Monday, October 14, 2013

Kingfisher dreaming

The spectacular bird photos in this blog were taken by my brother, Jeff Melvaine.

When your world gets invaded by the Freeloader, a lot of things go to hell other than your health. The Bear describes it as a giant 'detour' sign erected in your path; wherever you thought you were going, you can just damn well think again. Life has other plans for you.

For the best part of a year, we were both consumed by my cancer. The Bear had to do my share of the work around the farm as well as his own, on top of trying to take care of me. Certain things just couldn't happen.

And then there were the floods; three of them, an unprecedented number for one summer. Along with the inconvenience, they delivered us a little present- one that we couldn't deal with at the time. I was just too damn sick, and the Bear was just too damn busy.

Ironically, given my condition, the gift was of the toxic and uncontrollably multiplying variety. Let me introduce you to salvinia molesta, the cancer of our waterways.

It's the closest thing you'll find to the Freeloader in the world of plants, an introduced aquatic pest which flourishes in our hot, humid conditions to the point where it can double in area in three days. It forms a thick mat over the surface of still water, pushing tightly against its neighbour with roots entwining till it's curving upwards with the pressure, growing outwards till there's no room left to grow.

Smothering everything underneath.

It kills lagoons.


When we first arrived here, both our lagoons looked like that. Jools and the Bear and I laboured hard back then to clear at least the smaller one, in the hope of luring back some of the local bird life. We live in a wetland, and the birds should be plentiful and spectacular- but many don't appear unless they can access still, healthy water in relative privacy. Our dams were just too open, but the small lagoon was a haven- if only the water was visible.

Salvinia's a bastard to get rid of. You have to remove it manually. It's heavy, exhausting work. It took us forever last time, just to clear this small pool.

But in the weeks after we finally lifted the last piece of sodden, fragile weed off the surface, a small miracle happened. One by one, lured by the safety of a clean pond surrounded completely by trees, the birds appeared.

At first it was just the normal locals, like this yellow robin, happy to have a quiet place to bathe.

Then the herons got word, by instinct or bush telegraph- who knows? They appeared first at the lagoon, and as they remained unmolested they'd become more confident and swoop across the lawn to check out our dams as well. Almost every morning we'd see them stalking along, eyeing the mosquito fish then stabbing at them with laser accuracy.

Many others came- honeyeaters, wrens, friar birds, all chirping and splashing and enjoying the cool water through the heat of summer. But nature saved the best for last.

With a flash of brilliant colour amongst the trees, the azure kingfisher made his entrance.

We never saw him until he moved; somehow the burnt umber and cobalt disappeared into the shadowy backdrop of the trees. But as he got more cheeky, he too graduated to the dam, allowing my brother near enough to photograph him properly with the aid of a telephoto lens. And then the glory of his shimmering costume, till now seen only as a darting flash of brilliance in flight, could be captured under lights.

We fell in love with him immediately. He became more and more bold, and when we strung a rope across the dam one day we were delighted to see him adopt it as a vantage point for his fishing.

Eventually he turned up with a mate; once I was treated to the incredible sight of him competing with another male for his girlfriend's attention, hopping and twirling and raising his iridescent wings on the end of our wharf in a mirror-image pas de deux with the enemy, while Madame preened indifferently on a nearby log.

But then, the Freeloader. The floods. The salvinia.


My lack of energy after treatment finished depressed me at first. Then it made me angry. Everywhere I looked there was something that needed to be done urgently, and yet I was chained to my lounge chair by lethargy. I'd walk past the small lagoon, filled to overflowing by floodwater, and see the floating fragments of salvinia that had washed in from the larger pool upstream. They were few and small at first, manageable, and I'd think I must get in with the kayak and clean those up. It had taken me months after we cleared the lagoon, circling it and picking out any stray piece that had surfaced, to be confident it was clean. I knew how long it'd take to get back to that stage if I let it go.

But I couldn't do it. I simply couldn't. My body refused to obey me.

By the time my body was up to the task, the mat of green was complete. I was furious. And the kingfisher was gone.


Focus outside yourself.

The mental pressure of serious illness is tremendous. Nobody prescribes tools to deal with that. The doctors are too busy with surgery and poison infusions and radiation and hormone tablets and god knows what else to deal with your head as well. Maybe they'll toss you an antidepressant afterwards, if you still have the capacity to ask.

I self-prescribed.

Focus outside yourself.

