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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Self 1

Five days until my breast comes off and I've had a pretty good day. My friend Lindar sent me some beautiful flowers (they came in a vase!).

I am still coming to grips with the absolute generosity of family, friends and strangers.

In fact, I spent the morning at my friend Maria's house. Maria is a hairdresser who trains other hairdressers: she has a Bachelor of Education actually! Maria is Italian and oozes warmth and confidence. She's like a ray of sunshine with her beaming smile and golden hair.

Today, Maria offers to cut and colour my hair for free. I am going to have a bit taken off. With baldness on the not too distant horizon, why not experiment? Besides, I've been told that long hair can really hurt when it is set loose from a chemo scalp.

I have a lovely morning as Maria and I chat about this and that. She even shares her mum's secret pasta recipe!

Here is what I look like! This look won't last for long but feel free to ooh and aah at how fabulous I look and what a great cut it is :)

Cutting my hair today has me thinking about the physical changes that lie ahead for me.

Last night was the first of my last six nights of 'normalcy', and as I closed my eyes, I felt a few tears as I confronted the reality of my pending breast removal. I felt wretched. I felt it would be easier to die. I was bone tired.

As I lay there staring into the dark and listening to the dog snoring by my bed, I fixated on the idea that in a few short days, my body would be butchered!

It's not that I care about how I will look, but I care about how I will feel.

In these days, with breast cancer so rampant, we say the word "mastectomy" as we might say "icecream". Yet even I had not really understood the enormity of it: what women who fight breast cancer must go through.

The reality that my body will be physically reshaped next week makes me feel sad. Here is a moment in time when my self, this self, the one I have been familiar with through 48 years of thick and thin, is being overwritten by degrees.

A part of it is to be erased. It is to be replaced, perhaps transcended.

And so, as I rarely do, I allow myself to ponder that thing that is the stuff of philosophers, my 'self' and I regard it much as one would an object: a unique artefact or collectible.

Call me vain, call me unusual (you can even call me Shirley), but I'm not ashamed to admit I am very happy with this 'self' and love it, warts and all. Physically, I love my spotty, uneven skin, my big aboriginal-like nose, the frown between my eyes, and my hair that mostly looks like a bird's nest when it isn't subdued by a rubber band.

I have never placed too much store by looks and attribute that in part to my father, Hals. When my two sisters and I were growing up, Dad was the first one to draw us down a peg or too when it came to vanity.

There is a famous event in the Vander Poorten household that occurred about the time I turned 12. My father, an artist, pulled out his paints and drew three caricatures on one of the walls downstairs. Fiona was portrayed as a fish with the big lips she was always sensitive about (but women these days pay a fortune in collagen to achieve), Nicky was portrayed as a frog, and I was portrayed as a rather unsightly bunny rabbit with my hideously large buck teeth prominently emphasised.

So it's no wonder that, by the time I turned 16, a year when most girls are preening themselves and spending hours in front of a mirror taking photographs of themselves, I was impatient with vanity.

While both my sisters famously endured a deportment course and became masters of the arcane arts of blue eye shadow and lowering oneself stylishly into a chair without showing one's knickers, I continued to walk like a duck and carry myself in a somewhat simian way.

What was the point anyway? While my school colleagues cavorted about in their Esprit and Country Road attire, my sisters and I were doomed to be asphyxiated in factory outlet clothing (always one size too small as my mum routinely underestimated our sizes) or clothes mum would sew up in a jiffy using the cheap materials which were all we could really afford. (It never did get as low as sack-cloth: something I am eternally grateful for).

I didn't have my hair cut by a proper hairdresser until I was 18! Up to then, my mum would cut my hair and when we were a little smaller, we all had something of Friar Tuck about our hair-dos.

My mum even had to cajole me for several months to get me to shave my legs that were as hairy as an orangutan's (although, thankfully, I did always shave my armpits and liked my deodorants!)

What I'm saying is I didn't get it: why all the fuss about looks? Even at a young age, I learned to accept who I was, physically.

Other than this, I have liked my 'self' because, quite frankly, I've never wanted to be different. Why would I? There are many things about me I actually like and I am drawn to others with the same qualities. For example, I will never break a promise and my word is my bond; I do not believe in empty praise or empty words; I am tenacious; I am extremely loyal; I am honest and I am hard working; I have a strong ethic of service; I am kind and I am compassionate; and I'm not into whinging.

Sure, I can be mean-spirited like anyone else. I am over-critical and judgemental. I have a ferocious temper. I'm not always disciplined. I talk too much. I'm competitive; I can be indiscreet. I can also be rude and even obnoxious (come on, you're surprised?).

But, unlike many people, I have always believed that we are allowed to be imperfect. I was born imperfect and lordy knows, I shall be imperfect when I finally pop off my mortal coil. Do you know anyone you consider 'perfect'? I didn't think so.

All I know is the 'self' that is me, TRIES to be the best it can be. That is all anyone can ask of themselves, don't you think?

So now, as the day ends and the rain pours down outside, I look at myself, my best friend. In a few days, she will step behind a curtain and when I see her again, there will be something different about her, and I don't mean just in a physical way.

A new person is being crafted blow by blow and next week, I will experience the first steps in what I know will be a painful transformation.

I hope I will like the person I become - my new self - as much as I have the old one. We may have to get to know each other all over again. There may be things about her that I don't like and might even make me fearful or frustrated.

She'll be a little chipped, even more imperfect, perhaps more insecure, a bit fruity; or even stupid.

I mightn't feel like showing her off on a prime place on the mantelpiece. Maybe I'll feel like throwing her in a box and hiding her in the garage, next to Al's vast collection of bikes (damn you Ebay).

But I'm not really afraid. Not really. I have a few days to kiss goodbye to the old Bronwyn and to get my head around the Bronwyn who might emerge on the other side of that sliding door.

Who knows, the old Bronwyn might truly detest her.

But that's okay. I'll just have to work a little harder to recoup that thing called 'self acceptance'. That is all any of us can do.

Wish me luck.


  1. Bron, some articles for you... I am sure you will come out of all that just fine and stronger. Just believe...

    Hugs xx


  2. You'll be humbled and impressed and surprised by the new Bronwyn... you'll love her! :)

  3. we will all love you after your surgery. we love you now and always have as young kids playing together, going to high school together and we will love you after your surgery and your treatment.

    the hair looks great.