2. “Feeling wonky” – Transition Time

Have you ever wondered how fast the universe can act while simultaneously dragging its feet (or wings, perhaps) seemingly forever?


Life is not all about suffering

This ominous subtitle captures what my life had felt like shortly before April 30, 2021, my cut-off date for diary entries that had informed Perfect Timing.

To illustrate what I mean, let me take you back to what happened a week earlier.

My GP had called on April 22 to find out about ongoing side effects from my radiation therapy treatments.

“How are you feeling today, Barb?”

Close to tears, I told him that I had not expected them to last for a month afterwards and be this awful. When were these horrible diarrhea attacks and severe fatigue issues (“Sometimes, I feel like I am back in chemo land!”) finally going to stop?

I could also do without numbness in my left foot and right thumb, and the occasional headache, sleepless night, and hot flashes.

“I am so sorry you haven’t been feeling well, Barb.” The genuine empathy in my GP’s voice was a great comfort.

So were the two silver linings in my dark cloud of complaints.

One was my daily engagement with the Perfect Timing book manuscript (which I did not want to tell him about yet.)

The other one concerned my (albeit temporary) move to Vancouver Island to be near relatives and heal fully from my ordeal.

“My twin sister has already booked a flight in late mid-May to ‘come and get me’.”

“Leaving town before you have been vaccinated a second time is not a good idea, Barb.” My concerned physician then advised me to stay in town for at least two weeks afterwards.

“Has the Saskatchewan Health Authority been in touch about it with you?”

“Not yet.”

As an immuno-compromised patient, I had been fast-tracked and received my first vaccination in early April. Depending on when I could get an appointment for my second shot, a departure date in mid- to late June, if not early July, was now much more realistic.

My favourite GP’s next request did not surprise me.

“Please take it easy until you leave, Barb; cross-country travel by car is exhausting!”

“You got it.”

Driving 2000 kilometres west over the course of three days gave me, the seasoned traveller, nightmares. I have always preferred planes and trains, if not bicycles when travelling in Europe.

Ever since the official arrival of the pandemic in Saskatchewan in mid-March 2020, and especially since my surgery the following August, my inner child had missed her favourite playmate every single day, despite daily video chats and texts.

You guessed it: imagining a world without my twin sister in it is tough, to say the least. Having been together since conception, our bond is special, if not exceptional.

Our relationship was also rock-solid at the time because of, not despite, my illness.

“I would love to be this close to one of my siblings” was a line I had heard from many of my friends over the years, if not “I envy you girls.”

“I would bring my own hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray along with me to the hotel and avoid eating in restaurants altogether,” my GP added, interrupting my heart talking to my head.

“Good idea.” I jotted down these valuable tips on my “get ready” list right away.

A kind friend had already provided me with several printed maps and a detailed travel itinerary (gas stations included), courtesy of her local CAA travel agent.

“This is very old school but effective,” I had said to my friend, “… just like my beloved wall calendars.”

Leaving much later than planned meant that I could take my sweet time to book our accommodation and pack enough food to last for a while (and that my sister who has been a vegetarian for almost 30 years would enjoy.)

I could also carefully determine which items besides clothing I was going to pack (my beloved Vitamix kitchen machine? Extra bedding?).

Taking my vehicle in for an inspection to make sure we were not going to run into any trouble on the road was a top priority as well.

In pre-pandemic times, we would naturally have stopped several times on the way for some sightseeing fun (Canadian Rockies, anyone?). But that was out of the question for this “let’s get to the West Coast as fast as we possibly can” trip.

According to my unexpectedly chatty GP, the Covid-19 numbers would likely increase until June; this warranted extra caution on my part. (He was right, and yet the Saskatchewan Government still went through with its 3-phase roadmap to reopen the province; all mask requirements were lifted on July 11, 2021.)

“Dr. Barb” then decided to change the topic. “When will I be able to return to work?”

“Starting at 50% as of July 1 sounds good to me,” my GP stated.

The plan was for me to work in my virtual office out west, gradually increasing my hours to 100% until the end of 2021.

“You are not going to be doing any teaching, are you, Barb?”

“No, not until next year in the fall.”

I had already received word that a study leave from January 1 to June 30, 2022, had been approved. (I can apply for a six-month research sabbatical to focus on scholarly activities every three and a half years.)

The timing of this one had been perfect (no joke!). The thought of lecturing in an actual university classroom – even with masks and other safety protocols in place – still made me decidedly uncomfortable.

As far as I was concerned, Covid-19 was the enemy. As an immuno-compromised individual, I would do everything possible to stay out of the line of fire (or, more precisely, hospitals), for obvious reasons.

My final question concerned my patient status.

“You are officially in remission, Barb,” my GP announced.

According to a CT scan in January, a PET scan in February, and an MRI in March, there was no sign of cancer anywhere in my body, he said. Life (in 2021) was really, really good!

At the same time, I knew full well that my first follow-up appointment was just around the corner.

It had been scheduled for May 26, two months to the day after I had finished active cancer treatments; this was standard procedure according to my favourite oncology nurse.

Since the recurrence rate for endometrial cancer is high – and the odds of a secondary cancer, specifically breast and colon, increase substantially as well – my medical oncologist would perform pelvic exams until July 2025 (“That long?”).

They would be scheduled every three to four months for the first two years after treatments had finished, then every six months for the remainder, I was told.

I sighed when I told my trusted neighbour about it.

Instead of enjoying retirement to the fullest, this wonderful woman took care of me throughout my cancer journey, peaks and valleys included.

In hindsight, I would have been lost without her wise counsel, tasty cooking, and expert driving skills. (Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything, “Mom”.)

“I had really hoped that because of ongoing Covid-19 concerns, I could simply check in via video chat or phone from the West Coast,” I said.

“I would have thought that you would be used to these physical exams by now, Barb.”

“Not really.”

Spreading my legs while taking deep breaths and staring at the ceiling of a sterile cancer clinic treatment room will never make it on my list of fun activities.

Worse, there was also an entire year’s worth of “special pelvic homework” involved.

Specifically, I was to use a decidedly unsexy vaginal stretching device multiple times a week for up to four minutes each time. This would prevent my vaginal walls from closing – a serious side effect of undergoing pelvic radiation treatments – and facilitating gynecological check-ups.

“It’s just temporary,” commented my new health guide, “Barb 2.0”, when I rolled my eyes.

“And it’s not going to kill you,” added my main top-hatted guide.

After all, this special assignment was a private affair, and it was entirely up to me how I would pass the time by praying, meditating, or reading, for instance.


What to say when you don’t know what to say

… to individuals who finished active medical treatments for a serious health concern such as cancer.

That was the question posed by a Perfect Timing reader when I asked her for feedback on a late draft of my manuscript. She and many others had evidently appreciated my candid advice on this admittedly complicated topic. (Some cancer websites also offer suggestions of a similar nature.)

If you have read my “pearls of wisdom” before, consider what I write below a complimentary review. If this is your first time, I would appreciate your full attention. Ready?

  • Remember to show sincere empathy in your response.
    • To that end, use phrases such as “My heart goes out to you” or a variation of “That must have been so hard … taken a lot of courage … required you to be brave”, etc. These always made me feel better.
  • Refrain from giving advice of any kind, even if it kills you on the inside (no joke!).
    • Important: avoid well-meant comments such as “You’ll be just fine” (bad), “You are strong and have nothing to worry about” (worse), or “It’ll be over before you know it” (worst ever).
    • Why? Because I am willing to bet a minor fortune that you did not acquire a medical degree overnight or have 24/7 access to a special crystal ball that qualifies you to make such predictions. For the record, they scared me every single time!
  • Stay clear of grieving someone’s future for them.
    • Offering comments like “It will be tough for you to return to work after having been on medical leave for so long” are never helpful.
    • Cancer survivors are, incidentally, also not immune to offending each other. I remember one person telling me, “Umpteen years ago, when I was diagnosed, the odds of making it to the five-year mark alive were much lower, so consider yourself lucky!”

