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When Time Stops Still: the women who see time through a different lens

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Childhood sees the days drag slowly while adulthood speeds them up to a seemingly endless blur.

But what happens when the very nature of time seems to shatter in an instant? Three exceptional women discuss the circumstances which have irrevocably changed their perceptions of time—and how each moment is precious.

Every minute of every hour of every day is time to be savoured by 39-year-old Caitlin Moorhouse (pictured above). She was told five years ago to get her affairs in order.

The last thing Caitlin was expecting just weeks after jubilantly welcoming her first-born daughter Violet into the world was to find out she had stage 4 bowel cancer that had spread to her liver.

In fact, she was feeling fine, save for the sharp pain she was experiencing in her shoulder—which she’d put down to lifting her newborn.

The public servant, who was otherwise in good health, went for an ultrasound scan. By that afternoon her baby bubble—and everything else—was shattered by her doctor’s unspeakable truth. Caitlin had cancer—a primary in her bowel had invaded her body without any symptoms or family history and it was now advanced. There were too many tumours in her liver to even count.

“I remember walking through Garema Place after seeing my doctor, ringing my mum and sobbing that I didn’t want to die.”

“I felt pure terror for the first time in my life. I measured everything in relation to how long I could possibly stay with Violet. Anything I had wanted to do with my life was secondary to just staying with Violet as long as I could.”

Caitlin with daughter Violet.

While the diagnosis carried with it a five percent chance of surviving five years, Caitlin was very clear that she did not want to be limited by a timeframe— a wish she and her family vociferously communicated to her medical team at every stage.

“It makes me very angry when doctors give specific time predictions. The spoken word is powerful and we need to be very conscious of the words we speak into people’s lives, particularly when they are vulnerable.”

Overnight, everything changed.

Instead of starting mothers’ group and playdates with her baby, Caitlin and her husband David uprooted from their Griffith home to go to Melbourne and live with Caitlin’s mum while she began treatment at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

The litany of chemotherapy courses, surgeries—one of which was life-threatening—clinical trials and treatment regimens has been Caitlin’s life now for five years.

But there has been incalculable joy in experiencing every one of those years.

“Early on I realised that the only time I had was now and if I was miserable then I was robbing myself. So I try very hard to be the me I always was.”

Caitlin focuses on spending time with Violet and David, seeing her friends and family, going to work, travelling, reading.

“I don’t have a bucket list. Just a wish to keep living my ordinary, beautiful life.”

Caitlin with Violet and husband David.

Her next goal is to see her fortieth birthday which is in February 2021.

“The first three years felt very long. They were very hard, I was extremely sick at points, and I felt like we were eking out time. The last year and a half has flown though, and I can’t believe how much Violet has grown and changed.”

In her blog, The Fairytale and the Abyss, Caitlin has chronicled her journey.

“Sometimes when Violet is crying and I am comforting her or even when she is smiling with her pure baby joy at me, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and shame that I’m leading her down the garden path. That I’m creating promises of love and comfort that I won’t be able to keep.

“And it’s heartbreaking—literally a physical pain to know that you will be the cause of terrible sadness for your child, for whom you should be their safest place.”

“The hardest thing is not the physical treatments—it is the relentlessness of pushing myself to keep trying, keep believing, keep hoping. I do have moments sometimes when I think maybe I should stop treatment and let the disease take its course but I know that fundamentally that’s not who I am. I’m not a passive person—and that has remained constant throughout my disease.”

Amanda Morton and husband Harry.

27-year-old Amanda Morton does not have cancer. But the disease casts a shadow over her life every day.

When Amanda was just 13, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seven years after she died, Amanda’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia.

And in the midst of caring for her parents, Amanda underwent genetic counselling which enabled her to understand her genetic predisposition to the disease.

As she has come to terms with the loss of both parents, having helped nurse them through the ravages of cancer, Amanda also has to quell an internal voice that tells her every headache, every freckle, every twinge in her body may become the ultimate betrayal.

It has changed the way she conceptualises her future with her husband Harry, impacts on her timing around having children and has ultimately led her to decide on taking proactive surgical interventions once she has had babies.

“My early concepts of time are that it was slow—the school term would drag, Christmas and birthdays seemed to never come fast enough. And then suddenly Mum got sick, and she was gone. Dad got sick, and he was gone, though it was many years apart.

“The whole growing up, graduating, becoming an adult—it all kind of blurred into one. But that’s life, isn’t it? It gets away from us too quickly!”

Amanda Morton (second from left) and her family.

That heightened sense of mortality is not the sort of thing most 20-something women carry. And Amanda constantly needs to check her paranoia.

“I’ve inherited the legacy of strong women [her mother’s breast cancer gene is the one Amanda carries] which now puts my future at risk. I do what I can, medically and by sharing my story to raise awareness and funds for research. Is that enough? I am not sure. But that is what I can control.”

Often, her family medical history is an exhausting burden to bear.

Amanda admits that she is preoccupied with thoughts of her future children and the ‘what if’s’ associated with parenthood.

