All Part of the Plan: What I learned in 2016


Today was a happy day.

I’ve had a bit of a rough year. I haven’t made it obvious to many people, but I’ve really struggled with things like self-esteem, anxiety and stress. I’ve felt pressure about money and finishing my PhD, which led to spending most of 2016 feeling overwhelmed and waiting for something to change.

Something did change back in August. I got a call from my auntie to say that my Nana had collapsed while on holiday at my parent’s house and my Grandad had called an ambulance. No one else was around and she asked could I drive to them and see what was happening.

When I got to the house my Grandad looked as dazed as I felt. He led me to my Nana who was lay on the ground in the bathroom, barely conscious and breathing heavily.

The rest of that day was a blur of phone calls and worry and waiting while my Nana’s condition gave cause for concern. Things stabilised for a few days and the doctors tried to calm us with reassurances that it probably wasn’t anything serious.

Then I got another call. “The doctor has told her that they have bad news”. I rushed into hospital and we spent the day waiting again.

They eventually brought us into a separate room from my Nana. The sombre atmosphere and serious faces were a precursor to what we all hoped we were wrong about.

“Ivy has bowel cancer.”

She went home for a couple of weeks and then came back for a major operation to remove the tumour. There was a lot of focus on preparing her for this operation, making sure that, as a 79-year-old, she would be able to withstand such major surgery and it’s life altering after effects.

The day of the surgery was okay at first, but as we waited and waited it got more scary. As someone struggling with anxiety, my mind went to the worst places. Why would it take this long? Maybe she’s dead and they haven’t told us yet.

We kept taking turns going back to check the ward where her bed would be brought after recovery. At one point I checked it just as they wheeled an empty bed out from the lift that goes to theatre. I fell apart inside convinced that was her bed and that they had brought it back because she didn’t survive. I sat beside my family silently, while I tried to figure out what to do. It turned out the times were mixed up and she spent much longer in theatre preparing for surgery than we realised. The surgery was successful and it appeared that the cancer had not spread.

Over the next two weeks she started to eat and walk and heal enough that there was talk of her going home. We started talking about meal plans and preparing my parent’s house until she was well enough to go back to her own house in Northern Ireland. Everything was looking good.

And then I got another call.

She had been complaining about stomach pain and a CT scan revealed a serious internal infection. She was rushed into surgery before any of us could even make it to the hospital. There had been so much planning before the first surgery and yet she was going into this without even recovering fully from the first one.

When I got to the hospital it was just me and my Grandad at first. We sat looking out the window which overlooks my town. We talked a little but we mostly sat in silence knowing that there were no words that could fix things. It was just a matter of waiting once again and hoping things turned out okay.

It was in the early hours of the morning when the surgeon finally came and explained to us how it went. It was extremely long and intensive, and it required removing lots of infected tissue. We all sat in silence again after the surgeon left, relieved that Nana was okay but reeling as we took in the extent of the surgery and what the consequences would be long term.

That ended the scarier times as we started to focus on recovery again. The seasons changed, the clocks went back, the cold set in and bit by bit my Nana started getting better.

There were little joys at first, like her. being able to walk from one side of the room to the other or having her first bites of food again. And gradually the joys got bigger as her strength increased and recovering became a reality rather than just a hope.

There were also setbacks. There were moments of frustration and fear. You’re going home next week turned into the week after and then the week after that and it kept going, until we almost didn’t believe it would really happen.

The silver lining in all this is that I got to spend hours and hours with my Nana. Sometimes it is easy to take family members for granted, even if you love them a lot. But as I went in to the hospital each day I got to chat with my Nana about everything. She told her funny stories, some which were family classics and some I had never heard before. She talked about her mother and father and growing up during World War II when you had to bring your gas mask to school. One night we even talked about death and she told me things I never knew before about the night my sister died and how she learned to handle grief in a way which allows her to talk about people she has lost with a smile on her face.

Most of all, she showed me how strong she is. I have spoken about all of this like it was my difficulty, but she is the one who had to stay in the hospital when the rest of us went home each night. She was the one who faced painful treatments and procedures along with the fear that she might not make it through. She faced the same cancer which she watched her father die from. She had to handle the many small indignities that come when you have to rely on everyone around you for even the most basic of tasks and freedoms. And she did it all with an incredible amount of grace, strength and patience.

She made it clear she wasn’t giving up on her fight for life, but a large part of that meant accepting the way things were when things weren’t how any of us would like them to be. She had her moments of anger or disappointment, but she was always quick to move on and focus on what she needed to do in the present moment.

Today I got a call from my Nana.

“I’m going home!”

Today I sat looking out that same window with my Grandad as we ate soup and waited just a few more hours for my Nana to be discharged from hospital after her 11 week stay. Watching my Grandad drive away to their home with her sat beside him was one of the happiest moments of my life because I know how much it cost to get there and how much it meant to them both.

2016 has been incredibly difficult, but it has also shown me a lot about what is really important. I don’t feel as anxious or stressed anymore, not because bad things don’t happen, but because they do. They are inevitable, just as much as the changing seasons and the cold setting in after a beautiful summer. My Nana, with her funny stories and her good attitude and her willingness to talk about death has passed on a little bit of that acceptance of life to me this year.

I’ve felt stuck throughout a lot of this year, unable to move forward despite longing to be somewhere else. I’ve always hated waiting, but I’m starting to understand that life is always moving. There are moments to enjoy and learn and grow, even when you feel stuck.

There is a phrase my Nana started saying to her doctors, one which I’m not sure I philosophically agree with, but I have grown to like anyway. They would give her news, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and she would smile back and say, “It’s all part of the plan”.

I’m not sure what the plan is, but her willingness to believe in it seemed to help her face all that she has. Good or bad, life or death, it would all be part of the plan.

2016 has been the year where I learned to make peace with where I am while fighting for where I want to be. It’s been messy and confusing and terribly overwhelming.

But as I sit here tonight, taking in all that has happened and all my hopes and fears and dreams for the future, I have a smile on my face as I think to myself, maybe that was all part of the plan.