I've just had one of the more surreal experiences of my life.
Today was the annual Relay for Life, organised by the Cancer Society. I had been asked if I would like to go, to participate in the first lap of the relay, which is walked by cancer survivors and their families. I decided that, yes, I would like to do that, so today we made the long drive, and got to the sports park where it was being held. My husband had to work, but was planning on meeting us there, so I got the kids sorted, and got us all over to the marquee where there was a little bit of shade (it was a beautiful, scorching late summer day), and drinks and snacks were being provided for survivors and their families.
The marquee was packed, and there wasn't anybody there that I recognised, so I found some spare chairs, sat the kids down, and texted my husband that we'd arrived. Some kind girls brought orange juice over for the kids, and I was told to help myself to food off the tables, so despite having to edge in between people already sitting round all the tables, I did so.
That was awkward enough... but it was about to get quite bizarre.
We were sitting in a row, eating our snacks, when a man walked up to me and said, 'Hello Donna! Do you recognise me?' I looked at him for a moment, and he helpfully added, 'I'm your cousin.' I looked again, and then I realised - he was my first cousin, whom I hadn't seen in 19 years, since I left the brethren! As I glanced away from his face for a moment, the penny dropped.
There were quite a few adults, teenagers and youngish children all dressed the same, in smart dark blue outfits with red logos, and a ute nearby with the same logo on it. The logo was RRT, which stood for Rapid Relief Team. These were the people doing a great job of supplying the food and drink for survivors at the relay. These people also all belong to the brethren, the cult I had been brought up in and left, many years ago. I hadn't seen most of them since the day I left, and now here they were, all smiling at me (and whispering behind their hands when they thought I wasn't looking), and offering us food and drink.
Two others came up and introduced themselves - I couldn't talk to one of them because my phone rang - and it was such a surreal experience, seeing teenagers that I'd never seen before, but knowing exactly who they were because they looked just like their parents, who were teenagers the last time I saw them!
So. There I was, sitting awkwardly in a row with my kids, not knowing any of the other survivors at any of the tables, and eating food I'd stolen (it felt like) from off the tables in front of other people, surrounded by members of the cult I had left 19 years ago. One of the rules of the brethren is that they don't eat or drink with anyone who isn't a member... except that now they were quite happy to provide me, an ex-member (ex-members are regarded as the worst of all sinners) with food and drink. In fact, they were quite insistent about giving us drinks, and my kids had to keep saying they didn't want any more drinks just yet.
At this point, my husband arrived, and now all of this had to be explained - several times, because the kids all wanted to know what was going on - while trying not to make it obvious to the milling brethren that we were talking about them. A brethren lady who had been friends with my mum came over and said hello, and we chatted briefly, which was nice... but very odd. The whole experience was very odd!
Eventually I saw a fellow survivor whom I recognised from the Look Good, Feel Better programme I'd been to, so I went and talked to her for a few minutes. Her gorgeous four year old daughter bounced on her knee while she told me that she had been told she was going to die before next Christmas. Her cancer had spread throughout her body, and the treatment she was having wasn't stopping it. We talked for a while, and then it was time for the relay to start.
As I walked towards the starting line, holding my husband's hand and surrounded by a gaggle of kids, I started to laugh. I was wearing a sash I'd been given, which said 'SURVIVOR', and I told my husband that when we got back from doing the survivors' lap, I was going to ask for another sash. He looked surprised, and I explained that the representatives of both the things I've survived were there - the cult, and the cancer - and I wanted a sash for each of them.
We stood with the other cancer survivors, their families, and the families of people who had died from cancer, and I listened as the Lord's Prayer was said, a drumming group started playing and led us all round the track, and I walked. Holding hands with my husband and one of my sons, my arm around another son, and my other two children huddled in close, we walked past the brethren group I used to belong to, and I smiled at them as they took photos of the parade of people streaming past them.
After the first lap, we watched as the real work of the relay began, and hundreds of people walked and ran round the track. Eventually we left them to it, and walked out the gates. Past the Cancer Society tents, past the brethren now busily setting up water stations for the relay participants and getting a bbq going, and out into the clear air and sunshine to get on with our day.