“So…what do you do?” was the question recently asked to me by a lovely young doctor in the Emergency Department. He was trying to figure out where I may have picked up the infection that was making my temperature skyrocket. I just sat there for a second, with what must have been a very blank look on my face. I recall running over my days and then answering, “I have cancer.” He looked confused and then prompted further, “yeah…but what do you do?” Again, I did a quick assessment of my past months and replied, “nothing. I just have cancer.” That’s the thing about cancer. It strips you bare. Steals everything you are, everything you thought you were, and everything you loved to do, leaving you one-dimensional. “Don’t forget you play bingo,” piped up Ben, ever my champion. “And I’m a mum. I have a 5 year old,” I added. We quickly agreed that there lay the most likely source of the infection, probably something she’d collected from school, but I could tell he was still quite intrigued. “So what do you do during the day?” he asked. I explained how I spend my days; writing cards and organising gifts for my girl and family for when I’m gone. He was very obviously affected by this which shocked me. I mean, you just assume doctors (and nurses) become somewhat ‘superhuman’ after seeing such tragedy every single day. But he actually came back again, moving way past his job description, to have a chat about what I was leaving for her. He wanted me to know how wonderful he thought it was.
I can tell you who I was before the Big C. That’s almost too easy. I was Lyndsey, and that was something very multidimensional. One of my most defining roles was who I was in my job. I studied for six years to earn my Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood) degree, and relished in the label of ‘teacher’. I worked my butt off to get good marks, even when Nyah came along half way through, and graduated with honours. I remember in the early days after graduation, I arrogantly searched for any and every opportunity to tell the world who I was. If you were serving me in the shops, chances were that somehow by the time we finished our transaction, you’d know I was a teacher. I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work with children. I was always smitten by baby cousins, organised all the kids at parties, and shamefully played with my special Baby Born ‘Kimberly’ until I was about sixteen. I also don’t think there was anyone more excited than me to get that electronic baby thing they had at high school, where you get to practice and learn how hard it is to have a baby. Me? I went back for seconds. I started my first proper babysitting job at fourteen, and the rest they say, is history.
Even though I was qualified to teach up to Year 6, I found that my passion was for Early Childhood. Oh boy did I love those little ones! I hit the absolute jackpot and started work at a small community preschool in 2012. (Mostly) school hours, paid school holidays, community driven – it didn’t get any better than that for me and our little family. Until, in October of that year, I was handed the directors role at age 25. I don’t think I actually realised how big of a deal it was at the time, to be running a business, managing a team of 8, keeping 38 little lives a day happy and safe, and actually teaching them things in the process. On reflection, I often wonder what the heck I and the wonderful people who hired me were thinking! Especially when poop hit the fan and the support that I was supposed to have when transitioning into the role was there one day, and quite literally gone the next. I didn’t even know the codes to get into online banking to pay everyone! That’s the thing about me though. One of the things that’s at the core of what it is to be Lyndsey. Something that cancer will never take. I. Never. Give. Up. I regularly annoy myself with this trait! With the support and help of my amazing family, team, and bucket loads of hard work, we managed to transform that preschool into something even more special than it already was – and I am extremely proud of what we achieved.
At the time of my diagnosis, everything at work was ticking along nicely. We had just been assessed and given a big high-five, and I had the best of both worlds. Nyah came to preschool with me, so whilst I worked my butt off pulling long hours and nights, I was still able to be the mum I wanted to be. To say it was a dream job is an understatement, and the list of things I loved about it is endless. How wonderful it was to turn up to work every day and be greeted by the infectious innocence and happiness of childhood. Having a bad day was never possible because of the little hugs and ‘I love you’s’ that greeted me at the door every morning. Knowing that I was making a difference, sometimes not only for the child but for the whole family, gave me purpose. Part of my philosophy was to treat every child as though they were my own, because I wanted to be deserving of the privilege of helping someone’s most precious treasure grow and learn. I strived to deserve the trust families placed in me. It was a big responsibility and honour, and in applying this everyday, I made wonderful relationships with little and big souls along the way. I have no doubt I would have worked happily until retirement in this little piece of heaven.
I bet you can guess what comes next. It seems like my life had hit a level of epic happiness. I’d reached the top of the mountain and fell hard when cancer stole my job. I remember the girls coming to visit me in hospital a few weeks after my diagnosis, and telling them I wouldn’t be coming back to work. I remember the sting of realising just how much I’d miss seeing them every day; these amazing, talented, professional, caring, loving women who had become part of my family. We were so lucky that my second-in-charge, Robyn, was able to step up and take my place seamlessly, but boy was it hard to let go. I remember lying awake for hours upon hours stressing about everything I knew needed to be done and wanting so desperately to just go and do it. One tough night, just after I came home from hospital, I laid awake at 4am constructing an elaborate plan of how I was going to get back to work. I had it all planned out, down to the smallest detail, and it made so such sense. Until about 6am, when all of a sudden it didn’t make a shred of sense and I wondered what the hell I’d been thinking. That day, I wrote my emotional letter of resignation that took me weeks and weeks to actually send. At that point, I couldn’t have hated the world more. And Robyn, though you never knew (or maybe you did), there were moments when I wasn’t your biggest fan. Sometimes I was so mad at you. I couldn’t help but ignore your calls. Even though you asked for none of it, the jealousy I felt at knowing you had my job was overwhelming. However, the one thing that made it easier to leave was knowing that all would be okay in your very capable hands.
