9. “A new year” – Recovery, Part 4

Have you ever wished that you had access to a special crystal ball that allowed you see the past, present, and future simultaneously?


Back in the saddle

“Are you supposed to teach students this semester …?” my sister in Germany wanted to know in mid-January 2022.

“No, but this isn’t a ‘normal’ study leave,” I pointed out patiently.

For the first time ever, and with permission of my academic dean, I was team-teaching a course via Zoom during a research-focused sabbatical.

This graduate class – which I had offered frequently in person before the pandemic hit – was supposed to have been offered during the previous fall semester. For reasons beyond my control, it had to be moved to the winter semester when I would be on a long-awaited research sabbatical.

“You should have said no,” remarked a special colleague-friend and fellow academic when I told her about the “change in plans.”

She had looked after me when I returned from the hospital after my cancer surgery. My “butler-nurse” (my label, not hers) and I still talked regularly on the phone.

“I really wanted to return to teaching.” Then I provided a carefully thought-out rationale, courtesy of “Dr. Barb”.

Most importantly, I desperately missed interacting with students – my favourite professorial duty – since going on medical leave almost a year and a half ago.

Moreover, I could prep, teach, and mark in the comfort of my island home, unaffected by the skyrocketing Covid-numbers that had already forced the start date of the winter 2022 semester to be pushed back at my local university.

Finally, this online class would be my first – and hopefully not last – chance to work with three (brilliant!) junior faculty members in the music department at my local university. I had mentored all of them for years (“You folks make me feel like a ‘proud Mama’.”)

One of them, for instance, had taught courses for me when I was on sabbatical before and regularly guest-lectured in the music appreciation class I taught every fall.

“Our babysitter didn’t show up, Barb – would you mind a visitor today?” he had asked on one such occasion.

“Not at all.” I offered his adorable toddler some candy before encouraging him to choose one of my “office animals” to play with. (He selected my favourite, “Hector”, the big black and white guard cat.)

Incidentally, I had successfully used this “how to keep an underaged auditor quiet in a university classroom” strategy before.

Many years ago, a student e-mailed me in a panic.

“May I please bring my kid sister with me to class? She’s in grade 2, it’s a PD Day, and my mom’s got to go to work.”

“As long as your sister doesn’t distract anyone, you may bring her, no problem.”

I remembered the student instantly from a recent office hour visit. She had told me about what it had been like immigrating to Canada from Afghanistan.

“The best part is that I don’t have to worry anymore about being shot on my way to school.” I remember crying after she left my office that afternoon.

The next morning, I said “Nice to meet you” to a scared-looking young lady.

Then I handed her a small bag with sweet treats and a big bag with five stuffed animals and then started the lecture.

“Your sister’s conduct was exemplary,” I told the student after the 50-minute class was over. Her younger sibling’s face promptly lit up like a Christmas tree in response.

“My mother is very grateful to you,” the student wrote the day after.

Evidently, their parent had been most impressed with her youngest child’s behaviour and rewarded her for a job well done, too, much to the latter’s delight.

My colleague’s little boy also clearly remembered me as “the candy lady.”

I, on the other hand, vividly remembered his dad’s shocked face when I shared my health news only three weeks after he had taken over as the new department chair. He was most sympathetic since his family had been touched by cancer as well.

To my great relief, he found someone wonderful to replace me in record time for the fall 2020 semester. It was also his job to inform our students about my impending surgery and medical leave.

“Why don’t you just tell them that ‘Dr. Reul looks forward to torturing you again soon’?”

“Haha, Barb.”

In hindsight, it was a weird feeling disseminating “professorial wisdom” (for lack of a better phrase) in a virtual, rather than physical, classroom in January 2022.

“Let me ‘scare’ my screen today,” I quipped on the first day of classes, much to everyone’s amusement. It was true joy to lecture again.

I had not expected to feel like I had been hit by a freight train afterwards, however.

“Not good,” said my health guide “Barb 2.0”, sounding remarkably like my GP.

She promptly questioned the busy class schedule I had put together. Specifically, whose (stupid?) idea had it been to give the students weekly assignments that increased in length and difficulty each time?

“You are going to regret this pre-diagnosis approach to teaching,” said “Barb 2.0” to “Dr. Barb”, sounding serious.

She was right.


“If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough”

“My first online class went well yesterday, but then I had the most bizarre dream last night.” I was on the phone with my best friend.

“Did you take notes on it right upon waking, Barb?”

“I did.” (I usually forget.)

“How do you feel about this message from your subconscious?”

“To be honest, I am quite rattled about those airplanes.”

