8. “Feeling annoyed” – Recovery, Part 3

Have you ever wondered when and how the universe decides which “life lesson(s)” to teach you, so you can grow on multiple levels simultaneously, dear reader?


Going public

Prior to my cancer diagnosis, “Dr. Barb” felt that December was a “killer month” (her words, not mine.)

Typically, the busy end of the fall semester and stressful final exam period would inevitably be followed by yours truly travelling across two provinces to see family.

Next on my agenda was attending choir rehearsals and preparing for multiple services held at Christmas time at my sister’s church.

Finally, between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, I would try my very best to get some rest before heading back to the prairies to teach a new set of students during the winter semester.

December 2021 was different.

Granted, there were various research projects (“It would be awesome if this publication came out before we break for the holidays”) and administrative work (“I need help with my tenure application that’s due soon”) that made me make some changes to my routine for three weeks in a row – like increase my caffeine intake to two cups of strong black tea in the morning instead of one.

However, my twin sister had taken a well-deserved leave of absence from her music ministry job (“See you in the New Year.”)

It meant that I could stay home both on Thursdays, when her choir would rehearse, and on Sundays, when its members were involved in the service. Instead, I (re-)engaged with my church community in Regina, albeit only via Zoom (“We miss you, Barb.”)

What I had not expected was to lose multiple nights of sleep over the publication of my first non-academic book, Perfect Timing, and for good reason.

It not only chronicled my cancer journey in detail but would also serve as a textbook in a first-year English class geared at future health professionals in the winter 2022 semester.

Worse, this open educational resource would be available 24/7 on the internet for anyone to read – and critique, of course.

Was I indeed ready to hit the “Public; I would like this book to be visible to everyone” button on December 23, 2021?

That date seemed fitting as a deadline. It marked the ten months’ anniversary of my top-hatted guide dictating the book’s Table of Contents to me (“A special task.”)

The good news: as the author-publisher, I had complete control over my manuscript and what it would look like online. This made me feel incredibly competent.

The bad news: as the author-publisher, I had only myself to blame if something went wrong (don’t ask.) That made me feel incredibly incompetent.

“I am so annoyed at the universe,” I complained to “Dr. Barb” when trying to upload the image for the book cover had turned into a nightmare of sorts.

Of course, I blamed my “chemo brain” – were my short attention span and memory problems ever going to go away?

Moreover, having to ask for ongoing editorial assistance (“Sorry to bother you with a gazillion questions during the week before Christmas”) was not just challenging for a recent cancer survivor.

It was also most embarrassing for someone with a Ph.D. degree (and an ego to match), I reckoned.

“Struggles of any kind are wonderful reminders that healing is a process,” I was reminded by “Barb 2.0”.

“You could speed it up, you know.”

“Please tell me how!” (I was done with guessing.)

My health guide’s answer was as simple as it was profound: “By trusting in, if not surrendering to, important life lessons sent to you specifically by the universe.”

These lessons would come “in various sizes” and were designed to help me “heal on a soul level,” she added.

“Fair enough.” At the same time, I wondered what special crystal ball “Barb 2.0” been consulting.

“And you should know that there will be more obstacles to come in the New Year,” she continued.

“Why am I not surprised?” I asked my top-hatted guide and rolled my eyes at “Barb 2.0”.

After carefully considering my reaction to these “life lessons” – accept them with an open mind and heart? Ignore them and eat Nutella? – I decided that my best bet was to “just go with the flow.”

Little did I know that the month of December would include actual blood and a lot of sparkle.

This, in turn, reminded me that I had survived something in 2021 that could have potentially killed me.

My job was, therefore, to straighten my cancer crown and move forward like the Survivor Queen I had become in the process.


Thank you for being incompetent  

On December 2, 2021, the day after I had returned to the coast from my most recent checkup in Regina, I had called my GP and asked for his permission to return to work full-time effective immediately.

“That’s fine,” he said, given that my pelvic exam had been “all clear.”

“When does your study leave begin, Barb?”

“On January 1; it goes until June 30.”

“Perfect – I’ll send the paperwork to your employer today.”

“Let me thank you again for everything you have done for me since I first came to see you to report symptoms! You have been the best GP one could ever wish for.”

“You are very welcome, Barb, and if there’s anything you need, please get in touch.”

“I will. Happy Holidays, and all the best in the New Year to you and your family.”

“Happy Holidays to you, too, Barb.”

Two weeks later, I received an e-mail from my long-term disability insurance.

Specifically, my insurance case manager wanted to know how my check-up had gone and whether I had been cleared to return to full-time work as of January 4, 2022.

“What’s going on?” I wondered.

I knew for a fact that the HR people at work had forwarded my GP’s most recent assessment to the insurance right away.

Had it perhaps got lost in e-mail heaven (or hell, you never know)?

Intriguingly, after I wrote back explaining the situation, it took only five minutes (!) for an official “denial of continued long-term disability payments” letter to show up in my e-mail inbox.

Translation: I was no longer going to receive benefits because I had returned to work full-time.

“Fine with me,” I thought.

Don’t get me wrong: I had been exceedingly grateful to be able to pay my bills throughout my medical leave. Many others were not that lucky, and my heart went out to them.

At the same time, it had been a pain to try and figure out how exactly my benefits had been calculated.

My accounting person at work was stumped about a “minus amount” that had suddenly shown up on a statement I had been sent in November (“I’ll get in touch with them, Barb.”)

