Monday, December 04, 2023

A tiny surprise about my gran

My kids had a bit of a falling out with their dad back in 2012 and it took till this year for them to decide to visit him again. Long story...

Marcel was running the Côte d'Azur marathon and Milly the 20K, and Charlotte and Léon were cheering them on. That is where their dad currently lives so they invited him to spectate, had lunch with him two days in a row and did a little sightseeing. They got to meet the woman who, on paper, has been their stepmother since 2016 too. I always thought it would be better if they had some contact with him but the amount was, of course, up to them. 

So, because of this rift, from early childhood Léon has been known as Léon Buchanan-Widmann. That was always unofficial as it would have required his father's consent until he reached adulthood, so his passport and Danish residence permit still insisted on Gautier. Now he's 18 he wanted to make it official after all these years but found out that adding the ‘-Widmann’ he has used since he was six would have caused all sorts of bureaucratic nightmares with the change of his French passport unfortunately. 

Changing to your other parent’s surname is a box-ticking exercise now thanks to a change in French law from July 2022, but changing to anything else requires courts and can be declined. Poor Lots tried to change her name in 2020 so had to pay over €500 and go through the French courts to change hers, Marcel waited till after the new law (accidentally - he didn’t actually know the law was going to change) and it took him 6 weeks as against Charlotte’s 3 years. Anyway the upshot is that Léon finally decided following Marcel’s route might be a tad less stressful than following Charlotte’s, so dropped the ’-Widmann’ with a little pang of regret and became Léon Buchanan. 

When the message came in from the Scottish register to say it had been changed, he logged on to order the new birth certificate he needs to change his UK passport. While I was on helping him, I got lost down the rabbit hole of the registry. 

First, I checked if my great auntie Cathie was still alive, and strangely she seems to be! The woman must be 100, and still doesn’t talk to the remaining members of the family despite still having all her marbles, weird woman! 

Then I checked a few of mum’s friends and from there I looked back at old records of family members' births and deaths. 

Growing up I used to moan to my gran about disliking my name, feeling it was too old for someone growing up in the 70s, yes I know I was named after my other dead gran but that didn't please me at the age of 7... and she confided in me that she felt exactly the same. Her name was boring and too common in her age group… not exactly my issue but we could relate at least! Gran was called Jean and confided in me that sometimes as a kid she signed things Jeanne and pronounced it the French way to make herself see much more exotic. 

She soon realized as a little girl in Springburn that Jeanne was a little farfetched so often contented herself simply with changing her name to Jeanie, just to be a tiny bit more exciting. Longing to be a little more than just a Jean and a Phyllis became a leitmotif between us during our brief 16-year overlap on this planet. 

I found gran’s death certificate from 1984. Jean Stirling had died of metastatic cancer of the lungs and brain at the age of 68. I found her marriage certificate from 1943. Jean Napier Henderson had married Matthew Thomson Stirling. Then I went back to 1916, but Jean Napier Henderson had never been born!

That puzzled me, given I knew she was definitely not born down south or elsewhere. I stuck in a wildcard and to my surprise found little ‘Jeanie Napier Henderson’ born to Annie (née Venters) and Allan Henderson in 1916. All the names matched. 
In those days things weren’t digital. Records were written and recorded by hand. My gran never leant to drive, never owned a passport, so probably never saw her own birth certificate which had been lost in the first world war. Her mother had died when she was a child, her father has a breakdown when he was left to raise two young girls alone. Her family called her Jean, so she thought her name was Jean. By the time she married, it had changed de facto as she filled in Jean on her marriage certificate, but she was never the plain Jean she hated so much, she was the Jeanie she always dreamed of being and never knew she had been! 

My own mother died in 2022, not knowing her mother’s first name was not what she had always believed it to be! How weird is that? I’d love to ring them both up today and tell them, but that is obviously never going to happen. 

Excitedly, I did double check my own birth certificate, but apparently it wasn’t a mistake. I am still frumpy Phyllis with no middle name alternative! Ho hum!

Friday, October 13, 2023

2 days, 2 years later

Every so often I feel like writing about a quasi-taboo subject matter and then go to delete it once I have. But the only way to make those topics less frightening is writing about them; maybe it'll help someone else go through something similar one day.

