Anne Gildea: Columns

Column 15-04-2012

This week I go back to the hospital for my first post-treatment check-ups with radiologist and oncologist. Thought I’d share some quotes from many emails these last few months:‘I understand what it’s like to face the prospect of a Mastectomy…As it transpired I was told by my doctor that  my B. C. was so advanced (metastatic in the Liver) it was too late for a mastectomy, there was ‘no point mutilating the body’. I am still here nearly four years later, going to Daycare Oncology for drug treatments and tests every three weeks.’ ‘I  have to take Tamoxifen everyday for 5 years. I hate having to take a tablet every day. I feel I have put on weight… however, if it does what it is supposed to do I guess it’s ok.’ ‘You didn’t mention that your prosthesis has a mind of its own and can end up under your chin! Very bad if you are doing River Dance and you get beaten to death by a bit of wobbly plastic.’ ‘If  had to do it again I would have the reconstruction done at a later date.’ ‘I won’t use the word brave, I’m sure you’re sick of it. I’m three years over mine and the word always annoyed me, we don’t have a choice, we have to fight it or lie down and die.’ ‘This is a subject that needs to be discussed in the open – too many people feel they are alone.’  ‘Over the past few months I have been reading your column… This was me. This was happening to me. I too went through chemo. I sat while someone shaved my head. And the weirdest thing of all I walked to theatre to have my breast removed. I’m crying again now typing this!!!! God I’m getting on my own nerves now. Fed up of crying.’  ‘Like you I hate the pink bunny picture.’ ‘As a GP I deal with cancer on a daily basis. After your first article revealing your diagnosis, one 30 year old patient read about your devastating news. It prompted her visit to me…She was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer- there is no doubt in my mind that she has you to thank for saving her life. As doctors we can only do our best to educate and be informative in a compassionate and honest manner. However- it is much more compelling if one hears one’s personal experience.’ ‘I just want it all over before my boy’s Holy Communion at the end of April, but now it’s not.’  ‘ One of the most stupid things I had said to me was that God chose me to have the cancer as I had a loving husband and four loving normal children to help me cope – So if my husband drank and came home and beat me up and my children were all on drugs and in Mountjoy I would not have been chosen?   Give me strength woman.’ ‘I got an appointment for a check-up for April, which will be seven months after my mastectomy.  Gosh, it’s strange how all the fear comes back again.’ ‘I have fibro cystic breast disease and have mammograms and biopsies every 3 months. If I’ve had one needle I must have had 100 by now!! I’m returning this Friday for the usual strip tease and craic. It’s like walking into a scene from Cheers at this stage, everybody knows my name! Over the years I’ve met so many women sitting in waiting areas ,sometimes in silence, sometimes in tears … There’s always worry attached…especially the week of waiting for biopsy [results]. It’s not easy explaining this to friends.’  ‘You’ll get used to it [wearing the compression sleeve]  like you get used to being bald, being titless or having a silicone implant that’s kinda crawling upwards so I have a boob which is empty .I will get another operation done to get them to fix it when I am ready.’ ‘Now I  can look back on that dreadful time as being a Great Learning Curve in my life.’  ‘I was diagnosed with breast cancer last Summer… I’m 47, married with two young children and my whole life fell apart in seconds. Luckily I have been given a good prognosis too but it doesn’t wipe out the fear and the sheer terror of that day in the breast care clinic.’ ‘It brought my family closer together.’ ‘I  was diagnosed with breast cancer at the grand age of 38 over 3 years ago… Two of my best friends were also diagnosed, all of us young and with no family history.  I really feel that it has somehow become trivialised .I had one man say to me ‘oh everyone has that these days’ when we told him and  I was just gobsmacked. It is tough, tough, tough. I agree with your analogy that it’s [mastectomy] akin to an amputation.’ ‘An old lady said to me “from the day you’re born, you’re born to the hearse, you may think you’re bad, you could be worse” and that applies to all of us. ‘ ‘Tonight I’m in tears as your column reminded me of my Dad and the journeys he had through the corridors of St James. I miss him so much. Family is everything, you know this.’ Thank you everyone who wrote, I’m slowly getting around to replying to all.