The insurance couldn’t be bothered to reply. In fact, another (over-)payment was made in late December. I promptly sent an e-mail about that to my case manager in early January (“Please clarify.”)

I couldn’t believe it when, instead of receiving an apology, I was informed in record time that the funds had been “accidentally released” and needed to be “recouped.”

“Wow,” I thought. How arrogant!

Moreover, I was to send a cheque immediately “to avoid complications.”

In turn, they would not send me a correct T4 slip because they “had no control over that part.”

In other words, I would now also have to pay taxes on the overpaid amount.

And if I did not settle my account (ideally overnight), there would be unpleasant consequences, to say the least.

What was it with insurances – vehicle and long-term disability, to be exact – and their uncanny ability to make me feel like a criminal, I wondered?

For the record, I had not expected the insurance case manager to react that way at all, given our past encounters.

In fact, that same individual had checked up on me every six weeks like clockwork for the first six months of 2021.

I still remember our first chat.

“Hello, Barbara – is this a good day to talk?”

“Sure.” That was a blatant lie.

I had just finished weeping about how terrible the “aftermath” (for lack of a better term) of my most recent round of chemotherapy had been when the phone rang.

Most importantly, I had been advised by my Greek friend-colleague not to trust “insurance folk.” It was their job to get patients to rejoin the workforce as fast as possible (“Just refer them to your doctors, Barb.”)

Her concerns were not unfounded. When filling out the initial paperwork before my first round of chemotherapy in late September 2020, I was surprised to be asked about the exact date (“Provide the month-day-year”) on which I planned to resume my professorial duties.

“Isn’t that for my medical team to decide?” I had asked the Human Resources people at the university, genuinely confused.

“Just skip that question and go to the next one, Barb,” I was told.

During our first conversation in January 2021, my new insurance case manager carefully reviewed my file to verify my identity and patient history.

“You had a cancer diagnosis in late July 2020, correct?”


“When was your last chemotherapy, if I may ask?”

“Not too long ago, number five of six.”

“How are you feeling today?”

That query impressed me. Had this individual perhaps received some special training?

“I feel a tiny bit better than yesterday, but this round has been the worst to date.”

The reason was simple. A nasty new symptom, extreme vertigo, had shown up out of the blue.

“I am very sorry to hear that – what else has been bothering you this time, if I may ask?”

My strategy was to be brutally honest.

To that end, I explained – in gruesome detail – that exactly three days after a treatment, excruciating fatigue, severe joint pain, and ongoing insomnia would set in like clockwork.

It was typically accompanied by a sore mouth, terrible constipation, awful headaches, and confusing body temperature issues (“Hot or cold – which one is it?”).

“I am glad to hear that you have not been bothered by nausea or vomiting, Barb,” the case manager commented.

“It is what it is,” I stated. “But for a single lady like me to have to undergo cancer treatments during a pandemic without her family at her side seems like a cruel joke to me.”

The case manager, who seemed to have no knowledge of my marital status, was audibly worried.

“What kind of support systems do you have in place, if I may ask?”

Five minutes later, we were both crying on the phone.

“I have never been touched by cancer myself,” the case manager admitted, clearly moved by my health journey.

“I will be calling you regularly from now on,” I was informed at the end of our telephone conversation. “I want to make sure that you are not going back to work too soon.”

“Go hard,” I thought, making my top-hatted guide laugh out loud.

If you guessed that I picked up every single time a certain insurance number showed up on my phone’s caller ID, you are correct.

But I was not going to call her back now, after she had shown her “true colours” (to quote my inner child who took an unexpected interest in this incident.)

“Any suggestions as to how I can get this overpayment ‘gong show’ sorted out?” I asked my “inner crew”.

It was my top-hatted guide’s idea to contact my tax accountant. To my surprise, I learned that this “kind of stuff” was “more common than you would think.”

The good news: I would be eligible to claim a deduction on next year’s tax return – if I could get the insurance people to admit fault to four things the Canadian Revenue Agency would be looking for. (I am not including them here because they may not apply anymore by the time you read this.) Otherwise, I could kiss the taxes I had overpaid goodbye forever.

“This is crazy, Barb,” said the HR people at the university. They had never heard of insurance paying more than they were supposed to.

“No, the insurance is crazy.” I was trying to stay calm but failing miserably.

“If it’s okay with you, we will talk to them about it and warn other university employees on medical leave, Barb, about ‘minus amounts’ showing up on their statements.”

“Thank you.” I was impressed with their initiative.

Incidentally, I only heard back from my long-term disability insurance several months later, even though I had paid the full amount in early January 2022.

Did their correspondence include any of the tax-related information I had requested? Hell no (to use a colloquial expression.)

Instead, I had to use an insane magnification factor to decipher what had been printed – in the tiniest font known to humankind – in the middle of their letter. (My trusted neighbour had texted me a picture of it.)

“Thank you for forwarding your cheque in settlement of the overpayment on this claim,” it said.

“@#$% you,” I said out loud and immediately tasked “Dr. Barb” with giving them a run for their money. (Wish her luck!)


It’s not always about your pelvis

I don’t know about you, but before my cancer diagnosis, the only “doctors of sorts” I would see on a regular basis were my optometrist (to avoid going blind) and my dentist (to avoid dying from starvation.)

That changed once I received a cancer diagnosis in late July 2020, with an intrepid “Dr. Barb” handling all medical appointments by herself ever since.

