Hard Knocks

Bill Barrell reflects on tough times and what it takes to manage to survive them.

Yellow Hand, 42" x 34", 1999, oil on canvas
Yellow Hand, 42″ x 34″, 1999, oil on canvas

…..I often think back to my mother and wonder how she survived the Blitz during the war, what with four kids and a husband in the army. I remember one Sunday night during the Blitz, we had set out the table for tea and seated ourselves around it eager to gobble down bread and jam and a chocolate cake that Mom made special for Sunday.


When all of a sudden, the sirens sounded the alarm.

Whoops! Up jumped us four kids all headed for our gas masks, rubber boots and rain coats, with Suskie the dog leading the way. It had become routine for this to happen at the sound of that alarm.

But this time, my mother’s voice boomed out, “SIT BACK DOWN! ADOLF HITLER IS NOT GOING TO SPOIL OUR SUNDAY TEA!” Back we all trooped to the table. We managed to finish our tea to the background music of some loud thumping and crashing.

I know that much of her resilience wore off on me and my brothers and sisters. It has paid off handsomely.

In late 2003, I was diagnosed with cancer. Whoa. That news kind of shakes one up a bit. There is a fast re-evaluation of your situation. Can you survive it? Can you deal with it in a sensible way? What is going to happen to the project you have going? How is the family going to take it? Will you see your daughter graduate? Well, the first thing I learned was to take it one step at a time.

This was not new to us. My wife had just been through the experience of breast cancer and a mastectomy. I had been the supportive one and now it was her turn to help me through it. She did so with flying colors.

At the same time, we had just bought a big old warehouse building that we were renovating into studio, living and storage space. The rental units were finished and rented, but we had to put a rush on things in late December ’03 for the other spaces as I was set for an operation on January 4th. We knew full well that I would not be able to handle the physical work after the operation.

Well, I managed to pull it all together and was able to move in right after my operation. There were many trips back and forth for the chemo and radiation, but I survived. I have periodic checkups and all has turned out well. I would have been whinnying with the angels above if not for modern medicine and the strength and resilience that I learned from my Mum.

One is not the same old self, but it is much better than the alternative.

I love you Mum. Wherever you are.


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