To Helen on her 53rd Birthday

It is five years today since the last time I flew to Canberra to celebrate my bestie’s birthday with her. Just over five years since she got the horrible news that her cancer had come back and this time, it had ‘got her’.

But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the cancer and her last few months. I haven’t really written very much about it before, because I always wanted to keep these posts about her and her other birthdays I celebrated with her, but this year, on the fifth anniversary of the last Helen birthday we spent together, I feel the need to dig into these memories. Maybe I need the purge. But whatever it is, here it goes.

For almost 30 years my dearest Helen had been living with the threat of cancer hanging over her head. The first cancer came when she was 19 – Hodgkins lymphoma. The most treatable cancer with one of the highest successful cure rates. It was a horrible time, but still hope was high she would be cured of this terrible beast.

The thought it might come back after the first time was pretty negligible, but then it did come back – exactly the same type which is very unusual given it is commonly known as the ‘young people’s cancer’ (meaning it’s mostly diagnosed in people aged between 15-30) and she was over 30.

Even then we hoped that would be it when she beat it the second time – although the doctors did warn her that with the second round of treatment, she was more likely to get breast, cervical or lung cancer than she was before.

Then the bastard came back – a different lymph gland cancer this time, but still attacking that system like the last two. Different treatment this time, equally dangerous, with even more risk of it giving her breast, cervical or lung cancer in the future. But she got through that, beat it for a 3rd time and we hoped … oh how we hoped.

But hope can be a capricious bitch and a month before her 48th birthday, she went in for tests because she was struggling to breathe – more so than she had in years (the last cancer treatment had caused some damage to her lungs) – and she had a pain in her lower back and pelvic region that was just getting worse and worse.

I’d seen her in the January when she came down to visit me as she did every year, and have to say I was super worried about her condition and angry with her that she’d done nothing to find out what was causing it giving it had been increasing over a number of months. I gave her ‘the talk’ – the one she’d asked me to give her years ago after the 2nd cancer, the one she wanted me to give her when she was putting her head in the sand because she didn’t want to think about the possibility of cancer being in her life again and all that came with it. I was fairly certain that was what this was – I’d seen the signs 3 times before after all – and so I gave her the talk, urging her to go to the doctor, to not leave it, to be proactive. I knew she was terrified, I knew just the thought made her want to throw up and then run away screaming, but she had two little girls to fight to be with as long as she could, and I used that in my arsenal too. She called me a bitch, got her stubborn on – her chin could really do this thing where it jutted out and simultaneously looked like the hardest steel and like it just might crumble apart at any moment – but we talked it out, hugged it out, and she promised to go to the doctor.

It took her a few months to do so after she got back to Canberra – life things got in the way as much as the fear of finding out kept overwhelming her – but then the pain got so bad, she had no choice.

Turns out, she had a broken hip and degraded femur but she hadn’t had a fall. So they did further scans and tests and discovered the reason her hip had broken and her femur looked like it was about to, was because the bones were full of cancer. She also had spots on her spine – most of the reason for the pain she’d been experiencing there.

This info came in around Easter – the same time she’d got the news about her 3rd cancer years before. When that call came in from her, I managed to hold my shit together on the phone call with her, but fell apart after I got off, swearing and shouting at the universe, then crying because it was so unfair. We still didn’t have the full diagnosis, but I knew. I said it to my husband after I calmed down.

I knew.

I just knew. This was it. This was the one she couldn’t beat. I knew it.

As did she.

And as it turned out, even if she’d gone to the doctor back in January, it would have been too late. The cancer was aggressive and fast growing (she’d had a scan for back pain the previous year with no sign of it whatsoever and her regular yearly blood tests had previously shown no sign either). Not to mention the originating cancer – the cause of it all – was hiding. It took them another month after her hip and femur replacement surgery, to figure out it was metastatic lung cancer, stage 4.

We already knew it was metastatic and stage 4 – she’d found out the day before I flew up to Canberra to see her before her hip/femur operation. She hadn’t told me, was getting up the courage to call me, when I walked into her hospital room – a surprise for her as she didn’t know I was coming. She burst into tears and I flew to her, holding her for so, so long as she gripped me tightly. I held her until her grip loosened and she stopped crying. Then she told me. Stage 4 cancer of some kind – they still didn’t know it had originated in the lung – and she’d been given 12-18 months.

