Artist Maggie May & Musician Josh Kelly Are Parenting And Running A Business Through COVID And Cancer
Maggie and Josh are surprisingly upbeat. We’re chatting over Zoom, as is customary for most Melbourne interviews in the year 2020. They’re lying on their bed sharing a green juice. Behind them is a bedhead covered in soft, daisy printed fabric, like a garden from a daydream. Maggie, aka renowned macramé artist Middle Aisle, is effortlessly chic in a pale yellow jumper and slightly oversized glasses. Josh, saxophonist for bands 30/70 and JK Group, looks like he’s always had a shaved head. He doesn’t look like a sick person.
Josh was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease five weeks ago. He’s just completed his first week of chemotherapy. His doctor has predicted another six months of treatment, followed by radiation, if necessary. During that time, he and Maggie will continue to parent their one-and-a-half-year-old son Remy, and try to keep the business going.
Maggie and Josh began Think Thornbury as a space for local creatives, to sell their wares and hone their crafts. It has since grown into a passionate and dedicated community. When Maggie shared Josh’s diagnosis on Instagram, they were overwhelmed with support. A GoFundMe set up on Josh’s behalf raised $27,000 in just 24 hours (and now sits at over $50,000).
This isn’t the first time they’ve been challenged as a couple. In fact, they’ve been through the wringer. Maggie is only just recovering from severe postnatal depression, which she chats about with bracing honesty. They share their wonderful experiences, the harrowing ones and everything in between as a way to strengthen their ties with the world around them. Cancer, it seems, is no exception.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our chat.
Trigger warning : This interview contains talk of suicidal thoughts and postnatal depression.
How are you guys sharing the parenting load at the moment?
Josh Kelly: Cancer’s really flipped it.
Maggie May: Yeah. It’s put a lot of…
JK: … pressure back onto you.
JK: We had some really frank discussions in the early days of parenthood. I thought I was being a good co-parent, but came to realise I had a fairly patriarchal gaze. There were so many things I didn’t notice Maggie was doing. She helped me see that, and we were able to figure it out. And my diagnosis has flipped it again. The doctors are like, you can’t change nappies, you can’t hold Remy when he comes back from daycare. I’m that immunocompromised. It’s put all the parenting straight back onto Maggie. I’m in bed a lot. And she’s like, making me smoothies. It’s a pretty big mental shift to be taken care of in this way.
MM: Historically, you’re the one who takes care of me. I’m the one that falls into a puddle. Not that I’m completely useless, but pregnancy was particularly hard. I had Hyperemesis.
Is that when you throw up all the time?
MM: Yeah. I had no close friends who had been pregnant, so I had no gauge for what morning sickness was. I was throwing up 20 times a day. And Josh was on tour in the UK. He got home and was like, Nah, you’re fucked mate. I’m taking you to the hospital. It was another eight months of it from there. I was still working. I still taught five star reviewed macramé workshops!
JK: You were spewing five seconds before people came upstairs.
MM: (laughing) I’d say, I’m just going to pop downstairs for a moment! Then I’d go down to the bathroom, be horrifically ill, and come back up like nothing had happened.
That sounds intense. And Maggie, you didn’t have the easiest road when Remy arrived either, right?
MM: Yeah. Particularly at the start of the year. I didn’t want to be here anymore. Postnatal depression was the pits. I had a massive breakdown.
JK: It was big.
I’m so sorry you went through that. This is the year from hell. Are you guys okay?
JK: We were talking about this last night. So, it’s Jewish New Year at the moment, right? We were saying how we’ve come through some pretty serious challenges: Maggie’s depression being as bad as it’s ever been, having a baby, having significant financial pressure, having COVID happen to our business and now me having cancer, and I feel like we’re almost starting to steer the ship around, in a weird way. There are a few things we’ve done differently in the past few months that have made a big difference.
MM: Putting Remy in childcare helped a lot. I think I tied a lot of my parenting self-worth to how much time I spent with him. I wanted more time with my parents growing up. I still do. But that’s just not who they are as people. I used to think that if I could always be there for Remy, that would mean I was doing a really good job. But since he’s been in childcare, I’ve felt lighter. It’s taken a lot of pressure off.
How much did you know about your diagnosis, Josh? Were you starting from zero?
JK: Pretty much zero. I knew what most people in Australia would know about cancer. I’ve known a few people who have been affected, but not the nuts and bolts of it. The day-to-day grind of it. Then when you factor in that there are thousands of different kinds of cancer and sub-types of cancers, and they all have slightly different treatments and slightly different chemotherapies. And every patient reacts differently. There’s a lot of unknown. But nothing beats reality. No amount of information is going to tell me everything I need to know. I need to experience things. That’s how I learn. This first week of chemo has been a big learning curve.
What does it feel like?
JK: It’s like the worst hangover ever. Times a million. You can take all this stuff to moderate the nausea, but you just feel completely fatigued. You do feel like you’re dying inside. It’s probably not a good word to use. I had three days of chemo in a row this week. Monday was the biggest day, which is when I took the most drugs, and that fucked me up until Wednesday night.
MM: It was like going to a really bad festival.
JK: Yeah. I started feeling okay, then really sick again on Thursday. I have to take a cocktail of pills, too, which wipes me out. I’ve felt a little bit better each day since. I’m still pretty out of it, but I’m feeling okay.
MM: Yeah, you’re doing way better today.
(They exchange a brief reassuring look. Suddenly they’re upsettingly young. I want to tell them how brave they are. And how proud of them I am. I remind myself to cool it).
Have you found any resources particularly helpful? Any books or movies that you’re relating to right now?
MM: Cancer movies are so sad. There are none that come to mind. Actually, there’s one movie I keep thinking about. In the Wizard of Oz when they go through the forest and Scarecrow says, “I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” I just keep coming back to that and feeling it in my body and soul. It all comes back to The Wizard of Oz.
What else even is there? Ugh. You guys have a great attitude.
MM: Thanks. It doesn’t mean we don’t have moments when we really struggle. There are definitely times when I’m like: NO! What for? Why us?
JK: Friends were messaging me the night before my first round of chemo, asking me how I was feeling, and whether I was scared or nervous. I was both those things, but I was also excited. I could dwell on how awful the side effects were going to be, or how lucky I was to be able to access treatment. And the fact that it was going to help me.
MM: The morning of his first treatment I cuddled him in bed and he said, ‘Today’s the day we get better.’
Date night in?
Cook an extravagant meal (the kind where you buy specialty ingredients from Casa Iberica), delicious bottle of wine, altogether too much cheese, pick different records for each other, try and have a conversation not about Think Thornbury or Remy.
Rainy day activity?
Find some puddles to jump in the Darebin parklands together. Build train tracks around the living room whilst listening to music and drinking hot chocolate. Later on we watch a movie.
Oh Gosh, we’re spoilt for choice in Thornbury… Josh says Everyday Coffee in Collingwood (scandal!) and Maggie is indecisive which is just so typical, but agrees Everyday Coffee is excellent.
Honestly though, all the local cafes here in Thornbury & Northcote are excellent and they have been so supportive of us. We love them all equally and can’t wait till they’re all open again.
This is hard for us. We have literally 300 records. You should come see us DJ when COVID lets us do it again.
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane/ Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu
Weekend getaway (remember those)?
We like to try and get away to some kind of secluded cabin surrounded by trees, where there is quiet and the chance for us to be a little introspective and plan our next insane venture together. Preferably with a fireplace and a very comfortable place to sit. We also go for walks and point out all the animals and trees for Remy.