Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Listening for Birds: Cancer Is Not a Journey

“Go and Make Yourself Content, My Love” (detail).
Swainson's thrush in my mother’s garden, to the tune of the Unquiet Grave.
Painted with acrylic, graphite and coloured pencil, by Emily van Lidth de Jeude.

I was walking down from my parents' house to mine, over the crest of their driveway where the wind blows steady. Not like the rest of the property, through which it tumbles this way and that, scatters just a few leaves, or bursts out of a single storming fern. Over the crest of the hill at the top of my parents' driveway, the wind passes smoothly and calmly, sometimes crisp and smelling of leaves, sometimes damp with the weight of snow and sometimes full of the heaviness of summer and dragonfly wings. I've walked here alone and with my children after Christmas dinner, my heart and belly and arms full of treasures. I've walked here holding my chest against hidden sobs when I couldn't be what the world wanted of me. I've walked on my parents' driveway even when they lived in a different house and I visited rarely, and always it has been a place of the wind and the gathering and freeing of perception and feelings. A place of reckoning or accepting. Not that night.

I was walking down from my parents' house on the evening we came home from our first trip to the Cancer Clinic, two weeks after the sudden and unexpected removal of a stage-four tumour from my mother's brain. I was walking down that driveway and there was no wind. The driveway felt flat, although it's not, and it's rocky, but the rocks were dead that evening, which they never are. The April grasses and blossoming trees were bereft of colour. Impossibly grey. There was no birdsong, no frogsong, not even the sound of leaves, and when I looked at the hillside I thought it might just go away, if my mother died. When my mother dies. She keeps reminding me: "We all have to die, sometime." But I don't want those words. That was one of the many logical thoughts that evaporated when the doctor told us we won't be returning from this trip. And we stared blankly into the empty air and our tears were silent.

I find the word "journey" as people use it for cancer absurd. We use it like we can pack for a trip and just take in the ride. But it's not that kind of ride.

Glioblastoma. Someone should make a horror carnival ride called Glioblastoma. You get in a little comfy bucket seat and it chucks you out into the sea. Then down a vortex you go, into a drain where you almost drown but NO! You're not allowed to drown! There are things to live for and places to see and you might have a few days or weeks or months or years of good life, so LIVE!!! And you can't feel your right side, and you can't find all the words that were here just yesterday, but now more than ever, you want to, need to LIVE!! So you come out of the vortex on the chemo train, where you get whipped back and forth over trestle and track without warning or reason through whacking slaps of sheer terror and poofy clouds of deep love and acceptance: A bird? NO! Slash! You're going to die! Slash! Maybe not so fast--Slash! Everybody is trying to help you--Slash! You're so strong--Slash!--Take some more pills--Slash! Love, love love--Slash! 

Love can't save you and everybody's talking to you like a child--Slash! Now you're the wise one--Slash! Let's finish your sentences for you--Slash! We could get an ice-cream!

Slash! You get to meet the guy who will administer your death--Slash--but only when you want him to--Slash--Be GRATEful!!


Nobody wants you to die!--Slash--Let's go shopping!--Slash

Why are you so tired?           Slash.


You fall out from the carnival ride one sunny morning, and you smile up at the sky and look for birds. 

But there aren't any. 

My mother loves birds. My whole life has been decorated with her hushed exclamations of "oh! A warbler!" and "Did you hear the snow geese go by this evening?" My mother hears things many of us don't notice, like the pips of babies and the tone of ducks that tells her whether they're coming or going. When my father gently delivered a helpless baby owl into my childhood, my mother raised it on chopped liver and caught mice until it grew up and flew to the trees. But she heard its voice separate from the other owls, and she answered it, and taught us to make the hungry-teenage-owl call, too: Psssshhht! Pssssssshhhhhhhttt! That owl and its offspring came back to visit us for decades.

Terminal cancer is a strange thing. We want a timeline. Something to hang a hat on. To work with. To put in the calendar, and at the same time we want to live in the moment and not have to plan for death or even how to visit with all the loved ones. But just to sit and hear the birds. Except the chaos of medical interventions, social supports and emotional upheaval means not a minute exists of just. Peace. 

Until one day, we can't take the chaos anymore. Out of necessity we ignore the forms we're supposed to be filling out and decline the offers of new prescriptions, new dosages, delivered meals and all the services we know are needed. One day we just need to be.

This week I saw my father's eyes in a rare moment of stillness. They used to shine with his intensity; they used to sparkle and shoot beams of aliveness. But recently they've looked tired, and there were big wide tears balanced on his lower lids and he was just making a sandwich. I don't hear so much as I see, and I am starting to see again. I saw my brother's cheeks, this week, taut with small lines of agony as he pulled me into his arms and didn't let go. As he asked if he can take our mother to have her broken arm looked at. Cancer is not a journey. It's a horrible carnival ride, and sometimes we catch glimpses of the world, as we spin. Sometimes, also, we catch glimpses of the beauty that brought us here to begin with; that holds us up through the fear and the changes we didn't see coming. My parents walked out, hand in hand, today, to look at the blossoming of the world they share.

And I began to hear the birdsong, this evening. The teen-aged ravens are pillaging the robins' nests, to a great outcry, as you can imagine. We thought the black-headed grosbeak that my mother says only comes for a short time every spring had left, but it's been singing again. The wrens and towhees are hopping in the bushes, until they flit out to the pine, to make their plans. The offspring of our owl are impressing people along the trails, these days. And for some reason the flickers keep sitting around on the ground. My father says get the aphids out of my apple tree, but I can't reach them and we both know that's OK. Bats are out, tonight, delighting my peripheral vision. And as I walk up over the crest of my parents' driveway this evening, I hear the nighthawks dropping on their prey, all around me. The wind is warm, and it's summer now, and my parents are just watching a movie with a couple of mosquitoes like it's a normal evening. Just living this incredible life in an incredible world, and learning to step off the carnival ride and hear the birdsong.


  1. Wow, Emily. Gorgeous and heartwrenching.

  2. Thank you for sharing your heart Emily. 24 years ago, cancer took my beautiful Mum. My life changed forever. All of these years, she is still with me. I love her more than ever and i still cry because I miss her. It is a hard road- loosing Mothers ought to not be allowed. They are too real and present and too important. It hurts way too much. And , but, we are left with the everlasting imprint of having loved deeply and having been loved- blazed and branded on our hearts.

    You and your family and Adrian and Everhard and your dear, dear Mum are in mv heart. Every day. Keep listening for the songbirds and other signs of Love. They are everywhere.

  3. Your carnival ride metaphor …. You’ve captured everything with it.

  4. Poignant, heartfelt. You write with such tenderness. Sending love to You, your Mum and family.


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