A Slim, Green SilenceAs she floats above her homeown of Scheepersdorp, Constance West can't tell how long it's been since she died. Nor why the myseterious Boatman rowed her back there.
Beneath her, all the people she loved appear to be thriving . But the house of her guardian, the town dentist and former mayor, seems suspiciously quiet. And then there's Marianne, the baby daughter Connie had to leave behind.
In Beverly Rycroft's beautifully crafted novel, a small South African town in 1993 forms the backdrop to Connie's tale. With honesty, humour and tenderness, Connie unravels the stories of her loved ones, and allows a secret in her own past to emerge.
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missing"This astonishingly moving debut collection reads compellingly as one complete story. missing covers the archetypal journey from sickness and near-death to transformation and hope. Rycroft wears her exquisite poetic technique lightly -- though rich in deftly-crafted images, the poems are profoundly inviting, readable, memorable. I could not put it down."
Finuala Dowling, novelist and poet
Beverly Rycroft's debut collection is an extraordinary achievement. Tracing the traumatic journey from the discovery of cancer through the no less traumatic treatment of the disease to the rediscovery of joy, her poems also trace, with exquisite attentiveness, the lives of those who shared her journey with her: from her husband, children and parents to the encounters with wielders of blades--from the surgeon to the hairdresser "Who set the razor so unwillingly/to a number four/then eased it/across my scalp/to liberate my long, thick hair." How complexly charged the word "liberate" becomes in lines like these. Living in South Africa, the poems cannot fail to reflect, too, the freighted landscape of that country, again in poems of delicate awareness of the multiple kinds of suffering that extend beyond the ambit of the poet's own terrible ordeal: "Grace by Name," "Prayer," and "Tuesday is Rubbish Day" are notable here. In a similar vein, other poems recall the power of Sylvia Plath to marry personal pain with a wider historical anguish: look especially at the remarkable "Alterations" and "Poetry Class 2008: write a poem on the theme of breastfeeding." Several of the poems draw their power from different sources, though: a sometimes whimsical, sometimes mischievous sense of the fantastic or a more disturbing sense of the surreal (the telephone that bears the terrible news "perches beside my unmade bed/wings folded, eyes shut/feigning sleep"). Or the abiding capacity to find strength in satire, wit and, perhaps most notable, of all, tenderness. The poems stitched so carefully together in Missing will repay many, many readings.
Dr Lesley Marx, University of Cape Town
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|To the Edge: joint winner of Femina/Sensa Feature writing competition 2010|
TO THE EDGE
By Beverly Rycroft
In June 1997, at the age of 38, Beverly Rycroft was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Two years later she wrote about her experience for Femina magazine. That original piece is reproduced here. It’s followed by an update written in 2005, from the vantage point of seven years of survival.
In May 2000, Beverly wrote:
Every night before locking the front door and climbing upstairs to bed, I go outside to lie on the lawn and look at the stars. I’m not sure why, but I find their vastness and impossible distance reassuring. Earth and all its problems seem so petty and trivial in comparison, perhaps. Possibly because when something so remote and beautiful exists it allows you to believe that there has to be more than cruelty and disease and suffering in the universe.
Some nights, if I close my eyes, I can see a woman sitting on the lawn near me. She is in a deck-chair, a book held loosely in her hands. She is very, very thin, and has a brutal crew cut that barely frames her pale, angular face. She looks thoughtfully at me from across the years, this woman. I see in her face things I am sad to have forgotten: suffering, and deep sorrow; uncertainty and raw fear. Loneliness. But there are other things in her face: she has the light in her eyes that only comes from those who have clung to love through great sorrow; the light that comes from the realisation that, in the end, this is the first, the last , the greatest thing in life: to experience both the giving and the taking of love, not from those who are perfect (they never are), but in the imperfect, ill-advised, often banal landscape that makes up most of humanity. The full glory of the fissures and cracks and dirt that, sometimes, hold the most impossibly pure love the perverse human spirit somehow manages to produce.
