2017…that was the year that was

I owe this post to Fiona Uyema.

This morning, she shared a post on Facebook of a letter written by a 27 year old Australian woman terminally ill with cancer. Not many things make me want to burst out into tears but this one did.

I owe this post to Fiona Uyema.

This morning, she shared a post on Facebook of a letter written by a 27 year old Australian woman terminally ill with cancer. Not many things make me want to burst out into tears but this one did.

Sentiments obviously resonate with people differently at different times. But the main point of Holly Butchers letter (don’t sweat the little things; nourish your body and spend money on experiences and not things), is a beautiful nutshell of everything I have been contemplating since 27th September 2017.

First, if you’ll indulge me, a little background to set the significance of that date into context.

10 months previous to that date I had left a well-paid, well positioned, salaried job to pursue my dream of becoming a full time food writer, and working on exciting events that celebrate food by throwing myself full time into Flavour.ie.

The months that had passed were immense. I had met and worked with amazing people; had a book published, ran more sell out events than ever before, was part of the team that helped to achieve the accolade for West Cork as Foodie Destination of the year, had article after article published and launched a campaign to encourage children to eat better at breakfast time under the banner of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. There were also projects that didn’t get off the ground – such is the way of things. But ultimately, the year could not have gone better for me.

27th September is my wedding anniversary. We were about to celebrate 9 years married, had a table booked at Pilgrim’s, one of our favourite restaurants, and after a hectic summer and festival season, were looking forward to a great night.

On the way back from delivering an Eggsellent Breakfast presentation, I was involved in a serious RTA. It wasn’t my fault. I was on the N71, aware of a car approaching a junction and then also becoming aware that the driver wasn’t stopping. We collided at speed. Airbags exploded, bloodying my nose. The car was pushed across the road and then span and eventually came to a halt facing the opposite direction. Miraculously we both walked away from our cars without any broken bones. Everyone I have come across that has seen the car has looked at me, looked at the car and asked how I walked away. The cars were totalled. Between Garda reports, pitch battles with insurance companies, physio to help coax my body back into some semblance of working order and trying to keep the business going, things were tough. I cried for days. I felt broken, pathetic and vulnerable.

Then, two weeks later, the news came that my dad had been diagnosed with Renal (kidney) cancer. I remember being on Skype with mum and dad, chatting about the weather or whatever, and suddenly this. I just stopped. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t move. My whole body was screaming NO.

NO. This can’t be happening.

I’d lost an Uncle to lung cancer and an Aunt to heart failure already in the year. My mum had undergone major shoulder replacement surgery and my husband had also lost an Uncle through lung cancer.

Then the accident.

Then this.

NO. No more…

The prognosis for Dad’s cancer was thankfully good. One of the cancer’s with the highest survival rate, apparently. The operation to remove the affected kidney, the tumour and the ureter was scheduled for early November. Within hours of finding out about dad’s cancer, I had booked a one way flight, moved all my meetings and interviews to the remaining couple of weeks in October (I can write anywhere in the world, but meeting people face to face is key to getting that right) and cancelled anything that I couldn’t move or reschedule. Early November I packed up a bag and headed to the airport. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, but for the first time ever, it didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered except being there for Dad, and Mum, and doing whatever I could to help.

I come from an insanely small family. There’s not a lot of flex and give in passing responsibilities onto others so you can take a break. When it’s small, and I mean: me, my sister, mum and dad you just have to get on with it.

Thankfully, the operation was a success. I still am not ready to even talk about my reaction to seeing Dad in the ICU bed surrounded by machines that beeped constantly; lines and drips, monitors everywhere. He looked tiny and so vulnerable, and all I wanted to do was crumble. But I couldn’t, because how does that help anyone? I was away for the bones of a month. When I left, Dad was home, staples out, eating well, colour back and we even spent some time mucking about with his model railway.

