What Survival Looks Like


So Sunday morning nearly three weeks after my mastectomy,
we sit in bed and you point at my pyjama top
saying ‘I want to see your boo boo.’
As if to let me know the sudden closing of bathroom doors
and secret showers have not gone unnoticed.
I hesitate before slowly unbuttoning.
You’re two years old, please don’t let this scar you for life,
the Halloween deformity of the dissolving stitches
where once there was warmth and comfort.

You consider what’s missing for a long moment.
Then you say ‘it looks like a smile.’
And of course it does, the long sweep
swirling upwards at each end, though this
would never have occurred to me in a million years.
I could nearly weep with gratitude
but you’re already on to the next game.



The card rains silver paper hearts
as the smell of handpicked lavender
fills the living room. There are owls
made out of ice with perfect sculpted wings,
melt in your mouth caramels from Paris,
shamrock shortbread that I eat
through the long night of falling hospital beeps.
My father sends me a book about the pirate queen,
another Irish warrior he writes.
His faith in my courage makes me feel
braver than I’ve ever been. So much is given
just when I thought it was all being taken away.

Night Terrors


I’m wandering through a series of rooms shouting for my brother.
I know the house is haunted but I can’t see any ghosts.
Just a feeling of great danger that shimmers in the white walls.
There are shots and a note I can’t read.
I run to another house where nobody cares.

I wake thinking these are the nightmares I had as a child.
Endless corridors in homes that refused to stay still.
Walls closing in. Losing myself in the paper mirrors.
A voice in my head that sounds disappointed.
Creatures creeping out of the television.
A fruit market where my parents disappear.

Everyone talks about courage, strength,
keeping positive. Only you cry out
for me at four in the morning,
curling your head in my lap
and clutching your panda,
only you know that I’m still afraid
of the monster under the bed.



There is less of me than before.
Pieces missing, thin strips of tape
I peel off carefully, a scar
that sweeps across emptiness.
We were so full of holiday plans,
timetables, organising collections,
meeting deadlines, rushing,
running, shouting hurry, hurry.
Now there is only the stillness
of the rain against the window.
But when you helped me so slowly,
so carefully into that first bath
after surgery, the bubbles
humming hallelujah,
and you looked at me
not as some broken, battered alien being
but with such patience, such kindness,
I thought this is what forever means,
in sickness and in health.

Always With Me

I’m led into another patient waiting area
where visitors aren’t allowed.
On the wall there is a faded print
of the girl with geese. We had the same one
in the hall back home when I was a child.
A painting my mother loved.

My consultant isn’t happy with my blood pressure.
She looks at me and says ‘tie back your hair,
put on your own pyjamas, write your poems
and don’t scare us any more.’
Nobody has spoken to me like this
since my mother died.
Of course it turns out to be excellent advice.

I take a wrong turn on my way out of the hospital
and find myself in a corridor with paintings
donated by somebody’s widow. I feel dizzy,
blood pounding in my chest. Suddenly my mother
is holding my arm saying, ‘Don’t worry,
we’ll just follow the signs.
I know the way out of here.’


The woman on the other side of the curtain
sounds scared as she asks him again
what he will take out. Her English, she says,
is not good, and she clearly doesn’t know
what the word biopsy means.

He keeps repeating it slightly louder,
as if she’s retarded, till I want to scream
tests, it just means tests, because how terrifying
must it be to hear that if there is any abnormality
we will cut something but you don’t know what.

Cancer being a language
I’m still struggling to learn myself.
The lost irony of words like ‘elective’
laughing at my primary school requests for the toilet
and the temperature of lymph nodes misinterpreted
into messages of sympathy for strangers.

The man in the next bay who says he’s lived
on cornflakes for the last eighteen months.
There’s been times he’s wished he was dead,
but he’s still here. The husband sobbing in Spanish
in the chair across from me, his tears needing no translation
as his wife leans forward in her bed to say his name.

The look of shock on that woman’s face
as she clutches her teenage daughter’s arm.
‘Sit closer to me or I’ll start singing’ she jokes.
A strange intimacy, all of us here
in Babel’s waiting room
where the only universal word is love.


We sit in the deckchairs with our feet up.
Both wrapped in our favourite blankets,
me with my cup of tea,
you with your bottle of milk.
The sun is dapple gentle on our hands
as we listen for aeroplanes,
the cooing of doves, a dog barking.
We discuss the wonder of transformation,
how a bumblebee is hidden inside a flower.
The petals you’ve plucked
scattered white across the lawn,
and of course there is pain,
of course there is exhaustion,
a feeling of having been drained
of some vital force,
and you look a little sad when I say
I can’t go down the slide or play
the knock me over and jump on me game.
But only for a moment before discovering
I can sort of throw a ball with the wrong hand
and even if it is a little bit different,
we are still in the garden in summer
and you are still my very best boy.

After The Op


I wake to the silence of home.
No beeps, no distant voices
in corridors, no professional footsteps.
Just the deep quiet of the countryside,
which unnerved me when we first moved
to the middle of nowhere, but now feels
centred and safe. The birds warming up
for dawn. Each note a bubble floating
into the light. A chord that chimes
with the promise of a beautiful August day,
and I realise I have slept a sleep
so deep and delicious,
so free from the whisper of pain,
that I am filled with a strange kind of song.
No tune, no words,
just grateful.

Falling Pieces


We throw silver confetti in the conservatory,
the paper raining down in laughter,
flicker fluttering in the dusk.
You ask for more, more,
thrown higher, thrown faster.
Comets that catch the light,
the restoration of Pluto and other underdogs.
Rockets that reach beyond chemotherapy,
the moonshine miracle of a mastectomy,
all the magic we can muster.



The last thing I remember
is the Ark on the ceiling
and chatting with the anaesthetist
about how our little boy
loves the puzzle of Noah.

She says ‘this may make you feel
a bit drunk’ and I think of the joke
the nurse made earlier about patients
asking for vodka instead of tea.

The elephants are swaying in
two by two as they dye me blue
and my blood pressure
crashes through the floor.

Your face as I open my eyes
and ask you if you were worried.
We fit together our jigsaw of terror
till I realise just how close I came
to being swept away by the flood.

How much love is a prayer
for a tiny piece of dry land.