It's now been 2 years and 3 months since I rather carelessly lost one of my boobs. Let's just say you can no longer call me a 'right tit', no matter what I do!

Humour is one way of tackling the situation. Another is distancing yourself from the occurrence to the point where you almost can't believe it happened, to you at least. 

It is never a good sign when they tell you at your mammogram that they would rather you didn't put your clothes back on, but instead follow them to an ultrasound room to meet a consultant.

That in itself was a rather surreal situation, because you are at best psyched up for reading mammogram results a week after the most unpleasant boob-squeeze. You are not psyched up for watching your own boob on an ultrasound screen within five minutes. 

Having been in lockdown almost since my arrival in Denmark, I hadn't had many opportunities at that point to practise my Danish. My passive Danish was fine, I'd been listening to it for 13 years at that point, but I was just learning to speak it out loud, which is no mean feat as there are some seriously hard-to-pronounce sounds in this language. And this mammogram was at the height of the covid outbreak, which didn't hit Denmark anything like as badly as the UK, but it did still mean I had to attend this appointment alone.

To my untrained eye, things didn't look dire. There were no obvious clumps of dodgy cells, suggesting a tumour, there were no lumps or bumps and none of the outward signs you get on that diagram that makes the rounds of Facebook every few months. The only surprise I could see were long strands of white that looked vaguely like long worms. The consultant explained that these were long, maybe 10cm, areas of calcium built up in my milk ducts. I had breastfed five kids for two years each so it was of no surprise to me that there might be a little build up of something in there, some wear and tear, some damage. And they kept using the word calcium, so that isn't a bad thing, is it? They gave me a leaflet on calcium in technical Danish and booked me to come back for a biopsy. That word I liked less, but again, if it was to determine if there was a calcium build-up, how bad could it be?

The biopsy made the normal mammogram seem like a walk in the park. Every older woman knows the horrors of a mammogram. I don't know about in the UK, but here there are signs up claiming the procedure isn't painful, mere uncomfortable. Bullshit! They take a carpenter's vice, squish your boob into it, turn the handle till your eyes water, then turn it just a little more till you think you might pass out, take a photo, then repeat the procedure from different angles three more times. For the biopsy, however, they need to see your boob in real time. So you get to lie face down on a bed with a hole to put your boob in. A nurse pulls and tugs on you till they have you in place in that vice and onscreen. Instead of the usual 5 second photo, you lie there while the insert a knitting needle into you to extract cells. They keep you clamped while they check each sample to see if they have enough cells, they repeat this procedure for about half an hour. All the while a second nurse holds your hand looking incredibly sympathetic, which is both nice and terrifying, in equal measures. Even if you weren't being investigated for a cancerous growth in your breast, it would be a bloody nightmare, but add that psychological layer on top and it is almost too much to bear. 

As you go to leave, you're given a further booklet on calcium, and they mention almost as an afterthought that very occasionally, if you are really unlucky, the biopsy needs to be repeated if they didn't get the right cells. A week later of course I got the email asking me to come back to repeat the entire ordeal as I was one of the unlucky ones. The bruising was quite a sight!

After the second biopsy, I was invited in, this time with my husband, an ominous sign, to discuss the way forward. That was when I was first given a leaflet of DCiS, (ductal carcinoma in situ). The consultant told me Danes usually react ok to this as they mainly know germanic languages so know none of those words, but as a speaker of many romance languages, I didn't need any explaining of that condition. They went on to explain that if the carcinoma was still in situ in the duct, I would be ok until it grew and burst out into my breast or was carried round my body by means of my lymphatic system. All in all, it would probably be around ten years before it mutated into incurable cancer. The only way to tell was to inject dye into me and trace which lymphs were being used by which ducts. More than two years on my breast is still blue where the dye went in! Once the lymphs were located, they were removed and biopsied. They came back clear so it was indeed still contained to my duct.