It helped me when I was waiting for the results of tests, noticing other people around me going about their business, making it my task to praise them where praise was due and taking heart from their smiles. No matter how ill I was, I could still bring pleasure to other people if I could only stop focussing on myself for a moment.

And in that moment, I could feel joy again.

But by the end of treatment I was beaten down. I was having trouble thinking of anything but my own frustration, my own inability, the thousand little things I used to take for granted that I could no longer manage without pain or exhaustion- or, indeed, that I could no longer manage at all.

I was just too tired to think of anything outside myself.

But that lagoon- that damned lagoon. It kept niggling at me. Spring came and was without its usual brilliance; the kingfisher was gone, and even the rainbow bee eaters kept their distance, swooping overhead chirruping but never coming down to dance on our lawn.

Perhaps if I just started... and paced myself... I could find some open water for the kingfisher. Just a little bit every day.

It could count for part of my exercise.

I focussed on the kingfisher.


I tried using the pitchfork and rake, as we'd done the last time, and quickly realised that my arm wasn't up to it. The weed, spongelike and packed with moisture, was far too heavy. I was exhausted in minutes. I had to find a better way.

Milk crates.

I could wade into the water, fill a milk crate piece by piece, and drag it onto the bank to drain while I filled the next one.

Painstaking... but it was all I could manage.

And so I did.

Every day.

For two hours. Ten crates a day.

Piece... by piece... by piece.

For the kingfisher.


At times as I stood there in the water, repeating the simple action like a counting of the beads, it became a place of deep peace for me. My mind would wander gently through unrelated scenes, as though I was dreaming. Once it seemed that each sodden lump of dripping weed was a fragment of my cancer, so slowly and painstakingly attacked, the whole process never-ending as I strove to keep ahead of its implacable increase, with recurrence always a possibility despite my pains.

Yet, in the whole scheme of things, barely significant.

To the universe, this one lagoon was as nothing. There were other azure kingfishers, other clear still pools for them to fish in.

But it mattered to me. My life mattered, and this particular bird mattered. This had become his home, his breeding ground. By my quiet homage, I could restore order to his world.

In my mind's eye, I could see him already, zooming from one side of the water to the other like a bright-feathered dart. I imagined him there many a time as I worked. I could see him.

Bungawalbin. Bundjalung for place of the waterlilies. Standing on Aboriginal land, waist-deep in a lagoon strangled by a whitefella's imported madness, I was kingfisher dreaming.


It took me two and a half weeks to see a difference.

At first, I didn't dare look at the big picture; it was too overwhelming. As I took away a patch of weed, the huge remaining mass would sigh, relax, spread out to cover the hole.

I could easily have given up. But the longer I went on, the more stubborn I became.

It's just like chemo, I thought, my back aching as I bent again to reach the pieces floating away from me on shallow water. If I stop, what's the point of what I've done already?

So I kept at it, a little every day. And then, two weeks in, I started to see the mosquito fish.

Almost transparent, barely two centimetres long, they swarmed in the water around my hips as the weed broke up.

This is what he comes for, I thought. He can see them now.

A few days later, a strong wind sprang up and kindly pushed the loose weed to the eastern end, away from the tangled mat I was working on to the west. At last I could see what I'd done. I was barely halfway, but there was a wide stretch of clear water.

And the day after that, as I came down to the water's edge in the late afternoon, a spatter of cobalt splashed against the olive palette of trees.

I wondered for a moment if I'd dreamed it. But as I looked up into the trees, there he was.


Velcro-dog stepped up to my side then, sniffing curiously at the water's edge. When I looked up again there was only the gentle bouncing of a slender branch to see, and a bright patch of joy in my mind.


I stood for a little while, hoping he'd return, but it wasn't to be. I looked over my work then, realising that my job was far from over; if I stopped now, the lagoon would be choked again within a week. I sighed, scoured the trees again. Turned away.

I'd be back again in the morning.

And as I headed up the bank, a high-pitched squawk stopped me in my tracks. High in a wattle tree above the lagoon, two king parrots flashed their scarlet chests at me and squabbled over the blossoms.

There are more joys to be had than kingfishers, if I can only take my mind outside myself and dare to dream them.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

I've got it.

For months now, I've been wondering how to refer to my current health status. My oncologist doesn't do follow-up scans, you see, so I can't join the 'NED' club (no evidence of disease) or declare that I'm officially 'in remission'. I would be talking, as the Bear would say, through my arse. For all I know, the Freeloader could still be here, playing merry hell very quietly in my bones or internal organs.

