Category Archives: garden

How to fail at everything and die of cancer

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.

The mighty dieffenbachia

Okay, now I have your attention, I’ll hasten to add that I have not had a cancer setback; my numbers are still excellent. I’m still in hearty, robust remission, and long may it continue. No, what’s happened is that I’ve failed to even get an interview for the full time version of a job I’ve been doing as a casual for nine years. People often tell me how well I do this job. Not even an interview.

So what I’m experiencing now is a fit of pique, an imaginative foray into spitting the dummy, a brooding, repetitive thought pattern that circles like a plane unable to land. The landing place is, of course, the city of Disappointment in the country of Humiliation. I must check in, once more, to Heartbreak Hotel. I must wander Disappointment’s crepuscular streets. I step over the body of a young man who has died of lítost. Lítost is a Czech word, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment” brought about by “the realisation of one’s inadequacy or misery”. The young man has jumped from the high window above, but nobody has come to take his body back to his hometown because everyone else is dealing with their own lítost and there’s no energy to do the paperwork.  A doleful waitress – she might have been a star – doles out a plate of comfort food, beige and yellow. We exchange a rueful glance.

But then I think of the dieffenbachia in my living room. This is a plant that laps up being indoors and doesn’t mind long stretches without water. I would certainly never pot it up, fertilise it or change the soil. For ten years it has grown vigorously and fulsomely, shooting straight for the ceiling. It has produced two sturdy daughter plants. This plant knows nothing of failure. It is successful, and because it lives in my house, I can claim its success as my own. Look at the plant I’ve grown!

And I think of my friend Sue. We started treatment together, finished treatment together. My cancer didn’t come back, but hers did.  She’s in deep trouble. She has four children, three of them still teenagers at school. I could claim success in this vile race for survival but even my black humour can’t go quite that black.

Success is real, failure is real, but it’s clear that these are not, and never have been, fair. Okay, I’m not casting aspersions on my selection committee (although it is tempting in these hours of pique) but the bigger picture reminds us that it’s all bullshit, really. Some people are dieffenbachias. They sit there with their vegetable success and congratulate themselves. Others – like the ten year old Indigenous girl who committed suicide in Western Australia – are struggling to secure the basic requirements of a life worth living, and blame themselves.

Google has no idea about this, though. If you ask Google for advice – as we must, because Google seems to hold the Wisdom of the Ages, and because Google is always there, and we are lazy – you will get this:

– Why success always starts with failure
– 50 famously successful people who failed at first
– Failure Is Feedback: How 5 Billionaires had To Fail To Succeed

Note how we could only come up with five billionaires? Compared to how many people living on earth? The fact is that most of us are – and must be, by Google’s definition – losers. It’s a horrible word to apply to your aunt, your partner, your children, the waitress at your local cafe, the neighbour who checks your mail when you’re on holiday, the unpublished novelist, the bedroom singer-songwriter, the swimmer who came second, the Aboriginal kid living in the remote community next to the iron ore mine making billions for one of those five billionaires.

Oh the chip! The chip on my shoulder! I’m actually laughing at myself. Could be time for a third cup of instant and to finish reading Sarah Bakewell’s exquisite new book The Existentialist Cafe, dotted through with some exceedingly consoling crochet.

The first hint of spring

What’s that in the air? Could it be a hint that this winter might one day end? We’ve had our snow, we’ve had our shocking news, we’ve had streets of trees without leaves. But there’s a trace of warmth in the air. And on Rocket Street, up the hill, there’s a tree in full pink blossom. Yes, it’s quite possible that – in a few weeks’ time – we might emerge from this winter into spring.

In my own garden, it’s Yellow Flower Season (YFS). The Cootamundra wattle is blooming and the daffodils are out.

Not only that, but I’m ten out of ten! I’ve just had my latest three-monthly cancer check, and my CA125 level is 10. Considering that when my tumours were in full flight my level was in the late two thousands, this is a magnificent result. It’s now a year since my last dose of chemo. Life stretches out, lazily, ahead.

A little too lazily. I’m still having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. At the appointed time, it still feels like it must be 4am and what the hell is going on?