In the UK, they usually perform a lumpectomy at this point, according to the NHS Scotland website anyway. In Denmark the standard procedure, and only one on offer to me was a full mastectomy within a week. I could decide whether or not to be reconstructed during this operation, later or not at all. In my head there were only two options: 'then' or 'never' (and 'never' was not even a close second in my head). I couldn't face going through it all, healing, physio and then going back to square one. Had they removed both, I might have managed to consider the option of 'never', but I couldn't face it with only one. I had been 'top-heavy' since my teens, it was part of my femininity and I couldn't imagine what having only one breast would do to me psychologically in my early 50s. Already I was facing looking like a train wreck naked, but in my clothes I could hide and feel normal and that mattered to me. It was six months before I could bear to have anyone look at me, even reconstructed with all the scarring, so I am not sure I could have got my head round the alternative. I have nothing but admiration to the stronger women than me who opt for 'never'.

I expect if your mind is strong enough, 'never' is probably more comfortable. I have no feeling on one side from my shoulder to the bottom of my ribs. I can feel tugging, but pinch me, burn me and I have no reaction. It aches but it doesn't feel like it is part of me. With all the muscles cut away, it took six months of physio before I could lift a salad bowl down from a shelf or close the boot of my car. I simply couldn't reach upwards with my right arm. Even now it is harder to use my right arm than my left.

For the first few months, you are so caught up with the physical aftermath, you don't get as far as analysing the psychological. When I think back now, I am gobsmacked. I took the three youngest kids to Hamburg (3 hours away) for a four day holiday 3 weeks after my op, 1 week after the drains were removed from my body, because I felt I had let them down by not being able to go on the summer holiday given I was operated on at the beginning of July. With hindsight I must have been insane. What on earth was I thinking clocking up 20 000 steps round Hamburg and Lübeck so soon after such a huge operation?

I didn't even tell my mother or the members of my family who weren't in Denmark, because Covid restrictions meant they couldn't get to me, so I didn't want to worry them. I rang my mum on the Monday for our usual chat saying I was busy Tuesday and Wednesday and then rang again on the Thursday as if nothing had happened. She died six months later thinking I had had nothing more than a minor procedure at my GPs to remove a little calcium, not imagining I had had a lymphadenectomy, a mastectomy, a breast reconstruction, a breast reduction on the other side to even things up a bit. And those were only the physical things.

The mental side of things was a whole other realm. It was two-pronged. On the one hand, it had been caught early enough that major surgery was enough, meaning I got to bypass the horrors of chemo, radiotherapy etc, and I wake up eternally grateful for that every day. But on the other, it was one of the worst things you can go through without reaching that final level of horror. So, I was in this odd limbo where I didn't feel mentally I had the right to mope or complain because I had been so lucky; so many people have it so much worse. It did seem weird though to go through what I went through with no acknowledgement from myself or others of the depth of that trauma. On balance though, I think I coped reasonably well with it all and was sure it was all behind me.

Two weeks ago, I went for my first mammogram on the remaining breast since that whole rollercoaster ride. I hadn't needed one till now as the tissue from the remaining breast had been biopsied when the reduction surgery was carried out. I managed to attend the appointment without being too traumatised, driving myself there, chatting to the staff in the health centre. It is hard for me to undress in front of strangers now, which is odd as I was never shy before. I look completely normal in clothes, so as I undressed, I warned the woman who was going to be doing the xrays and the young male student who was obviously there to learn about the job, before turning to face them. Yes, they probably see this every day, but I still struggle with how I look, even if they don't. Maybe one day I'll have the balls to go topless sunbathing in Spain again and simply tell people I was attacked by a shark or similar but I am not quite there yet. They said they had read my notes and tried to put me at ease.

I wasn't taken through to the ultrasound this time, which had to be good, right? Yet, three days later when I got an alert that there was a new message from Syddanmark health service in my private email box (all medical correspondence is secure digital in Denmark), I couldn't open it. I thought I was fine, but I simply couldn't bring myself to read it. Thomas asked if I wanted him to read it, but I would know from his face, so I sat on the message for a full two days until finally on the third morning I woke up with enough mental strength to finally dive in and read my results, which were fine this time. So I guess it did affect me more than I am willing to admit if it took me two days and a night simply to open an email.

Onwards and upwards, I guess.

Friday, September 29, 2023

18 today

So my boy is 18 today, except he isn't really! He was born at 23:45 on 29/09/05 in the Queen Mother's Maternity hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, so given he now lives in Denmark, although on his birth certificate his birthday is still September 29, if he wants to raise a glass at the moment of his birth, he now needs to wait till 00:45 on September 30! 