What can you do if the body, mind, and spirit of someone you value has been touched by cancer (or by another critical illness, for that matter)?

  • If you are close to them and they ask you not to tell others what is going on in their lives, respect their wishes.
    • If that’s an impossible request on my part, then expect your own confidantes to blab about it to someone else, and so on, even if you asked them not to. This happened to me (“I felt I should tell them so they would not bother you directly.”) Not good!
  • Check in on that special cancer patient occasionally – ideally via text or e-mail which takes less energy than answering a phone call – or even regularly, if they are the extroverted kind.
    • “How are you doing today?” is a great conversation starter in my experience. This will allow the person to share as much as they want when they feel ready.
  • If you have the time, consider extending offers of personalized assistance by asking “What can I do to help you todaytomorrowthis week?”
    • If they turn you down at first, remember that it is incredibly hard for many people to have to ask and/or accept help in the first place.

This brings me to three more important pieces of advice meant to help people avoid a faux pas of sorts when engaging with a cancer survivor.

While this term encompasses anyone who has ever had a cancer diagnosis, regardless of stage and treatment plan, it is typically associated with individuals who have finished active treatments, however long ago.

  • Never ever offer comments on that person’s physical appearance, even if they are meant as compliments.
    • That’s not a wig

      I still recall with horror the “bad hair day or chemo?” question from a couple who were clearly trying to be funny during an online Christmas party when I sported my favourite turban. (I had opted against wearing wigs.) Thankfully, they had used the private chat function and were profusely apologetic upon reading my truthful response (“the latter”).

My hair finally started to grow back in the spring of 2021 in 50+ shades of grey and white.

As a result, I received many “Something about you is different” comments – and I dreaded them all.

More often than not, the gift of deflection would come to my aid (“I was just going to say the same thing – is that a new lipstick you are wearing?”). But there were also times when I simply wanted to slap the other person and scream profanities at them in both English and German.

In other words, my mental health suffered not just while undergoing chemo- and radiation therapy. Looking back, I realized that it continued to be affected for months and months after my treatments had ended.

Did I have a tough time admitting this fact to myself (or, more precisely, to “Barb 2.0”) or anyone else? You bet. To that end,

  • Never ever pressure cancer survivors to share details of their journey with you, medical or otherwise.
    • At the end of their day, what they do is none of your business, even if you feel the opposite way.

Let me give you an example.

My best friend openly shared her ongoing cancer story on social media (which I encouraged her to!). I chose “to write down my story and then share it widely” instead. Several of my Facebook “friends” had clearly not gotten that special memo.

“How dare they whine about not being kept in the loop by me,” I remember saying (or was that my inner child yelling?) at my poor twin sister.

Her brilliant advice was, of course, for me to teach them about these “curriculum of life” bits by writing about them. (She got her wish.) Finally,

  • Never ever assume that a cancer survivor’s journey – or that of anyone with a complicated medical history – is over.
    • Living with the fear of dying sooner than others is a fact of life for us, especially when deemed Stage 4 and/or trying to cope with comorbidities; that is, pre-existing conditions.

No wonder, then, that fellow cancer survivors I have talked to all agree that “Time is precious, so make the most of it!”

“Are you?” was the question that my health guide, “Barb 2.0”, had quietly posed to me during the last week of April 2021.

“I am trying my very best,” I whispered and hugged my inner child closely.


Don’t push it

In hindsight, the entire month of May was focused on writing and healing or, more precisely, on healing by writing.

On the day after my diary cut off date for Perfect Timing, “Dr. Barb”, my expert writer self, and I sat down and conceived its final chapter or “Epilogue” in less than three hours.

The ease and speed of writing and especially the content clarity signalled that I had been engaged in automatic or channeled writing. This was also how the Table of Contents of my first memoir had been born (in the middle of the night, and in record time.)

“Thank you, universe, for all your help with this manuscript,” I said – and meant it.

My first full draft of Perfect Timing clocked in at roughly 45,000 words and was now ready to be sent to my first two peer reviewers: my twin sister, who is an excellent proof-reader, and my oldest sister’s husband, a published author.

“I cried all the way through,” my younger sibling (by five minutes) said 24 hours later, a sentiment echoed by my inner child.

“I can believe that.”

It had been tough on her to watch me cope with cancer during a pandemic from a distance.

My brother-in-law returned the manuscript ten days later.

He called it “a biographical creative non-fiction piece” that needed proper formatting of dialogues (more on that later.) Most importantly, he felt that it would benefit from “Perhaps more description? Your reaction?”.

“Oh @#$%,” I thought. He arguably wanted me to include more of the “touchy-feely,” um, “crap” to which “Dr. Barb” was deathly allergic.

“That’s a wonderful idea.” Was that “Barb 2.0” talking to me?

“Rest as much as possible whenever possible to get your strength back,” she added, and for good reason.

My body’s power battery seemed indeed to still be stuck on “low” these days, with severe exhaustion setting in typically after lunch.

Thankfully, participating in daily exercise sessions with my twin sister helped tremendously. To my utter delight, she had reinvented herself early on during the pandemic to become a certified personal trainer and then taken extra training to work with cancer survivors like yours truly.

So, after a lovely 45-minute stretching session with her (“Spine is spacious – chest is open and lifted – shoulders are back and free!”), I had enough energy to sit down at my computer.

I added a document entitled “Perfect Timing – Further Notes” to my “Barb’s other book” folder to distinguish it from my academic research and scholarly endeavours.

If nothing else, keeping a diary had now become a habit. Since I also typed a mile a minute, I figured that it was not going to be a time-consuming activity.

The next morning, I reached for my phone to read and respond to the daily “How was your night?” text from my trusted neighbour. She had sent them ever since my cancer surgery nine months ago.

“What’s this?” My Wi-Fi was dead!

The culprit was a thunderstorm that had fried my brand-new modem (“Oh @#%^.”)

It had come with a change of providers in early February. At that time, I had swapped apartments – in between chemo- and radiation therapy treatments – inside my building.

Who moves house while being in active cancer care and during a pandemic, you ask?

It is something an individual would do who not only had downsizing on her mind for years (“Less is more”) but also believes in “synchrodestiny.” This term was coined by Deepak Chopra and defined as “a way to consciously influence our life path according to the laws of nature orchestrating the evolutionary cosmic process.”

So, when a one-bedroom flat on the seventh floor of my building became available in late January 2021, I left behind my beloved two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor that I had lived in since April 2005.

Were the east-facing views of my new abode spectacular? Yes. Would I miss my balcony? No.

It was covered with snow, and therefore unusable, for at least six months of the year anyway. Harsh weather conditions are quite common on the prairies; so are sudden temperature changes, and not just in the winter.

To that end, let me give readers who have never lived in that part of Canada – I call it “menopause land” – for an extended period an example.

According to an entry in my computer diary dated June 13, 2021, I had opened my bedroom window early in the morning to enjoy a spectacular sunrise.

Minus (!) 2 degrees Celsius wind gusts greeted me; at least, that’s what the weather person had said when I turned on the TV while having breakfast. Three days earlier, I had switched on the air-conditioning unit in my living room on high to cope with the plus 35 degrees Celsius outside (!). A year later, it would snow in Regina on the May long weekend. Enough said.

That brings me to something I realized within days after relocating my belongings in early February 2021. My new address reflected the extent to which I had changed permanently on a physical, mental, and spiritual level ever since my cancer diagnosis!

“You should still get that fried modem sorted out,” a gentle voice nudged.

I smiled. For “Barb 2.0”, my health guide, to make that request, amused me. To please her, I got into my car, exchanged the piece of equipment in question (“Would you like a brand-new one?”) and set it up myself in under five minutes.

Then I fell back into bed, completely drained – and it wasn’t even noon yet.

“I need to feel better by tomorrow,” I remember telling myself. I was going to discuss my return-to-work plans with the academic dean, my immediate supervisor.

She was positively thrilled about welcoming me back to the office, as was my inner academic, in contrast to “Barb 2.0”.