Column 08-04-2012

‘This is Ireland’, the recently released census summary report is entitled. It reveals, amongst other nuggets, that : The average age of the population is 36.1; there’s been a 9.4 per cent increase in the number of children since the last census;  a 100 % increase in co -habiting same-sex couples; Co. Leitrim  has the highest percentage of vacant homes;  Galway city the  highest percentage of singletons; turf fuel is proportionally most popular in Offaly and we’re 84% Catholic . Phew. And what can a person extrapolate from such info., personally? Personally now I know I’m statically old, would fit in no probs  if I moved to Galway, and if I ever fancied striking up a conversation about transubstantiation with anyone, anywhere in Ireland,  odds on they’d know what I was on about, (although chatting about turf-fired central heating might be a more amenable  topic if I was in somewhere like Tullamore).

Perusing it,  there was a bit of me shouting, I’m not a statistic! I am a one-off; forty something; childless; urban-dwelling; Irish female, with a 10% of getting a divorce if I ever got married in Ireland. (What are the chances of the latter, with 97 males to 100 females in the Dublin area? On the other hand in my age category, in Irish urban areas, 23.4% of women are single, while the equivalent for men is  25.2%. 1.8% more, do the math! Way – hey. Then again on the other, other non-statistical hand, I haven’t been going out a lot lately…)

But, in a statistically uncommon occurrence, I did the day the stats were making headlines.  I went to a show called Tiny Plays in The Project Arts Centre in Dublin – A combination of 25 short sketches, each by a different author.  A few were commissioned from well known writers like Joe O’Connor , most were culled from an open call for submissions that elicited 1700 entries.  The producers, Fishamble Theatre Company, asked ‘what can be achieved with three minutes of stage time, what are the issues that need to be addressed, and who are the people that should be brought to life in the theatre?’   Ah ah, I was thinking to myself, a sort of mini-drama survey to compliment the number crunched version of Ireland I’ve been reading.

So how did that Ireland shape up? These are some of the images that stayed with me: A  man with a noose round his neck’s throws the trailing rope in the air, watches it fall, as if half-heartedly trying to hang himself.  His wife mimes attempts to gas herself in the oven. They keep being distracted by things like suddenly remembering they’ve forgotten to pick up the kids from crèche – ‘We can get them tomorrow’. She finds a pile of post, holds up what she takes to be a bank statement, reads ‘it says here there’s a charge if we open it,’ (The audience laughed loudly.) It remains unopened.

In a sketch called ‘It’s a lovely day, Bill Withers’ a man slumps as he opens his morning mail. To build the effect of the deluge of his postal misery, a shower of formal-looking  letters then flutters down from the ceiling on his  bent head. His partner, watching, quietly starts to sing the eponymous song of the title,  getting stuck on the lyric ‘when the day that lies ahead of me seems impossible to face’ –  She quietly, eerily repeats it over and over. The piece ends with them holding each other.

A rich man  and  a poor man, standing  apart, attempt to communicate via a long red ribbon attached to cans. The conversation is variations on a riff that goes – Rich man: What? Poor man: Help!  A suit sporting a mayoral chain enters. There’s canned applause. He waves, cuts the ribbon, exits.

Playing the markets  is imagined as a sexual tryst between a man and a woman. They sit back to back, egging each other on with financial double entrendres. He at the end: I’ve over extended myself.

A Taoiseach and a finance minister are under pressure. They must decide, before the money markets open in the morning,  whether or not to guarantee the  banks. The minister describes the worst that can happen: riots, social disintegration, ‘a coup’. ‘In which case?’ asks  An Taoiseach. ‘Both!’ declares the minister. Ultimately it’s decided on the toss – of a coin. Harp for the guarantee, ‘heads, on their own head be it’, declares Mr. T. (Much mirth from the audience for this one.)

A father and adult son in a pub have a classic Irish skirt-around-the-issues conversation, that seems angled at  some darkness in the past. It contained my favourite snatch of dialogue of the night. The father, intimating he’s attending some sort  of therapy where he’s been told ‘we can’t  change the past, we can only change the future’  refutes that generality : ‘Aren’t we having this conversation in the present? Isn’t all we have the continuous present?’

You might call that sentiment ‘the power of now ‘ – but it’s beyond: Isn’t all we have the continuous present?’ That  phrase contains such an  easy wit,  a  casual poetry, a transformative twist, like the best of Tiny Plays, like so many ordinary encounters you end up having everyday here, that pervasive n’ai c’est quoi that makes here unlike anywhere else.  Always, and beyond crunched numerals,  that says to me ‘This is Ireland’.

