op die dingen een heel bijzonder licht. Het ontroert me, doet me glimlachen, en geeft me een gevoel van grote bewondering, niet alleen voor je geweldige taalgebruik (mooier, rijker alledaags Engels kan ik me niet voorstellen, benijdenswaardig!), maar vooral voor de manier waarop je met zoveel verwarring, onzekerheid en acuut verdriet omgaat en dat zo onder woorden weet te brengen dat het is alsof je mij het verhaal vertelt, één op één, dichtbij.

    Dat wilde ik graag aan je kwijt.

    Natuurlijk wil ik je sterkte wensen, maar die woorden klinken haast loos.

    Lieve groet,


  2. Hallo Raya, wat een lieve reaktie! Dankjewel. Kijk, dat doet me nou goed, om dit soort dingen te horen! (en wie weet komen wij elkaar ooit nog eens tegen in Artis...)