My long-time friend, magical creature and pirate queen, Kate Garrett-Nield has her capable fingers in an abundance of pies – one juicy example being the delicious Three Drops from a Cauldron online journal which features myth, legend, folklore, fable and fairytale.
I have worked with Kate a few times and in several guises but for Issue 20 (October 2017) my role was that of cover artist, after I responded to her call for suitable submissions and, here we are (again).
Hallowe’en is not a new piece but October can very much be a time for reflection so it seemed appropriately whimsical. Go check out Three Drops from a Cauldron and lose yourself for a while…
In January 2015 Mel Lampro was both diagnosed with cancer and made redundant from her day job within 24 hours. By January 2016 Mel was in remission and returning to the stage with her band, Braver than Fiction.
1st July 2016
In January 2015, I was diagnosed with Stage 4, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, then immediately informed that my future was altogether bleak and diminished; a colossal tumour was occupying my sacrum, expanding rapidly and threatening to encroach upon my vital organs. For good measure, this uninvited malignance had also entwined itself not only around but additionally inside of my spine, probing an inquisitive tendril directly into my precious bone marrow. This particular cancer was clearly making itself at home and I was urged to call my family, “sooner rather than later…”
There was no manner I could conceive of by which to calmly and edifyingly share this stark truth with my three children until I fully understood the implications myself. It took me about a week to realise that I was never going to comprehend the enormity of this particular nuisance but it was not a week wasted in contemplation. The medical staff engaged in my care had already made it brutally clear that no matter how hopeless my circumstances appeared, they were not going to give up and, in truth, neither was I; therefore, my resolve strengthened by this shared optimism, I called my children.
My wonderful children; if ever there was a time for me to know that I did a good job as a parent, it was just then. I had not always got things right, there were times when I was probably a nightmare and times when they certainly were but they handled the upsetting news with composed, diplomatic dignity and a matter-of-fact “screw you, cancer” approach that invigorated my breaking heart and made me prouder of them than I have ever been. That was also the moment when I earnestly accepted that my dear children were fully-fledged, functioning adults and relinquished my mistakenly-perceived governance over their lives because, they were evidently doing absolutely fine on their own and had been, for some time.
There are a lot of things that you are not told, when you are diagnosed with cancer; not because the messengers are unwilling but because they are unable. Cancer is a constantly-surprising beast of mythological proportions; it speaks in riddles and, if you cut off its head, chances are that ten will grow in its place.
Cancer is personal. You can relate to other people who have the disease and there is a certain relief in such silent solidarity as you sit amongst your peers in a pristine chemotherapy suite, conjoined to the bleeping sentinels that monitor the attempts to treat poison with poison but at the same time, your cancer is yours alone – you own it. It becomes a dysfunctional, unhealthy symbiotic love affair where it is challenging to grasp exactly where the cancer ends and you begin.
I felt alien, parasitized and amplified; I had become unable to walk without the extensions that were my crutches as, not only had my right leg become irritatingly unreliable but I had broken my ankle in two places after falling, due to my ungainliness. I was permanently exhausted from the effort involved in moving just a few feet, never mind the omnipresent fatigue from chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I would fall asleep suddenly, unexpectedly and friends became experts at swiping listing cups of coffee from my narcoleptic grasp. My fingernails and toenails turned an aubergine, purplish-black and one toe nail actually gave up and fell right off. The skin across my lower back was red raw from the ravages of daily radiotherapy sessions, the skin on my arms and hands was permanently punctured and bruised from hypodermic needles and cannulae whilst all that I owned, including all that skin, smelled assiduously of hospitals; no matter how fiercely I scrubbed away at it, the evidence remained – like blood on Bluebeard’s key.
Everything I put to my lips tasted of salt, except coffee, ice-cream and sherbet lemons; neither of the latter treats did anything to help decelerate the revolt of my burgeoning bulk. Infuriatingly, not content with growing “George” my tumour-baby, my overzealous body reasoned that there should be even more of me besides. Thus, the anticipated, emaciated poster child for cancer I imagined never materialized. Instead, I loaded on the pounds until I reached a terrifying seventeen stone and at a diminutive five feet three inches, this was doubly-dangerous.
This combination of titanic weight gain, hair loss and diminished mobility had taken a serious toll on my confidence. There I was, then; reclusive, obese, virtually inert and bald all over my entire body – except that stubborn area on my upper lip which remained in defiance, flying the fuzzy flag for my Mediterranean heritage.
As swiftly as I lost all of my hair, the overwhelming auras of despair and depression found me. I hated myself and treated myself appallingly, in the wake of my disgust and chagrin. I thought my lowest point had come when I had no choice but to disrobe from the waist down before lying exposed on a couch in front of several strangers while I underwent radiotherapy; my sense of humiliation was excruciating and, I cried on the first day. Yet, far worse was to come – my absolute nadir was when I found myself unable to attend my eldest son’s wedding and then, tears were not enough.
I would imagine a lot of people reading this would express their shock and vehemently enforce that those proverbial wild horses could not have stopped them attending such an event, no matter how indisposed they might be. I get that and in another place and time, I would have been similarly disparaging; nevertheless, my outlook has been forced to change.