The last time I had dreamt about jumbo jets – in June 2020, prior to noticing symptoms – I had been on one.

After being shaken about hard by turbulences and holding on for dear life during the flight, I landed safely in what I had later identified the “chemo tunnel.”

“Yes, I remember you telling me about that dream, Barb.”

Could this one, received albeit a year and a half later, be a prophetic one as well, she wondered?

By the way, when I began mapping out the content for this chapter in June 2022, I realized that I had completely forgotten about it.

“Aren’t you glad you kept a diary?” Then “Barb 2.0” encouraged me “to dig deeper.”

To figure out what the dream narrative could mean, I reviewed my notes given in italics below, and then pondered them scene by scene. (If interpreting dreams is not your “thing,” please indulge me.)

I am in a hospital but not sure whether I am a patient or not.  

  • That made sense. My study leave had just begun, yet I was still on cancer watch.

 Random nurses make me read a list of stuff. But my eyesight is bad, and so I ask for glasses, and then they hold them away from me.

  • The random nurses and the “list of stuff” could refer to my study leave plans.
  • I needed spectacles to read because my eyesight was bad. Could that symbolize my energy which continued to be wonky at times?

 The other patient who is in the room with me turns around: it’s my colleague-walking buddy, Freya’s dad, who has big red marks on his face. He does not look well!

  • Could this individual be me? (Freya’s dad had been in the hospital again in early December because of another minor cardiac event that had supposedly been set off by a vaccine booster shot.)
  • Were the “big red marks on his face” perhaps the visible remnants of my recent cancer journey, like my salt-and-pepper hair or my big belly scar?

 We hear noises outside and run to the window: 10 huge airliners descend from the sky to tarmacs that look like highways.

  • The outside “noise” could refer to me returning to the (albeit all virtual) classroom.
  • Intriguingly, “10” was the overall number of weekly classes I needed to teach during the semester; that is, between January and April 2022.
  • Or was it a much bigger picture the universe was trying to show me here?
  • If so, then the tarmac could represent my life that was now, once again ruled by “traffic” (as in teaching), symbolized by the highways.

We get worried and close all the blinds but can already see someone standing outside trying to get inside (they cannot.)

  • “We” likely referred to my “inner crew”, while the “someone” probably represented a (bunch of) students on the “outside” who wanted me to focus on them.
  • Could the bit about “closing all blinds” be my attempt to maintain a successful work-life balance during my study leave?
  • “They cannot get inside” could mean that I had done a good job focusing on my recovery so far. Great!

 I worry about food: a nurse with a big food cart comes in and hands out food.

  • What was it with me and food …?
  • In this dream, I figured that “food” likely represented something that (or someone who) nourished me during my study leave, like exercise and/or spending time with family.

I need to pee, but it takes me a while to find a bathroom (around various corners.)

  • For the record, I have had a million of these “bathroom dreams” before, including the part that I must go on a minor odyssey to locate one.
  • In pre-pandemic times, these dreams often occurred at the beginning of a semester or before big conference presentations.
  • This was the first such dream in almost two years (!); that is, ever since the pandemic started and I had gone on medical leave.
  • Could my new condo be “the bathroom,” while navigating around “various corners” represented my move from the prairies to the West Coast?

 I end up in a Jack and Jill bathroom and do pee.

  • Hhhmm. Was this “bathroom” perhaps a magical place because it had a door on either side?
  • After all, it allowed me to go in feeling one way (as in exhausted from active cancer care), eliminate bodily fluids and other waste substances (to heal and recover from my ordeal), and then I exit the other way – transformed.

 A lady I don’t know comes in and apologizes for walking in on me – because I had not locked the doors on either side.  

  • The apologetic woman I (or should I say, my subconscious) didn’t recognize was arguably “Barb 2.0”. She had entered my life (or should I say, my head) after I had finished active cancer care (symbolized by my full bladder?) in late March 2021.
  • Or could this “bathroom scenario” represent something completely different, such as my recent publication efforts?
  • The (unlocked?) doors could symbolize my vulnerability as an author of a memoir-textbook that was now freely accessible online.

How did it end, you ask? I woke up.

Given that I had just spent quite a bit of (or, um too much?) time analyzing the dream, I was interested in how the members of my “inner crew” viewed it.

My top-hatted guide proposed that it was “likely Covid related.” After all, the pandemic had been the backdrop to my health journey from the beginning.

He felt that the (pandemic?) airplanes and the unlocked bathroom with two doors could be symbols for what had happened to a dear colleague from the United States and the Premier of Saskatchewan, respectively.

Both had tested positive for Covid, but their experience was very different. While my colleague had a whack of symptoms, the top-ranking politician in my home province did not even know he had been infected.