Pattern by WhittyB/Etsy

Oh, I finally finished the cross-stitched uterus and ovaries for my gynae-oncologist. I forgot to take a photo before I handed it over, but it looked just like this. I added the words “Here’s trouble” because that’s basically all I got out of decades of female reproductive organs. My doctor, a brisk, practical woman (I worship her, along with my Upper GIT*), looked at it briefly and said, “Good stitching.” And: “I’m not sure where I’m going to put this.” She’s not one to fake joy – too busy. But I don’t mind. I enjoyed making it & I really don’t mind what she does with it.

On Wednesday, I’m going to be delivering a little talk about my crocheted body parts at Nepean TAFE in Kingswood at 1pm. The general public is welcome, so if you’re in that part of town, feel free to pop in! Details from Cath Barcan at

* Upper Gastro Intestinal Tract surgeon

A morning with wrens

UntitledThere’s a particular crispness we get in the air in Bathurst at this time of year. This morning I found myself at my sock drawer, because my feet were cold. This is right on cue. This is almost the last day of summer. On Sunday it’ll be autumn. The garden just outside the back door is now a messy tangle of growth and decay and impossibly juicy, sweet, tangy, big red tomatoes. The tall withering sunflowers throw jagged shadows against the fibro shed wall. Busy brown fairy wrens, tails sticking straight up or swaying from side to side, land on the giant brown leaves and take rapid sips. Sip, sip, sip. They’re sucking up the tiny insects that are coating the dying leaves. A couple of weeks ago we had a luminous red and green king parrot standing on the great saucer of the sunflower head, binging on the seeds. Orange-backed beetles join at the tail and walk around like Siamese twins. There’s the hum of bees visiting the small yellow flowers of the straggly thin-leaved rocket that has gone wild, filling in all the spaces. The bees are wearing little yellow pantaloons of gathered pGarden at the end of summerollen. A wren lands on the windmill my nephews got at last year’s Easter show. She goes for an unexpected ride as it twirls under her weight. She rights herself with a bit of a flap and flies off stage right. I think back to the end of last winter when I planted seeds and tried to keep the seedlings alive in a wonky plastic greenhouse from Bunnings. Just the tiniest cotyledon leaves, then. And now – this tangled mass attracting swarms of insects and birds that you can harvest for lunch.



I’ve been running around like a chook. As the year got going, it picked me up and took me with it. Last year it left me alone, and I did my own illness thing. People shuffled themselves around me and my illness. Now I’m back in this general stream, out and about in town, sitting in committee meetings, work meetings. It’s all about talking things up, talking things down, opposing, celebrating, organising. People persuade me to get involved in their projects; I persuade others to get involved in mine. We’re all in there, haggling it out. So this morning it was good to just stare at the garden.


My Afternoon Teal went off brilliantly. The oven had conked out, so Larissa, up from Sydney, whipped things up in her giant brown mixing bowl and took everything next door to bake. She got the timing absolutely right, going back and forth, pulling things out at exactly the right time. Meanwhile Steve and I gave the house a once-over from front to back that still really only scratched the surface of a year’s dirt and dusty corners. Then, suddenly, everyone was there, eating cupcakes, drinking tea and bidding on the merchandise. A teal pencil sharpener, worth $2, sold for $30. It went on like that. My sister Deb, her husband Bernie and their two kids, Max and Joey, were enthusiastic auctioneers, thoroughly fleecing all present. We made a thousand dollars in one afternoon for Ovarian Cancer Australia. More money has been coming in since. This money will go into medical research and support for those who get this stealthy disease. In order to nurture and protect life. All life on earth has to end – we bloom and droop and die – but it’s nice to stretch it out a bit.

Spring eyebrows

Pink blossoms.At the moment I have everything I wanted. Which is Spring on earth and the eyeballs to witness it. My eyebrows are returning. The hairs are coming back nice and black. The hair on top of my head is also sprouting, along with buds and flowers and bits of moss with its own tiny flowers. Here in Bathurst yellow flower season (daffodils, wattle) is giving way to pink flower season (ravishing masses of blossoms on street trees).

seed_trayYesterday I planted tomatoes, eggplant and capsicum seeds in a tray and put them on a small table on top of a bigger table under the window out the back. We have such a short growing season here that you have to get a head start on summer veges.

downward_dogBertie has a split toenail and a slight infection. It hasn’t stopped him doing a spot of yoga, though. (He had a couple of lessons from Tracey Carpenter earlier in the year.)


The skipping continues at my little friend Marcus’s school. Today is a skip-off. He’s been practicing, and is now up to 113 skips before the rope snags around his legs.

