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About the Author
German born choreographer and dancer Sandra Harnisch-Lacey lives and works in Cardiff, Wales where she is mum to two wonderful children and Artistic Director of the renowned Harnisch-Lacey Dance Theatre. Sandra was married to Rob Lacey for eleven years and together they founded Lacey Theatre Company, as well as collaborating on many performance projects over the years. Sandra also teaches Contemporary Dance and is a Pilates Foundation Teacher. Sandra enjoys spending time with her family and friends and takes every opportunity she can to fly off to somewehere in Europe or overseas.
Steve Stickley has been acting, writing and directing theatre professionally for over 30 years. His passions include storytelling with children, cinema, watching motor racing, enjoying food and laughing. Originally a Norfolk boy, he now lives in Nottingham with his wife Janet and Albert the daschund.
Read an Excerpt
People Like Us
By Sandra Harnisch-Lacey
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Sandra Harnisch-Lacey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlien Safaris
So, Rob and me. Our story.
I prepare myself to set out on this new and strange journey to gather up and express in words as much as I can about our life together. For normal journeys I am accustomed to arranging clothing, toiletries, towels and personal effects into a suitcase. But this trip is unlike any other I have ever taken, and I am overwhelmed by all that I may need. Journals, photographs, email print-outs, poems, fragments of Rob's life lie scattered around me as I sit on the floor. Of course, I have had to sift and sort so much other stuff since he died. At first I was reluctant to strip my home of him. I still needed the evidence of him within these walls. I wanted the very brickwork to sing of Rob's talent with words, the doors on their hinges to signal his onstage skills, the tiles in the hall to trace the beautiful design that was Rob. I have recently reduced the huge number of photographs of his smile around the house, but his laughter is still enfolded in the curtains. I have sent his shoes off to charity shops, but his rhythm still sounds in floorboard clicks. I have dispatched his coats and jumpers to who-knows-where, but his warm embrace still meets me in the arms of my children.
The bladder cancer nearly killed Rob once before, in 2001, and afterwards he wrote a poem for me. So this is where I want to begin, with Rob imagining himself in heaven. If everything else he wrote had to be shredded as a result of me losing some monstrous Shred-Fest Lottery and I was permitted to keep just one piece of paper, this is the one I would rescue. He wrote it on a large sheet of dark-patterned paper, and every time I unfold it, his wit and wonder are there to greet me. Much of it is too personal, so here is an excerpt:
... There may've been solar systems to tour, alien safaris to see, There may've been reminiscing to be had, locked emotions breaking free. But to do all this without you would break heaven's 'no pain' policy. How can it be perfect if you miss out on some eternity with me? Though even if we both begin eternity together, it's still enough I know, So I lay hands on your wedding finger, ask God to make it grow, So you can wear two eternity rings and then everyone will know that After the year God's just brought us through Having nearly lost you I want two eternities with you. Rob Lacey, 2002
As alien safaris go, the one upon which I have since found myself on this earth would beggar belief, despite the warnings in the brochure. Would we have chosen not to go on that treacherous and deadly journey? Of course we would, but now it is done. I have no choice and I am here. Here to tell the story.
'They said the cancer might be back.'
The backstage dressing room door closed behind Rob automatically with the muted shush that fire doors have. In that moment between his words and mine, his eyes and my eyes, his arms and my arms, his breath and my breathburied deep within that small and mundane silence, that insignificant pausea seed of knowledge began its inevitable germination, the fruit of which would not show itself for some time yet. How could I have realised that this signalled the beginning of his last ten months? And so much more besides. It was July 2005. I had just finished teaching a dance class at The Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, our hometown. Rob had returned from seeing his consultant. We held on to each othermy body still fuelled with adrenaline, his fresh with summer air.
Dancers like me are used to seeing their bodies in mirrors. It comes with the territory. Your body is your everything, your voice, your syntax, your expression, your spirit. At every point, you need to know precisely what shape, what stance, what flow, what energy you are communicating to those who watch. For Rob, words were everything. Written or performed. Any husband having to deliver this possible death sentence to his wife would hesitate how to order the words, what type of voice to use, whether to come straight out with it or to prepare her first. For a wordsmith and a performer, the stakes would surely have been higher. I wonder even now how he rehearsed it to himself as he was driving back. We all do it all the time, don't we? The rehearsing. Playing a scene over and over in our mind's eye, again and again, as if training our subconscious not only to get our lines right but our body language and tone of delivery so that nothing else will get in the way. Rehearsing and assimilating. Repetitively. Good news, bad news, what I did or where I went or whom I met today ... but especially the bad news.
Over Rob's shoulder I see the dancer holding her husband. Mirrored. And as I imagine this scene again, I wonder what it would communicate to an audience. What strange inert performance piece is this? And how long will they stay there like that? What kind of soundtrack does it have? A melancholy cello? No, that would be too much like 'Truly, Madly, Deeply'. A lazy tenor saxophone in a minor key with glissando trails? Rob loved jazz. Or, perhaps, simply 'the still sad music of humanity,' as a poet once penned. Then again, maybe just the ambient sounds of the Arts Centre around us, muffled voices as the last of the dance students wander down the stairs, the tiny creaks here and there that any building emits if you stay still long enough to listen, or just the sound of us breathing as our bones and muscles sustain their gentle task of loving and supporting.
