I was 18 when I fell in love with my first pair of red shoes. Mum and I had travelled to Paris together, and were enchanted by the European style and flair. There they were: bright red Mary Janes, the softest leather, a sweet little ankle strap. They made me feel so grown up, confident and free. I counted out my Euros carefully and handed them over to the sales lady and left the shop with a mile-wide smile on my face.
• • •
Mum had first been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. A lump she’d asked her GP about – who told her it was nothing – kept nagging at her. She decided to listen to her inner voice, and a subsequent trip to the specialist revealed the lump to be cancer.
I don’t remember much about that time other than Mum attending the daily radiotherapy treatments by herself, before going to work then coming home to be mum and wife. She had a lumpectomy and over time, the scars began to heal and things seemed to return to normal. But the lesson rang clear through our lives: we have to speak up for ourselves when things don’t feel right.
A few years later I discovered a lump myself, and with Mum’s situation in mind, decided to have it removed. Mum met me in the recovery room and said the surgery had gone well. I turned to her and said “Mum, there’s this pair of red sneakers I’ve had my eye on. Can we stop by the shoe shop on the way home so I can get them?”
Mum looked at me and sighed. “Emma, if I do this, you can’t tell anyone that I’ve taken you shoe shopping straight out of hospital!” I nodded. She sighed again. We bought the red sneakers.
• • •
Two weeks after Mum’s 10 year anniversary from her breast cancer diagnosis we get the call. A fortnight earlier, her mammogram had come back clear. Doctors told her that while they never use the term “cured”, going 10 years without any markers for cancer was a milestone, and cause to celebrate.
Dad phones to tell me that the small patch of flaky skin on Mum’s breast – that they’d thought was dermatitis – is actually malignant. It’s cancer. Again. My legs give way underneath me and the phone line fills with a heavy silence.
This time, they are recommending a mastectomy and extended chemo. I fly to Melbourne, and as I walk through the front door, Mum and I hold each other and dissolve into floods of tears. Even now, we sometimes need only a glance to pass between us for the fragility and incredible love that consumed us in that moment to resurface.
The next day, we go to the specialist and afterwards, to cheer her up, we decide to go shopping. It’s there that we see them. These beautiful red patent leather stilettos. Stacked wooden heels, little peeptoe. Two pairs, in our sizes. On sale. ON SALE. We look at each other and smile.
Mum has often said to me “when you’re a mother, you’ll understand”. It has infuriated me at times, especially when I was a teenager, but in the days, weeks and months that follow, I understand what unconditional love is. I see the harrowing effects of surgery and chemo ravaging her body and spirit. Part of me wants to run away from it all. But this wave of love surges through our lives, and overwhelms the fear and anger. Its only focus is to serve, support and be there.
Mum listened to her body. When something didn’t feel or look right, she got it checked out. Our family GP at the time actually told her “I guarantee you it’s just stress. It’s all in your mind.” I’m still stunned that a doctor had such arrogance and egocentrism to say something so reckless and irresponsible. It meant asking for a second – or third – opinions, until she found the right people who listened to her and took proper action. They told her she was “lucky” to catch it so early. I think she was “lucky” to have had the strength and perseverance to back herself.
• • •
The next instalment of this journey brings us to January this year, when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In the last eleven weeks, I have undergone two surgeries, radiotherapy, and taken a medication I will be dependent on now for the rest of my life. It took me four years to find the right specialist, insist on a referral from my GP, and press for follow up ultrasounds to pinpoint exactly what the problem was. It was that same intuition I witnessed in Mum that led me to seek answers, a diagnosis and treatment.
It’s now nearly 7 years to the day since Mum’s second diagnosis and nearly three months since mine. For both of us, there is what we call “a new kind of normal”.
Although Mum worked all the way through her treatment, determined to prevent cancer defining her life, she has become more loving towards herself. She gets tired more easily, but also rests when she needs to. She limits the amount of unnecessary drama in her life. Over time, the sparkle in her eyes has slowly returned. Her fire has come back.
I’m still a work in progress. The physical healing is a roller coaster, and I feel like the emotional healing is just beginning. But… although I would never have chosen this for my life, it is a rich journey. I’m more “me” now than I have ever been. I have more faith in my hunches, my thoughts and emotions, my intuition. I’ve been astounded by my own strength and my body’s ability to heal. And I realise the importance of anchoring this energy so that I can use it as a catalyst for new growth, movement and learning.
And as we continue to move through the challenges life has thrown our way, the red shoes have become a symbol of power, strength and love in our lives. We don’t knows what the future holds, but we are walking towards it in kick-ass heels.
Life’s too short … wear the red shoes,