Is it strange I couldn’t tell you when my last period was? It was definitely October/November 2013 but I don’t recall it, or recall even thinking to myself, “this is my last period”. It feels like it should have been a memorable event but like a lot of things during that time, it seems to have got lost in the fog.
My first period, on the other hand, is as clear as day, my subconscious mind obviously deciding this recollection is worth the memory space. I was staying at Grandma Bettys. She was taking me, Caroline and Natalie to Newcastle to see Fiddler On The Roof with the Catholic Women’s League. I noticed it first thing that morning while I was sitting in the upstairs toilet, not really sure what to do next and knowing that staring at Grandad’s crossword loo paper probably wasn’t going to give me the answer. Luckily, both Caroline and Natalie had already had theirs so came to the rescue, calm was restored and we headed off to get the coach.
When I got back home that evening I proudly announced my news and was quite disappointed that mum did not share in my enthusiasm. I’m not sure exactly what reaction I was looking for, I wasn’t expecting her to throw a party but such a half-hearted response was not it either. Regardless, I went to bed that night feeling, different. It felt so momentous. I felt so grown up. Finally I was becoming a woman.
The last term at school was a hard one. It was exam season and someone had decided it was a good idea to invigilate all the internal exams with the same formality as the external ones. It meant that even Year 7 had the same ratio of teachers watching over them as those doing their A’ levels. Teachers had to be on full alert, no marking, planning or doing any preparation for the following year. I would bet a lot of money that for most of the kids, whether there were three or five teachers in the room, made no difference to how seriously they took them. And, I know for certain, that for most of the teachers, not being able to do anything other than pace up and down in silent rooms, clock watching while the work piled up was a complete waste of time. Even under normal circumstances I detested exam fortnight but this year it was an absolute nightmare. I’d gone back to work to distract myself but instead I was now trapped for hours on end with only my own thoughts for company. Unable to occupy my mind with almost anything else, I was plagued by thoughts of reoccurrence. The opportunities to count heads and turn them into a visual representation of my chances of survival was all too easy. I couldn’t wait for the school year to be over.
At the beginning of June I was back in hospital for the final part of my treatment. My ovaries were being removed and with that the opportunity to create any more embryos. I said goodbye to the little hormone production plants that I’ve since realized are very difficult to replicate artificially. The operation took much longer than they had initially thought. My ovaries had decided to fuse themselves to the surrounding tissue and there were a number of large veins inconveniently in the way. When I came round I was in a lot of pain but felt relieved; it was another part of this journey ticked off and one less thing to worry about but it wasn’t without its consequences. At the age of 32, I would never have another period, I was left with only nine embryos and I was thrown into a medically induced menopause.
Ironically, I’d always got off quite lightly as far as aunt flow was concerned. Each month it came like clockwork, lasted five or six days, was never particularly heavy and I was rarely affected by mood swings or cramping. But now it was gone. I guess, on the plus side I wouldn’t have to worry about it arriving at inconvenient times and I was going to save a fair amount of money each month. But how would my body react? It’s such a finely tuned machine surely there would be repercussions both physically and mentally. It was was part of my identity, the thing that made me feel so grown up as a teenager, the thing that had given me full access to the ladies club. Would I now feel like less of a woman, would I feel less like me?
One of the things I love so much about watching you two grow up is seeing the similarities and differences emerge. It’s crazy to think you were both made at exactly the same time all those years ago. Although one of you started off with dark hair and the other light, now you both have almost identical, beautiful, golden curls that every time we go out somebody comments on. You both love a cuddle, are sensitive, kind and grow closer to each other each day. Evelyn, with your gorgeous green eyes, you are thoughtful and inquisitive, you have bundles of energy but also love nothing more than curling up in your chair and could watch hours of TV. You love the outdoors and your physical abilities never cease to amaze me. Grace with your blue eye and red hair are the rarest of breeds in so many ways, you have us in stitches each day with your wicked sense of humour and infectious laugh. You’re bright as a button and dance each day to your own tune. We already know that growing up you will keep us on our toes but with that cheeky smile you’ll get anywhere and you have us wrapped round your little finger. It fascinates me that even though we’ve brought you up in exactly the same way you are drawn to all things pink and sparkly and most mornings pose in the mirror proclaiming your Princess status. Evelyn, on the other hand, you remind us regularly you’d rather be a boy, that for some reason they are better than girls and would take a superhero over a unicorn any day.
I sometimes wonder where I’d be without cancer, how my life might have been different, how I would be different. There’s no denying cancer changed me. According to the dictionary, when I lost my ability to bear young or create eggs I lost my femininity. But I am more than a definition. Perhaps it’s because what I lost was internal and didn’t change my physical appearance but I am a woman and always will be despite loosing such fundamental abilities. Identity is a complex notion and the characteristics that have defined us for so long are being challenged more and more. Not just by those who loose a part of themselves but also by those who have never felt comfortable with the labels assigned to them by others. These days in so many ways the shackles are off and people are not conforming to the norms. They call in to question how they’ve been told for centuries they should feel and behave. It’s not always easy, there’s a lot of fear in the air but there’s also hope and kindness. The most important thing is to be content with who you are, to not let others put you into a box or make you feel like any less of a person because you don’t conform to their definitions.
As I enter the final year of my thirties, I’m definitely different to who I was at the beginning of the decade. But I’m also confident with who I am and I promise I’ll do all I can to help you both feel the same. It’s a privilege to see you both grow. To watch on as you become independent, to encourage you as you strive to be brave, to nurture your kindness and creativity, to foster your desire to learn, but most of all to see you become, you.
Forever and always,