I still see that reflection of us holding on to each other. For dear life, as they say. It wasn't even a long hug. But now that I replay it, perhaps it slips out of time, even moving imperceptibly backward. Two bodies pressed together against time and inertia, despair and heaven, life and death. Each desperate to place our hands upon the humanity that is the sum of us, whilst anointing each other with innocence. Maybe we could make it go away. Maybe the words would disappear back into Rob's mouth. Maybe we didn't want this word to become flesh. But we were both in the business of incarnation. It's what artists do. An idea emblazons itself upon you, startling and eye-popping in its audacity or charm or challenge, and then you have to find a way to bring it alive. After all, that's what God does. Words become flesh. Of course, we had no idea then how this last chapter would write itself. We just didn't know the words' worth ... which also happens to be the name of the poet I quoted earlier. (You see, Rob, even I am learning wordplay!)
The day that Rob told me the news might even have been the day after his birthday. Forty-three. Nine years after the bladder cancer was first diagnosed ... and ten years since we got married. During that Easter of 2005, when Rob had been to Spring Harvest with our theatre company, it felt like a really good time. The sales of the street bible, which was reprinted as The Word on the Street, had topped 50,000 and won the UK Christian Booksellers' Book of the Year Award and was now selling in America. Audiences had bought into Rob's unique approach, his skillful turn of phrase, playful use of words and his endearingly cheeky onstage persona. The theatre company was established the year before to relieve Rob of ever-intensifying tour itineraries that soon rendered him weak and prone to infection. They had already performed the new stage version of The Word on the Street dozens of times up and down the country, always to great acclaim. And so, by the time he and the theatre company, which comprised three young female actors (more of them later), arrived at the biggest Christian conference in the UK, we seemed to be surfing on a huge tide of gratitude, interest and excitement.
Around that time, my parents came over from Germany to look after Lukas and his cousin so that my sister Katja and I could take a ten-day trip to Bangalore, India, to see some friends. We visited orphanages and also witnessed first-hand the creative response of indigenous workers to harsh and changing industrial developments which threatened their livelihood. We went into the jungle for three days and had quite a wonderful experience which became a God-centred metaphor for me. We found ourselves waiting to witness wildlife and becoming more highly tuned to the flora and fauna around us, eager not to miss out on that special something. And inevitably, we missed it because we got distracted or bored! It was a salutary lesson to be still and to recognise what is already around us. Combined with the sights, sounds and smells of old and new Bangalore and the exuberant, colourful Bollywood films we saw, there was an overwhelming sense of earthed spirituality. I have always loved to travel, and this was an experience I am glad I didn't miss. But Rob couldn't come.
Encroaching illness and trepidation had cast a shadow over both his Spring Harvest experience and my Bangalore trip. Rob missed being the quintessential performer. He found he had become the revered author who did short appearances here and there, while the theatre company engendered the type of response and applause he loved. Performance was his heartbeat. He was always gracious and selfless about it, but I could see what he was truly missing. Whilst at Spring Harvest, he started to have quite a few physical difficulties. The preceding year had seen a series of kidney infections which would respond to treatment but always reappear.
Upon my return from India that May, Rob became quite ill and started to have repeating pain. During a family day out to Longleat Safari Park, he experienced a particularly sharp bout which was different from the kidney painit was in the bladder region and more severe than before. He didn't feel well and looked quite bad. Later, when I would talk to Lukas about 'when Daddy got ill,' he would always remember that it was after that Easter, when I went to India, that the illness returned. But it heralded a period of time when Rob became very focused and quite on the ball.
'Let's do some tests, let's not let this hang around.' He was determined and, very quickly, we explained everything to the consultants, and they responded with equal swiftness. The urine sample revealed nothing. But by July the X-ray results exposed abnormalities in the lymph nodes. They could not be certain what it was, although there was some speculation that the cancer had returned. So began a trip into the unknown, into the alien landscape of possible secondary cancer, as if we had taken a very wrong turn in Longleat.
Two weeks before Rob opened that dressing room door with the news, we had booked a holiday in Greece for the end of August. Aware that Rob would now need to have more tests, we had to cancel it. Our spirits sank as we lost all of the money. I was livid with the travel company. I laugh with embarrassment now at my indignation but, of course, much of it had its root in my deep-seated anger at the cancer. We very reluctantly let go of our holiday in the sun. It felt so unfair, especially as we knew we really needed it. But if Rob had become ill in Greece, as tourists unable to speak the language, the difficulties could have been enormous. So we didn't want to take that risk. Instead, we would go to my parents in Germany for a week during late September.