In mid-December 2021, however, my inner academic turned to “Barb 2.0” for assistance, and for good reason. How else would you explain the following chain of events?

“Hi, I’d like to make an appointment for my biennial mammogram.”

I was calling the Screening Program for Breast Cancer in Canada scheduler for Saskatchewan residents.  My trusted neighbour had forwarded me a picture of their “Please contact us immediately” letter.

“Any changes since November 2019?” The person on the other end sounded very official.

“Yes – I was in active cancer treatment in 2020 and 2021.”

After providing assorted details, I was informed that special scheduling requests (“What do you have available in mid-March when I am in town next?”) were out of the question.

“Try calling in the New Year closer to the time and have yourself put on the waitlist, Ma’am.”

“But breast cancer is one of the secondary cancers associated with endometrial cancers.”

“That’s not my problem.” Clearly, this (potentially lifesaving) argument was lost on the scheduler.

“There’s a letter from the Regina cancer clinic, Barb,” my trusted neighbour texted several days later.

I was to report to a medical diagnostic imaging center back home in late December 2021, as requested by my radiology oncologist.

“That must be my mammogram,” I thought, and then placed a call with the intention to move the appointment to coincide with my next hospital checkup in mid-March 2022.

“No, Ma’am, your appointment is for a soft tissue scan of your neck, not your breasts,” the receptionist clarified, audibly amused.

“My neck?”

“It says here that according to the CT scan report from late November, you have a suspicious nodule on your thyroid, Barb,” my favourite radiology oncology nurse clarified when I called the cancer clinic to find out what was going on.

“My thyroid?”

Neither the medical oncologist nor my GP had mentioned it. Was the radiologist perhaps overreacting (again)?

“Get it done, Barb,” his nurse advised. “It’s a quick and painless procedure.”

Fifteen minutes later, I had secured an appointment for the day before my next pelvic exam.

When another reminder letter to schedule my biennial mammogram arrived shortly after Christmas, I called the toll-free number again.

This time, I hit the jackpot.

“Your best bet is to get your GP involved.” This scheduler sounded very competent.

Five minutes later, I was talking to my GP’s incredibly efficient administrative assistant. She knew me by name (“Hi, Barb”) and was a real treasure.

“Do you think it’s possible for me to have a mammogram on the same day as my thyroid scan?”

“I’ll do my very best to make that happen, Barb.”

Then she went to work. Twenty minutes later (!), everything was settled (“Thyroid first, mammogram second.”)

“You are awesome – thank you so much.” I felt relieved, to say the least.

“Always a pleasure to be of assistance,” stated the administrative assistant.

What nobody could have known at the time was that getting these appointments sorted out had been the easy part.


Next time, get yourself to a hospital  

“Oh @#$%.”

It was 7 am on the third Sunday in Advent in 2021 when these rather unladylike words came out of my mouth.

I had just expertly sliced into the top part of my left middle finger while cutting up potatoes for lunch that day.

I immediately blamed my twin sister for this unfortunate incident. She had given me three high-quality – and very sharp – knives as a housewarming gift when I moved in almost six months ago.

When the cut promptly started bleeding “like a pig” (as my late mother would have said), I bunched up a paper towel and began putting pressure on my finger as hard as I could.

“Why does this keep happening to me?” I asked the universe and sighed.

During my chemotherapy treatments there had been two memorable previous “encounters” with finger wounds that wouldn’t quit bleeding due to my low hemoglobin levels.

“I think you should go and have the wound stitched,” I was told by “Barb 2.0” ten minutes later.

“Don’t bother,” said “Dr. Barb”.

She argued most convincingly that all walk-in-clinics were closed on Sundays (and not just in December.)

Most importantly, spending half a day at Emergency because of a “minor cut” meant risking unnecessary exposure to the increasingly rampant Omicron variant of Covid-19 and “all sorts of other nasty bugs.”

What’s so funny?

I sided with “Dr. Barb,” but did ask my twin sister to help with bandaging the finger properly. Having raised two boys, she was somewhat of an expert in first aid (“I once cut your nephew’s hair and injured his ear by mistake.”)

Judging from this picture taken later that morning at my grandniece’s house – I don’t remember what or who had made us laugh so hard – my early morning accident did not bother me too much.

However, when I changed the bandage before going to bed, I began to regret my decision not to have sought medical help. Blood was now gushing down the palm of my hand!

“Call 811 this minute,” said “Barb 2.0”. My health guide was done with me being conflicted about whether to reach out for professional help or pretend nothing was wrong.

My main guide just kept shrugging his shoulders (“Not my job.”)

“Your call is important to us,” a computer voice said approximately 10,000 times over the next two and a half hours. “Please stay on the line for the next available nurse.”

For the record, I had been expecting to wait for a long time because this was also the hotline for anyone suspecting to have Covid-19.

“Well, it is too late now to have it stitched up,” a very kind health professional concluded at 1:30 am after listening to my “So, I cut my finger this morning” story.

“Next time, if it does not stop bleeding completely after you have applied pressure for 15 minutes, you must get yourself to the hospital,” she said.

She also suggested I use a special type of adhesive bandage for “deep cuts” and reminded me to “baby that finger for the next two weeks.”

“Thank you for all your help.”

Since it had been a long day and short night, I hung up, turned the lights off, and was asleep in seconds.

Forty-five minutes later, I woke up, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach.