“I don’t want my babies growing up without me. It’s that simple. I don’t want to die—I don’t want my kids or Harry to be doing life without me.”

The loss she has experienced also impacts daily on her connection to loved ones. She is always preparing herself to hear the worst—when her husband doesn’t answer his phone or if her sister rings at an unexpected time.

She often has to give herself a stern talking to if she feels her irrational thoughts are getting out of control.

But there are medical interventions that she is preparing to undergo.

Amanda and Harry have discussed what is available when it comes to “prophylactic” surgery which includes options to have a mastectomy and/or hysterectomy.

The concept of this surgery actually gives Amanda some internal peace. It allows her to take some control back of her future.

“For me, information is definitely power.”

Meanwhile, while her friends are busy making plans, Amanda is busy putting hers into action.

She has started a blog Courageous Ladies, which celebrates women who inspire her in life, alongside her corporate day job. It is an exhausting juggle, yet Amanda is determined to squash in as many productive hours to her days as possible.

“I don’t want to waste time, I want to make memories with the people I love, and I want to capture the memories made—so they live forever. I also like to celebrate the small wins, the irrelevant moments that seem to just pass us by. I hate the idea that one day it could all change, or that we wake up one day and something may not be an option, so I try not to sweat the small stuff, I park it and move on.

“I want it all, and my gosh am I grabbing life with all I have and aiming for the sky.”

Amanda and her mum.

When Emma Grey visits her mother, she has to remain completely and utterly in the moment.

Claire, 87, has dementia.

Emma and her sister first noticed signs about 12 years ago, and while the disease progressed slowly at first, Claire has now lost all concept of time—often asking where her mother is.

She has also wondered if her beloved husband of more than 65 years, Barrie, is her child.

“She is astonished when we tell her some of her grandchildren have grown up. When she sees herself in a mirror or while we’re taking a selfie with her she can’t work out who the old woman is, and wonders if she is her mother.

“Dad has an almost saintly patience. It’s such an awful thing to grieve the love of your life while she’s still alive. But he makes the best of his circumstances—has established a men’s discussion group in the nursing home and they’re active participants in the ‘Alchemy Chorus’—a wonderful choir for people with dementia and their carers.”

Claire and Barrie.

Emma, who is a well-known Canberra author and time management expert, has forged a professional path in analysing work/life balance and helping women in particular to claw back time for themselves.

The perspective she has gained from her mother’s dementia is as simple as it is heartbreaking.

“When someone has dementia, they live mainly in the present (with glimpses of the long-term past). You realise the importance of doing nice things now, even though the experiences will be instantly forgotten. You learn that not everything is about ‘making memories’. It’s much like spending time with a toddler, who won’t have any memory of a fun day—it’s still worth having that fun, for the joy it brings in the ‘now’.”

Barrie and Claire.

But Emma has endured an even more visceral change to how she processes the passage of time.

Three years ago her husband Jeff died on an otherwise unremarkable and ordinary evening. Emma went in to check on the man she adored. But he was gone.

“In the moments I spent with Jeff as reality sunk in that we had lost him, I became acutely aware of my own heartbeat. I could feel every breath going in and out of my lungs. Death, up close, makes life seem extraordinarily fragile. I learnt that you can wish your life was over at the same time as not wanting to waste a single second of it. Grief pulls you up, sharp. It brings you to your knees. It rearranges your priorities in an instant.”

In the blur of hours and days that followed, Emma realised that she had a choice—”to grieve either standing still, or moving.”

“There were days when I barely did a thing (and that’s important, too), but I learnt that what I was feeling wouldn’t magically disappear if I stepped back from life. On the contrary, it was by looking for tiny, life-affirming things in a day—a stranger’s smile in a supermarket or someone letting you merge in traffic—that I managed to keep moving forward.”

She also held tightly to the analogy that grief is like waves—“you drown in it at first, but over time you find yourself in calmer waters. Eventually the waves of grief become less intense, and the distance between them further apart. Every so often you’re still dumped by what feels like an unexpected tsunami of pain, but you’ve learnt by then that there’s no way out but through it…”

Claire with grandson Seb.

Emma has been open about her grief in her public writing and has placed particular energy into helping her young son Seb come to grips with the loss of his beloved dad.

“There’s no doubt that Seb and other children we’ve befriended who’ve lost parents, look at the world differently, through the lens of grief. The ‘magic’ and sense of safety was torn from their lives and they learnt difficult lessons about loss as children that many adults are yet to encounter.”

But she has also seen that grief teaches resilience.

“Seb understands that time can soften the edges of pain—though it doesn’t heal it completely. He knows we can get help to recover from traumatic things. He understands that life is short and it’s precarious. Whether that gives him a sense of urgency as he grows up is yet to be revealed, but I notice he can be much more philosophical about life than I recall being at the same age.

“Jeff would often say about unchangeable things, ‘It is what it is’. I think Seb is learning that lesson too.”

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Time (AW2020), available to read free online.

Read it here.

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