"What will you do if your mother dies?" This was a game I had played inside my head for as long as I could remember. Even before my marriage I had transferred it to my husband-to-be. "What if he’s not really just late? What if he’s had an accident?" It’s possible I believed that thinking of all the awful things that could happen to us could somehow pre-empt them, short-circuit disaster. It was like a guessing-game; a kind of mental Russian roulette: What if your children die. Click. What if the plane crashes. Click. What if...
Cancer. The word detonates silently in my head, exploding the landscape of my carefully-ordered, tightly-controlled world. It is 9 p.m. and I am sleeping. Through my sleep, I hear my husband answering the telephone. Thank you Dr. Allison. His voice seeps darkly into my consciousness. Then he is shaking me awake. He cannot say the word, and neither can I. Malignancy, he is almost shouting at me. It’s malignant. The biopsy is positive.
Cancer. I cannot form the word with my lips, cannot get my tongue around the consonant, the cutting, hard "c" of the word: cancer. "What are you going in for?" a friend enquires idly when I ask her to lift my son to school on the day of my surgery. I struggle to speak. The word sits in my throat, and I cannot spit it out.
From the paned windows of our front hallway I watch, kitchen towel in my hands, my husband walking towards his parents’ car to greet them. They feel far away, as if I’m watching them through a pair of inverted binoculars; I am beyond speech, beyond touch, no longer one of them. I watch dispassionately the welcoming smiles on their faces drain away as my husband speaks to them. The news he gives them soaks into their expressions, their heads bend together, whispering. My mother-in-law places her hand on her son’s arm. Cancer.
"You seem so calm," says the radiologist. She tells me conversationally that most women coming in for their pre-operational mammograms are crying. I stare expressionlessly at her from behind the shatterproof wall that has slammed down over me. I can hear her voice only faintly. I know this dance well. I have seen both my parents through the cancer routine, watched them being led off to be tested, photographed, examined. There is a strange poignancy, then to the familiarity with which I finally take my own place center-stage, stand impassively as I am imprinted, turned and turned with almost monotonous familiarity for the giant camera. Like a criminal who has finally been apprehended.
"Appearances." I say eventually. My throat is aching. I am afraid to say more.
An anesthetist assesses me. He does not speak other than to affirm that I am who the form says I am. I wonder, now, whether he was not frightened of my pain. On the nurse’s instructions, I take off my wedding ring and give it to my husband for safekeeping.
A needle is drawn, inserted into the soft, white hollow of my waiting arm. A pinprick. Years later, I will regret not having given a final word of farewell, a last, loving stroke to my brave little breast, my perfect, dark, pink nipple. They have served me well. But the waves are dragging me under, and I surrender gratefully.
When I come around my husband is sitting beside the bed. He is leaning forward in his chair, his hands clenched between his knees. I have a large, tight bandage where my right breast once was.
"Can I have my wedding-ring back?" I ask.
"With pleasure." He says. He removes it from his breast pocket and we both watch as he slides it back onto my finger.
I am on morphine for a week. I entertain my constant stream of visitors by telling them the story I have heard from my friend David: before the skillfully manufactured breast prostheses of today, women with mastectomies used small bags weighted and shaped with bird-seed. An aunt of his discovered after a sweaty game of tennis, that she was beginning to sprout. I laugh uproariously every time I tell this story. Do my friends join in gamely? I cannot remember.
My son, in pyjamas and dressing-gown, sits hunched over his Gameboy, his back turned on the room full of visitors. His father brings him over to say goodnight.
"What’s the matter?" I ask him. He hangs his head silently, still playing with the Gameboy he holds at his waist. "You can tell me." I beg him. The room is suddenly, uncomfortably quiet. I stare down at his crown. Every morning before school he wets it and steals my hairbrush to damp it down. I yell at him for strewing sodden towels on my bedroom floor. I have watched his self-awareness growing since the day he slipped into school uniform.