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird.
Compassion and empathy can be learned; surviving, although fundamentally innate, occasionally requires sacrifice and the occasional leap of faith into a horrifying unknown.
People would say to me: “You’re so brave!” I would feel uncomfortable and embarrassed because I am not brave; it really is all smoke and mirrors. I volunteer for light duties one day a week at a local cancer charity shop; the five hours I spend there depletes me and whilst I probably look fine at the time, I wake up late the next morning, shattered and aching. Nevertheless, it feels amazing to be involved with something real and purposeful. Being able to return to my role as vocalist with my band has likewise been a major lift to my languishing self-assurance. Somehow, the persistent drone of the minutiae that deafens me in daily life distorts and fades when I am singing. It has said by many that that performance transcends reality but trust me, standing up for thirty minutes is no simple fairy tale for this entertainer.
“Every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives.” Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Mermaid.
How I have not yet fallen over and/or off the stage is a marvel to me – I expect it will happen, one of these days, but if and when it does I shall just have to style it out. I style a lot of things out, nowadays; unpredictable tumbles, uncontrollable flatulence, urgent incontinence, random vomiting, acute breathlessness and that damned, unrelenting sweating. I dare not sit on a vinyl seat for fear of leaving an involuntary, damp calling card and I recoil when anyone tries to hug me to save their anticipated disgust at my wet dog clamminess.
Today though, I am experiencing my first post-chemotherapy cold; just a common sniffle that has edged its way down to my chest and caused a wretched cough but I am at home, managing quite well with lemon and ginger tea sweetened with a dollop of honey. This was an entirely different scenario whilst my immune system had imploded during treatments and a similar infection sent me to the hospital for a week. If this were a fictional account, I would probably write myself delicately wan, reclined on a cloud of fresh, white linen in some Austen-esque malaise; in reality, I was so out of it that I could not adequately control my own bladder or bowels. Already weakened from the unrelenting pressure of “George”, as soon as the illness took hold, what remained of my pelvic floor took to the hills. Since this whole cancer episode started, I have peed myself more times than I am comfortable with but, waking up to the realization the faecal incontinence fairy has visited overnight is about as the most discomfiting experience that could exist.
However, that was then and this is now. Today is also an anniversary; it has been precisely one year since I was told I was in remission. I hadn’t even realised; my Facebook ‘memories’ prompted me with a timely update which is just as well since chemotherapy and radiotherapy have left my brain so addled that my concentration and recall are shot to pieces. I cannot remember what day it is, most of the time and I am so close to forgetting song lyrics that the ignominious reality of having a written prompt on stage is looming dangerously close. Better that than a bucket though, eh?
So no, I am not brave; I hate the way cancer has changed me and yes, I do contemplate my mortality far more often than I probably should. I am certainly not going to sugar coat any of this; having cancer sucks.
What I definitely am going to remain though is human – the strongest urge I have ever known, aside from the protection I feel towards my children (even though I have accepted that they are grown) is the urge to live, to carry on, to survive.
I am a badass.
Mel Lampro Mother, musician, stubborn cancer survivor.
Each sliver was meticulously placed. The bright gash of light reflected every surface, curve and flaw, as tender dawn pierced shrieking night; bloodied fingers pressed shards into virgin plaster, haemorrhaging ruby cherry threads – drying damp, burial brown. Scratching though chimes of light, fingers sighed and sobbed a thick aria; unnatural selection in precise chaos – creation oozing from frozen, shattered ectoplasm that prayed to be whole.
The window saw it all. Each homunculus lifted to its watery light – dumb, distorted duet. Such silence as follows detonation; destination creation, destination destruction – same orchestra, different score. Detonate … deh-tone-ate … the sound consumed. The tongue rolled the words noiselessly in the mind, the tongue licked the fingers, the fingers sang and scratched through the chimes of light. Dawn after dawn, the gash grew wider, a brittle fungus choking its porous host. A confusion of arcs and trails that angled and curved into the facade – its facets legion and its brilliance fractured. Now the fingers were silent, the mind was quiet and the window sparkled as it traced its design and it saw that it was good.
“Seven times seven is forty-nine. Forty-nine. Forty-nine. Seven times seven is forty-nine – ”
The fingers chased the air, the feet turned on a razor, the mind span and the tongue sang:
“Seven times seven is forty-nine. Forty-nine. Forty-nine. Seven times seven is forty-nine – ”
Wet, red glitter spattered the ice, pattered and dazzled into gem pools that melted across the crystal floor. Thick, slick lips that kissed the feet as the heavy, bronze bell of laughter cannoned across a frozen lake, the sound drowned the sinner and the sin skimmed the surface as the skin peeled in prayer.
Rose had heaved and dragged each awkward mirror up the three flights of stairs to the attic she rented in a dark, red fist of terraced houses. The once affluent area was now colonized by shabby, gold bullion take-aways, aromatic late night grocery stores and a tumble of dusty charity shops bristling with static nylon and faded plastic. It was in these latter arsenals of the discarded that Rose found her mirrors, black-spotted relics of the nineteen forties with rusted hanging chains and bevelled edges crimped with imperfections.
