Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


Ross and I had started planning the trip to Hawaii, for all our children and their partners, mid-way through 2012. It was, in part, my demonstration of my determination to beat ‘The Thing.’ So, in November 2013, Ross and I had two weeks, ‘stateside’ in the United States. We then met the children at Honolulu airport in Hawaii and flew to Kaua’i, the oldest and most northerly island of the Hawaiian archipelago. Justly dubbed ‘The Garden Isle,’ Kaua’i is a 1,456.4 km2 jewel of rich volcanic soil and high rainfall in which tropical plants – both native and exotic - flourish.

Kaua’i, discovered by Polynesian voyagers centuries ago, is blessed with spring fed waterfalls that crash onto white-sand beaches, is decorated with jungle covered, emerald green mountains that melt into a clear sea and with groves of palms that bend and sway under a bloated moon.

Archaeologists believe the earliest settlers to the Hawaiian Islands had arrived by 200 AD, probably from the Marquesas Islands to the south. A second wave of immigrants arrived in about 1200 AD from the islands around Tahiti, bringing with them a complex social and religious system. The northern part of Kaua’i, Hanalei Bay, with its protective mountain folds, its springs and streams, heavy rainfall, and its abundant marine life soil, was among the first areas settled. We had rented a very beautiful, very large house in this beautiful spot.

The trip was a wonderful success, with dinners, which regularly became a little raucous, around the large table on the lanai – as the Hawaiians call the verandah – each evening. Corny as it may be, ‘Blue Hawaii’ has long been one of my favourite songs. My 60th birthday dinner was held at the beautiful Halekulani Hotel, overlooking an Hawaiian sunset: I was surrounded by my family. What more could I ask for?

I had been so strong for so many months, that, when the meltdown came, on Christmas Eve 2013, it surprised and shocked the family. It was caused by such a silly, little, thing. I had been fussing about making that delicious and decadent Italian dessert, Tiramisu, for Christmas Day: we would have that instead of plumb pudding. I was the only one who liked plumb pudding, in any case - and we all loved Tiramisu.

Ross, trying to be kind and considerate, kept telling me that we didn’t need a pudding. Instead of accepting his comments for the considerate concern that they represented, I got huffy, and said we couldn’t have a Christmas lunch without a pudding. Then I burnt my hand on a sandwich maker that had been left on. It was just a little burn, but it hurt, and it pushed me over the edge. I stood at the kitchen sink with my hand under the running tap, and sobbed. Bawled my eyes out, in fact. Sobbed and sobbed. Loudly. Ross is not good with histrionics, and so he ignored me. My two sons, eyes wide in disbelief, rushed over, one bringing a plastic bag of water and ice cubes, the other putting a strong arm around my shoulders. Silly behaviour from me, but it had just all become too much. I was tired of being brave.

Happily, as all our Christmas’s have been, the day was wonderful – and the Tiramisu delicious! For the first time ever we were just immediate family around the lunch table. After brunch and present opening, all the boys defected to the television room to watch the football – or was it the cricket? The girls moved to the kitchen to cook, and gossip. I suppose it was a very Aussie Christmas.

I spent the 14th February 2014, Valentine’s Day, at the Prince of Wales hospital, undergoing a battery of tests: a blood test, a CT scan and an MRI – all accessed through my beloved PowerPort. It was an extremely stressful day, and in the days leading up to these six-monthly tests I had hardly slept. Is this going to be my life, now? Getting a reprieve for six months and then worrying in the lead up to the tests? My tests were ‘all clear’: a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I became, again, very emotional.

I am now officially ‘in remission’, or ‘cancer free’, although I hardly dare say it. I appear in a fund raising video for The Nelune Foundation, which is raising many millions of dollars for a new Cancer Centre at POW, described as ‘Holly Kerr Forsyth: Cancer Survivor.’

It now remains for me to get fit again: essential to support the immune system. The University of New South Wales runs a ‘Lifestyle Clinic’ offering ‘exercise and lifestyle therapies during and after cancer treatment.’

How have I survived five malignant tumours? It was, in no particular order, thanks to a superbly skilled medical team, including oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, nurses and orderlies, good luck, and staying strongly positive throughout: easier said than done, especially after I.V. chemotherapy starts. And because of the unconditional and unremitting love of my husband, children, sisters and friends.

I felt an urgent need to write about this experience; this adventure: that it was important to relate what I had gone through. I hope it will help others who might be undergoing treatment and inspire everyone to grasp adventures, with or without a camera.

Writing for me is like exercise is for many other people. I feel quite unsettled – almost distressed – if I am not at my laptop every day, and usually for many hours. Some people feel like that about exercise. They become agitated if they don’t run daily. I wish I had that devotion to exercise, but the truth is I will come up with any excuse to avoid it. I must change that; must get off the sofa. Close the laptop.

But I want to share the words of someone else – I can’t remember who – about writing. It has helped me greatly as I try to put relevant words on paper. To get those words in the right order, as Tom Stoppard said.

Three things are needed for good writing, I read:

“A fully imagined audience. Something important or interesting to say. And, a Sense of Urgency.” Those thoughts have resonated with me as I have sought to reveal some moments, and months and years, of my life. I hope it helps some going through tough times, and interests others who are lucky enough to escape this dreaded ‘Thing.’

As I’ve gone through my writing life, researching and reading along the way, I’ve collected favourite words and thoughts of thinkers and philosophers through several centuries. Many of them relate to gardens, and places of beauty. So, the last words could go to any one of a selection of world leaders, politicians, historians, artists, writers, philosophers or psychologists who wrote of the important things in life. I’ve already quoted the Greek historian, Xenophon, who wrote, in 399 BC, of the Persian King Cyrus: “The great king, in all the districts he resides, takes care that there are Paradises – full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will provide.”

Or Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century: we know from his letter books that Jefferson was passionate about his garden at Monticello, in Virginia, where, in his three-hectare vegie garden, he planted some 300 varieties of vegetables. “I can honestly say,” he wrote to a friend, “that I would rather be in my garden than at a long table dining with all the heads of state” - to Robert Browning, who wrote, “Trust in nature for the laws of beauty and utility.” As the designer, writer and artist William Morris, the proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

But I particularly love the words of the American wilderness explorer and environmentalist, John Muir, who wrote, in 1911, in his book, ‘The Yosemite,’ “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread; places to play and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” And as his President, Theodore Roosevelt realised, and set in legislation, it’s a joy, and a privilege, to be in pristine places.

This search for beauty - the search for Paradise - is something, I suggest, that all cultures – and their garden makers - have in common, whether we garden on a balcony in the city in the shadow of tall buildings, or on country hectares - or on the edge of a glorious lake like the great banking and industrial families of Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

It’s a cliché I suppose; certainly a true-ism to say that it’s the simple things that make us most happy. Think, for instance, of the utter bliss of holding your sleeping child – or grandchild - in your arms. Or the satisfaction of sharing a perfect cup of coffee and a good chat with a friend who wants nothing more from you than the pleasure of your company. Standing in a garden in the early morning light on a soft spring or summer day, the scent of anticipation hovering in the air, is another of such simple, but perfect, pleasures.

Perhaps the Swiss psycho-analyst Karl Gustav Jung was thinking about landscape and garden images - which he often used in his therapy - when he warned against, “Man’s estrangement from the mythical realm and the subsequent shrinking of his existence to the mere factual.”

And I read recently that you need just three things for happiness: Someone to love; something to do; and something to look forward to. I have these things in abundance.