"What is it?" I ask again. He mumbles that he has a sore tooth, a mouth ulcer, a pain in his side. The morphine cannot protect me from this pain. I watch his carefully polished veneer of adulthood shatter and crack. My sharp, sheer cliff of courage begins slowly to crumble. First a few, small stones tumbling down, then total, thundering collapse. It’s not fair to do this to children a voice inside me chants faintly below the roar, and suddenly I am not so brave. Not so bloody brave any more.
"I want to tell you something about your mother." My own mother tells my son that night. When I was 7 years old, she tells him (the same age he is now) I could not swim. On the day my school announced that every pupil was expected to swim at the school gala, I made my mother take me to the Pietermartizburg Municipal Swimming Pool. She tells my son how I simply jumped in at the shallow end of the pool and struck out. By the end of the afternoon I was swimming in the deep end.
I had forgotten this legend of our family’s folklore. When I am discharged from hospital I make my mother tell it to me again. I store it away with another anecdote, told to me by a doctor in charge of my X-rays: A previous patient of hers was a circus trapeze artist who’d undergone a double mastectomy. Ten days after the operation, drip-drains tucked into her spangled tutu, this woman had stepped back onto the highwire. It’s a story that inspires me.
My father designates himself to see to my dressings when I come home from hospital. He is a mercurial man: moody, autocratic, intolerant of weakness. Yet he has an abhorrence of hospitals, and has, before, passed clean out on seeing a hypodermic needle. I remember this as he carefully removes the bandage from my ribs where the fluid from my truncated breast is draining. I remember, long ago, holding an injured racing pigeon for him while he stitched it up; the rapid beat of the bird’s heart beneath my fingers, and the assured, almost rough weave of my father’s thick fingers sewing its flesh impatiently back into place. I have been told I will have to have chemotherapy, radiotherapy, possibly more surgery. Lying still while he gently replaces my bandage I remember a time when I believed there was nothing my father could not fix, nothing he could not control.
We pull together in this, my family, like a line of crooked stitches given a tug to make them gather, puckering into a tight-fisted circle. Like every family, we have had our differences, our resentments. I am enchanted, stunned by how these differences dissolve in their support for me. I feel like a many-rooted plant whose runners and suckers spread like veins through the powdery earth: I am the one uprooted; they are pulled up with me.
This, essentially, is what cancer gives me: the powerful, lasting gift of great love. The chemotherapy, the radiotherapy, the operations in-between; the wasted, deathly-pale woman who cut her long tresses defiantly into a crewcut the day before her first chemotherapy - these are stories for another time. Love is what survives them all. Love and a dazzling new sense of self. In a reversal of the Faustian pact, a body is sacrificed to gain a soul. How strange to discover that in facing your greatest fears you release your greatest strengths.
Perhaps this is why I am impatient with people who pity me. They cannot see what an adventure my dance with death has been. How many other women have a memory like this to bury in the tissue-paper of their heart: in the middle of a large dinner-party a normally dispassionate husband stares intensely across the table at his wife. Oblivious to everyone else listening, he tells her suddenly that she is precious beyond all riches, beyond all words. This happened to me the day after I was diagnosed with cancer.
The gift of suffering is the people who manage to break through and reveal the pulse-beat of love behind the walls of my pain: the nurse who sits holding my hand in the middle of her frantic night-time schedule, chatting about her husband, her children. Normal things. The schoolfriend I haven’t seen for 20 years who writes me an encouraging letter. My father’s friend, a preacher, whose letter arrives by divine inspiration on the day of my fourth chemo. "Look after your physical self," he writes, "… and we are hammering the gates of heaven with our pleas".
"It’s going to be okay, Baby." My younger brother in California phones me regularly. When I complain of nausea, he suggests a well-known antidote. The next day a small hand-delivered parcel appears in my postbox. "In the spirit of adventure," reads the note with it, written by a local friend of his, "here is something from your brother." My friend Jane teaches me how to inhale. We sit in front of the fire in her lounge and she massages my feet.
