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May 15, 2013

In the middle of the journey of life…

dark woods"In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death; but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there". So begins Dante's Inferno, and so begins the tale of where I have been for the past seven months, since I last wrote a blog entry.

My story left off at a difficult point in my PhD life: I had begun a postdoctoral fellowship without finishing the doctoral thesis. I was hugely disappointed by this, as I had always considered that three years would be ample time in which to complete a PhD. But I had reckoned without the vagaries of my ongoing cardiac symptoms, which had made me take some time off in the late Spring of last year. In October, I wrote that I was stressed. I could almost laugh now, given what has happened since...

A couple of weeks after my last blog, my dad suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. He had surgery, but never recovered and was in a coma for twenty days. Twenty days of driving to Sheffield. Twenty days of sitting, watching, waiting for signs I knew would never come. At the end of twenty days, he died. I was with him, which was a strange and beautiful thing - just him and me in a room, and the most peaceful thing he had ever done.

On December 1st, I returned to the fellowship research. My brain was full to exploding, but I felt my manager had given me too much time off in November to take any time to think about what had happened. In December of course, everyone in the world was ill. Except me. My children had the flu, my husband had the flu, then my children had the vomiting bug. Then it was Christmas, which of course was difficult.

Then in January, I was ill. My turn at last! But I had a report to write for my boss, and I carried on. The relief I felt when that report was done was immense. I remember saying to a friend of mine that I could now take a few days to sit and think about my dad and begin the grieving process. As if it would ever be possible to grieve neatly, in a compartment marked 'time to think'.

The very next day, I discovered a mass low in my abdomen. I thought it would be nothing, although my midwife hands were slightly surprised at the size of it - my GP and I laughed at the idea that it felt like a 20-week pregnancy. But the scan I had that same day agreed: a mass of some kind, 10cm big. 10cm? How had I not noticed that earlier?! There followed urgent appointments in gynaecology oncology (the NHS moves fast when it feels the need...), an MRI scan, and lots of serious faces, my friends (midwives) included.

So I had a hysterectomy at the end of February, and because of the uncertainty of the tumour's malignancy or non-malignancy, I also had my ovaries removed. Instant menopause! Then a long time sitting still - the longest I've ever spent sitting still, by some considerable margin. And now, a damaged ligament and more sitting still.

Meanwhile, my fellowship contract ended, and I now find myself technically unemployed, although still registered as a student - that was an easy extension to get permission for, thankfully! I'll be extending again next month, which will take me through to September. And then, I say determinedly, the thesis will be submitted.

So a dreadful time. The worst time of my life. But as ever, there are bright moments to be found: my husband, beside me and caring for me; my children, who seem to be enjoying the whole sitting down thing; and my friends, who have brought me such joy over the years, and who have shouldered such a lot of my burden over the past few months.

What a strange post this is. It's taken me a very long time to write. I hope to begin blogging normally again from now, as I return to the process of writing up the thesis. Because for all of these seven months, the PhD has been sitting in a tiny corner of my over-crowded mind, and now, finally, it's getting some attention. sun through trees


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