“Oh @#$%,” I thought, and turned the lights back on.

Then I held my hands in front of my mouth, got up, and ran to the bathroom as fast as I could manage.

Before I could reach the sink, I began to projectile vomit towards the (closed) toilet seat.

In hindsight, I am confident that if this had been a “Throw up as much as you can as fast as you can” competition, I would have won first prize.

The toilet lid and water tank, the toilet brush holder and the edge of the bathtub, the plunger and the garbage can, and even parts of the wall behind the toilet – everything was now covered with disgusting remnants of what I had consumed for supper.

And were those, um, tiny bits of burger meat on my electric toothbrush?

“Yuck!” commented my inner child, positively disgusted at the sight. She had watched me wolf down two burgers in record time at dinner.

“You are so lucky that wasn’t blood,” my main top-guide observed perceptively.

Using both hands but only nine fingers, it took me 15 long minutes to restore the state of my bathroom to its former glory.

“That ‘barfing episode’ was way too close for comfort,” said “Barb 2.0” when I put away the cleaning supplies. The other members of my “inner crew” nodded in agreement.

“I’ll be fine.” Then I went back to bed.

I was determined to forget about this more embarrassing than painful part of my health journey as fast as possible.

The universe, however, had different ideas.


Your body is grieving

On a Friday morning in mid-January 2022, I had planned to spend quality time in the pool with my twin sister and our favourite instructor (“Welcome to deepwater aquafit.”)

Instead, I tripped and fell down some stairs on my way to the change rooms.

My sibling promptly freaked out when she turned around and saw me lying on the floor, wincing in pain.

“What happened?” She was using her “concerned mom” voice.

“I was multi-tasking,” I admitted sheepishly to her (and a worried “Barb 2.0”.)

Specifically, I had been trying to retrieve my pool access pass to show to the receptionist and, therefore, was not watching where I was going.

“You should have that ankle checked out, Ma’am, just to be sure,” a lifeguard suggested a few minutes later.

He had made me sit on a chair to take a closer look at my ankle.

Next, he checked whether I could put weight on the foot and handed me an icepack (“Just throw it away when you get home.”)

Long story short: I refused to visit a walk-in clinic that day (or any other day), despite “Barb 2.0” insisting I should because “the ankle could be broken.”

Incidentally, my twin sister – and my main guide – left the decision up to me (“Not our job.”)

Ultimately, I concluded that the universe was simply trying to slow me down for a bit.

“These types of injury take between six and eight months to heal, Barb,” my trusted massage therapist said in mid-March 2022, when I was in town for my next checkup. I had come to see her for a treatment (“My shoulders and neck are killing me.”)

“Would you have gone to see your GP if it had happened in Saskatchewan?” she wondered.

“You bet.” (“Barb 2.0” promptly threw her hands up in the air and started rolling her eyes, in my head, of course.)

I finally admitted to my massage therapist – and to myself – that I had succumbed to an old behavioural pattern at the time: avoiding the inside of a (random) doctor’s office or hospital like the plague.

If you guessed that I had lost confidence in health care professionals (other than dentists and optometrists) after my parents’ untimely deaths decades ago, you are correct.

Had my university student self gone to see medical doctors occasionally (like when I needed antibiotics for bronchitis)? Yes, but usually under protest and as a last resort.

Since my move to Saskatchewan in the early 2000s, only one other physician had managed to impress me before I met my fantastic GP in spring 2017.

In the autumn of 2006, a beloved colleague in her early thirties was in palliative care at a local hospital that I would get to know intimately 14 years later.

This highly educated, bubbly mother of two little boys had undergone two rounds of chemotherapy to beat pancreatic cancer, only to be told she would die soon.

I joined several faculty members to say our final goodbyes (“Thank you for teaching me empathy towards others”), holding hands with her. I will also never forget the way this brave soul looked at me as if to say, “I am ready to leave this world, Barb.”

After that difficult visit, I suddenly noticed a severe dip in my general energy level.

“This is really bad timing,” I emphasized when talking to my twin sister a couple of weeks later, in early November.

An old friend from Germany (and future fellow cancer survivor) would be visiting me for a few days on her way to Hawaii (“You better put a fur coat over your bikini,” I had told her.)

Worse, my application for tenure to secure a permanent position as a university professor at my college was due at the end of November as well (“It has to be perfect,” argued “Dr. Barb”.)

“This lack of energy isn’t normal,” my twin sister emphasized, clearly worried.

To please her, I made an appointment with “whatever doctor who has something available” at the university’s walk-in-clinic.

The physician, a young female, checked my vitals first (“Your blood pressure is fine”) and then asked me something for which I was not prepared.

“Could you be pregnant?”

I almost killed myself laughing.

“No way,” I insisted, albeit only in my head.

The only male this 39-year-old academic had been spending quality time with lately was a German composer who had bit the dust a long time ago (and who wants to sleep with dead people?).

It had been my inner stand-up comedian who looked the physician straight in the eye and answered her question.

“Let me call Hugh Jackman, give us two weeks, and then I’ll be happy to take a pregnancy test.”

The physician smiled, but only for a second.

“You do not sound like you are depressed, Barb,” she replied. “But let’s run a few tests to figure out what’s going on.”

When every single one of them (“Please pee into this cup”) came back negative, she asked “what else” had been going on in my life.

I was impressed when this doctor quickly put two and two together after I told her about my colleague’s passing in mid-November.