(Not that I think for one moment that this is so.)

But I've got no proof, and Dr Mumbles has very good reasons for his strategy. Too many scans, and I end up abusing my health even further; a-hem, radiation can cause cancer, and I wouldn't want that, would I? My body has already been through the therapeutic equivalent of Hiroshima. Enough already.

And in his Mellow mode, Mumbles also acknowledges that the constant testing and waiting for results is just too damn hard on the patient's coping strategies. Don't I know it. Remember back at the beginning of this lunacy, when I had a bone scan and ended up locking myself in a public toilet to shake in private while I waited for the results? And once you get those damned results, the countdown starts to the next test.

No thanks. Pass.

See, if the Freeloader's back, it's not like they can fix me. Did you read my poem? After Stage 4, the doctors say there's nothing. So Mumbles reckons I may as well enjoy blissful ignorance for as long as I can.

I'm good with that.

But it doesn't help me to explain my situation to others. Am I cured? Buggered if I know. I don't feel sick now, but then I didn't feel sick to start with, when I was potentially dying.

So I've been struggling with the words. And finally, I've found something that fits.

I am on parole.


To all appearances, I'm a free woman. To look at me, when I'm all dressed up, a stranger would never know I'd been sick.

But it doesn't alter the fact that I've been in metaphorical jail. Cancer will always be with me. I've got a record. Like a stretch in the clink, my diagnosis will follow me everywhere and affect much of what I want to do.

Most tellingly, it'll affect my relationship with any new
employer; in my line of work, I'll have

The photo's as old as the hills, but let's just
say that preschoolers can WALK... and
babies can be heavy!
to disclose that I've had a mastectomy. My arm is still too weak to work with babies.

So I'm limited in my options. I need to stick to four- and five-year-olds. Today is the one year anniversary of my diagnosis, and I celebrated by going to town, dropping in on the preschool where I was working before D-day and declaring myself ready to work again. I feel confident that I've got my energy back enough to manage the odd casual day, and I'm pretty sure I can pick up the occasional preschooler if I have to.

But lifting and carrying babies all day? With my left arm? That's a recipe for lymphoedema for me- and possible disaster for a baby- if ever I heard one.

No way. Doing time with the Freeloader precludes me from that occupation.


And then, of course, it only takes one little offence and I'll be back inside. Parole revoked, go directly to jail. Nobody can predict how I'll go with my new-found freedom. I could be back behind bars tomorrow, or next year- or, if my body can behave itself, never.

It's lifetime parole for me.


But for now, I've survived my first year with the Freeloader. Surely that's worth a little bit of a party, beyond just trying to go back to work.

Remember Amanda? I do.

So I dropped into Shartan and visited Amanda to ask her if there was anything she could do with my atrocious hair. I cringe at the way it looks; it's not growing out anything like the way I thought it would, and in the words of an ancient hair product ad, I can't do a thing with it.  It's already way too hot for the Megwig, but despite sweating like a curly-coated hamster in a sauna, I still avoid venturing out without a hat or a scarf disguising my chemo coiffure.

I tried 'product'.

I tried colouring it, but the
effect was similar to that
achieved by applying
lipstick to a pig.
So I actually made an appointment with a hairdresser, for the first time in about 28 years. Amanda says she can trim the sides so I look like I meant it, rather than being the victim of a tragic cranial accident.

Well that's not quite what she said, but that's what she meant.

Yes, yes, it's good to have hair again, I shouldn't complain, blah blah blah, but honestly, I look like had a fight with a pair of hedge shears and then stuck my finger in the powerpoint. Worse, I look like my mother's deeply unpleasant cousin, who occasionally took her face out of the gin bottle for long enough to get a short, tight and unflattering perm and tell me I should have a breast reduction. 

"You really MUST get a breast reduction..."
I do NOT need to be reminded of THAT. Bring on Saturday.


So here I am, a year out from Dr Adnan's good news and bad news, still walking Planet Earth and not, it seems, dying any time soon. To all intents and purposes, I'm a free woman- as long as you don't go back too far in my file.

And the Kris Kristofferson song? Well, I guess all I've got to lose is my life, so I may as well feel free to go for everything else I want- if I've got the energy. Going back to work. Getting a new haircut. Maybe trying to get this blog published at last.

But most of the time, just like Kris and his Bobby McGee, feeling good is good enough for me.