“Healing takes time, and your body has been through a lot,” she emphasized. “Don’t push it.”

“I plan to make the most of it,” I stated, feeling confident.

In truth, I had no idea what recovering from cancer treatments would look like and what role, if any, the pandemic would play.


21 days is an eternity

On the afternoon of May 6, 2021, my best friend and I sat outside of my building to celebrate her 52nd birthday.

The weird location emphasized how wary I still was about letting people into my apartment. Going to a restaurant was still impossible, due to existing Covid-19 restrictions.

Spending time together in person was, therefore, incredibly special for the both of us, to say the least.

A heart attack and stroke survivor, she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma only two weeks after cancer had changed my world.

In fact, I had been the one begging her to have “that terrible cough of yours checked out” when she had come with me to hear what my GP had to say. I had gone to see him about a lump in my lower left abdomen (“There is a sinister mass in your belly, Barb.”)

Our conversation on her birthday was an emotional one.

We reminisced about how much both of our lives had changed since our respective cancer diagnoses. (“No joke,” said “Barb 2.0”.)

When my best friend voiced her fear of dying early – “How many more birthdays will there be for me?” – I felt tears welling up inside me.

While we would have the occasional tiff (“Stop arguing, Barb!”), our friendship had been extremely solid.

We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and shared a mutual love of classical music, teaching, and cats.

To this day, I miss the two felines my twin sister and I had adopted from the local SPCA in the early 1990s when I was a graduate student.

Kitty Love

They were, of course, bilingual and named after two Mozartian opera characters, Despina and Marcellina. Ultimately, however, we just referred to them as “big cat” and “little cat.”

“I made this birthday card for you,” I said to my best friend and handed it to her with a smile.

Her emotional reaction reminded me of the major falling out we had when I was beginning radiation treatments in mid-February 2021.

I had intentionally left it out of Perfect Timing because “Some things are best kept private” (to quote my top-hatted guide.)

However, when one is undergoing physically and mentally challenging cancer treatments, emotions tend to run high.

Let’s begin with the backdrop to the following, admittedly loaded question: What could cause two best friends to stop speaking to each other?

In mid-December 2020, in between my third and fourth rounds of chemotherapy, I had suddenly developed a fever. It warranted spending three nights on a stretcher in the local hospital’s ambulatory care unit (“Code Burgundy.”)

Nobody was allowed to visit me, including my best friend.

Since my medical team suspected that it had been a viral infection (“You could have picked it up anywhere, Barb”), I shut down my already tiny “Covid bubble” just before Christmas.

“That’s wise,” my trusted neighbour commented. Close friends – who I had dubbed the “TV couple” – agreed with her.

They had not only been most supportive ever since my cancer diagnosis, but also encouraged me to buy a new smart TV the week prior to my surgery. This piece of equipment had made a huge difference to my mental health throughout my treatments (hello, PBS, Food Channel, and HGTV!).

I especially enjoyed watching German TV shows online on a big screen. My long-time favourite has been Der Bergdoktor, an entertaining show about a handsome physician living in the Austrian Alps – a real treat for a female residing in a mostly flat Canadian prairie province.

In January 2021, the “Covid situation” in Saskatchewan grew worse. As a result, the only way to stay in touch with my best friend (and anyone else who wished to be in contact with me) was by telephone.

If you guessed that she did not take kindly to this, you are right.

“You are kicking me out of your life, Barb – have you gone mad?”

“No, I am just following doctor’s orders,” I pointed out gently, but firmly. “I’ll let you know when I feel comfortable again to meet with you in person, whenever that will be.”

Until then we could stay in touch over the phone (her preferred method of communication at the time), I suggested.

“I don’t like this at all,” she kept muttering, clearly annoyed with this “new rule.”

She felt rejected, and by the end of January 2021, she had run out of patience. It had been over six weeks that we had not spent any time together in person.

“I feel abandoned and left out, Barb,” she emphasized. “How can you do this to me of all people?”

“Don’t bully me,” I shot back. “Why can’t you respect my wishes?”

After a particularly awful conversation in mid-February, I hung up on her in mid-sentence. She had wounded the very depths of my soul. Then I wept inconsolably for what felt like hours.

“What is wrong with her?” my inner child asked, sounding devastated.

“I have no idea,” was my truthful reply. All I knew was that my “inner crew” and I needed distance.

An eternity – that is, 21 very long days – passed before we reconnected.

Radiation treatments and working on my book manuscript kept me busy throughout those three, long weeks.

Yet, it felt beyond weird not checking in with my best friend frequently, at length, and in depth. After all, that’s what we had been doing for nearly two decades.

In fact, even in 2018 and 2019, when I would be away on lengthy research trips in Europe during the month of June, and she would spend July and most of August teaching at a remote camp in the Canadian Rocky Mountains without access to Wi-Fi, we still managed to keep our friendship going (“How did your conference talk go, Barb?”).

What was I going to do? In other words, where was the universe when you really needed it?

On March 5, 2021 – I will never forget the date – my main guide and “Dr. Barb” lined up in my head. He was wearing both his top hat and a three-piece suit, while my inner academic held my inner child’s hand tightly.

Then they dictated an e-mail to my best friend. It took forever because I had to stop repeatedly to wipe tears off my face (“and blow your nose,” my inner child reminded me.)

“You must send it shortly after 8 am,” they said (“Fine.”) Here is what it said:

Hi. It has been 3 weeks since we last talked.

You said I had broken your trust and that I needed to earn it back.

This statement devastated me, as I did it to protect both of us.

I am at a loss as to when and how to start a conversation because I am too afraid to inadvertently press the same or another ‘mental health button’ of yours and find myself in an imaginary court room again.

How can we move past this? If you would like to respond, I would welcome an e-mail.

Your friend


At 10:39 am, my phone beeped to signal that a new text message had arrived. It read:

Hi Barb!

I have missed you. I hope your radiation is going well and that everything is going fine for you. I would still welcome talking with you and trying to figure out any issues in our friendship and moving past it. We have been friends for a long time with no big issues. It would be a shame if it was too big an issue for us to get over. I will be patient and continue to wait until you decide to call me. I am more than happy to repair difficulties when you are. 

Whenever you decide. Until then, just know I hope only good things for you and wish you well.

My soul leapt with joy as I typed the following reply:

I hope you are doing well as well. Did you get my email from this morning?

 No, Barb” was her answer.

After viewing this incident through the eyes of “Barb 2.0” for this sequel as instructed, I posed another, equally loaded question to my “inner crew”: What are the odds of two best friends reaching out to each other on the exact same day within a couple of hours of each other?

To my surprise, the answer was not instantaneous.

Were they turning to Dr. Google or Mrs. Wikipedia for assistance first, I wondered? (“Not funny,” replied “Dr. Barb”.)

Finally, my main guide spoke up. “The odds are slim for something like that to happen,” he said. “In your case it’s an example of what the universe calls ‘perfect timing’.”

An unexpectedly cheerful “Dr. Barb” nodded in agreement, looking at a very smiley “Barb 2.0” for input.

“Oh my,” I thought. Had the two feisty females in my head perhaps made amends?

I also appreciated the particularly astute observation offered by my best friend several weeks after our fallout.

“We had to both get cancer during a pandemic first to experience a serious friendship crisis, Barb.”

“I am so glad we reconciled.” I had missed her so much!

In hindsight, there is no doubt in my mind that this particular “Covid bubble story” was, in fact, a “minor life lesson” (for lack of a better term) meant to teach me something profound.

What was it, you ask?

That our karmic friendship bond was strong enough to make it through all sorts of stormy weather that was evidently part of our lives’ forecast.


The more we look, the more we find  

“I need a favour,” I said to my trusted neighbour the day after my best friend’s birthday. “Would you be able to give me a ride back from the autobody shop on Monday?”

“Sure – are you finally having those two boo-boos from last year fixed?” she wondered.

My trusted neighbour was, of course, referring to May 2020, the worst month ever in my long driving history.