“Your body is grieving, Barb.” She suggested I should get counselling (“It’s free for university employees”), but I respectfully declined (“I’ll be fine.”)

Imagine my surprise when I was asked to meet with my academic dean (aka my immediate supervisor) a couple of months later about a student evaluation from that fateful fall semester.

“Dr. Barb” promptly freaked out as she had not yet heard back about whether her tenure application had been accepted or declined. Worse, student evaluations, good and bad, carried a lot of weight (and still do to this day.)

“I hate these anonymous pieces of feedback with a passion,” I would say very quietly to my best friend at the end of every single teaching semester when student evaluation forms had to be handed out.

“What do teenagers know about my classroom, I ask you?”

“Try not to let them get to you, Barb,” she advised every single time, smiling.

But there would inevitably be some mean comments (“We call her the ‘Footnote Nazi’”) that overshadowed everything else (“She’s the most passionate teacher ever.”)

I took a deep breath before I sat down across from my dean. How bad could it be?

Awful, it turned out.

A third-year music major had taken the time to respond in detail to a question phrased along the lines of “Is there anything else you want to share about the instructor?”.

Evidently, the class had been fabulous, but Dr. Reul had “not been herself” this semester, especially from mid-October on, according to the student.

There was no doubt in their mind that their instructor was “clinically depressed and should seek counselling ASAP.”

I was in shock, to say the least.

“I just wanted to check in with you about that, Barb – how are you doing now?” my dean wondered.

“I really appreciate your concern,” I replied and offered my standard “I am fine” answer.

However, by the time I got back to my office, I was weeping (“There goes my tenure application.”)

“Would this student have pointed this out if I were a male professor?” I asked my pastor-friend that evening after I had finally calmed down.

Even though gender bias in academia is real, she replied quietly, “We will never know, Barb.”

Then something important dawned on me. If nothing else, I had lost my “instructor sparkle” that semester, for obvious reasons.

In hindsight, the same thing happened when I entered active cancer care in fall 2020.

Would my year of healing on an island help me “feel like a diamond in a tiara” that I “had created” all on my own (as claimed in the Preface to this book)?

Only time would tell.


Hidden gifts
Sparkling lights

“How about we head downtown to admire the Christmas lights at the B.C. Legislative building and the Inner Harbour?” my twin sister suggested in mid-December 2021.

“That would be great!”

It had been the opening night of the annual Lights of Wonder exhibit. The biggest – and very welcome – surprise had been a local choir and its beautiful rendition of Silent Night in German (“Stille Nacht.”)

Another huge deal had been the arrival of a parcel, courtesy of our older sister in Germany (“Enjoy!”).

“You don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve to open it,” she had told me on the phone when she had mailed it in mid-November.

We opened the package after watching a particularly riveting episode of Die Bergretter. It features a brave team of mountain rescuers in the Austrian Alps (sorry, no handsome male doctor.)

In hindsight, the parcel’s carefully selected contents made me light up like a Christmas tree with a big star (or was it a tiara?) on top.

“I always hated the fact that our parents made us wait to open our presents,” my twin sister commented.

We counted five different varieties of Lebkuchen, all from local bakeries in (or near) our hometown. Wow – our sister had clearly outdone herself.

“Remember when I figured out that there was no way that the Christkind delivered presents on Christmas Eve?” I asked.

To clarify, in my home state of Bavaria, Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) was called Saint Nicholas and checked up on children on December 6.

If they had been naughty, his scary companion, Knecht Ruprecht, would be sent to slap them. If their behaviour had not improved by Christmas Eve, their gifts would be coal and hay.

In their infinite wisdom, our parents had decided to try out this cruel strategy on our oldest sister (“She’s a handful.”) They had, of course, neither intended nor expected her inner child to be scarred for life because of it.

I will never forget when a very tall St. Nicholas showed up at our front door unannounced (“Girls, there’s somebody special here to see you.”) My twin sister and I were maybe four years old.

Since that individual managed to frighten my younger sibling half to death – she screamed at the top of her lungs for hours afterwards – he was never invited back.

Scared beyond measure was exactly how I or, more precisely, my inner child felt about anything cancer related. That changed when “Barb 2.0” showed up after treatments had ended in late March 2021 (“Thank you, universe, for sending me a health guide!”).

By the way, my “little one” loves Christmas gifts of all kinds. The glittery gold star my sister had sent instantly became her new favourite ornament. It looked incredible!

My own face lit up as well when I unpacked a new pair of hand-knitted socks, courtesy of my niece’s mother-in-law (“To keep you warm in Saskatchewan.”) Their colour, burgundy red, was beautiful.

“I’ll never forget when you asked mom how a young female angel with long blond hair and wings could possibly carry two bikes into our living room,” my younger sibling reminisced.

Our mother’s answer was a simple smile (“I knew it!”).

The 7-foot one was cheaper

We then divided the Lebkuchen cookies and the (total of four) golden star ornaments that our older sister had sent between us.

Mine would look splendid on the pre-lit 7-foot tree I had bought recently “because it was a better deal than the 4-foot one,” to quote “Dr. Barb”.

“I am still not over that one Christmas when you got a really expensive musical instrument because you had whined about it for months,” I admitted to my twin sister.

As it turned out, my mother, older sister, and several relatives had all chipped in so my talented younger sibling could improve her already amazing recorder-playing skills (“You can accompany her on the piano, Barbara.”)