I wasn’t surprised. I knew.

But still, it hit hard. It was so hard to keep it together, but I did, for her. Because she was surrounded by people constantly who, when they found out, burst into tears, requiring her to comfort them. I witnessed it a number of times that day when a few friends visited her before her operation and she told them. I saw it happened over and over in the next few months. And each time it made me so angry that they did this to her – required her to comfort them even though she was the one who truly needed comfort. Who needed support. Who needed to see that the people around her would keep on going, would remember her with happiness, would help her children and her family and her friends continue to remember her with happiness.

I made it my mission to not break in front of her over the next few months as she slowly got worse and worse, the treatments causing terrible side-effects and doing nothing to stop the cancer from crawling up her spine and getting into her spinal fluid and the base of her brain. As the months she had were sheared off, I flew and drove to Canberra often to be with her – especially at those moments she needed me the most: for big appointments with doctors; for her first round of chemo; her first found of radio; times when she just needed some normalcy and someone to take some of the burden from her mother who was being such a trouper despite her own health issues.

From diagnosis to when she finally passed from this world, it was not quite 4 months. 4 desperate months full of visits from friends and family, doctors appointments where the news was just getting worse, treatments, hospital stays, increasing pain medication that made her even more tired and foggy headed than the cancer medication made her feel and trying to pack as much in with her two precious girls while keeping their lives as normal as possible – quite frankly, an impossible task, but still, she did it, mostly. She wasn’t superhuman, no matter how much she liked to act like she was, but she still managed to pack so much into those last few months, that when I think back on it, it seems like longer than 4 months.

But that was Helen all over. I don’t know if it was a result of having cancer at 19 and deciding then to try to pack as much in as she possibly could, or if that was just who she was always meant to be, but in the year after fighting off that first cancer, she made some truly tough decisions that changed the course of her life – gave up uni, left her boyfriend who she’d just got engaged to and moved to Sydney to pursue a different career. She did a lot of living in Sydney until she met a man who lit up her world and they moved back to Melbourne.

That’s where she became a paramedic, a job she truly loved. Life eventually led her back to Canberra where she lived for 15 years. 15 years where she finally finished her degree, got through a divorce (staying the best of friends with her ex-husband) and meeting a woman who she truly loved and had her two girls with before that relationship fell apart (possibly due to cancer’s 2 and 3 being just too much for her partner to deal with, but also I think because sometimes love just fades away and people grow into different paths) and she ended up going back to the house she’d grown up in to live with her mum and help her keep the house and through some health issues.

And she was so happy there. Mostly. No life is ever truly always happy. There were ups and downs, battles with depression and health issues, some associated with what the cancer treatments had done to her, some due to having smoked on and off through her teens, 20s and 30s, and some from the wear and tear on the body from being a paramedic. But there was great happiness too, even though cancer always hung over her head like an ugly shadow in the background.

She had her girls. Two beautiful, rambunctious, intelligent, always questioning and challenging, full of energy girls who she lived for and did everything for to make certain they knew just how treasured and loved they were.

She had beautiful friends who she treasured with every breath.

She had her gardening and crafting and quilting which filled her soul in ways hard to describe.

She had holidays with friends and family that always filled her with so much joy.

She had a big loving Greek family on her father’s side, with a brother and half sisters and all the aunts and uncles who cooked for her and were always showing their love for her in those ways both endearing and annoying that only families can. She had a loving aunt on her mother’s side who did the same kind of endearing and annoying concerned meddling as her Greek side.

She had her ex-husband who she stayed very close to and was always there at the drop of a hat when she or her mother needed anything.

She had her Clayton’s husband – my husband. The husband she had when she didn’t have a husband (her words always with a laugh and a big hug and kiss for him).

She had my boys who she was so proud to call her godsons and who she just loved to bits – shown in photos I have of them together in the way she always hugged them so tight to her and left lipstick kisses on their faces – lipstick kisses that if from anyone else they would have wiped off and said, ‘yuck!’ But from aunty Helen, they were like the rub-on tattoos that young kids prize, and they never wanted to wash them off. She put lipstick kisses as surprises for them in their Hobbit notebooks the last time she visited us in the January before she left us all – and they are still treasured.