“Dr. Barb” was skeptical. “It’s really ‘two dreams in one’,” she argued.

The first part focused on her, my inner academic. She felt threatened to be back in the classroom, as signalled by the hospital, not looking well, and worrying about traffic both in the skies and on the ground.

The second part dealt with the emergence of “Barb 2.0”.

The dreamer, aka “Barb, the cancer patient”, was looking for a “bathroom” (a safe place) to get rid of, um, “old @#$%”, only to be interrupted by a stranger (“Barb 2.0”.) That individual’s job was to oversee the recovery of the dreamer.

Then my inner child piped up. “I know what the food cart bit is about.” She sounded excited.

A new supermarket was going to move into the shopping mall across from my condo building sometime later this spring.

“We will never go hungry!” she emphasized, making the rest of my “inner crew” smile.

I had no clue how strongly my “little one” felt about ongoing access to groceries until she threw the mother of all tantrums a couple of months later.


Every thankful moment makes me healthier

According to my computer diary, the following conversation took place in my head on March 19, 2022, in Regina. I was in town for my fourth checkup (to be discussed in more detail in Chapter 12.)

My goal that evening was to get some quality sleep as I was scheduled to play the organ at church the next morning.

“I am so mad at you!”

I could feel my inner five-year-old pacing back and forth in my head.

“Can this wait?” I was feeling tired and began yawning.

“No, because I am really worried about how you are going to make sure that there will be enough food in the house.” My “little one” sounded very dramatic.

That comment surprised me. Was she unintentionally channeling my mother who had lived through World War II as a teenager? (“No,” commented my top-hatted guide.)

For the record, my fridge, freezer, and pantry were all nicely stocked. Perhaps, my inner child had simply forgotten that my trusted neighbour had taken me shopping right after she had picked me from the airport.

“That’s not what I mean,” she replied, sounding frustrated. “Getting groceries will be a pain in the butt.” (“She means ‘in the future,’” clarified my main guide.)

“But there’s a corner store just down the street,” I replied patiently.

“I don’t like that one because that’s where the pharmacy is.” My inner child now sounded positively scared.

She had never forgotten about the blood thinner I had been prescribed following my cancer surgery; it had given me a bumpy heartbeat for several weeks afterwards.

My “little one” also hated the anti-nausea medication my oncologist insisted I take throughout my chemotherapy treatments, for obvious reasons.

I went on to explain to my inner child that a big drug store and not one, but two sizeable supermarkets were in walking distance (10–20 minutes) from my apartment.

Most importantly, a bicycle would be purchased (“What???”) upon my return to Regina in mid-August, and I would ride it until the weather changed (think October.)

Then I would walk (slowly and carefully especially if the sidewalks were icy), take public transportation, and/or use a cab or ride-hailing service to run errands until spring finally arrived (think May.)

Sadly, this airtight rationale was completely wasted on my inner child.

“Not having a car will make everything so complicated,” she whined. “And I have always hated having to rely on the kindness of others.”

In other words, my ambitious “going green plan” had been designed without assistance from other people in mind, something I had to rely on heavily during my medical leave.

It also finally began to dawn on me that my inner child’s emotional outbursts were not just about food and what it represented to me; that is, security and comfort.

Something important had happened two days earlier.

I had asked my trusted neighbour whether she would be willing to continue chauffeuring me to medical appointments (“I am definitely not going to buy a vehicle when I return.”)

“Mom” agreed at first but changed her mind the next day.

“I was worried that I would end up putting your needs before mine,” she clarified.

“I totally understand,” I had answered at the time.

“You were lying,” my inner child argued and then went for the kill (for lack of a better term.)

“She had second thoughts because you took her incredible kindness for granted,” she yelled at me, tearing up.

I am so cute

“Are you implying that I have been a huge burden on her all this time?” I shouted back.

This darling little girl had evidently gone off the deep end, as far as I, the adult in charge of her wellbeing, was concerned.

There was no way my “inner parent” was going to be able to get any shuteye now. And where was “Barb 2.0” when you really needed her?

“At your service,” my health guide replied and came up with a beautiful solution; that is, a therapeutic activity.

Granted, she made me do it at a quarter to midnight (!). But writing three beautiful cards for my “Regina mom” visibly relaxed my inner child (“Can you add lots of hearts?”).

Thirty minutes (and many hearts) later, “Barb 2.0” made me promise to send a text to my trusted neighbour in the morning and invite her up for a visit.

Somewhat nervous, I asked “Mom” to take a seat on my blue couch in the afternoon. Then I shared with her my worries.