"It’s not going to come back." Says my mother fiercely, kneeling at my feet to peer into my face. I have just finished my 6th chemo. I tell myself my mother has never, ever lied to me.
"Clear". At the end of a long hospital corridor my oncologist Hein waits for me, his arms open. He has the results of X-rays on my lungs, my liver, and my remaining breast. I walk into his arms. "All clear." His voice rumbles again. I feel relieved. Exhausted. Numb. I know it is only the end of the beginning.
I have been clear of cancer for three years now. Most days I feel as if my body and soul are at their peak. But make no mistake: I still have periods of staring into the darkness with black despair. I’m still on a regime of three-month check-ups and I struggle with extreme fatigue, a result of my intensive treatments.
My dance with death continues; less the frenzied gavotte it once was than the slow, measured waltz of long-time lovers. "The beginning of healing," I read somewhere, "is in the solidarity with the pain."
Finally I have realised that nothing worth having is easy. Living, staying alive, loving: they are all knitted and twisted with pain. How intensely would we experience them if they were not? I’m ashamed I’ve taken so long to learn this, regretful for all that wasted time.
I have accepted that, like everyone, I will die one day. It may not necessarily be from cancer. Accepting this has focussed me. I write, I paint. These are childhood passions I lost on the path to adulthood.
More than ever before, the sheer exhilaration of life now catches unexpectedly in my throat. When I watch a mist pouring over Table Mountain like an invading army. Or staring at a drop of rain gathered on a leaf-blade, reflecting an entire world in its tiny, perfect mirror. Mostly, unnoticed, watching my children. "After supper" I write in my diary "Ben plays ‘In the Meadow’ on the piano. Why is it the false notes move me more than the true? Georgia and Emma make up a ballet dance in time to the music, fluttering like moths around the dimly-lit dining-room. I sit unnoticed in the broken armchair, angry tears running down my cheeks. Jesus, God, I am thinking. They are so beautiful."
I think of her often, that girl on the High Wire. Glinting and twisting like a fish that flips with passionate defiance out of the water then dives gracefully back in again. I think of that other girl I’ve learned to know better: the one who crashed pell-mell into the shallow end of the Pietermaritzburg Municipal Pool, went under in a craze of bubbles, and, after a heart-stopping eternity, surfaced again. The girl who eventually cut great, clean strokes through the water towards the deep end where she knew she could not stand. I know, finally, what Guilliame Appolinaire is trying to tell me in his famous poem:
Come to the edge he said
No, we will fall
Come to the edge
No, we will fall
Come to the edge.
He pushed them
And they flew.
Originally Published in Femina Magazine 2001.
December 2004 – seven years later
A strange thing happened the Christmas after my treatment. We were at my parents’ cottage at the beach, and I spent a lot of time just resting and thinking. And praying.
It was always the same request: to see my children to adulthood; to live to see my grandchildren. I begged for a sign.
My husband has always been passionate about horse-racing. On the long trip home after the holiday, he mentioned that the Queen’s Plate would be on at Kenilworth racecourse that afternoon. Would I mind if he went?
No, I said, before falling asleep. And dreaming.
“Darling.” I struggled awake and tapped John on the shoulder. “I’ve just dreamed: number two’s going to win the Queen’s Plate.”
My husband is a pragmatist; an accountant who believes in hedging his bets. While he promised to put a small amount on no. 2 for me that afternoon, he didn’t back it himself.
To this day he regrets it.
I was unpacking the laundry that evening when the front door slammed shut and John hurtled up the stairs to find me.
“The blokes want you at the course next week.” he grinned.
No. 2 was an 8-1 outsider. He won the 1998 Queen’s plate by a length and a half.
But that’s not the crux of the story. When I asked John what the horse’s name was he shook his head disbelievingly. For an accountant, these things are difficult to explain.
“Divine Force.” he said. “It was called Divine Force.”
I won R90.00 off the ten bucks John put on Divine Force for me. But I gave it all to the Cancer Association. The message I kept for myself.
