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Awaiting the Guillotine While Wishing My Daughter a Happy Birthday

Life can change in a heartbeat or in back-to-back phone calls

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On June 8, 2022, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the date easily because it was my daughter’s 21st birthday.

Lauren had been gallivanting with a teacher friend of hers through France and then Spain. Her older sister happened to be on a trip to London at the same time and my hubby and I had decided that if I did have cancer, we wouldn’t ruin the girls’ trips with the news. It could wait till they got home.

After getting off the phone with the surgeon who confirmed the cancer diagnosis, I sobbed heaving sobs in my husband’s arms. I’m generally not a crier, although the older I get the more often a tear has dripped out of the corner of my eye at the most random of times.

There was no escaping some serious crying with this news.

On the heels of hanging up the phone with my surgeon, Lauren called from overseas, giddy and excited about her birthday celebrations in the country of the Matador. She had no idea what had just transpired for me. I had just enough time to brush one sleeve under my eyes and the other under my nose before the video kicked in and we could see each other. Thank God the camera on my phone was smeared with finger oils, or who knows what, while we Facetimed.

She had no clue. Well played, Julie.

I’m not a crier and I’m also not one to journal. I cringe at the thought of one of my kids perusing my journal when I’m dead, all my innermost feelings splayed out for their interpretation and/or misunderstanding. No thanks. But I figured that the cancer journey would be one that I may want to jot about in case I needed to remember dates or names of procedures, doctors, or drugs. And also, when someone tells you that you have cancer, for a time, you’re one hundred percent sure this is it. You’re done for. Death is imminent. Pick out my coffin. So my thinking was that I could also use this journal to script final thoughts to my three offspring and their dad. Not morbid at all. That first week after diagnosis is pretty dismal, pretty f-ing dismal.

Anyway, while journalling about the back-to-back phone calls with the surgeon and Lauren, I was reminded of another set of back-to-back calls from a long time before that. A set of calls with life-altering news for my 14-year-old self.


 

Standing at the end of an inconveniently small counter in the galley kitchen of our little rental house, I chatted with my older sister while she flipped the grilled cheese.

It was a blizzardy Monday evening in the coldest of months. My little brother and sister were watching ‘toons in my parent’s bedroom, on the other side of the dining room. My parents had been away that weekend. They were supposed to be home by the time us kids arrived home from school. They weren’t.

So my sister made grilled cheese. Like most firstborns, she’s a take-charge kind of gal. I watched her…so middle child of me.

When the phone rang mid-sandwich-flip, without a second to contemplate, I remember my heart dropping. Instant calamity inside of me.

Hello?

Hello, who’s this? a demanding deep male voice on the line.

Julie.

Julie who?

Julie Neutel.

How old are you Julie?

I hesitate. All my life I’ve been told not to talk to complete strangers. Who is this guy? I’m sorry Julie, this is the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police). How old are you?

14.

Is there anyone older in the house?

My sister, she’s 16.

Can I talk to your sister?

She took the phone.

After hanging up, we gathered our younger siblings to let them know that our parents had been in a serious car accident. We didn’t know much more than that.

Many details of that evening are lost but fast forward an hour or so and the four of us kids were now arranged around the dining table with my dad’s brother and sister, two ministers from our church, and maybe a couple more people. Not sure.

Earlier I’d gone downstairs to call a friend to get some of this crazy news off my chest. She said she’d call back later to get an update.

The phone rang. We table-sitters sat silent as my uncle picked up the receiver.

No words from that conversation come back clearly. It was obvious that a doctor was on the other end. Nods and consternation from my uncle.

He hangs up. Grave face. Slumped shoulders. Our eyes huge, faces leaned in, ready-not-ready for the update.

Riiiinnnnggg

Before he has a chance to even look our way the phone rings again. These words come back to me clear and crisp.

Hello?

Short pause while he listens. Oh, I’m sorry Candace, Julie can’t come to the phone right now. She’s just found out her mother died.

Uh, no I didn’t.

But I do now.

 

Back-to-back phone calls. Moving from one moment to the next, from one reality to another.

On breast cancer diagnosis day, one call had me awaiting the guillotine and the next had me clenching the blade’s rope long enough to breathe words of life into my daughter. On the day my mother died, the first call brought death and so did the second. There were many more tough seconds, minutes, days, months, and years after those calls way back in my early teens. My father also died because of the accident. We lived with relatives that we thought we’d stay with long term and then it didn’t work out. We moved cities to go and live with other relatives.

It was life-sucking. For a long time.

Today, I’m married to a guy who still, almost twenty-seven years later, is my biggest cheerleader. He’d don the tights and shake the pompoms if I asked. I have three pretty fabulous adult kids too. They wouldn’t don the tights but they’d shake the pompoms for sure.

And except for the flat white pill I have to take every day for five to ten years (ugghhh…) my cancer treatment is completed. I’m feeling great and ready for the multitude of years I have left to shake all the pompoms.

Life can change in a heartbeat, in the blink of an eye, in back-to-back phone calls.

We can’t live afraid to answer the call or the call that comes next. Before and after and between the phone calls I’m choosing to love, laugh and write down as much of this unpredictable life as I can.

I wouldn’t have thunk it a short while ago but I’m journalling every day now. Mostly for myself but I’m easing into the idea of my kids picking it up to read, waaaaay in the future.

My writing will tell tales of my life between phone calls. Guillotines, pompoms and all.

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