A regrettable winter

My mother died twenty years ago this December 2nd. I remember it clearly for several reasons. Her death was unexpected, she’d almost finished chemo following another run-in with cancer. Cruelly, she was in hospital receiving treatment for chemo-related complications and everyone thought she’d be home for Christmas – she wasn’t ready to give up and nor were we but none of us got what we’d hoped for. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint I was there when it happened, and now, 20 years on, the violence of her death still plays vividly in my memory with full technicolor and time stretching slow motion despite my best attempts to erase that fateful winter day.

In the early years following her death seasons of the year blended one to another, life continued but the gap she left behind was all consuming. Christmas, which had always  been one of my favourite times of year, became desolate and hurtful. My memories consisted only of my Mother’s untimely death and the actions that had consumed me in the period leading up to her funeral. I spent many Christmases in the wilderness, caught between bereavement and bewilderment. It is not a time I would choose to relive.

Roll forward twenty years and I’m still here, and still filled with sadness about my Mother’s death. It’s no longer acutely painful because as humans I suppose we’d cease to function if anguish and torment stayed so raw for so long. Today the feeling resembles a blanket of numbness, the kind that comes with Novocain. You know there’s a lot of pain beneath but on the surface it’s no longer perceivable. Somehow  you know it’s a trick, because the numbness is transitory and the pain might resurface when the Novocain wears off. So you hope it never wears off.

For the longest time just thinking about my Mother conjured images of her death and nothing else. It’s taken two decades for other, happier memories to creep back in.  My Mother was never a moaner. Throughout her illness she never asked “why me.”  During her sickest, most challenging days she always had more concern for others than she did for herself.  Generosity of spirit was one of her greatest characteristics and something I learned a great deal from.

Twenty years on my relationship with my Mother’s death has shifted from one of desolate unhappiness at her early departure to one of gratitude and profound joy for the time we spent together. Of course I’d have wanted her to have 80-something years on Earth instead of the 40-something she achieved. I’d have wanted her to enjoy many more happy years with my Father and live to see her grandson grow into a young man with a passion for helping others and a talent for medicine. Winter 1996 snatched all of those things and more away from us. But times change and winter is no longer such a regrettable time of year. I remember happier times, times spent with my Mother making Dundee cake and Brandy snaps,  decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping presents. Her death was cruel and untimely but her loveliness and warmth live on, timeless and unchanging.

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

 

 

 

Seven words on cancer

Family:

They say blood is thicker than water and it’s easy to see why. My family trudge every step of this path with me no matter how challenging. My Dad remains a rock despite the fact that he’s encountered the journey far too many times before and with no happy ending. My Mum would’ve done likewise if cancer hadn’t robbed her of her life at such an early age. M, J and S remain positive, future-focused and encouraging. They all believe I’ll still be here in 30 years and that’s a wonderful vision to hold on to.

Medics:

These people are amazing. The surgeons, oncologists, sonographers, anaesthetists and nurses are skillful, compassionate and dedicated. Behind the scenes there’s a whole community including  histopathologists, biomedical scientists, pharmacists and nutritionists to name but a few.  They’re the driving force behind cancer care and cancer research. Many of us would not be here without them.

Invincible: 

We like to think we are and then we find we’re not. Deep down I’ve always been acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of all life on our beautiful blue planet, including my own. I spent 35 years attempting to ignore this until cancer provided an uninvited reality-check. So now I know I’m not invincible but I also know I’m more robust – physically, mentally and spiritually – than imagined.

Friends: 

Whatever the weather some friends will weather the  storm with you. They’ll offer to do things for you (or do things anyway because they know you’re too proud to ask), they’ll help put you back together when you’re in pieces and remind you of all the reasons you need to hold on. Other friends will abandon ship. The wife of a friend explained this to me when I was first diagnosed and I thought her judgement somewhat harsh at the time. We stand by our friends when they’re sick or dying don’t we? I owe her an apology and at the same time I give thanks to the all-weather friends who opted to stay with me.

Health:

Must never be taken for granted. Fit and in the prime of life one day, nose-to-nose with death the next, the turnaround is quite a shock. When the shock subsides a subtle awareness of the uphill journey from illness to wellness begins to dawn and the distance seems so vast. It’s also full of boulders and sinkholes.  I never loved my body but I didn’t hate it, even though it was pre-destined to let me down. As a receptacle for my soul it continues to serve it’s purpose and I’m grateful for that. But it doesn’t feel like me anymore and for however long I’m here, I’ll never be able to trust it again.