Not only did I badly scrape the right front fender of my otherwise spotless 2017 Mazda when pulling into my indoor parking spot, I also backed into a colleague’s garage door pillar (why use your car’s camera?).

“Get it fixed together,” said my Saskatchewan auto “insurance people” who worked for SGI and CAA. “It’s cheaper and less time consuming.”

I had made an appointment for late July 2020, only to cancel it (“I have to have surgery.”)

When I called them back nine months later, I felt reassured knowing that my vehicle would look like new when it was time to drive it across two provinces.

My name is Freya

Suddenly, my phone beeped: it was Winston’s mom. My other walking buddy-friend-colleague who often brought along Freya, his English Springer Spaniel, was in the hospital!

“But we just walked around Wascana Lake on Saturday,” I said. “What happened?”

“He’s had a cardiac event of sorts, Barb.”

“Oh no!”

This terrible news took me right back to a horrific day in late January 2011.

My best friend, who was 41 at the time, had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke flagged by a nurse-friend (“Your hands are clammy.”)

Worse, it turned out that she had also suffered a massive heart attack, albeit a silent one. Commonly called the “widow-maker,” it was the same kind that had killed her father at age 56 in the late 1990s.

“I am going to live,” she had vowed a couple of days later when I visited her in the hospital, shocked to the core.

“You will never return to work,” her cardiac medical team predicted.

They were wrong: three years later, my best friend returned to her high school teaching job, working first part-time, and then full-time (“I am a fighter.”)

Trying to calm myself, I called her to share the news about my walking buddy (“He will be fine, Barb.”)

According to Freya’s mom, her husband had been out on “our” walk, circling the lake near my house. “He suddenly felt dizzy and sat down to rest on a bench,” she said.

“Oh no,” I thought. “This is serious.”

The only times I could recall this fit and healthy male in his mid-60s sitting down on a walk was when yours truly was recovering from major abdominal surgery. (The easy 4.1 kilometres long “lake loop” had felt more like walking the Queen City Marathon to me in August and September of 2020.)

Eventually, Freya’s dad got up and walked home slowly. Feeling weak upon arrival, he called for his wife, a trained nurse. Then he collapsed on the living room couch.

“He had no pulse and a racing heartbeat, so I called an ambulance, Barb.”

“How long did it take for the paramedics to arrive?”

“Seven and a half minutes – the longest of my life.”

“Did they have to use a defibrillator to shock his heart back into beating?”

“Yes, Barb. He’s lucky to be alive.”

In other words, my beloved colleague-friend could have dropped dead anytime during his walk around the lake and/or on his way home.

“If you are trying to scare me, universe, it’s working,” I said, praying extra hard for a speedy recovery.

Freya – and Wilma, their other, much older English Springer Spaniel – welcomed their human dad back home five days later.

Apparently, he had been bored to tears at the hospital. (“I know that feeling,” said an amused “Dr. Barb”, albeit only in my head.)

A week later, we had resumed our Saturday afternoon walks, much to my delight.

“I don’t know what all the fuss was about. I felt just fine after they had shocked me back to life,” he said. I grinned from ear to ear.

“They did a whole bunch of tests while I was in the hospital to figure out why this happened in the first place but to no avail,” he continued.

I wasn’t surprised by his medical team’s thoroughness, given how closely my best friend had been (and continued to be) monitored.

Their rationale was simple: “The more we look, the more we find,” to quote my very own radiology oncologist.

Case in point: following a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan warranted by a mysterious post-surgery bladder cyst, this detail-oriented physician not only diagnosed the beginning stages of tonsilitis (“Are you sure your throat isn’t sore, Barb?”), but also made me visit an ear-nose-throat oncology surgeon (“Open wide.”)

“Did you get your car back from the autobody shop, Barb?” Freya’s dad asked, bringing me back to the present.

“Yes, but it took longer than expected,” I answered.

On the day I was supposed to pick it up, the wife of my “TV couple” friends had given me a ride. We had a nice chat on our way to our destination (“How do you like being retired?”).

Upon arrival, I walked around my vehicle and promptly spotted a blemish on the front right fender. Were they blind, or something?

My friend was not impressed. “They need to fix this before you take your car home with you, Barb.”

“Do you think I will have to pay for it?”

“Of course not,” said the autobody shop employee, very embarrassed. “Please accept our sincere apologies.”

Several days later, my trusted neighbour assured me that my vehicle looked like new when the two of us went to pick it up.

Then a smooth contralto voice piped up in my head.

“That is exactly how you should feel on the inside, not just the outside at the end of your healing journey,” said “Barb 2.0”.

“Are you going to make everything in my life about that?”

“That is my job.” Clearly, “Barb 2.0” was taking it very seriously.


Cut it off      

Later that evening, I met my “TV couple” friends for a picnic in the park as the weather was gorgeous.

“The food is on me,” I had told them.

I had a SkipTheDishes gift coupon from Christmas to order some yummy pizza from a local restaurant. That was a bit of a gamble as I had still not fully recovered from my radiation therapy diet woes, but I did not care.

“I have brought my pandemic hairdresser paraphernalia with me, as you asked, Barb,” said the wife. “Wow, your hair is really growing back nicely.”

“And not just on my head,” I commented.

Since my last round of chemotherapy in late January 2021, I had celebrated the return of every single one of my eye lashes with what my inner child likes to call “Barb’s happy dance.”

I was also delighted that the sections of my eyebrows that had thinned, if not fallen out completely during perimenopause, had decided to grow back with a vengeance.

Incidentally, my nose hair and those donkey-like bristles on my chin had been the first ones to return (“Go figure.”)

Having my hair cut outside in the sweltering heat while listening to birds chirping and kids playing made my heart sing. Life was good – even if my new hairdo lacked the finesse of my trusted hairdresser.

I had met her almost twenty years ago when I walked into a random shopping mall hair salon in Regina and sat down on her swivel chair. I quickly realized that having her cut (and later colour) my hair were important self care visits (“I look like a pony – help me!”).

Her “superpower” was to make me feel like the main character in Pretty Woman.

Never in a million years did I ever think that I would voluntarily visit her salon and tell her to cut (most of) my hair off.

“I am going to have my first round of chemotherapy the day after tomorrow,” I told her. “Let’s do this.”

To my absolute horror (and hers), I cried the entire time while she carried out my instructions.

Three weeks later, I felt numb on the inside as I watched her shave off whatever hair I had not shed already over the long Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in 2020.

It was going to be such a treat to visit her hair salon in late June 2021 before I would leave for my big “pandemic car trip.”

Or so I thought.


Office therapy  

In mid-May, a letter from the Saskatchewan Health Authority arrived. Having been in active cancer care, I could get vaccinated a second time against Covid-19, ahead of others in my age category. Hallelujah!

“Check with your pharmacy,” my best friend advised on the phone. “That’s where I had it done.”

Our first real “inside” visit had finally taken place a few days ago (“Your new apartment on the seventh floor is lovely, Barb.”) It had been so long since she had sat on my dark blue love seat and smiled at me!

As per her suggestion, I booked an appointment with my pharmacy down the street for June 1 (“See you at 1:15 pm.”)

Then I got in touch with my twin sister. She checked her schedule and moved her “come and get me” flight to June 21.

“Excellent.” I could not wait to tell my best friend about my news.

“There has been a development, Barb.” She sounded somber on the phone.

Her medical team had decided to switch her to immunotherapy. Her lymphoma neck wound was also taking forever to heal. In fact, she had been hospitalized for it in April, keeping a multitude of doctors and nurses on their toes.

“Do you think you will be going back to work in the fall?” I asked.

She missed her students so much; I did, too.

“You bet!” There was a smile in her voice.

Her “can do” attitude reminded me of something I had put on my own agenda for the month of May.

My faculty office would be painted and recarpeted over the summer. To that end, I had been asked to take out everything that should not be boxed up and returned after the makeover was finished.

“I am going to do a ‘serious purge’,” I told my twin sister.

“As in ‘keep – donate – or toss’, similar to what you did when you moved apartments in early February?”

