“Wait for me!” I hollered to the backs of the older kids. They leapt onto the half-wall, over the flower-bed (all peppery with nasturtiums and marigolds) and then off through the narrow opening and onto the secret ledge. The teenagers didn’t break stride before throwing themselves off the edge, six feet down onto the rough grassy field. Their loping strides continued down the bank of the field and over the iron-orange boggy strip of drainage at the bottom. Over and on to the stream at the valley’s floor.
Slower and smaller but no less nimble, I could slither and climb down the rough face of that wall in a few seconds. They were a few seconds that left me still further behind the older kids. But not today, I thought, as I followed them through the gap. I had decided to jump and keep up.
The ledge, maybe half a metre wide, ran down the length of the Dutch barn. To my right the concrete rose dizzyingly high so that that grey-green wall blended with the grey-blue sky of the drizzly day. To my left was the drop. Down, down, down.
I stopped. I balanced close to the edge. The ground, framed by the twin, green tips of my boot-clad toes seemed miles away. Rufus, my brother, paused on the ground and turned back.
“Come on Pen. You can do it!” He said.
I swayed forward. I bent my knees trying to bring the ground closer. My breath caught in my throat.
“Come on!” He called and turned to follow the others down the field.
I landed with my too-big boot half-on and half-off . My ankle twisted painfully inside. Not an enduring misery. The pain lasted maybe ten faltering steps before the chase resumed. But the injury changed the future.
Until that moment, wounds when they came (and they surely did) had just arrived. They came. They were dealt with. They faded from memory. This one was different. It ignited my imagination. Not in a Harry Potter sort of way. In the way that we, as adults, have of remembering past pain. We make plans to avoid it in future. In that moment, I transformed high walls from “something to be jumped off” to “something that can cause pain”.
Why am I thinking about this? Cancer is that ledge times a billion. For my boys, that time when life was full of adventure and possibility and laughter got cut short. They’ve coped well. People use words like grit and resilience and pluck. The cost of their courage was high. They paid by giving up their childish naivety; their ignorance of their mortality.
Fast forward to this weekend.
Chris was trying to tell us about a YouTube clip he’d been watching. He laughed so much he couldn't get the words out. He'd start only to be interrupted by his own fit of giggles. Josh and I had no idea what he was saying. His laughter was infectious. We smiled. We snorted. Within half a minute we too were howling out the kind of belly laugh that made our eyes stream and our sides ache. Shannon poked his head in the door and then he, too, convulsed.
It felt good. So very good.
It was the feeling of returning to those forgotten places of good memories: I didn’t know how much I’d missed it until I opened the door.
Like the smell of my mother.
Like the first sight of spring blossoms.
Like the late night rumbling of summer’s first thunder.
For a few hours we didn’t talk chemo or nausea or weight-loss or anything else about cancer. We rowed boats, we swam, we chewed ice-cubes from our frosty drinks. We re-lived the excitement of Chris’ first para-motor flight. We laughed at everything and at nothing.
Chris wandered off in search of a boat paddle and Josh turned to me. “I’ve missed his laughter,” he said.