Returning home all I wanted to do was clean. My poor, supportive husband must have wondered what on earth was going on. No corner of the house was sacred. Everything was looked at – reviewed: do we still need that / use it / does it serve us a purpose? If not, off it went to the growing pile that needed further sorting for recycling, donation or landfill. Every nook and cranny was scrubbed. It felt like I was shedding my skin – creating a very definite and distinct barrier between what had happened in those last two months of 2017, me and what was to come. It took two weeks. I was slow. Mental and emotional exhaustion sometimes paralised me from getting hardly anything done. I was still receiving physio to weed out the niggling post-accident spasms and pains that were lingering.

But it afforded me ample time to think.

Think about what I had achieved during the year. But also what I had lost. Not just people I loved; but confidence. Confidence in myself; confidence from having to admit that my Dad is not invincible after all. Confidence that I knew what I was doing, where I was going; who was I doing it for – real “meaning of life” type stuff.

Once the cleaning and clearing was done next came the Christmas decorations. A couple of days after they had gone up, we got the call that Dad was cancer free: that the surgery and the two rounds of chemo in the hospital had done enough. The cancer was large, but slow growing and non-aggressive – nothing else to do but live life and visit the hospital a couple of times a year for the next two years to make sure everything remains tickety-boo.

This also meant Christmas together. It was quiet, but it was a Christmas about gratitude. A few weeks’ before, Jason’s Mum had been in hospital with a flare up of an ongoing digestive issue but was better now. We had all made it through our own Annus Horribilis and were around the table sipping fizzy and tucking into the turkey; playing monopoly, talking, reminiscing and spending time together.

During that time, when my brain was occupied with anything other than work, my subconscious finally put the last bits of the jigsaw together for me about what 2018 should be about – should be the start of, really.

Yes, bills have to be paid. That’s life – and they will. For everything else, I have realised something quite fundamental: I have all I will ever need, right now.

No January sales are going to fill a hole inside me. Going through all my shit in December taught me that. Taught me that I have too much, in fact. So instead of using my very hard earned money to spend on stuff I don’t really want or need (the difference between I have been exploring for a long time now); instead I will use what I have to turn it into experiences.

How many times have you heard someone say “life is about experiences”, “life experiences” or “life changing moments” and been dismissive of their total notions? Shur, aren’t they just living with the fairies? Isn’t it kind of sad that it takes something shaking you to your absolute core to make you realise that these aren’t notions at all, it’s just what our lives should be about as much as possible and in whatever form and path we have chosen to take in our respective lives.

This is what it boils down for me now and what I have learned in the past 12 months…

Those that are your honest to goodness, show-up-when-it-fucking-matters friends are those that you should cherish and hold close. Be that 2, 5 or 100 people. Instead of buying someone something that they don’t really need (going back to Holly, she noted that there were no presents for her last Christmas as she knew she wouldn’t be around long to appreciate them and the prospect of those who bought them having them handed back just a few short months later). Instead, gift a hug, or time, or pay for their coffee – take them out for a meal, cook them a meal, says Holly.

For yourself, use your money to create experiences: places you’ve always wanted to visit; that restaurant you always thought was out of your league, learn to dance with your two left feet; take yoga classes even if you look ridiculous like me. Do the Christmas morning swim – feck it, take an ocean swim every week!

Go for it, put yourself out there, try new things; eat that cake, fuck that diet; sing even if you haven’t a note in your head. Do what you want and don’t spend even one single fraction of time worrying about what someone might think of you. Be you and do all the things you’ve always wanted to do.

Be brave. Living life needs courage, let’s not waste it by playing safe just to please others.

Because one minute everything could seem perfect and the next you could be literally ticking the days off.

Do things with purpose. Make your life have purpose, even if that purpose is to have the most amazing social life with your friends and family.

And seriously, don’t waste time on people and things that are toxic and make you feel less worth than you have. I know I won’t be. Ever again.

Thanks Fiona.

Thanks Holly.

Thanks Dad for beating cancer and staying around so we can muck about a bit more on the model railway.

Thanks Jason for not running away every time I utter the words, “I’ve been thinking…”

Thanks Mum for teaching me that a little bit of stubbornness can actually be a good thing!

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