“That’s my plan of attack.”

It had been ages since I had gone through everything – and I mean everything – in my office. Granted, I kept it tidy but still seemed to be running out of room occasionally.

Moreover, many publications I used to prepare lectures and relied on to carry out research were now available online. Did I really need to hang on to what felt like hundreds of books, thousands of CDs and DVDs, and a million folders and binders …?

“Promise me to take all the time you need to go through the contents of your office. It is not a race, and you don’t have to finish first, you know,” said my twin sister. (Or was it “Barb 2.0” talking, or, God forbid, both?)

“So noted,” I replied.

I had moved into this office space in late June 2003. At the time, it boasted two sets of sturdy wooden shelves that reached pretty much all the way up to the ceiling, an old but spacious filing cabinet, and a big and unwieldy desk. I had positioned the latter in between the two north-facing windows that overlooked a huge parking lot, with a lot of sky to boot.

Five special stuffed animals had joined me over the years.

Office protection

On the right, there’s Hector, a medium-sized black-and-white “guard” cat, named after 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz. Sarastro, the wise owl next to him, shares his name with that of an important character from The Magic Flute, Mozart’s late 18th-century fairy tale opera.

To the left of Sarastro are two ginger cats: Kitty, and, straddled on her back, her younger cousin, Kittycat. They are fascinated by Priscilla, the beige-coloured kangaroo to their left. She was a souvenir from a conference trip to Australia long ago that culminated in a seemingly never-ending return flight to Canada (“That was the longest fourth of August of my life!”).

Incidentally, these special plush toys never failed to work their magic on younger office visitors. Stressed-out university students (“Can you please bring Hector along on the day of the midterm?”) and sometimes even frustrated instructors welcomed their grounding presence as well.

Over the years, I had also decorated some of my office walls with pieces of art and framed educational certificates. Two calendars were also always on display. The huge one helped me keep track of current meetings and appointments (“You are certainly busy!”). The other one was smaller and often a souvenir of sorts (“You have been to Tuscany?”).

“How many of these prized possessions will you let go of?” my main guide wanted to know.

“Good question.”

Over the course of four consecutive Saturdays and one holiday Monday, I did nearly a dozen hours of what, in hindsight, can be described as “meaningful sorting.”

To that end, I filled – slowly and methodically – two gigantic, bright green recycle bins with mixed paper.

Keeping physical copies of important pieces of paper was the rule, not the exception in pre-pandemic times, especially during the early 21st century. Consequently, I had accumulated more than 30 (!) binders and folders over the years that documented my entire career path since graduate school.

“Out you go,” I said and put them next to two moving boxes that had been marked “confidential shredding.”

Three more would be sent to the Library Coordinator. I would let her decide which music books and scores to keep and which to donate. There were also three fabric bags full of CDs and DVDs that had gone home with my best friend already.

“Only three bags of actual garbage?” Then I locked my office door for good. “Not bad, ‘Dr. Barb’!”

I had not expected to be physically and mentally exhausted after each “sorting session,” however.

My inner child loved the many funny cards I had received from students (“Would you please adopt me?”). She suddenly became emotional when I opened an old binder.

It contained official documents from the early 2000s that were signed by a close colleague-friend. A fellow music historian and professional clarinetist, she had immigrated from the UK to Canada many years ago and still sported a classy British accent.

“I found a lump in my breast this morning,” I remember her telling me on a dreary December day many years ago. “Should I tell my husband before or after I go see the doctor, Barb?”

Her cancer returned out of the blue in mid-September 2020 when I was recovering from surgery. She died in mid-October, three weeks after our last phone call (“How was your first round of chemotherapy, Barb?”).

“I miss her so very much,” I admitted to “Barb 2.0” with a heavy heart (“She’s sending her love from the other side!”).

In hindsight, the most unexpected “find” while sorting through the contents of my office was an undated note. It gave me serious pause, and for good reason.

I am tired all the time. Too much Dr. Barb, not enough Barb.

More play, less work. HELP!!!!!!

“I think you wrote that about ten years ago.” My inner child sounded like she was attending someone’s funeral.

As if by magic, several health-related memory clips began playing in my head.

In March 2011, I had suddenly fainted in the hallway at work after a bad diarrhea attack that had been preceded by itchy hands and feet.

“People don’t just faint. But there is nothing physically wrong with you,” a physician had concluded after running a battery of tests.

The same symptoms returned about a year later. “Maybe it’s an allergy of sorts?” I wondered.

Seven long months later I was told by an allergologist that I was, and I quote, either “just fine” or suffered from a rare form of cancer and would be “dead by Christmas.” (No joke!)

Since I lived to celebrate the following New Year’s Day with my twin sister (“Guten Rutsch!”), I figured he had simply been joking. After all, I had made an important change to my admittedly hectic work schedule in January 2012.

Saturdays now belonged to me, and me alone (“So long, Dr. Barb!”).

Typically, I would attend an early morning exercise class at the local YWCA fitness studio. Afterwards, I often ran errands and felt full of energy when I got home several hours later. Life was good!

A year later, in early 2013, my best friend suggested for the first time that I consider playing the organ less as well, but I could not fathom the thought.

Accompanying the church choir during Wednesday rehearsals and playing for Sunday morning services had always made me happy. These creative activities were an important part of my work-life balance as a busy university professor.

My best friend finally got her wish from January 1 to June 30, 2014. I took an extended leave from my “organ job” while on study leave.

“I am so proud of you, Barb,” my best friend had said at the time.

“Allowing others to share their gifts of music at my church frees up precious time,” I admitted. “It means that I can visit my family and friends all over the globe during my research sabbatical.”

“What about next year, in 2015?” my best friend wondered. “You should take at least two months off from playing the organ every summer, regardless of whether you are in town or not!”

Much to her delight and that of the rest of my “inner crew”, I followed her advice – until a pandemic and cancer treatments made it impossible for my musician-self to return to my favourite house of worship, including on the May long weekend 2021.

To help me celebrate my successful “sorting efforts,” I called my pastor-friend in Alberta, a fellow (breast) cancer survivor.

“Cleaning out my office this month has been a most therapeutic exercise,” I declared confidently. “I feel like a new woman!”

“That’s wonderful. Keep up the good work, Barb,” she replied. “And you may want to frame that ‘HELP!!!!!!’ note – it’s an important message from your past self to your future self.”

Her astute observation rendered me speechless (which does not happen often, believe you me.)

Were additional “hindsight memos of the scary kind” (for lack of a better label) going to be part of my healing journey, I wondered?


Old beds and new neighbours

“That should do it,” said the male half of the “TV couple”.

I had told him and his partner about my bed frame squeaking “like a hoarse soprano.” Given that I continued to rely heavily on this piece of furniture to help me recover from my recent cancer ordeal, I found these noises to be most annoying.

In fact, the squeaking had gotten so bad it would not only interrupt my daily naps but also wake me up at night, despite wearing my favourite German ear plugs.

Sporting a huge tool case, my friend volunteered to come over to tighten all bolts and screws for me.

“I think you should put something underneath to help with the noise factor,” he concluded.

“My old living room carpet – would that work?”

We retrieved it from my storage unit in the basement and put it into place.

“Voila!” I said and smiled.

Ever since my hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, my queen-sized platform bed had become an important healing tool.

A cute online article entitled “15 things only people who really love their bed will understand” listed some of my favourite reasons as to why, such as “4. You are always plotting your return” and “5. It’s a judgment-free zone.”

In other words, life was good – until two weeks later, when my bed frame started squeaking again, but now in the “sexy baritone range.”

“I should have bought myself a new one when I moved four months ago,” I said to my older sister in Germany. We video-chatted at least once a week, if not more.

“Have they found a new tenant for your old apartment yet?” she asked.

“Yes, they did, at the end of April.”

A sign to that effect had been posted inside the elevator (“Booked for move-in on 4th floor.”) I had spotted it because walking up seven flights of stairs was still a challenge for me, despite regularly participating in exercise sessions and walking around the lake that is near my house.