“You have not been a burden to me, Barb,” was her response, and she meant it.

My “little one” promptly started doing a little dance of joy.

“May I open the cards now?” my trusted neighbour asked.

She laughed when she realized that for two of them, “Barb 2.0” and a certain five-year old had enlisted the support of two magical creatures.

None other than the Easter Bunny and a special Mother’s Day Fairy would help “Mom” choose her own gifts (because she liked that.) The final card included an invitation to a fancy birthday dinner (“Let me spoil you, please!”).

“That’s very generous of you, Barb.”

“It is but a small token of my sincere appreciation for everything you have done for me.” Little did I know that these magical creatures would have to come to her rescue much sooner than anticipated.


You could learn a thing or two from her

On March 26, 2022 – the one-year anniversary of the end of my active cancer treatments – I contacted my trusted neighbour aka “Mom” from the West Coast via text. I was not prepared for the following reply, however.

Well, I’m waiting for surgery on my elbow today. I fell on ice in the park yesterday. Spent the night here and hope to get it done today. I’m glad things have gone well for you.

After expressing my shock, I asked which arm had been injured (“The right one.”) I immediately promised to “talk to the universe about a speedy recovery” for her.

Then I got in touch with the Easter Bunny. (“Dr. Barb” has him on speed-dial.)

“I want you to help me provide ‘Mom’ with fancy take-out food once a week for the next four weeks.” (“Your wish is my command.”)

“Thank you for your generosity, Barb,” my trusted neighbour texted back and proceeded to send me pictures of groaning tables.

Until her big cast came off and the 22 staples inside her right elbow came out, I checked up on “Mom” regularly – although not twice a day, like she used to when I had bad days (or bad weeks) during active cancer care; I didn’t want to get on her nerves. (She never got on mine.)

I also surprised this incredibly humble lady with a few “out of the blue” gifts, including on June 22, 2022, for reasons explained in the chat texts below.

Me: Good morning, Mom. To mark the one-year anniversary of my “I’m leaving on a jet plane” for Victoria, I’d like to thank you for looking after me before I left, and after my place until I’m back. May I treat you to another pedicure or whatever other self care ritual you would like to indulge in?   

Trusted neighbour: That is a lovely offer, Barb. I am actually having a pedicure on Sunday. I appreciate your kindness. It is hard to believe that it’s already a year … Thank you in advance.

Me: You are very welcome. As far as I am concerned, you are a saint to be worshipped as long as you live (that’s my plan.) 

Trusted neighbour: I’ve only done what was the right thing to do. 

Me: You are ahead of the rest of the world, Mom!

Trusted neighbour: But thank you for seeing me thru your eyes. 

“You could learn a thing or two from her,” my main guide, “Dr. Barb”, and “Barb 2.0” were quick to point out to me.

“I truly believe your bond with her is karmic.” I had I shared this amazing conversation, albeit via text, with my twin sister.

“Just like ours.” I gave my younger sibling a big, long hug.

Incidentally, my inner child kept up her “going green in Saskatchewan is a mistake … is a mistake … is a mistake …” mantra for nearly two months (!).

Eventually, I got so annoyed with her that I told my “butler-nurse” friend about it during one of our cherished phone calls.

“Why don’t you buy a bicycle now and get used to riding it around town, Barb?”

“OMG, that’s a brilliant idea!”

The last time I had relied on a two-wheeler (and public transportation) full-time had been over two decades ago when I returned to Canada in the late 1990s after my post-doc position in Germany. No wonder, my “little one” was anxious about it!

My name is Rosie

The very next day, I posted this picture on Facebook and introduced it as follows:  

12.05.2022: I’ve got a new ride today – a used one from the local bike shop close to my house!

When a fellow waterfit enthusiast in Regina wrote “Pink!!!” in the comments section, I responded as follows: “Before my health journey, I would have never ever considered that colour. Tells you how much I have changed.

“Her name is ‘Rosie’,” I told my twin sister the day after, in love with my new purchase.

We were on our way to our favourite beach nearby. To my delight, it took us less than 15 minutes to get there. (The capital of British Columbia is a very bike-friendly city, unlike its counterpart in Saskatchewan.)

I was wearing the used helmet my younger sibling had given me (“We have an entire collection in our garage.”) I had bought the reflective jacket second-hand many years ago and passed on to her (“You can have it back now.”)

“Much better,” said my inner child when we sat down to enjoy the ocean breeze and mountain views.

I want to name our bicycle in Regina,” she told my “inner crew”.

If you guessed that she picked “Mr. Flash” for the bright red two-wheeler I ended up buying several months later, you were right!


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