On Pain and Love

Many years ago when I lived in London I was fortunate enough to meet the artist Charlie Mackesy and get to know him a little bit. I had the great privilege of spending day with him at his studio in south London while I was nursing a broken heart. He was painting one of his iconic Prodigal Daughter paintings and I could sense a Holy Presence in the room as he worked. 

He’s an extraordinary, slightly feral and big hearted man and I have always loved his work. At the time, I was working in television and earning far too much money for a young woman in her early 20s but one of the things I’m most proud of is that I bought one of his original cartoons. I remember standing in the art gallery and seeing in the distance the simple outline of a naked woman sashaying away from a nerdy, bespectacled man who was complaining ‘Daphne, you can’t take redemption of Eden too literally.’ I walked up close to it and just chuckled to myself. Charlie came to stand beside me.

‘I love this,’ I said.

‘Thanks,’ he shrugged, in his self deprecating style.

‘And I have to have it!’ I declared without even looking how much it cost. He burst out laughing. But it now hangs proudly on my landing near the bathroom. And it tickles me to think that he may have many celebrity collectors (Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Curtis, Sting!) but in a little house in North County Down, there hangs a treasure.

All this to say, Charlie’s recent venture is a series of gorgeous cartoons featuring a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse and such darling nuggets of gentleness and wisdom. They will soon be published in a book by Penguin, and I can’t wait! I can no longer afford an original painting, but I’ll be first in line for a book!

This past two months have been a journey of love and pain, pain and love. I had surgery to remove a tumour in my breast and 14 lymph nodes under my arm. I had a drain in for 5 days, during which the pain was manageable and movement was relatively easy which was a relief because my husband came down with a horrible stomach bug and was knocked flat for the few days after I came out of hospital. 

I returned to have the drain removed and noticed some sensation return which I had thought would be gone for good. Turns out, the drain had been pressing on a nerve which had numbed the area and once gone, all sensation returned and with it all the pain. 

I told my surgeon on a recent visit that I would rather go through 3 more natural births than deal with the consistent soreness that I had in the ensuing weeks. I was ill prepared for it and the fatigue that persistent pain causes. I have known friends who suffer from chronic pain and I have not really appreciated their fortitude in dealing with it. 

So life became a cycle of counting down the hours till I could take more medication that only actually took the edge off and trying to manage my expectations on what I’m capable of. It has also been a time of ugly self pity, impatience and shortness of temper with those closest to me, self comfort over self care and shame that I’m not handling things with more grace. 

I’ve since had a second surgery to remove more breast tissue and have recently been told that I will have now undergo a mastectomy as the cancer is still present in the breast tissue. So I’ll be starting chemotherapy treatment in a few weeks after which I’ll have a further surgery. The treatment plan is necessary but it doesn’t make it any less daunting and in some ways, I feel it’s like sending a SWAT team in to take out a tiny bunny. But the bunny is Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets, so, yeah, the SWAT team might even get their asses kicked.

In the midst of this tumult, I can quite honestly say, though, that I have never been more aware of how loved and cherished I am. I’ve had messages from friends far and near. Neighbours have dropped around food, overseas friends have sent flowers and other gifts. 

Jen Hatmaker, the American writer once told a story of how in elephant herds, which have a matriarchal structure, if one of the herd is vulnerable for some reason, for example when giving birth, her sisters will form a circle around her and kick dust up to deter potential predators who might take advantage of her fraility.

I have seen this triumphant, protective energy in action. I have felt a fierce hedge of love and support from my women friends and family that has lifted my spirits and given me such comfort at times when this feels like the loneliest place in the world. 

While I’m hugely grateful that I have a supportive and practically able husband and father in law, there’s something about the fact that this is a female cancer, that has drawn in a feminine energy that I’ve needed. 

As Charlie Mackesy points out in his lovely cartoon, the greatest freedom we have is how we react to things and I’ll be honest and say that my reaction to my pain levels, my newly restricted arm movement, the restriction to my plans for this year, the prospect of more invasive surgery has not always been pretty.

I do take comfort though that the ‘ugly cry’ way of dealing with hard times has precedent and that the most elevated souls have struggled with pain. And that precedent comes from my own faith tradition.

So much was made of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when I was growing up and how he said ‘Not my will, but Yours, O God’ the night of his betrayal, arrest and trial for blasphemy. But can we just back up for a moment and remember that this man sweated blood in his resistance to what he was facing. Let’s not be naive and forget that Jesus didn’t want to go through with what he knew in all probability would be certain torture and a painful death.

And where were his boys, his twelve male disciples?

Napping.

And then scarpering when the authorities came for their beloved teacher.

(Where were the women? They hung around till the bitter, ugly end. And were also the first to witness the Risen Christ. Just saying.)

The reaction of the women in my life though has been to get in formation, whether virtually and or practically where they’ve been able. They have used their freedom with compassion, power and grace and I will be eternally grateful.