Column 01-04-2012


‘Can I do garlic football?’my friend’s four year old son, Seanie,  asked her the other day. Of all the malapropisms you’ve ever heard, is that not the cutest: Garlic football? He meant Gaelic of course, but the image of that most robust of ball games transmuted into  dainty foot to foot combat with a bulb of pungent herb – I’m loving it.

Another chum found herself fielding sleepy bedtime ‘Where do we  all come from, mummy?’ questions from her five year old daughter.  Well people come from people, and animals come from animals…she started to explain. ‘What about guard?’ daughter interrupted. Turns out she gathered at school that ‘guard’ made everything.

My friend, committed to the notion that religion should be left out of junior education, bristled at this comment. She’s an atheist, but still she couldn’t help smiling at her daughter’s misheard concept:  That at the centre of creation there’s an Irish policeman. ‘In the beginning was a member of An Garda Siochana, and he said let there be ve-hicles, and lo there were ve-hicles, and behold he asked Adam to step out of the ve-hicle…

I got to thinking that it’s quite a thing you miss out on by not having children –  such endless innocent kiddy-questioning.  Then I glanced at the newspaper I’d just purchased and thought, on the other hand being childless means you don’t have to deal with the endless irritating questioning of you as a responsible adult. A front page headline read:  ‘Babies fed on demand ‘do better at school’.

So if you fed to schedule you’ve scuppered them from the beginning, got that bad mommy? Isn’t the reality that babies who are fed, do better, period. So stop midering. Whatever surveys next? ‘Clothed babies ‘do better in weather’!  Talked-to babies ‘do better at chat’!  Babied babies ‘do better at being babies’!

Parenting is fraught enough with concerns of doing the right thing, without wonks conjuring statistics to point out where and how you’re going wrong.  And the complexity of being a kid  these days! When I one, the routine for being a kid was: Run outside and play. Repeat, until grown up. Now,  when they’re not bleeping and clicking away on a fortune’s worth of juvenile electronics, they’re  being carted from play date to party to ballet to swimming to garlic football. ‘My kid has a better social life than me,’ I’ve heard my mum chums quip. Not joking, either

Parenting, huh? Put all that effort in and you still stand a good chance of being horribly disappointed, I’m reminded every time I meet my mother. She lives in England, was visiting recently. We were in a cafe, she was reading a newspaper article about the head of an Irish semi-state organisation. ‘I went to college with him,’ I mentioned. Cue close-up on my mother’s face: Shock, horror, what she was thinking written in her eyes: You came out of the same graduate starting blocks?  He: position, responsibility, respectability, six-figure salary. You:  in comparison I might as well have been sitting opposite her in polka dot shoes the size of boats, an outsized crimson grin lip-sticked over my lower face, a lurid nylon afro on my head, and a sign saying ‘will act the galoot for food’ hanging round my neck.

‘What have you been doing?!’ she blurted. ‘Playing out the ramifications of being bottled fed to schedule,’ should I have said? Nah. One of the most comfortingly consistent things about my relationship with my mum is: whatever I do, I know she’ll be disappointed. And embarrassed. ‘Well you have made all wrong decisions in your life,’ as she puts it.

Having had the opportunity to go to college she will never understand why I didn’t go for a good, solid ‘pillar of the community’ profession: namely law, medicine, medical law, lawful meds – anything to do with those fundamental two. Funny thing is, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself agreeing with her: Particularly when I was in and out of hospital recently. Why, indeed, not  medicine? It has endless permutations, avenues of speciality, potential for creativity within its formal strictures.  But ‘Personally when sewing a spleen I use a gauge 2 needle and go for a blanket stitch’ is not the kind of conversation I’ll ever be making. Being sick did have me thinking that I should go back to college, re-train, do something more earnest when I got better.

Then you get better and think ‘ok, that was a life-changing experience, but NOT THAT life changing! I’m still the same scatty person as before (for instance this article, I start with ‘garlic football’, how did I get onto this!?)  I’m writing this after my first weekend back up on stage, and I have to say, I love what I do. I’m so proud of my colleagues Sue Collins  and Maria Tecce, and our loony, obsessive commitment to every musical, comedy nuance of The Nualas. I’m so privileged to work with two such madly  talented women. Last weekend we somehow ended up playing a room in a field in outer Offaly, the following night we had a blast in Dundalk and last night we’ll have been in Thurles. And last week I signed a book deal. And so it goes, my ‘career’, my mother’s embarrassment.

What can I do?  Just get on with it, and thank guard.