RETLast Sunday we joined the March Australia event in Bathurst, taking along a large sign and our house guests from Canberra. In Australia we can get our energy from renewable sources. We don’t need to bugger up the Great Barrier Reef building coal export terminals.

I’m R rated, and it isn’t even Spring

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but an R rating in Australia means something is a bit racy and rude and therefore Restricted. I always think of the porn magazines hidden in a big clump of bamboo in the vacant block next to Lou’s house. We discovered the stash when we were eleven. We sneaked in from time to time to study the rain-damaged pages and hope we weren’t about to be ambushed by their secretive owner.


Hints of spring on the tree hanging over my back fence.

For most of this year I’ve been working towards my own personal R rating: Remission. Once I’d been diagnosed and had a treatment plan, I was able to see that by spring, I’d be clear of surgery and chemotherapy, my hair would be regrowing like the buds on the local blossom trees and, if everything went well, I’d be in remission. That became my goal, remission in spring. As it turned out, I got there with 12 days to spare!

On Thursday morning, the doctor casually mentioned the R word in a little volley of sentences produced by a brief examination of my medical file (now a big fat pile of paper like you get in complicated legal cases) and a mouse-scroll through my CT scan. Wait, I thought, did he just say REMISSION? I stopped him and got him to say it again. This wasn’t my usual chemo doctor; this was a stand-in I hadn’t met before. He had absolutely no sense of occasion. Yes, he agreed, you’re in remission. It was a beautiful moment.

Afterwards, Steve and I found ourselves in the giant complicated maze that is the Parramatta Westfield shopping centre. We shared a plate of nachos from a Mexican-themed eatery. While things had been looking good for me since surgery, it was only upon hearing the R word that I was really able to let out the breath I’d been holding since February. I ate my lunch as a person who had had cancer. Past tense.

I know I’ll never be out of the woods. My fate now is to wander in these woods, wondering when (a lot of Ws in this sentence) or whether I’ll get another wallop. But for now, past tense rules.

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing this blog post. It’s now Saturday and I’ve been meaning to do it since Thursday afternoon. In the middle of treatment I blogged every Thursday without fail, no matter what, even when hooked up to my post-operative patient-controlled pain relief (aka Green Button), even when I had to write from a prone position with one finger picking out letters on the iPad. Suddenly, with this great release of pressure, it’s been hard to get motivated. Anyway, here we are now.

Meanwhile, bit by bit, I’ve been getting back out into the bustling world. Last Saturday a car load of us went to Kandos, about an hour and a half away, for a craft forum organised by the Cementa people. It went wonderfully well (more Ws). I showed my crocheted guts, and then threw them out into the audience. As someone caught one of my fuzzy tumours I suddenly realised the unfortunate symbolism – a bit like the bride’s bouquet – but it was too late to worry about that. (Alex Wisser of Cementa has done a great write-up of the evening here.) Afterwards, as we sat round the fire eating hot Kandos chips, Alex was holding forth about something or other, with expressive hand movements. His young daughter wriggled in behind him on the sofa and began doing his hand movements for him. It worked a bit like the YouTube clip of the dogs eating dinner. I found this so funny I almost lost the plot entirely. It was my first true belly laugh all year. It was my first big stomach-muscle workout since surgery.

On Wednesday, after I’d gone into the white doughnut for my CT scan, I got on the train to Circular Quay to check out the Anne Messager exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. One of the artists at Kandos, Nicole Barakat, had told me about the room full of bodily organs hanging from the ceiling. And there they were – a multitude of body parts, larger than life, made out of fabric and soft filling. Everyone wanted to walk right through and amongst them (and feel them), but the minder was stopping us and telling us to walk around the edges and don’t touch. I felt a great companionship with these soft pieces. In another room, a darker vision: everything in black, objects spread out across the floor, some “breathing” eerily, light playing over them to throw spooky scenes on the walls, and a big projected clock displaying “real time”. The real time was about 3pm. It was an image of death, dying and end-times. I felt an affinity with this, too. This was the day before my doctor’s appointment to get my test results.

On Friday, we took Larissa’s dog Harry to have acupuncture. He sat quietly with small needles jutting out of his fur. There was a small brown curly dog there that was partly paralysed as the result of a fractured spine. It was being dried off in a big fluffy bath towel. It was all strangely relaxing.