I guess in a way it is a metaphor for the complicated path his life has taken till now. He was born after my marriage to his father died. French by birth, he was brought up from the age of one by a Dane so even before we moved to Denmark, his Danish was better than his French. Now we live here and have done for 4.5 years, he is what a truly bilingual person looks like. He's not just good at both Danish and English, he is native in both now.

He's a Dane living in Denmark, but not eligible for Danish citizenship, at least not until he's sat a whole host of qualifying exams about Danish language and culture, despite having studied till 19 at a Danish STX (the highest level of Grammar school). When he leaves school next year many of his mates want to do a gap year travelling, but Léon can't as he's on the kind of residence permit that doesn't allow you to leave the country for more than six months without losing your right to be here. 

To be Danish he needs to work a minimum of 4.5 years full-time before he can apply, but for some crazy reason university doesn't count towards that goal so whereas he could become Danish 5 years from now if he doesn't go to uni, he has to wait nearly 10 years if he does, as the degree will take 5 years before he can begin the compulsory 4.5 years of work. It's so unfair given he feels every bit as Danish as his two Danish passport-holder sisters. He will have lived in Denmark nearly 15 years before he can apply to be a citizen at the age of 28 and he will have been brought up by a Dane since before his first birthday. He will have called a Dane Dad for more than 27 years before he can apply. 

It is almost as if the government is encouraging foreign-born kids, however bright, not to go into further education. Why penalise someone for wanting to be say a doctor, and encourage them to go work full-time in the local supermarket instead? I thought Denmark prided itself on the level of education given to its young people and I also thought it needed more doctors than it needs unqualified supermarket workers.

Anyway, however long it takes, I have no doubt he will one day qualify for a Danish passport. I just wish he got to celebrate his coming of age in a more equal manner with his peers.

Happy birthday Léon!

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Should I be worried?

We had a Spanish girl staying with us for three weeks. Since she was 18, Charlotte has au-paired off and on for Sara and her little sister Paula and their cousin Eva in Madrid. When she first met Sara, she was 10 and her parents wanted an English-speaking au pair to help her with school. As the years went by, Sara got too old to need a babysitter but our two families had become entwined, culminating in us finally flying down last year to meet them for the first time. 

They had brought Charlotte food parcels when she was isolating in her flat in Madrid with covid at Xmas 2020, they had invited her to their house for her 21st when covid restrictions had meant she couldn't see any of her family, and she had visited them most summers becoming more like an older sister to her two Spanish sisters. 

So when their mum tentatively asked me last summer over dinner if I would let Sara come and stay so she could live in an English-speaking house for a few weeks, I was more than happy to accept. She's 15 now, and so is Anna, so I knew it would be good for both of them as Anna has chosen to do Spanish at Gymnasium too.

On arrival early July we thought a few board games would be a good way to break the ice. The kids had only met her once over dinner last year in Madrid and she seemed quite shy. Articulate would be a good one to help her with English, we thought. (You get a word and have to describe it to your partner and they get to guess which word you are describing.)

Léon was first up, describing for Anna. He drew the word 'van'. His description: 'A vehicle that is often white and used by bad people who want to kidnap small children'. I was somewhat surprised that his go-to use for a van was kidnapping rather than say deliveries or being used by a worker of some sort such as a gardener or plumber, but Anna guessed it immediately and the game continued.

The following day, Amaia, who had been out with friends on our first games evening, joined in. By some coincidence she too drew the card 'van', this time describing for Sara. She had neither been there the night before, nor heard of our game, so I was more than surprised when she started immediately with: 'it's like a car but bigger, people use them for kidnapping kids!' 

Am I living in a much more sinister world than I realise or are my kids all just quite disturbed?

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Quick update

Quick update on yesterday's blog post

Charlotte finally found out yesterday that she was one of the lucky few who would be told her final grade before the day as she’d scored enough on the 75% that’s already been marked to get a First class degree! I can’t begin to imagine how she managed it through all that but she is one of the most determined people I’ve ever met, so I’m just bowled over. I can’t wait to see what she does next. For now she’s gone to see friends in Madrid, then later in the summer she won a scholarship to go on an all inclusive extended Catalan course being held in Majorca, then she’s going straight back to spend another year in Madrid teaching while she considers her options for the future, so watch this space!