She had a wonderful mother who she loved as fiercely as anyone could love a mother, protective of her in a way that suggested at times the relationship was more Helen being the mother, but at other times like they were best of friends, doing all the gardening and crafting they both loved together on the days Helen had off from work. It wasn’t always a perfect relationship – like all people, they had their flaws and annoyances and got angry with each other, but it was still a beautiful relationship I know Helen treasured. She made living with her mother a beautiful success.

Helen and her Mum, Dad and brother on her 48th birthday

She had a loving father who, even though having separated from Helen’s mother when she was in her early teens and getting married again and having 2 other children, living first in Sydney then in Queensland, loved his Nike with everything in him as she did him. He was always a larger than life presence in her life – so much so that having heard her talk about George for a number of years before I actually met him, I felt I knew him and like he was always there.

She had a brother she was so close to and loved more than anything. She called him spunky-bum, always with a massive laugh and giggle, and her face lit up every time they spoke on the phone or she saw him. She was so proud of him and the different life he was living from the one she had – but never was she jealous. Just super excited for him. And she had half sisters who, while there were bumpy times where she felt like she struggled to know them or feel close because of the tyranny of distance and loyalty to her mother, she loved them with everything in her and as they grew older and got married and had kids, she got so much closer to them, talking proudly of everything they did and who they’d become.

And finally, she had me.

Helen and my boys

She had other very close friends who were so dear to her, but I don’t think there was anyone else quite like me. We’d been through so much together, our friendship cemented fully through that first cancer where I was her major support system – her family not being in Melbourne and her partner at the time struggling with the entire situation emotionally, but also having to work more to help support them because she couldn’t work. Our friendship, already strong, was cemented further because at that time, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and so we were sick together and took a long ‘getting over being sick’ holiday for 2 months after her treatments were over. We drove to Queensland for a break, doing none of the things young people often do when they go there – we went to no nightclubs or parties and didn’t lie on the beach once. We rested and went to the amusement parks and walked and cooked and had a few dinners out and just recovered together. Then on the drive back we visited my extended family in Sydney who she’d heard so much about, and then visited her family in Canberra including being invited to a bash in her honour her Greek Aunts put on for her – so much food! Through all this, we got to know each other and the important things in our lives in a way that you just don’t normally get to know even the dearest of friends – certainly not in such a short space of time. We knew each other in ways it can take a lifetime to know someone.

We knew pain together. We experienced getting better together. We were each other’s cheer squads and the ones who could tell the utter truth that nobody else could tell us. We grew into adulthood together. We went through loves and heartbreaks and difficulties getting pregnant and various health issues together.

She was the friend version of the love of my life, and I was hers.

So while so much of what I have written above – about her battles against the fucker that is cancer and those last few months of her life that still fill me with so much sadness and fury; sadness and fury I’m not sure I will ever get over, and just feels so much bigger on the fifth anniversary of her last ever birthday we spent together – I am also reminded that there was so much to treasure in her life. So much to be proud and thankful of and for in the mere 48 years she got.

I might miss her like I’ve never missed anything or anyone in my life – and will go on missing her – but I also will not let this sadness be the only thing she left me with. I am eternally grateful Helen was such a massive part of my life, her smile and hugs and sticky lipstick kisses filling me with happiness and warmth at their reality and in my memory. Her laughter was infectious and lit up my world when we were together, even through some of the darkest of times. I am so lucky to have been gifted with such a friend, and while I could wish from now until my end that I got more time with her, I will always treasure the time we had.

I love you Helen. I miss you always.

And today, on this day that you always made such a celebration of – so much so that we always spoke about not just your birthday but your birthweek and filled it with fun and laughter and parties and catching ups and goings out every year – I wish you the bestest of best 53rd Birthdays. Where-ever you are I know you are looking over all those you loved, keeping us near to you so that you can make sure we’re all right and are living our best lives, but I hope you are also celebrating the day you were brought into our world, because it is one of the best days.

And as my birthday present to you, I once again promise to continue to try to live my best life and to honour your request to try (mostly) for there only to be happy tears when I remember you and our friendship. My hubby and boys and I are remembering you tonight as we do every year by going out – as we always did on your birthday – to have dumplings and a spicy eggplant dish and remember you with every mouthful.

Hoppy-frog-tomato, my beautiful girl, my bestest of best friends. And Happy Birthday my most dearest, wonderful and darlingest of Helens.

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