‘Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.’ Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Unlike her daredevil husband, Susie Kelly is afraid of water, elevators, heights, skiing and flying upside down and she hates being in the spotlight.
No matter how hard she tries, things seem to go wrong more often than they go right. Fortunately she can see the funny side of most things, even her cancer diagnosis. However, snoring transforms her from a sweet little thing into a pitiless monster.
These often funny and sometimes poignant tales of travels through Susie’s muddled life confirm that, as Simon Reeve writes in his autobiography Step by Step, ‘…it is always worth remembering that some of the most memorable times can happen when things go a bit wrong.
*****'Great storyteller and very funny.' Goodreads
***** 'There are a handful of authors who will achieve that elusive trick of making you laugh out loud. For me it's James Herriot, Bill Bryson & Susie Kelly.' FrenchEntrée Magazine
*****‘I just love reading Susie's books. Her travel books contain loads of helpful information, plenty of humor and often the odd tear. I even slowed down my usual reading pace to try and make it last longer. ’ US Amazon
*****'Reading a Susie Kelly book is like sitting down for a cuppa and a chat with your best friend... your funny, witty, generous, big-hearted, kind, eloquent, compassionate, intuitive, sometimes poignant, often hilarious best friend.' Author Tanya Bullock
There are two basic types of people.
Those whose lives run smoothly. Their horses never sneeze and deposit green snort on their clean white shirts just as they are due to enter the ring. The heel of their shoe does not snap off on their way to an important interview. They do not arrive at work still wearing bedroom slippers. Their holidays always go exactly as planned and expected. They never lock themselves out of their own car. Their printer never breaks down without warning when it is most urgently needed. They never arrive at friends’ for dinner a day early. Their cakes always rise and their dogs never jump up on the mayor covering him with mud. Neither does the mayor arrive unexpectedly when they are still wearing their pyjamas at lunchtime.
I am not one of those people. I never have been and by now I accept that I never will be. It is not that I don’t try. I really do. I prepare carefully and plan ahead, but if something can go wrong, it will. It is what it is. It does make life interesting.
I have found that those people whose lives do run smoothly, even the most tolerant, tend to think it’s our own fault when we stumble from one calamity to another. We must be doing something wrong. They look at us quizzically when we relate the latest disaster, as if they don’t believe we can really be so inept.
This book is dedicated to those like myself, who somehow get through life and enjoy it despite whatever it throws at us.
There are some incidences of very bad behaviour. If you are likely to be outraged, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.
1. The Big C
I never expected to have cancer, nor did I ever expect not to have it. I never gave it any thought, but I clearly remember the moment I knew I had it.
You’ll know the jokes about how to prepare for a mammogram:
Lie down on a cold garage floor and ask somebody to drive the car over your boobs until they are squashed flat. If that’s not possible, find a strong person and get them to slam your boobs in the fridge door as hard as they can.
Of course, these are exaggerations. It isn’t an enjoyable experience but it only lasts a few seconds and has the potential to save your life.
My mammogram reminder arrives in January. They come every two years in France, until you are 74. This is the final time I’ll be invited. I add it to the pile of ‘deal with this some time’ papers on my desk. Each time it reaches the top, I pop it back to the bottom, because there is no urgency. In fact I may not bother this time, because I’m sure I’d know if there was anything wrong.
February and March come and go. I’m just about to screw the paper up and throw it away when I decide, no, I’ll make an appointment.
Once the deed is done, and after an ultrasound scan, the radiologist calls me in to look at the results. He points out small white dots, tiny clusters of calcium. They may mean nothing, he says, but will need a further examination, which he will arrange.
Writers’ antennae are finely tuned. We are alert to fleeting expressions, a change in voice tone or body language, anything that diverges from the norm (because we may want to use it in our writing).
Handing me my X-rays, the radiologist takes my hand in both of his and says he hopes everything will be OK. That’s when I know, because usually – I’ve been seeing him every two years for a decade – he just shakes my hand and wishes me bonne journée. This time he is sending a message.
I decide not to worry, and not to mention anything to anybody until I know more.
Three weeks later, I’m having a stereotactic biopsy procedure, lying face down on a hospital table with a hole in it through which the suspect boob is inserted. The table is high enough from the floor to enable the technicians below to do their job, which is to precisely locate the suspect cells and remove them for examination.
It’s painless, done under local anaesthetic and takes about half an hour. I suppress a small giggle, thinking this is how a cow must feel during milking. The nurses and doctor treat me as gently as if I were made of spun sugar. One nurse talks to me, occasionally patting me on the back and asking if I am OK. I mention that my neck is uncomfortable after lying on my front for 15 minutes, so she massages it until the procedure is finished, then she wraps me in a warmed blanket.