“Well, then you should have asked for more than a ‘painting by numbers’ kit that year,” my twin sister answered, now laughing.

Incidentally, drawing and painting had been high on my list of creative activities as a teenager.

So had been spending quality time with a rumbunctious German shepherd named Gila.

She belonged to a neighbour, and I had liked her immediately. Could I perhaps take her out for a walk sometime?

The neighbour and my mother agreed quickly (“My daughter really misses those horses at the stable.”)

But that beautiful dog – who liked to lick my face just like Winston would decades later! – could not heel properly to save her life.

“Maybe you can teach her how to run next to your bicycle,” my clever mother suggested.

“I’ll let you know how it goes,” I replied and went to work.

Gila loved it, and so did her 15-year-old handler. The first ten minutes were always the most exciting because this super-fast canine would always channel her inner Speedy Gonzales (“We have to slow down at the intersection, Gila!”).

“Can I come along next time?” My mother was clearly impressed with our progress.

“That would be great!”

It meant that I was going to have my mom all to myself. (This is a big deal when you are a twin, let me tell you, and even bigger when you have only one living parent.)

“I don’t want you to take the dog on a bike ride when there is snow on the ground,” my mother said when the seasons began to change.

She had every reason to be concerned, incidentally. By the age of 13, I had already broken both wrists twice engaging in various winter and summer sports (don’t ask.)

“How about I clear the snow in the front yard, and you and Gila practice heeling in the meantime?”

“Sure.” This was going to be the perfect time to ask my mother for a favour.

“Could we please change one of our Christmas traditions this year?” I was trying to sound all grown up.

For the record, I would not have dared to broach this subject when my father was still alive.

I could still remember when he – a Lutheran who had married a Catholic girl – had taken us to the children’s mass on Christmas Eve afternoons. That allowed our mother to trim the tree and prepare the table of “hidden gifts,” covered with big blankets.

To keep the Christmas mystery alive, the door to the living room would be locked when we returned. A special little “Christmas bell” would sound before we were allowed to go in.

“What exactly did you have in mind?”

My mother sounded clearly intrigued. She likely expected her teenage daughter to complain about the “Christmas Eve protocol,” as I had dubbed it, and for good reason.

First, she would read the Christmas story from the Gospel according to St. Luke which bored me to tears (sorry, Baby Jesus.)

Then my twin sister and I had to play – ideally without a single mistake – her three favourite German Christmas carols on the piano (“Remember to sing along, girls.”)

For the record (and for the benefit of German readers who might be wondering), they were, in order: Stille Nacht, Oh du fröhliche, and Süßer die Glocken nie klingen.

Finally, after Christmas hugs had been exchanged, we could open our presents.

However, many items, especially pieces of clothing, were no surprise at all because they had been bought and in use for months already (“That jacket is for Christmas.”)

I took a deep breath before I made my request, trying my best to sound confident.

“Could we eat something different on Christmas Eve?”

“You don’t like my Stollen anymore?”

I assured her quickly that I loved everything she baked at any time of the year. (Her sweet, braided Easter bread was legendary.)

Then I delivered a carefully rehearsed speech. Believe it or not, it had been put together by my inner child as it focused on her area of expertise, namely food.

“I know that Mary and Joseph were simple folk, and so are we.”

I was quoting an excerpt from my mother’s annual “Christmas Eve food lecture” which I could recite from memory.

“That’s right.” (She was likely wondering where I was going with this.)

It was time to offer my most convincing argument.

“Would the parents of Jesus really have enjoyed Sauerkraut and sausages, given that they weren’t German like us, mom?”

My mother smiled but said nothing.

I then emphasized that Mary and Joseph were probably also not keen either on pickled herring or Vienna sausages, even if served with home-made potato salad. (Those had been my late father’s favourite dishes to eat for supper on Christmas Eve.)

My mother promptly laughed out loud.

“Fair enough – do you have a suggestion?” She knew her second-youngest daughter well.

“How about Toast Hawaii?”

I don’t know how my mother, twin sister, and our older sister – who was visiting over the Christmas holidays that year – felt about this open-faced sandwich with cheese, ham, and pineapple.

But there had been Christmas sparkles (for lack of a better term) all over my face when I took my first bite!

I was similarly excited in December 2021 when, on the night before Christmas Eve, a sizeable – and extremely boozy – Caribbean Christmas cake was delivered to my condo, courtesy of a beloved colleague’s mother. (Santa was otherwise engaged.)

To thank her, I recorded a funny “Happy Christmas” message next to my twinkling 7-foot Christmas tree. My twin and I had spent hours decorating it in early December.

To that end, I had brought some of my favourite ornaments with me from the prairies, including candles made from beeswax that were shaped like Christmas trees.

The unexpected arrival of this “best rum cake ever” (to quote my twin sister’s oldest son who was visiting from mainland Vancouver over the holidays) had been perfect. Why?

Because I had much to celebrate that day.

My first authorial effort, Perfect Timing, had been published online the morning of December 23, making “Barb 2.0” feel extremely proud.

“You may as well forget about all those lengthy and insightful scholarly publications that are listed on your splendid CV,” she had told “Dr. Barb” at the time.

That didn’t go over well with my inner academic (“That, um, ‘lady’ is unbelievable!”)

My chilled main guide sided with “Barb 2.0” (“She’s right.”)

“This book has and will continue to help you heal on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level,” my health guide continued. “Just wait until people start reading it!”