Column 25.03.2012

This week found me running my hands along the panels of a chopped up cupboard muttering ‘disgrace’. The last time I’d seen the cupboard was in the upstairs bedroom of a house my sister is considering purchasing. ‘If you’re putting an offer in ask the vendor can you keep this, it’s lovely, look: solid  wood, scrolled carving on the front’ I’d said, distracting from the bigger acquisition in question.

But instead, in the flurry of emptying out the house, the vendor just chopped it. So while sis is inside having a second view, I’m in the garden, holding half a hacked-up drawer in the face of the estate agent,  saying ‘Look at the dovetail joints that.  Could you have taken an axe to it?’ No, he could not, he says. ‘Some work went into it alright,’ he mutters, humouring me.

Sister is concerned the house might be dark,  she’s walking around, analysizing the mooching dial  her smartphone compass. The front’s east, the side with the kitchen windows and space for extension is north, which means the other side is south – Which would be grand, if there wasn’t another house sucking up the sun that side. So is it the wrong side of a semi-d block, or the right house given price and locality – the kind of ‘glass half full, half empty’ question you face when purchasing.

‘The aspect mightn’t be perfect, but there’s excellent frontage, got to keep that in mind,’ I  attempt to bolster her, taking my attention from the pile of former cupboard for an instant. Listen to me, I’m thinking: Good Frontage is it!? Time was that was something you were looking for from a bra, not a blithering building.

I can see my sister’s dilemma: after five years of search, in which her apparent options have gone from 275 thousand euro ‘afforadable’ apartments in half built developments (that remain half-built) to quarter of a million euro cottages in dodgy cul de sacs she’s has first dibs on a three bed 1930s semi d, for much less,  in the area she’s always wanted. But does she want it?

What’s pulling against the final ‘yes’? Is it the bit of her that’ll always be the wild twenty something, renting and free to skip off into the meadows of other options on a whim – the breeze of endless potential buffeting her hair, the buttercups of adventure tickling her feet: Is it about ‘aspect’, or commitment issues?

Albeit issues compounded by recent experience, where bricks and mortar went from security to hellish ball and chain. My role, as sensible older sister, is to say ‘go for it’, mill in with the facts:  A whole house, costing her the same as my one bed apartment down the road, purchased ELEVEN YEARS ago; I know a couple who paid two and half times the price for a similar property over the road, eight years ago: the crazy sums of a busted boom. But has the bust bottomed out, will the euro crash, interest rates escalate, her secure job go kaput, will she find out too late there’s a raging poltergeist in the attic…

Back home at the computer there’s Facebook messages from former college classmates, a group page has been set up, for the 25 year reunion. Has it really been a quarter of a century? It feels like only, I dunno, 18, 19 years. An effort is being made to coordinate dates. Such and such is back home from South Africa with his three kids, for the first time!, in early June, but does that suit yer man in New York, yer one in Fort Lauderdale, those in London, Sydney, Geneva, Ballina. There’s jokey comments about spouses and partners coming and ‘no kids, allowed, ok!’. We’re of the generation for whom graduation meant , for most, a group snap in our mortar boards and gowns, before a trip to the travel agent for the ticket away. And here we are again, says you.

I look at the posted photos, many faces I haven’t seen since we were 21. We’ve joined most of the dots of the adults we had the potential to become. I can’t but compare – that I never drew a line to the spouse dot, that the kids one isn’t going to happen. My fertility ended with a cannula of chemotherapy, but it was hardly going to happen anyway. ’Shame,’ joked my friend Sue at the time, ‘gone the option of hitting 50 and thinking, actually I’ve done everything else I wanted, feck it, I think I’ll start a massive family.’ I’m not a man…

It wasn’t that I was never in a situation where marriage was mooted, where feet that never happened might have pitter-pattered. It was just never 100% right, the future always seemed such a big place, keeping options open too tantalizing – And then, slowly but suddenly, they’re not there anymore. That’s life. For all we think we have total choice, perhaps that’s a negative illusion.

So. ‘You should go for the house,’ I find myself telling sis. She’s arranged a third view this week. ‘And I’ve arranged for a view of another house the following day, it’s probably not as good, but, you know, just to see,’ she says. And so it goes, keeping the options open, until they’re not: Like a smashed antique in a north facing garden.




I’m in two minds as I write. Should I, shouldn’t I do this mindfulness course I’ve been offered? On the one hand it’s complimentary, or the other  time consuming (time equals money, or is that the type of equation you mention when you’re completely un-mindful). It would be lovely, but I’ve a million other things to do. It’s about being relaxed, I’m getting wound up thinking about it.