“You should go and meet the new tenant some time.”

“I am sure I will eventually.”

That same afternoon I saw one of my former neighbours on the fourth floor in the lobby downstairs. Maybe she had met them?

“She’s an elderly lady, Barb – and has a cat.”

“That’s nice.”

My neighbour did not agree. “It is a noisy little thing who tries to get out all the time.”

That did not surprise me as a former cat owner. Felines are known to be rather territorial creatures and typically find moving houses as difficult as the humans who love them.

“Hello.” I had stepped into the elevator a couple of days later, laundry basket in hand.

Four industrial-sized washers and three huge dryers were in the basement of my apartment building. They made doing laundry a quick and easy affair during my scheduled laundry time; that is, on Friday nights (“Sorry, I’ve got an important date …!”).

“I don’t think we have met,” the lady said.

“She must be over 80,” I thought while pressing the number 7 on the elevator keypad.

“We have not.” I was smiling. “But I used to live in your apartment on the fourth floor for 16 years and loved every minute of it.”

“Well, I don’t know how long I’ll be living here.”

According to my neighbour, her family had insisted she downsize from a big house to a smaller rental apartment.

“I am also not driving my car these days.”

“You aren’t?”

Perhaps that was why I had been permitted to keep my indoor parking spot for now; I was going to cancel it before my “pandemic car trip.”

“No, they won’t let me.” She was visibly frustrated.

Was my new neighbour perhaps talking about her relatives?

“I didn’t answer some of the questions correctly that they ask you when you want to renew your driver’s licence.”

Her comment puzzled me. Was Saskatchewan now (that is, in 2021) following B.C.’s model where drivers who turned 80 were required to take a test every two years to get their licence renewed?

“I have to rely on my family to help me with simple things like getting groceries.”

I knew how she felt. Throughout my cancer treatments my trusted neighbour would meet me every other Tuesday at 7 am and head to a huge supermarket to stock up.

“Make sure your pantry and freezer are always well-stocked,” she had taught me early on during the pandemic.

“Yes, Mom,” I would say.

I knew full well, however, that the odds of the entire Saskatchewan Roughriders football team members dropping by my place unannounced were “slim to none” (to quote my top-hatted guide.)

We had reached the fourth floor. When the elevator door opened, I said, “It was nice to meet you, Ma’am – take care.”

Then I watched this new tenant step out of the elevator and take a wrong turn.

On my way up to the seventh floor, my inner stand-up comedian promptly started working out a new “killer routine” (her words, not mine.) It focused on the driving-related question that she felt could have given this particular senior citizen trouble:

You arrive at a red light. What do you do?

1.) I stop.

2.) I go.

3.) I turn right.

4.) I turn left.

5.) I turn around.

6.) I need more time to think about this question.

7.) I don’t know.

“You forgot one,” said my twin sister when I told her about my encounter. “It’s What was the question again?”

“Ladies,” said my top-hatted guide, “always remember to be kind – that could be you in the near future!”

Little did I know at the time that my very own “car story” of sorts was just around the corner, if not down the road.


You have been through a lot  

“Good luck today with your first follow-up appointment,” my trusted neighbour said when she dropped me off at the cancer clinic.

It was May 26, 2021. (I remember this date because it was a first in my catalogue of medical appointments.)

As always during chemo treatments, she parked near the hospital and waited for me to text her to come get me (“Finished!”).

As always, I checked in with the “Covid officer” (“Please take your mask off and put on one of ours”) and at the reception desk as well.

As always, I sat down in the waiting room where an oncology nurse picked me up and took me to an exam room.

As always, she first took my vitals and then asked me to step on a scale. I was pleased to see that I had dropped a few pounds since I had finished radiation treatments eight weeks ago.

“Here’s a gown – you know the drill,” the nurse said and disappeared.

As always, while I was waiting for my medical team to arrive, I wondered, “Is the cancer still gone?”

“You bet,” replied a confident “Barb 2.0” each time.

Five minutes later, the smiley oncology nurse who had looked after me ever since my surgery follow-up exam, entered the room. Interestingly, I did not recognize her at first until she started to speak because of the mask she was wearing.

“How are you doing, Barb?”

“Hanging in there.”

She then scribbled down my answers to a multitude of symptom-related questions, pleased with what she was hearing. So was “Barb 2.0” (“Good job.”)

“Have you been using the vaginal stretcher regularly?”

“Yes – on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, for exactly four minutes each.”

She laughed when I made my “pelvic homework schedule” sound like poetry.

“Great! I will let the doctor know that you are ready for him, Barb.”

There was a knock on the door a short time later. It was the locum that my medical oncologist had brought in during her parental leave.

“You and your body have been through a lot, Barb,” he said quietly, looking me straight in the eye.

“No joke.”

I was impressed that he had not only read through my chart carefully, but also used more of a holistic approach to assess my wellbeing.

“Everything looks fine,” he said after conducting a thorough pelvic exam.

“And your energy will come back eventually,” he added with a smile on his face.

That was good to know. I was still worried about not healing properly, however.

“What symptoms should warrant a phone call to the cancer clinic on my part?”

“Any sign of bleeding is a huge concern, regardless of where you are, Barb.”


“And get yourself to Emergency when that happens, tell them about your patient history, and then have them give us a call promptly.”

“I will.”

I went on to tell him about my plan to work remotely from Vancouver Island. He loved the idea, much to my delight.

Then I asked him about my next appointment and a CT scan “to make sure that the cancer has not come back.”

Several ladies at the gynecological cancer support group meeting in late January had indicated that some medical oncologists were “not keen” on ordering a scan. Was he one of them?

“Ask regardless – you don’t want to fall off your doctor’s radar,” they had said.

I should not have worried.

“We are looking at late August for you; the CT scan can wait until late November, Barb,” I was told.

“Fair enough,” my trusted neighbour said when we drove home after the appointment.

She popped up that evening to see how I was doing.

“You had a big day, Barb!”

“I did, and I also got two pieces of mail today that rocked my world.”

“Oh dear. What happened?”


I am not a criminal

Two letters from SGI, the Saskatchewan government body that deals with driver’s licensing and vehicle registration, had arrived the morning of my first check-up.

Maybe it was the “one-time” rebate all registered vehicle owners in this province had been promised in 2021, “thanks to the strong financial position of the Saskatchewan Auto Fund Rate Stabilization Reserve,” it said online.

I could not have been more wrong.

Their staff had determined that I was an unsafe driver. After all, I had admitted 100% fault to multiple “collisions” in May 2020.

“What are they talking about?” I asked my top-hatted guide. “Have they gone insane?”

Then it began to dawn on me that SGI was referring to the, um, two “boo-boos” on my vehicle that I had just fixed in the autobody shop.

“Were you maybe going too fast each time, as usual?” my trusted neighbour had wondered, with a twinkle in her eye.

“No,” had been my reply. “I was simply distracted.”

After reading through these two letters again, I was more than upset.

In my opinion, these “collisions” of sorts qualified as nothing more than unfortunate driving incidents, not real accidents. If anything, only my “driver ego” had been hurt.

SGI did not agree with my informal assessment, however.

As far as they were concerned, my careless behaviour on the road warranted a total of eight demerit points (!).

“They are crazy,” I informed my “inner crew”, trying to stay calm.

The good news: since I had not been involved in a crash in the past year, one demerit point had already been deducted as a result. There would also be no financial penalty.

The bad news: seven demerit points meant that my name would automatically be put on a special “watch list” for the next 24 months. If I got myself into any more driving-related trouble during that period, my insurance premium was going to go up.

I was shocked to the core, to say the least.

My driving record had always been spotless. Compared to my German friends and relatives who wholeheartedly embraced the “no speed limit” rule on the Autobahn, I was a careful driver.

As a result, they teased me mercilessly about choosing safety over speed (“You drive like your own dead grandmother.”) But they did not have to deal with winter conditions for months on end either.

My pastor-friend – who used to be a driving instructor for 25 years before going back to school – told me to ignore these snide comments.