“I don’t know how I feel about that,” I thought.

But I was going to do everything I could to make this my best Christmas ever. It was time to create new and lasting memories.


Santa’s Law   

“This is so annoying.”

I let out a big sigh while my twin sister and I were baking Christmas treats.

How could I have forgotten to add 250 grams of sugar into the “one bowl” German Stollen recipe, courtesy of Dr. Oetker? The two of us had probably made it over 100 times over the course of many past Christmases in Canada.

“You got lucky,” my sister said, “because you noticed it before we put the Stollen in the oven.”

My luck ran out when I wrecked her trusted hand mixer while preparing the second batch of this traditional German Christmas bread (“What did you do???”).

It reminded me of something strange that happened after our mother’s sudden passing in early 1985.

Believe it or not, over the course of four weeks, every single one of her kitchen appliances either needed to be repaired or replaced. Was she perhaps trying to send a signal of sorts from the other side …?

On that note, I cannot be sure of how either of my parents would have reacted to my cancer diagnosis, had I stayed in Germany, and had they lived beyond 52 (my father) and 58 (my mother), respectively.

“Would either of them have wanted to know about it?” is another good question.

By the way, my mom had a sixth sense for these kinds of things, something she shared with her own mother, a two-time World War survivor.

Hence, when our uncle, accompanied by the family GP, had finally gone to tell his mother about his sister’s illness and untimely death, she evidently replied, “I already knew.”

Did either of these women whose DNA I shared have guides as well, I wondered?

A lovely electronic Christmas card from my “Regina mom” had arrived on December 22, 2021. Her message read as follows:

I will be thinking of you as I make the Christmas dinner; this year I have decided not to cook the Brussel sprouts; instead, I will just make turnip… I am sure you will enjoy the fact that you are actually together with family this year and can enjoy your meal actually sitting at the same table with all the family.
Merry Christmas and hoping for a much better 2022.

I was indeed looking forward to spending a quiet Christmas with my twin sister and her family.

And since I had my own place to call home now, I was keen on introducing several new Christmas traditions.

From now on, my twin and I would cuddle up in my queen-sized bed early on December 24 (“I’ll have breakfast ready”) and listen to the BBC’s “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College in Cambridge (“I have been there!”).

Then I would make my younger sibling play a selection of German Christmas carols on her old electronic keyboard. It had moved into my bedroom in the fall (“Thanks for parting with your piano bench as well.”)

Listening to her amazing rendition of the splendid piano part in Mark Hayes’ fantastic arrangement of “O Holy Night” had been a real treat. I had tried to provide the sparkling soprano part as best I could (since I am an alto and don’t do well with, um, high notes).

“How about walking up Mount Tolmie this morning?” I remember asking. My sister nodded excitedly.

“We should do this every year from now on,” we concluded after the walk. We had enjoyed it despite the cold temperature (minus 6 degrees Celsius), and the view which was obstructed by clouds.

A piece of the yummy, boozy rum cake awaited us.

“Let me order one every year from now,” I suggested.

My twin sister nodded, unable to speak because she was engaged in “food quality control,” if you know what I mean.

Sadly, our plan to watch a Christmas movie before lunch backfired badly.

“The selection this year is particularly awful,” I commented after trying for over an hour to find one that had “potential.”

The year before, when I still had cable, I had recorded as many Hallmark-like TV productions as I could at the time – and then ranked them as the true academic that I am.

“Let me guess,” my twin sister said, sounding just like our mother. “You based your decision on the set decorations, specifically the Christmas lights, right?”

“Yup.” I laughed out loud.

After enjoying a light lunch, my twin sister went home, and I went to bed to rest. There was no doubt that my energy was still nowhere close to where it had been before my diagnosis.

In hindsight, I realized that the last few days had been very busy, thanks to the publication of Perfect Timing and wishing friends and family all over the world Happy Holidays.

After a much-needed nap, I turned on my computer to enjoy the Christmas Eve service that was taking place at my church in Regina online.

“This is so sad,” I commented, with a heavy heart.

Major technical problems had made me miss the sermon and then press the “Leave this meeting” button during Communion. Without the sound and subtitles, it made little sense to stick around.

I took my sweet time to get dressed and walked over to my sister’s place to have supper at 6 pm. Before the pandemic, we would be at church by that time, getting ready for the first service at 7 pm. The second service began at 10 pm, meaning that we would only return after midnight, utterly exhausted.

On December 24, 2021, we enjoyed a leisurely supper at home instead, as my sister was on leave from her job as a church musician at the time.

It was a European feast of sorts and involved the following: Sauerkraut (with apples, onions, and peppercorns, just like our mom used to make it); sweet red cabbage imported from Germany; Italian sausages (“The boys love them”); and some hearty German-style mustard.

Stollen and rum cake were offered for dessert, to be enjoyed during a non-Christmas movie. To my surprise, it had been chosen via a Doodle-like poll.

My brother-in-law, a highly creative computer science professor who excels at photography and bookbinding, was relieved that there had been a clear winner, The Mitchells vs. The Machines.

I enjoyed it but still felt weird, if not uncomfortable watching TV in favour of singing Christmas carols at church. Attending a service elsewhere had not really appealed to us either (“Covid as a Christmas present? No, thank you.”)

To my delight, I woke up to a dusting of snow on Christmas morning and called my older sister in Germany to wish her “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas in German).