Every time I go for a check-up I remember that day. While nothing can quite expel the terror of a team of doctors exploring your body for any betraying signs of cancer, Divine Force comes close.
Getting the all-clear over seven years of check-ups, heady thought it feels, hasn’t meant it’s been easy. Even with the publication of that original article, I had an angry response from a woman I knew who was dying of the disease. “Cancer is not a blessing.” she wrote. “There are times when you don’t even have the strength to make a cup of tea for your husband.” Recently, I’ve lost several friends to breast cancer. I’ve stopped going to funerals.
But the biggest challenge of all has been getting back to “normal” life after being pronounced well again. My mother, as she had to, went home after a year of mothering my children and running my household. My husband refocused on work. My friends let out a sigh of relief. My hair grew back, I put on weight. I was left to take up the life I’d been given back.
A half-hour trip to buy groceries used up all my energy. I had no patience with my children, now needier than ever. I looked so well, so “normal” that it seemed surprising I couldn’t take up the reins again. The morning my mother left, I sat in bed with my 3-year-old, surrounded by chaos. Getting the other two children off to school with lunchboxes and homework had finished me. While the baby slept beside me, I cried angrily. Depression was predictable and relentless.
There were countless other reminders of what had happened: the day my youngest daughter cuddled me, laying her head against my chest. There was no soft cushion of breast, just unforgiving bone. Wherever I went, I noticed women, the size of their breasts, their cleavage. My cynical sense of humour kicked obligingly in.
“Did you think you were seeing double, dear?” I asked my husband after a particularly steamy movie.
Isn’t it fantastic, people said, You’re a real survivor. I played the game valiantly: I enjoyed the admiration, the fear in peoples’ eyes thinking, I’m glad it’s not me. Behind closed doors I wept and raged.
Just when I felt I was getting back on my feet, two of my friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. Vicariously dragging my steps through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy again was appalling. I felt so isolated. I kept thinking of Yeats’ poem: “turning and turning in a widening gyre/ the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
I began to realize that being pronounced free of cancer is only the first step. The fall-out from that first, deafening explosion takes years to settle. Marriages, relationships, jobs – they all crack and strain under that seismic pressure.
All you and those around you want to do is to put things behind you and move on with your lives. Rather like trying to stitch a lion into a canvas bag, the violence and anger of what you’re trying to pack away is bloodied, and bound to strain at the seams.
Best to let it out. It took me far too long to go for therapy. Now I regret not having done it sooner. It might be frightening and upsetting to examine the trauma, but believe me, it’s also a tremendous release to unstitch the bag of fears and have a long, cool look at them.
I still get tired. Physically, I will never be what I once was. For someone who wants to bite into life again, this is unspeakably frustrating. Like every other mother, I find myself yelling at my children and looking forward to school opening.
But I’ve taken away that self-induced pressure for every minute to be perfect in this reprieve I’ve been given. I’m allowed to be normal. I’m back.
I’ve started running in the mornings. Once I’ve clocked two k’s and I’m settled in, the old exultation wells up. This is the woman, it sings, who couldn’t walk around the block without help. I remember myself, scarfed head, sagging trousers around emaciated thighs, walking around the rugby field with my aunt that significant year, stopping to rest. I remember typing out my will. I remember vowing to get better, to be fit again.
Three months ago I went for my thrice-yearly check-up.
“Look at these X-rays” the Oncologist pinned them up for me. “You can see how your lungs have expanded from the running.” Then she told me to come back in a year’s time.
There are still days when I’ll suddenly stop what I’m doing and stare at those exasperating children for a long time. I’ll remember the fervent prayers to spare me to watch them grow; I’ll remember the women who haven’t been granted that wish; I won’t feel guilty about it any more or try to understand. I’ll just say a silent prayer of thanks for every extra minute, even the worst ones.
We’re not born with a certificate promising us a life of good times. We’re promised nothing but change and, ultimately, death . And considering what I’ve been given, I’m still grateful. Very, very grateful.