“How about you drive my car when you visit me, and I offer helpful advice, Barb?”

“That would be awesome; thank you so much!”

She knew that I had gotten my license in Germany at age 18, prior to immigrating to Canada (“Europeans position their cars differently.”) Her plan was both simple and effective.

In the summer, we focused on highway driving (“Keep your distance”), while in the fall she would review safety tips for snow and ice-covered roads (“Watch your rear-view mirror like a hawk!”).

By the way, our most memorable driving “lesson” had taken place in Saskatoon in her car many years before I travelled there as a cancer patient to have a PET scan done.

“Turn left, Barb,” she had said, looking for something in her purse. (For the record, Siri, Google Maps, or a car GPS were not an option then.)

Just as I was getting ready to turn, I was thrown against the steering wheel.

“Who just slammed the brakes?” I asked, visibly shaken. “Was it God?”

“I can ask him for you,” she quipped, using her best “I am studying to be a pastor” voice. We both laughed because I had forgotten that I was in a driving instructor’s vehicle!

There had been a traffic light that had jumped from green to red, and I had been too focused on oncoming traffic to notice any of it. Thank God, my pastor-friend did and hit the brakes on her side of the vehicle.

“SGI is making me feel like a criminal,” I whined to her. “How dare they!”

“Call them,” she advised. “Maybe someone made a mistake.”

Of course, it was all my fault.

“What do you mean that it’s all about how much it costs to fix the claim that determines the number of demerit points?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“This is clearly stated on our website,” I was told. “It is your job to read it.”

I was about ready to scream on the inside (“Let’s do it,” my inner child kept yelling), when the “insurance lady” offered a heartfelt apology.

“Someone should indeed have told you about the $700 ‘threshold amount’, Ma’am,” she said when I had filed my two claims a year ago.

There was also the possibility of “buying back” the demerit points next year, she added.

“Wow.” My head was spinning, so “Dr. Barb” decided to change the topic.

“May I ask you another question since I have got you on the phone?”

“Sure. Is it related to your claim?”

“Not really. How long can I drive in B.C. with my Saskatchewan plates?”

“Are you moving there permanently?”

“No, only temporarily.”

It made more sense to fly back and forth every three to four months for my medical checkups, including during my study leave, and drive my vehicle back next summer.

After all, the earliest I was expected to be back in a lecture hall was for the fall semester 2022; it would begin in late August.

“In that case, once you get there, you have four weeks to insure it with ICBC, SGI’s counterpart in that province.”

“Really?” I said quietly. “I had no idea.”

I could guess the rest: since ICBC did not know me from a bar of soap, the insurance premium was likely going to be sky-high. Arrrghhhh!

“If you don’t buy insurance for your vehicle from them, Ma’am, and you get into an accident – like someone else hits you – the police will get involved.”

The word “lawsuit” kept flashing through my head, followed by the image of an unopened jar of Nutella and a large spoon, courtesy of my inner child.

I sighed audibly before I asked one last question.

“Is it true that if your car is over three years old, you will have to have it certified upon arrival, or ICBC will refuse to insure it?”

“That is correct.” The “insurance lady” sounded dead serious.

Worse, the “Is your car fit to drive?” procedure would have to be repeated upon returning to Saskatchewan, she reminded me.

And the whole “procedure” was not cheap either.

“Depending on where on the island you take it, you are looking at spending up to $500 each time,” she clarified.

“Thank you for your assistance.” I hung up.

What was I going to do now?


The perfect solution

A seemingly crazy idea occurred to me within two hours after this momentous phone call.

What if I left my car behind in Saskatchewan?

I didn’t really need one out west, as I was going to work remotely from home. My new abode was also conveniently located near a shopping mall that doubled as a major public transportation hub.

Moreover, I knew that my twin sister, who had access to a car, would be happy to give me the occasional ride. And, if worst came to worst, I could always call a taxi or check out local car share companies.

After dismissing the option of putting my vehicle into storage in Saskatchewan (“It will cost a fortune!”), I had made up my mind.

I was going to sell my car and fly out to the West Coast for free; that’s what the airline loyalty programme points I had accumulated over the years were for, I reckoned.

“How would you feel about not having to ‘come and get me’?” I asked my younger sibling with a big smile on my face a short time later.

“I would be so relieved,” she answered, with tears in her eyes.

She, too, had obviously dreaded the idea of a lengthy “pandemic drive.”

My trusted neighbour and my “TV couple” friends liked my idea of something completely different as well.

“Are you going to try and put your vehicle up for sale privately?” they wanted to know.

“Let me talk to the dealership first.”

Fifteen minutes later, it had all been sorted out: since I had been a loyal customer for many years, my car was in mint condition, and the mileage low, the dealership was happy to buy it back.

I was not going to make a huge profit, though. Taking out a seven-year loan at 0% had seemed like a great idea in 2017.

“Just think of it like having leased your car instead of buying it,” the female half of the “TV couple” suggested.

Conversely, I would no longer have to worry about bi-weekly loan payments, cover annual insurance and maintenance costs, fill the tank with gas, and finance two long-distance car trips.

When I finally dropped my vehicle off and handed over the keys in mid-June, I felt both relieved and anxious about my “car-less” future.

The good news: I walked away from this whole “episode” with just over $1200 in hand. (This amount included a cheque from the dealership, a refund on my car plates, and the one-time rebate cheque from SGI that had arrived by mail in late May, in case you are wondering.)

The bad news: I had no idea what it would feel like not to have access to a car 24/7.

Granted, I liked to go on walks even in the winter, and one month prior to my cancer surgery I had even tested out a sturdy bicycle at a local shop in a conscious effort to lower my overall carbon footprint. My best friend was disappointed, however, when I ultimately decide against purchasing a two-wheeler (“Too expensive!”).

In hindsight, it had been an excellent decision, though, as I would not have been able to use it much after my surgery and during treatments.

At the same time, I had very little experience using public transit in Regina.

Believe it or not, I had only ever taken the bus once, in 2004 – to get to work when I had broken my right wrist after slipping on a patch of ice on a Sunday after church. An emergency physician promptly advised me not to drive for 48 hours (when a cast would be put on).

By the way, that visit to the “cast clinic” had been the one and only time since my arrival in Canada in mid-1986 that I had entered a hospital as a patient, rather than a visitor.

“Stop worrying about the future.”

“Barb 2.0” sounded stern after that “memory clip” had stopped playing in my head. “Focus on the present – it promotes healing on all levels.”

“I know. It will be as it will be.” I sighed.


It is not your story to tell (with your mouth wide open)

Two days after my first follow-up appointment at the cancer clinic, I went for a dental check-up.

“When did you last see your dentist?” my trusted neighbour had asked in one of her daily texts.

“Two weeks before my diagnosis, in mid-July 2020.”

It had been a blessing in disguise because my immune system was not yet compromised.

For the record, that is also the main reason why cancer patients are advised to get their teeth checked before they start active treatment.

Overall, the dental clinic’s pandemic safety protocols, in and outside of the clinic, were exemplary (“Please fill out this paperwork online prior to your visit and wait in your car until we call you.”)

These safety protocols were soon to be lifted, I was told by the receptionist upon checking in.

I was not surprised that my long-time oral hygienist was sorry to hear about my recent health crisis.

“But your teeth look fantastic, Barb,” she commented while cleaning them.

Meanwhile, my trusted night guard was soaking in a special cleaning solution.

Putting such an appliance into my mouth before going to sleep (followed by donning an eye mask and putting in ear plugs) was second nature to me. It helped combat my excessive teeth grinding at night, something I started doing at age 40.

“I am glad to hear that you are happy with the current state of my mouth,” I said to my hygienist.

I had always been good about brushing and flossing my teeth. But for about a decade or so, I had indulged in a terrible Coke Zero “habit” that I dropped only after my surgery in August 2020. For some unknown reason, the dark brown, fizzy drink had never tasted the same since then.

“Water has been my beverage of choice since late January as per my radiology oncologist’s instructions,” I added.