But it wasn't only Rob who had news. About halfway through August, I didn't get my period. We did a pregnancy test and it proved positive. Ever since the first round of chemotherapy three years before, we hadn't stopped trying for another baby. Even with the recent prognosis, perhaps in spite of it, we carried on, almost as an act of defiance. Rob and I laughed at the speculation that his sperm was, at last, off drugs, rehabilitated and back to a quality performance. To quote from Rob's prophet Malachi in The Word on the Street, it was 'gutsy and going for it!'
We were thrilled. Over the moon. But the timing shook us. Such joy and such sadness together. In one breath we'd tell people, 'We're pregnant, but the cancer's back,' and it became a strange incantation for the rest of that year. Two of life's extremes in one message. Not for the first time I felt I was holding contradictory loads, one hand overflowing with God's goodness, but the other harbouring disease. The promise of life and the threat of death.
And then it was as if a gear shifted. Over the next two or three months, a few things happened that empowered us and lifted our spirits. Of course, being pregnant was the first and biggest of them all. The thought of new life inside me became a promise. A promise from God that all would be well. And in all the hundreds of thousands of small moments of life ... taking Lukas to school, emptying coffee grinds, brushing my hair, talking to my sister on the phone, carrying dirty clothes to the washing machine, opening letters, tidying CDs, walking to the shop, sending text messages, finding keys in my bag ... in all these actions, words percolated up inside me like a repeating chorus: 'I'm pregnant, which will mean the cancer's going to go away.' It seemed to become a walking prayer, a mantra, as well as a kind of holy dance. The positive handful would overcome the negative handful. It just had to. The disease would trickle out between my fingers like dry sand, while the rich and refreshing new life from the other hand would flood the emptiness. Every action of every day was a determination to banish the dead with the living. It was such an absorbing physical focus for me that I finally wondered whether I had become the prayer itselfall of the day and all of the night, falling asleep at the end of each day holding onto Rob, with life's promise growing between us.
By the middle of September, we had a meeting with the consultant together with an oncologist and a urologist. (Rob would probably make a joke here about having too many 'gists' ... 'getting an overdose of understanding' or something. Even when things became bleak, I could always rely on that irrepressible humour to surface somewhere unexpectedly.) There was no doubt. The cancer was back 100 percent. They had a few options they could offer to us, but there was really nothing they could do.
We started to thrash out what would be the best way forward. It was as if a light had come on. Ping! Suddenly we were involved in a dialogue, whereas previously we had just been told, 'This is your diagnosis and this is what we're doing.' There had always been that sense before that Rob was nothing more than a conglomeration of limbs and organs. Diseased flesh in need of repair. But I think we had built up a history with them, and they kept on saying, 'But you are different and things are very different with you ... our prognosis is you've got a year to live if we do chemo. But you've proven us wrong before, so who knows what's going to happen? You might respond really well again, you responded remarkably well to chemotherapy before.'
But we knew the bigger story.
I watched those health professionals going about their job. Furrowed brows, neatly manicured fingernails, identity badges swinging from lanyards, wristwatches pulsing seconds. As a team they imparted information carefully and impartially. They too had woken up this morning and had breakfast, they too have family and friends, they too know the frustrations that life can dealthe unpredictable nature of events, the fragility of life. They understand more than most people, but that's not really surprising ... they have little choice. Human fragility is the rationale for their professional existence. Despite the life-changing nature of their words, or perhaps because of it, humanity found its way through their medical terminology.
'We can prolong life. We can offer you chemotherapy again, but the likelihood that it will work as well this time round is very small. The other option would be to do an operation, which we normally wouldn't offer to anybody because it's the second time the cancer has appeared; we'd normally just give chemo. However, in your case, Rob, it has been different. Last time the cancer developed differently than we had expected, so we would be happy to do an operation first and then chemotherapy.'
Though their words and syllables carried the sort of meaning to which I should have paid the utmost attention, deep inside me the young girl with her fairytale dreams in Germany, the eager and energetic dancer, the mother clutching her baby boy, the wife holding on to her dying husband, all the different facets of me and of our history as a couple slowly whirled and mixed together, forming a prayer. What now, oh God? Dear Lord, what now? Does Rob have to go through all that again? Is this how you want your glory to be shown in us?
Meanwhile, the doctors continued, 'We don't know what's going to happen if we do operate on you. Due to all the treatment you've had in the past, particularly the radiotherapy, we can't be sure whether some of the organs are scarred. If the scar tissue is too severe, we may not be able to take the bladder out or take the tumour out. Therefore half of it would be left in place.' It became clear that even if they opened Rob up, they didn't know what they were going to be able to achieve. And it would take a long time to recover from an operation like this. So the doctors simply gave us these two options, and then Rob and I went into the waiting room to talk.
Excerpted from People Like Us by Sandra Harnisch-Lacey Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Harnisch-Lacey. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Alien Safaris....................11
2 Half the Story....................29
3 Big Moments....................49
4 Roller-Coaster Role....................75
5 Staying the Night....................91
6 Sold-Out Specialists....................111
7 Stakes Escalate....................131
8 The Sinking of the Sun....................165
9 To Play for Grace....................183
10 The Lagoon of Hope....................211
11 You've Surrounded Me....................245
Afterword: Meeting Rob Lacey....................265