After a light breakfast, I put on the toasty warm winter jacket my trusted neighbour had passed on to me several years ago and my trusted Merrell boots before locking the door to my condo.

Twenty minutes later, I sat down with my relatives to open presents.

Mine ranged from a glowing glass Santa chosen for me by my youngest nephew and a big mug selected by his older brother, to a beautiful bird calendar gifted by their father.

My twin sister had already given me some lovely Christmas ornaments earlier in December to adorn my newly acquired tree.

The funniest gift overall had been purchased by my youngest nephew, however.

A huge The Mandalorian fan at age 17, he had presented his parents with a Baby Yoda (Grogu) plush toy and even asked a certain aunt to help him wrap it up properly (“This is the way.”)

Their faces upon opening it, however, were priceless (“We had no idea what to expect.”)

That same young man had also amused everyone with a hilarious Christmas message in the annual holiday card that my sister’s family sent to relatives and friends. It is reproduced below in full, with his permission:

2021 was a bit better than last year; granted, Grade 12 has been completely terrible. It was hyped up by my family and friends and so far, it has been a total disappointment. I’m glad this will be the last year of high school. If I ever become prime minister, I’ll abolish high school. Complete waste of time. That being said, I made some good friends and memories there. Anyway, 2022 is probably going to be more of the same if I’m being honest. Still looking forward to it though.

The last time I had laughed this much on a Christmas morning was in 2011. I had given my youngest nephew a Transformer toy which this second-grader put together in record time.

“Now you try it, Tante Ba,” he said and handed me the toy and the manual to go with it.

“All you have to do is to line it up exactly like what you see in the pictures,” he explained. (Was he really only seven years old?)

Ten minutes later, when I still had not managed to figure it out by myself (“How does this go again?”), he felt sorry for me.

“Don’t worry, Tante Ba – you are just a bit stupid.”

I would often tell this “Your prof is not good at everything despite her Ph.D. degree” story in class to put a smile on my students’ faces. (It worked every time.)

“I am now going to get Oma” (as in our adopted grandmother), my brother-in-law announced after we had finished unpacking every single present. That was our signal to start to get busy in the kitchen and prepare this year’s Christmas feast.

An hour later, the six of us sat down to a beautifully set table.

We could choose from the following culinary delights: turkey (with bacon strips and herb butter, using our favourite Gordon Ramsay recipe) and cranberry sauce; stuffing (from a box to save time); sweet potatoes with marshmallows and orange juice (super easy!); Brussels sprouts (my favourite!); red cabbage (leftovers from Christmas Eve); and mashed potatoes with a lot of sour cream and salt.

More Stollen, rum cake, and coconut maroons were offered for dessert. Life was good!

Our bubbly grandniece, her parents, and her aunt arrived shortly after a chatty Oma was being driven home (“Thank you for the lovely meal.”) There were enough sweet treats left to feed that crowd of relatives as well.

Incidentally, our grandniece – who was going to celebrate her second birthday soon – took an immediately liking to Baby Yoda (“Sorry, he cannot go home with you.”)

She also engaged in a form of cardio that evidently holds a special appeal for toddlers.

“She is obsessed with going up and down these stairs,” I said to my twin sister, utterly fascinated.

“No,” she corrected me. “She’s learning how to master them.”

“Barb 2.0” promptly told me to keep watching this little girl. “It’s all about time, perseverance, and patience which are important prerequisites for healing properly.”

Two hours later, we cleaned up this year’s “Christmas mess.”

“This has been the best Christmas in recent memory,” I proclaimed with a smile on my face.

I was vacuuming my sister’s dining room and living room to help her out. What a change from last year which had been spent in my one-person “Christmas bubble” (thank you, Covid.)

“What the @#$%?” my twin sister said when her dishwasher suddenly died.

“While this is truly annoying, it is not life-threatening,” I observed, still smiling. It was, however, going to take a while to do all those dishes by hand and order a replacement.

By the way, this elderly piece of kitchen equipment had been gifted by Santa himself when my other nephew was ten years old.

“Let me guess, Tante Ba,” he had whispered quietly when it was delivered by two service technicians. (Clearly, he did not want his parents to know that he had figured out a major family secret in record time.)

You were Santa’s helper, right?”

Channeling my own mother’s reaction so many years ago, I simply smiled back at him in return.

What I had not anticipated was my brother-in-law’s emotional reaction to the unexpected present from Father Christmas himself.

“The time I spent cleaning up after supper each night was sacred to me,” he argued.

“But the dishwasher was on sale,” I remember replying, genuinely surprised. “And it’s ultra quiet to boot.”

Maybe he had expected a brand-new Mercedes-Benz instead and was disappointed with my much more practical “family gift,” I wondered?

This admittedly loaded question made me promptly feel sorry for Santa for having to deliver unwanted gifts on an annual basis.

Was it hard for him to watch them being rejected (as in thrown away, donated to charity, or regifted, to name but a few common options)?

I will never forget the admittedly cute, butter yellow “chemo socks” that I received at Christmas time or, more precisely, between rounds four and five of chemo in 2020.

The two-part message (one for each sock) did not amuse me, so I won’t repeat it here.

To my relief, the present was taken back most graciously (“I just wanted to cheer you up, Barb”) and, as per my request, passed on to a future cancer survivor (“Funny you should ask me to do that – I just heard about the daughter of a friend who …”.)

In other words: the timing of a present is sometimes (or maybe always?) more important than one’s intention (“Santa’s law.”)


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