It will take a couple of weeks before I have the results confirmed, so in preparation for treatment that I know will make my hair fall out, I start looking for headwear, and am pleasantly surprised to see what a wide selection there is to choose from. There are colourful turbans and glamorous jewelled beanies, silky scarves and cute little cotton hats with faux fringes. I select a couple to order when the time comes.
It’s been five weeks since the mammogram, and today I’m back at the hospital for the results of the biopsy.
When I go into the breast doctor’s office, the first thing she says is: ‘Have you come alone?’ The antennae twitch. That’s a very strong signal. When I reply that I have, she glances at the intern who is there with her, and I read the silent signal in her eyes. Twitch, twitch.
Their discomfort is tangible; they don’t want to be doing this and I want to say to them: ‘It’s OK, you can tell me. I am not afraid. I am ready.’
The doctor asks whether I understood the purpose of the stereotactic biopsy, and I reply that I do.
So, she says, it shows two tumours, each of two centimetres, and they are cancerous. She is looking right into my eyes as she says it. The intern is also watching me intently. I feel I should be doing something theatrical. They are expecting me to scream, or faint, throw a fit of hysterics or burst into tears, but I am completely, absolutely calm and simply nod.
She continues gently. ‘It means a total mastectomy, which I will perform. There will be no further treatment necessary because the tumours are contained. They have not spread.’
Inappropriately, I feel a fleeting disappointment that I won’t need to buy the pretty headwear.
She goes on. ‘At the same time you will have reconstructive surgery.’
She explains there are three options: a silicone implant, tissue from my stomach, or a muscle from my back. I can go home and think about it, or decide straight away, which I do. I go for the back muscle option.
She says: ‘I’ll see if the plastic surgeon is free.’
She makes a phone call, and a few minutes later the door opens. In walks the plastic surgeon, straight out of a Mills and Boon novel, or a television medical drama. He’s young and extremely handsome, with long lashed brown eyes and a generous, kind smile. Beneath his white coat he’s wearing jeans and trainers.
He asks politely if I will remove my top so he can have a look, and then he asks what cup (bonnet is the French word) size I’d like.
I look at him blankly. I’m stuck for words. It’s all happening so quickly.
‘Um, smaller.’ I say.
‘How about a ‘B’ cup?’ he suggests.
‘Yes, that would be perfect.’
‘OK.’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘No problem.’
While I put my clothes back on, he and the breast doctor synchronise their diaries and set a date for the operation.
‘Don’t worry,’ the doctor reassures me, ‘there is no urgency. The tumours are in situ, and they have not spread. And you’ll have a wonderful view of Poitiers from your room on the ninth floor.’ she smiles.
She couldn’t have said anything more alarming. My heart thuds and I feel a red flush of panic. There’s the ground floor, then floor 0 where the operating theatres are and then the technical floor before you even reach floor No. 1 which is actually four floors and 66 steps up, so technically the ninth floor is 13 floors up, and I am extremely claustrophobic. I always walk up the stairs to the first floor, arriving wobbly-kneed and breathless, but there is no way I can climb 13 flights of stairs.
‘But, I’m claustrophobic, I can’t go in a lift!’ I squeak. She looks at me in silent astonishment, as if she cannot understand anybody who finds the prospect of having to get in a lift a million times worse than facing a mastectomy.
In the last half hour, I have had the most other-worldly experience of my life.
Driving home, my only worry, aside from the lift, is telling my daughter. Some years ago, she lost her dearest friend as a result of breast cancer, and I know that my news will cause her immense anxiety. I decide not to mention anything about it to anybody until the day before the operation, except to my husband Terry, who is understandably shocked, and my lovely editor and publisher Stephanie because I planned to deliver a new manuscript this year, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to do so.
Having always been squeamish, I’m surprised that I spend several hours watching videos to see exactly how the latissimus dorsi procedure is performed, and am left in awe of modern medicine. With my curiosity satisfied, for the next couple of months I put it out of my mind.
A week before the operation, I need to have another mammogram. The radiologist asks if I am anxious about having the operation. I say that I’m not, I have total faith in the French health service. He asks about the reconstruction, and I tell him that I will be having a reduction.
His eyes shoot open and his face is a picture of dismay. ‘A REDUCTION? Why?’
‘Because,’ I reply, ‘I want them to be smaller. They are too big.’
He takes my hand, and says slowly and very clearly: ‘Madame, they are NEVER too big.’ I leave there laughing...