“I would die having to give up coffee,” my hygienist admitted while noisily shaving off dental plaque.

“I am a tea drinker.” Thinking back, it had not only been hell going “cold turkey” – my first cup of Earl Grey in April had also been accompanied by terrible acid reflux.

“It’s hard to tell why your teeth are in such good shape now, Barb,” the hygienist commented.

I was busy biting hard on the straw-like, perforated tube that sucked out moisture from my mouth. (If you guessed that I don’t enjoy being at the mercy of a dental professional for what seems to be hours on end, you are right.)

“You could have been sick for a long time without knowing it,” she noted, gently wiping saliva off my chin.

I explained to her that the opposite had been the case.

At age 53 I had been the healthiest person “on the planet” before seemingly unrelated symptoms such as “belly pain” and “bladder issues” suddenly began to trouble me.

“When did you first notice symptoms?” she wanted to know.

I explained that it had all started with a big belly that I had grown seemingly overnight (“I look pregnant.”) It had made me assume that old age had finally caught up with me – until a lump appeared in my lower left abdomen.

“Without my fantastic GP who got me onto my oncologist’s table within a week, my diagnosis could have easily been Stage 4,” I said (“Wow!”).

Eventually, my dentist came in and sat down.

“Good to see you, Barb,” he mumbled into his mask.

“Let me tell you what has been going on in her life,” the hygienist said. Then she rattled off an impressive synopsis of my cancer journey, future plans included.

My jaw – which was quite sore after granting the hygienist access to my mouth for 45 minutes straight – figuratively dropped on the (albeit spotless) floor as a result.

Her unexpected behaviour instantly infuriated me.

“Doesn’t she know the golden rule of confidentiality? It is always my story to tell.” Was that me yelling at the universe?

Then I opened my mouth wide again but closed my eyes so she couldn’t see what I was truly feeling on the inside. (Don’t ask.)

“You are good to go, Barb,” the dentist said after a thorough exam. “Have a good time on the island.”

Did I ever tell the dental hygienist how much her actions had upset me? No. Did I forgive her on my way to the car because, um, I could? Yes.

In fact, I decided to wipe this “unfortunate episode” (to quote “Barb 2.0”) from my memory right there and then (only to write about it in this sequel, of course).

My top-hatted guide had let out a big sigh in my head while I was buckling up.

“There isn’t any memory, no matter how intense, that doesn’t fade out at last,” he said, quoting an astute observation by the late Mexican writer Juan Rolfo.

How long would it take for my cancer journey to become a distant memory, I wondered?


Writing matters

The very next day I was going around the lake near my house, walking poles in hand. I was not alone: a special dog and a special female were with me.

“We will definitely miss you when you leave,” said Winston’s academic advisor parent to “Auntie Barb.”

“I’ll be back before you know it for a visit,” I stated confidently.

My favourite Miniature Schnauzer had been thrilled to see me again in person after many months, barking up a storm when I opened the car door to let him jump out (“Woof, woof, woof!”).

His human mom, a dear and much younger friend and colleague, had finally been vaccinated over two weeks ago. It meant that we could finally resume our lovely weekend walking adventures, albeit only for a month or so.

“How is the book writing coming along?” she wanted to know.

“I am almost done,” I said. “In fact, I am in the polishing stage now.”

I smiled when Winston received a treat for good behaviour, specifically for not barking at other (and usually much bigger) dogs.

In truth, I could not wait for the end of our outing. We would finally get to sit on a bench outside my building again and doggie snuggle – for the first time in 2021! A huge box of Cheerios, Winston’s favourite treat, was waiting for him.

“What exactly does ‘polishing’ your writing involve?” Winston’s mom wondered.

We had been following the paved pathway around the lake. Early in the pandemic, it had been turned into a one-way loop to facilitate physical distancing, with big signs reminding walkers about this change.

“Well, I had to learn a new skill as an author,” I explained. “I have never written anything in dialogue form before, you know.”

My brother-in-law had flagged this issue early on.

But it was the retired editor of a university press – and long-time member of my church choir – who showed me what exactly was required from “Dr. Barb”. (Her daughter-in-law, a former student and now valued colleague and friend, had suggested I approach her for assistance.)

I was thrilled to bits after this consummate professional had worked her “dialogue magic” on the longest chapter in Perfect Timing to show me “how it’s done.”

“At present, I am rewriting large parts of the manuscript to that effect,” I explained to Winston’s mom.

“I am sure your readers will thank you for all your hard work, Barb.”

“I hope so.”

“Woof, woof, woof,” barked Winston, trying to be supportive.

In hindsight, it had been a tough road, to say the least. On some days, especially in March and April 2021, simply turning the computer on had been a real chore (“I am back to chemo land!”).

“Writing a memoir is more fun than you would think,” commented “Dr. Barb”. She was smiling. “It distracts from all the other @#% that’s going on around us.”

“Most importantly, it’s healing,” emphasized “Barb 2.0”.

Despite four months having passed since I had finished chemotherapy treatments, any type of “brain work” continued to be challenging for me, if not scary.

Was I ever going to be able to think straight again?

“I want to see this manuscript again before it goes out,” my editor-friend, an expert proof-reader, had told me when I called to thank her for all her excellent work on Perfect Timing.

That request did not surprise my university professor self at all. Professional copyeditors and their academic counterparts are the epitome of detail-oriented people.

“In my job, if you know that the print run of a book is, say, 20,000 copies, you cannot afford to make mistakes of any kind,” my editor-friend had once told me.

As someone with a scholarly publication list longer than my arm, I knew a thing or two about that as well (“Why is there now a typo in footnote 137? It was correct in the proof copy I was sent.”)

Imagine my excitement when online publishers began to provide astute readers like yours truly with the opportunity to “report a typo or an inaccuracy” to help journalists fix specific errors. (If you spot some in this book, you know whom to blame.)

Making even minor corrections after the release date is not (yet) allowed in my scholarly neck of the woods. Scholars must either produce a new edition – of a textbook, for instance – or expect to be chastised for their carelessness by their peers.

In other words, one should and could expect to suffer when following the academic requirement of “publish or perish.”

Well, as far as I was concerned, producing an educational and entertaining piece of writing about coping with cancer while on medical leave during a pandemic was not going to kill me.

Incidentally, when I had inquired about my editor-friend’s hourly fees, I was in for a pleasant surprise.

“Everything I do to the manuscript will be free of charge, Barb.”


Since I didn’t know what else to say about such a generous gesture on her part, I started bawling instead.

An emotional outburst of this kind on my part would never have happened in pre-pandemic times. But ever since my cancer diagnosis I cried at the drop of a hat and didn’t care about people’s reactions.

According to “Barb 2.0”, these were “very important moments of healing.”

In fact, it was going to take a while – “make that at least one full year, if not longer” – until I could expect to feel remotely like my old “pre-chemo self” again, she noted.

That was the crux of the matter: I now looked perfectly healthy on the outside but felt fragile and vulnerable on the inside.

The last time I remember feeling that way was when my mother had died unexpectedly at the beginning of Grade 12. She was 58; I was 17.

I had asked one other person for comments on an early complete draft of Perfect Timing, namely my instructor-colleague at the University.

After all, my memoir would feature prominently in his first-year English class on “Narratives of Illness,” to be offered in the winter (January to April) 2022 semester.

His feedback focused primarily on content.

He had enjoyed the read but also asked many perceptive questions, if not rationales as well such as “What was your immediate reaction? Including it might add weight to the ‘in hindsight’ that follows.”

“Thanks for all your excellent suggestions,” I wrote in my reply e-mail. “They are more appreciated than you think.”

Then I pressed the “send” button and went back to bed to rest. I had been up half the night because of hot flashes (would they ever end?) and now felt like “Zombie Barb”.

Come to think of it, my “energy battery” had been truly wonky for the entire month of May. The fact that I had been able to put the final touches on my book manuscript bordered on a minor miracle, as far as I was concerned. Life was good!

Would my readers like the “first final version” of Perfect Timing?

I would find out soon enough.


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