She was drawn to the windows of these hoards – their frail panes, shrouded with faded blueprints of worthy causes, framed staring, naked dolls with blistered smiles and matted hair; barnacles of brass bric-a-brac and the petrified faces of pressed voices, peering out from their flat, seven inch worlds. It was in one of these stores that she had bought the hammer. The drag of the rubber handle as she weighed it in her hand felt secure and she knew she could trust it. Cowled in a waxy, crackle of paper, the head was pock-marked, its black patina veined with silvery flecks. Rose held her metal disciple close to her chest as she slid sideways between the ramshackle shelves – like a scared, stray dog picking its way through the stooping, crushing streets of a high-rise city.
She watched her face twist into a grotesque storm, infinity misted the window and the low, growls of cornered thunder coagulated into a wrenched, dripping howl. Directing every inclination of its clawed skull, Rose let the hammer tear her message through the souls of the saved. Redemption exploded into a bright, white kaleidoscope as Rose’s wraiths were exorcised. Once, she had been lovely – once she had been loved. But that was before. Now, her cerulean skies were heavy, grey rain clouds and they poured.
“Seven times seven is forty-nine. Forty-nine. Forty-nine. Seven times seven is forty-nine … Amen.”
There is nothing in my future, past or present that predisposes me to believe that I am anything but now. The pale fist of a defiant rosebud outside my window beats against the winter wind, as my fortieth year approaches like the blackest swarm, swallowing up the sun, blinding the sky and bringing darkness – so that I can rightly name my nightmares.
I cannot comprehend death, yet its promise terrifies me in an incomparable conundrum. Imagine endless sleep. Nothing between me and my destiny but a handful of dust and a shovel of worms. No. Better to burn me. Tamp the vestige of my now into a skyrocket and on the warmest night and under the clearest sky – let me fly.
An embarrassed puff of white slinks across an ether stage, miscued against a backdrop of bluish purple, as the light turns cold, corpse yellow. Wrong place, wrong time and forgotten, in an instant.
You won’t miss me. I’ll be a wisp on the horizon of your now before the year fizzles to damp nothing. Your eyes may melt when I come to mind and the sugared scent of me may pervade your thoughts for an instant, once in a while – but you will not be able to picture my face or hear my voice and I will seem as vague as the morning shadow of a dream.
As I look up at the ceiling of my tiny room, sherbet crackles of fatigue thrill my eyes with a private planetarium. Fragments of glittering, bursting light expand into the blackness above me and shimmer there in panoramic delirium, as I gaze further into the deepness of the oblivion that envelops me. I try to catch the void in my hand, contemplating the invisible distance that perfumes my perception, trying to make substance – something of the nothing that clogs the air … like rich, temple incense, suffocating me between each sweet, heavy inhalation.
Every one of my dreams has had the life sucked from it, its husk stuffed with sawdust and its numb, humdrum skin sewn cadaver-taut over its frame. Each ghastly autopsy, retired to a showcase on an unreachable shelf, high in my mind – and I cannot touch them; I only distort in their glassy eyes as they observe me. Taxidermy dreams in domed universes, the microcosms of my macrocosm; magnificent, poison candy, aligned to remind me that I stifled them before they could be.
The weight of my own breath presses me deeper into my soft sarcophagus. I imagine myself encased in gold and turquoise, my resting eyes sealed black and the weave of my fingers keeping my floating hands crossed safely across my chest. My body aches for a sleep that never comes, accusing me with a shrill whine that echoes from ear to ear like bad stereo, slicing through my dull head until its toxic flower folds a million nematocysts around my skin.
I jerk down from the fortieth floor, spread startled like a starfish, my spine inverted and my stomach lurching to meet it. My tongue thumps like an angry drummer against the vault of my mouth as my head snaps backwards and I reach for an invisible support.
He was perfect. Lounging across the front seat of a dilapidated car, looking every inch the boy that borrowed his father’s saloon for the prom and hoping that his best girl didn’t mind the smell of wet dog or the bubbled paint that flaked from the bodywork like a bad sunburn.
One hand on the steering wheel, the other dangling from the driver’s side window, fingers drumming gently on the door as he laughed and chattered with my neighbour. I could have watched him for a lifetime, with his troubled hair and faded T-shirt, he was everything I wanted and nothing but unreachable.
Too young, too cute and too absorbed in my pretty, animated neighbour – with her caramel eyes and streaming curls – water spilling over pebbles that bobbed and rippled in the early autumn sunlight.
I felt awkward in my work clothes and tried to pass them by, hoping that their conversation would engage them long enough for me to escape into my house unnoticed but, as soon as my hated high heels trip-trapped across the loose gravel on the street they both looked up. She with her dazzling smile and he with such a look of total vulnerability that inside I faltered and fell.
The polite introductions felt thick in my mouth, my lips dried and dragged on my teeth and I felt my smile harden like stale icing. My cheeks flushed as I fell over simple words and I dug my fingernails into my palms – I fired an excuse about having an evening meeting and ricocheted off the street.