Copyright Beverly Rycroft 2005
I cannot understand why I’ve been given this extra time, but I’m grateful for it anyways. ,
But for you, life will never be the same. You have come face to face with your own cold, foreign mortality. You have lost body parts, energy, enthusiasm and most of all, trust. Bad things happen. The world has unraveled.
That, and a frayed piece of paper I keep tucked in my wallet. It’s a letter from my brother.
I have been praying he wrote that you will be able to grasp the truth of how much of a contribution you are meant to make in the world so that you will not give your heart over to fear. You are being tempered for your ultimate purpose.
One of the most difficult things about the whole experience was being swallowed up by everyday life again.
The depression and anixiety were getting to me. I went for therapy. What have I learned since? How have the years treated me from the time I was given extra time?
The fat lady hasn’t sung yet. Even when she does, I don’t believe the show will be over. When the curtains finally shimmy across the stage to kiss, and the lights go up and the audience files out, there’s always something else waiting in the wings. I don’t believe in tidy endings any more. I don’t believe in endings.
Life is messy and unpredictable.
I go running in the mornings. I insist on running alone. The voices in my head etcOne After a tumultuous year of treatment, anxiety and confusion, people all trickle back to position morning is carved into my memory:
a long time it felt as if I had been cut adrift, simply turning as habit demanded. Why was I here? Why had I been spared? What was the reason for living anyways?
I’ve just been to my oncologist. She tells me I don’t need ot see her so regularly now. Once a year will do.
Apart from the smelly socks, there’s a definite reason why I run alone. Like flying a plane; wings out, altitude reached, start flying. Then my mind takes over: what to cook for supper, what to do today, who to phone. Use the mnemonic system to remember. The voices in my head grow still. I’m flying. Smells of swimming-pool chlorine, fresh grass, filter coffee/\. Smashed glass, sagging hedges. Each step tells a story
Occassionally I bump into people who know me from my university or school days. Without exception, they are astonished to see me on the road. I know what they are thinking. Only my old friend Dout Skeat was confident enough to put it into words. “I saw you running there .” He said. Bev Graven? She of the endless doughnuts and hedonisma? Bev Graven? Running? Nah.
The difference between then and now is this: before, when I forced myself out to run, I was always aiming towards something: 5 kilometers more, say, or 5 kilograms less. The voice inside my head was doing a count-down. When can I stop?
Instead of aiming towards something, I rediscovered running as a way of getting away from things. I run, now, to get away from many things: anxiety, uncertainty, conflict. Crowds. Television. Demands of children and schools and employers. These are all normal things, but somehow running them out on my own helps me sort them out. I don’t need to ask anyone else how they’re doing. I don’t need to ask them which way to turn. I don’t need to wait, or ask them to wait for me.
Time passes, and I don’t count the road. I move in thoughts. I fly through problems.
But the most powerful reason of all for running alone lies in my past.
Once I’ve clocked two k’s and I’m settled in, once the voices in my head are still, the old exultation wells up. This is the woman, the new voice says, who couldn’t walk around the block without help. This is the one who had so much chemotherapy they were scared to give her any more. This is the statistic they were ready to dispense with; the one who would never be the same again; the one whose situation was so dire. Then I remember myself, scarfed head, sagging trousers around me emaciated thighs, walking around the rugby field with my aunt that significant year, talking. How clear the world seemed. I remember typing my will up on my computer. I remember vowing to get better, to ride a bicycle again. To be fit again, to feel my body strngthen.
A year later I was walking around the field by myself. Two years later I barely managed a run.
In the early mornings, when I woke and couldn’t get back to sleep, I would have my running clothes ready beside my bed. I’d move through the dark, silent streets. Working out problems, planning the day. Exulting in my body’s tenacity.
Six months ago, I went for my annual mammogram and chest X-rays.
“Look at this”- my oncologist placed the new X-rays on an overhead light for me to see. “Look how your lungs have grown since we first X-rayed you. You can see the difference.”
Some thing you have to tackle alone. Like living. And dying. Like running in the mornings.