What is mindfulness? It’s about learning to ‘pay attention’, being in the now, living consciously. A cancer charity I know is running the course. I went along to the introduction. It was in a room where I’d occasionally attended relaxation classes during chemotherapy. That was uncomfortable.

I found myself mentally snapping my fingers, thinking, Feck’s  sake! Come on, you could impart all this information in ten minutes, not the COUPLE OF HOURS  it’s taking.  The essence of the lesson: you’ve got to commit if you want to do this. I was fit to be committed at the end of it.

Later that day I meet an  actor I know. We get on to the mindfulness. ‘Maybe you’ve spent long enough sitting around,  with waiting for tests, treatments, appointments,’ he suggests.  Maybe..Sitting all Zen in a room with other ‘survivors’ is too freaky.

(Actor in question, Tony Flynn, is shortly to be seen in The Abbey Theatre playing the Queen of Hearts in the new musical, ‘Alice In Funderland’. He told me he and the costume person went to buy clobber for his character in a Mary Street sex shop. ‘Thigh high black boots,’ they asked the shop assistant. ‘I’m doing a show,’ Tony explained. ‘Sure you are,’ said your man said, with a smirk. Can’t wait to see the show, those boots…)

Anyway, shortly before that first day of the course, a call  comes from the hospital physio-department. Lymphodema Expert; cancellation; appointment available,   the information goes. He’s an expert in demand, I already know his diary’s  full until end of May.  But the appointment I’m being offered is at the same time as the first workshop. ‘I’m there,’ is the only response

Still, I go along for the beginning of that first session: A bong of a Tibetan bowl, a short mediation. Feck’s sake, it’s Wednesday afternoon, I’m immediately thinking, calls to make, Nuala spring/summer tour to promote, autumn bookings to pursue, correspondence to keep up with, not least reply to people who wrote in response to the recently broadcast  documentary. Can hardly keep tabs, so many channels:  Email, phone, text, facebook, snail-mail and my latest, Tweet: must respond. ASAP. Haven’t. Yet.

The mind drifts to a friend who went online to find that cancer documentary, ended up having to watch a  trailer for the schlocky exorcism film The Devil Inside beforehand. That was funny…Bong, mediation over. I’ve to dash.

I run round the corner to St. James hospital, and my precious appointment with Lymphodema Expert.  He carefully marks and  measures the circumference along lots of different points   of your arm;  compares them with the last set of measurements.  He’s French. He says ‘alors’ under his breath occasionally. In this case translates as I need a compression sleeve. My arm is subtly, slightly, getting bigger – the beginnings of that which I’ve dreaded: lymphodema.   I’ve to wear the sleeve everyday until I see him again. Three or four weeks he says. There was supposed to be three or four weeks between this appointment, and the first one – nine weeks ago. Better get used to wearing what looks like one leg of strong pair of nylons on my arm – Of a colour you might call American Tan, of  a denier that feels like it’s in the high hundreds…

I text a fellow mastectomy to tell her about my new medi-garment: ‘another thing to boost your sexuality’ she replies. I laugh out loud.

Later in the week I go to a masseuse who knows how to handle the problem arm. Personally, I think massagers at work, like taxi drivers and Victorian children, should speak only when spoken to. In any event, she offers this nugget of wisdom: That she senses things about people, and with me it’s the sense that my cancer had to do with ‘regret’. ‘Does that makes sense?’ she asks. Yeah, I regret I ever got it. And then ended up in here, under your hands…

On the last days of rads the radiation nurse said the skin may continue to burn after treatment finishes. It has. Sister says that the side of the mastectomy looks like someone took a red hot iron and flattened that breast.   Funny, it does…

Really, was it is, is: I’m  finding it true what other patients had warned – it’s only when the treatment’s all over, does it hit: What the hell was that all about? My gut reaction is to get so busy you don’t have time to think. Mindfulness suggests the opposite. Stop, hang out with yourself, be in your body, not your head…

Now I just noticed, with the second workshop’s coming up, I’ve  managed to schedule an important meeting smack bang in the middle of it.

I may or may not be there. But definitely will be in The Thatch, Tullamore, this Friday, and The Spirit Store, Dundalk, on Saturday, with The Nualas. Our first gigs back, they are guaranteed excellent craic – because that’s the kind of detail we’ve always been mindful of.