The day I cleaned out my locker and desk, I felt like a part of me was gone. The emptiness was indescribable. That’s the thing about being part of such a little amazing community though. Although though I never returned to work, and sent many dark thoughts her way, Robyn, my committee of ‘bosses’, the girls, and all the families refused to let me go. They went above and beyond to soften the blow and keep me close. I received gifts, flowers, photos, drawings and cards whilst in hospital, that decorated my walls and brightened my days. The girls worked tirelessly to raise money for my little family and helped purchase all the special gifts they knew I was collecting for Nyah. The amount of emotional and financial support that came from such a small community was unbelievable. I have been loved and known love in so many new and different ways this past year, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I am thankful to cancer for bringing me this. Cancer has showed me time and again the capacity we have as friends and strangers to change the life of another. It is deeper and more profound than I could ever have fathomed.
Eventually though, life goes on, and Robyn no longer needs to call me for advice. She is moving her own mountains as a leader, bigger ones than I ever attempted to tackle. New families that never met Mrs Clark are coming through, and a new team becomes a family. I have realised that the sting of this will never go away and that’s okay. I let myself cry and feel sad about it because it simply just sucks. There’s a big part of me though, that’s relieved at not having to work. Cancer has changed me so completely, adding fatigue and stripping away my patience. I’m not sure I would be the same Mrs Clark now anyway.
Aside from my job, I loved to craft, crochet, shop, sing, cook and be a mum. I was a very active mum, always doing something or other with my little Joy. Our favourite thing to do in the afternoons after work/school was get down on the floor and just play and imagine. I am now a shell of the Mummy that I was. I physically can’t get down on the floor to play anymore, or run around or dance. My cocktail of pain meds in combination with the cancer also makes me bone achingly tired. I find it hard to loose myself in our fantasy world like I used to. These days, the time Nyah and I spend together is usually well thought out by me in advance to ensure that she is kept busy and not noticing my failures as a mummy. We have a very, very busy schedule; ballet, jazz, swimming and gymnastics, because somehow, this is easier than being at home and sitting with the sting of what I can no longer do. Nyah also watches way more TV than what I am comfortable with so I can rest. Resting. Always resting. It’s a total cop out I know. Though I struggled to write that, I know it to be the truth. I wonder often how many other mums, facing the same journey, have experienced this too.
Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed by just how much Nyah’s life has been changed by the Big C. She has had to face far too much reality for one so young, and it gets heavier every day. I often find myself thinking it would have been easier on her if I had of gone when she was younger and had less of an understanding. Maybe her heartbreak would have been easier to repair? It seems that as she grows older, she understands more deeply and faces the pain alongside me. She’s always there by my side, holding my hand and telling me, “I don’t want you to go.” She has started to have panic attacks about what life will be like when I am gone, her first on the night of her sixth birthday. It doesn’t matter what I say about how much our love will linger, about how she can always talk to me in her heart. She remains focused on the fact that she won’t be able to hear me, see me or touch me and wants answers. She wants to know who will read her bed time stories, put on her band-aids and give her hugs. Though she loves her amazing Daddy, she isn’t happy when I suggest that it will be he that takes my place. It was an earth shattering moment when Ben and I realised that these complex and layered thoughts that were bursting out of her, were obviously something that she’d been hiding for some time. I wonder when she developed the need to protect me? Thankfully, she is getting some help and we talk and cry often when she needs to get it out. I ache. I ache so badly every moment of every day that I cannot change our story, and at how ill equipped I am to protect her from the pain that has already started.
These days, as I mentioned earlier, I spend most of my time wrapping up my life and organising things for after I’m gone (more on this later). When cancer first took Lyndsey, it was a terrible thing to have nothing left to do except make sure everyone else would be okay after you died. Like living to die. After my diagnosis, I was completely defined by my disease and throughout those first months found the very bottom of myself. One thing I was shocked to discover was that I actually liked pre Big C Lyndsey. I never really thought too much of her, always striving to be something better. It wasn’t until cancer forced me to redefine who I was that I realised that pre Big C Lyndsey was enough. She actually had some pretty good things going on. Now, my fight to define myself as something other than cancer continues. This new Lyndsey, well I’m not sure she is very interesting yet but I quite like who she is. I like to colour, read, tie dye, write, go to the theatre, go on holidays, spend time with friends and family, eat out a restaurants, watch trashy movies and TV, and on Wednesdays I bingo.
I now focus more on the core qualities that make me who I am, rather than the roles I play, because I have come to realise that cancer will never be able to steal them. These qualities have been built on what I’ve learned from and seen in others. I want to be like so many people who have loved me big, and I want that for Nyah too. I also find myself not worried about the way I look, and sometimes thinking, “you look pretty today.” Looking pretty when you are bald and swollen means something a whole lot different to looking pretty before. I never, ever would have allowed myself to have these thoughts pre Big C. And of course, I have come to realise that being a mother will always be my most important and defining role. It doesn’t matter how it looks as we fight to maintain a normal mother/daughter bond and life, just that we did, we are, and we loved big. Cancer can take my job, my body, and most likely my mind in the end too, but it will never take the very core of my soul. I know that will linger long after I am riding the rainbows.