What a teeny tiny difference between the words well and unwell.
Just two letters of the alphabet.
Seven millimetres in the font I’m using.
The same size as the lump on a child’s neck.
“I am sure it is nothing to worry about,” two doctors said, before calmly referring me on to the next step, just to be entirely sure.
“Ou est le tumeur? [where is the tumour?]” asked the ultrasound technician brusquely, snapping on his gloves and peering over his spectacles at Large.
How did we get to “tumeur” from other less troubling words that translate as “cyst” or “swelling”?
The technician completed his measurements, wiped away the gel and pronounced: “C’est pas grave [nothing serious] – peut-être un ganglion [perhaps a ganglion].”
Nevertheless, the word tumeur hovered in the air like a filthy, sticky little fly.
A week later the radiologist’s report offered no reassurance – just the bald facts of a solid node in the neck muscle.
The third doctor was an ear nose and throat specialist who smelled a little of wine (I hoped it was sterilising alcohol but they do say that if you ask for a non-alcoholic drink in Provence, they’ll pour you a rosé).
He wanted to remove the lump and have it analysed, just to be entirely sure.
He tipped Large’s chin back and demonstrated how he would make the cut. “Facile [simple].”
Large looked up at the doctor out of the corner of his eye.
“We’ll cut right across here,” smiled the doctor, slitting his own throat open with an imaginary scalpel. Excellent. Worried doctors do not make murderous jokes. Unless they have been drinking rosé. Or sterilising alcohol.
I’m not much good at French numerals, so I missed whether he was 90 per cent sure the lump was benign or 99 per cent sure (In French you have to multiply twenty by four, add ten and then another nine if you want to understand the words for ninety-nine. It takes time in a second language).
The doctor had probably plucked the number out of the air anyway but I didn’t ask him to repeat it because I didn’t want to alarm the child who had asked me the day we discovered the lump: “Mum, do I have cancer?”
A girl at his school recently gained herself notoriety by announcing she was dying of this mysterious disease – then admitted she had made it all up.
“The doctor is sure that it’s nothing to worry about,” I explained. “We just need to be 100 per cent sure.”
I am quite alone here in a courtyard looking at a view I never wanted to see in Provence – the cold symmetry of hospital windows; the backside of greeting cards and water jugs, flowers and drip stands, the eyes of visitors looking out to the sky.
A teenager from the North Shore is singing a song about royals on the radio and I am waiting for my son to have surgery to remove an almost certainly harmless lump on his neck.
Sabbatical Man is at home with the other children so my skittish thoughts are free to wander into dangerous territory.
If he were here my pragmatic husband would restate the Mountain Bike Mantra that applies to every worrying real-life situation: “Don’t look where you don’t want to go.” Then, having offered an outstanding solution, he would be finished talking about that.
Trouble is I haven’t even started talking about that.
This is the downside of distance from your community.
If I was at home in New Zealand I could drop this into conversation over a coffee or a walk or at the book club so a friend could tell me her story of a child who had exactly the same problem and turned out to be fine. This is what friends do for each other.
You have to think carefully before emailing or texting the news to friends and family abroad because it makes it seem so much more serious and is it fair to make them doubly worried when the doctor insists he’s at least 90 and possibly 99 per cent sure that it’s fine?
In France, my fledgling friendships are too new to bring this up and everyone is away for the summer anyway.
In New Zealand I know that there is no better place for this procedure than the public children’s hospital six minutes’ drive from home.
In France, it’s a leap of faith. Our dear (but geographically distant) French friends have reassured us that our boy is in good hands, but trust comes with experience and things can go wrong even in the best of hands.
In New Zealand it is commonplace for a parent to accompany a child into an operating theatre and be with them until they are unconscious; in France it is forbidden. Who will reassure my son? Who will smile calmly at him and hold his hand and joke quietly with him in a language he understands? The English-speaking anaesthetist who did the pre-op check promised that he would make a note of the language issue and be there himself if necessary. Lovely man but busy. Will he remember?
I have been half-expecting something like this. A health scare, a heart attack, a terrible accident.
Why? Because part of me thinks there is something selfish about following our dream to spend a year living in France. The planet is dying, wars are being fought, children are enslaved and what are we doing? Pottering around tourist sites, practising our French verb conjugations and making up recipes for things that grow in the garden.
For some reason I think of a wonderful woman I knew slightly who would ride out the stressful times of life with such calm, such grace, only to declare: “What a happiness!” when everything turned out fine, as she knew it would.
I think one reason I always fear the worst is all those years in journalism interviewing people who had been blindsided by devastating events. The thing they all had in common was astonishment that this thing could happen to them. They had all wished they had treasured the life they had had before and – this is the thing that made me admire them so much – they usually went on to live their life after in a new spirit of appreciation; the joy in the ordinary.
I listened carefully and vowed I would not wait to be scared (or grief-stricken or dying) into realising that every day is a gift. But you know how life is.
I didn’t need to travel all the way to France to spend more time playing with the kids or lighten up about the housework or take photographs of flowers.
I did not need to move to France to make time for writing, which has given my life meaning since I could hold a pen, yet has been completely set aside for far longer than the kids needed me full-time.
The reason I have been able to do all these things in France is that here we have time. We have made time. For the first time since we have had children I feel like life is in balance and, because this life is temporary, I am able to notice each day and also see very clearly that with each day that passes our remaining time in France is shorter. That makes the following day even more precious.
This is not my year to change the world but it is the year to change my world and maybe that’s a start.
Writing these unruly thoughts in a hospital canteen is helping to organise them.
Watch me line them up, put a helmet on them and send them flying down the track without so much as a glance at the cliffs either side to arrive at the finish line where the operation went smoothly and we receive word that our son is fine.
The reality was even better. Everyone in the operating theatre practised their English on our boy, who woke up from a text-book operation feeling remarkably good. The scar was already practically invisible a week later and the doctor reported that the tumour was benign, harmless, rien [nothing].
Today is an ordinary day in which I have a headache and the children are fighting and my bedroom is a mess and there is a dead pigeon in the water feature.
What a happiness!
What a happiness.