Time:

Does not last an eternity. It passes in the blink of an eye and once its gone it can’t be revisited.  Time is too precious to waste so life-changing events shouldn’t be the catalyst for this vital life-lesson. If the art of valuing time was taught in high school,  future adults might stop deluding themselves that they have all the time in the world, plenty of years ahead and are guaranteed to reach a ripe old age. Write all the time related clichés you know on a piece of paper and safely set fire to it. See how quickly it burns?

Death:

We all die. From the day we’re born it’s a one-way ticket and a completely natural part of the circle of life. Developing cancer makes death impossible to overlook and also brings the very real possibility that it will arrive much sooner than anticipated. There’s no getting away from this, no amount of worrying or soul-searching can change the shape of things to come. All I could do was find a way to live with it and in doing so savour every second of every minute of life in this very moment.

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Cast out the old year, seed something New

I lost a friend to cancer just before Christmas. She wasn’t old, lived healthily and did all the ‘right’ things but her encounter with the emperor of all maladies was shockingly brief. Just 5 months from diagnosis to death, treatment offered no respite. I attended her funeral yesterday and am still stunned. This year brought more than its fair share of rain and though I cannot afford to wish my life away – every day is a gift – I will be glad to see the end of 2015.

Cast out the old year, seed something new

2015 – A year of worry buried deep

A year of struggles, strife and grief

A year of friendship cut so brief

A year of making angels weep

The year will pass and trouble with it

The year will pass, it’s reached its limit

The year will pass, now almost through

The year will pass having taken you

2016 – New Year is edging ever near

New Year will vanquish harsh frontiers

New Year will cast aside old fears

New Year will keep your memory dear

 

Sentience

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

    

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Sailing Away

Sentience is a blessing and a curse. Some days are more cursed than others.

I didn’t watch The ‘C’ Word. I followed Lisa’s Blog but didn’t have the necessary psychological flood defences in place to watch her story played out on television. A dramatisation and by all accounts a very good one, it might be better categorised as reality TV. It reflects the harsh reality of breast cancer where life no longer comes with a happily ever after guarantee. Some people with breast cancer do not survive. Some people with breast cancer die. Some of them are very young.

Survival has been playing on my mind a lot lately because there is no rhyme or reason to it. No-one knows who among us will outpace the frightful fiend, who might be forced to endure it to the bitter end or who might find themselves facing it on more than one occasion.  This is ambiguity on anabolic steroids and uncertainty reigns supreme. In this version of reality sentience is more curse than blessing. Lately it seems for every survival story there are multiple stories of an all too early demise.

As humans with a limited time on earth we must learn a crucial lesson – never take anything for granted. Health, strength, life itself, these things can all be taken from us in the blink of an eye.  Most people don’t need to think about mortality on a daily basis and that’s probably a good thing because life would be very depressing if we did. Those of us who do think about it – a thought pattern that is almost inevitable after a life-threatening illness – probably do ourselves no favours. Worrying about our own mortality doesn’t change the final outcome. This is another scenario where sentience proves to be more of a curse than a blessing.

So what of the blessings? Feeling the sun on our skin, watching grass grow, celebrating another birthday, anniversary, Diwali or Christmas are all blessings. Walking in the park, riding a bike, reading a book, those things are blessings too because life after cancer is difficult. It throws up questions for which there are no answers and searching for answers offers no reprieve. The simple act of waking up each day is a blessing in this reality, when you have no idea how many days are yet to come.

It wasn’t an accident…

 

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Someone I used to work with died last week. We weren’t close and hadn’t kept in touch but it  was still sad and shocking to hear the news. He was young, super fit and healthy just a couple of years back when we worked together. A clean-living triathlete.

When I found out I thought maybe he’d been involved in an accident, some kind of traffic collision. In the city it’s one of the more common causes of premature death. Or maybe one of those completely out-of-the-blue heart conditions, the kind that take people during marathons and football games.  In the moment between hearing the news and hearing what happened, an accident is what I expected to hear.

It wasn’t an accident and what I’m about to say will sound strange. In spite of the trauma, an accident might have been easier.

He was diagnosed with lymphoma in July and spent the past few months in a hospice. Nine months from diagnosis to death. His world and that of his family undone in the space of three seasons; autumn, winter, spring. His wife and young daughter must be devastated and I can’t help thinking it’s really sad. Sad for him and sad for them. They’ll have some gruelling memories to deal with before the good ones find a way back in.

24 hours ago one of our news channels made a big deal of cancer survival rates. The report was positively beaming about 50% of people in England and Wales now living for ten years post-diagnosis. Cancer no longer needs to be seen as a death sentence is what the story said. The same story reported a one in two chance of living (dying) within 10 years of diagnosis as a vast improvement on the 1970’s position. Back then 24% could expect to live for 10 years.

News of a co-workers death from cancer in less than year just one day after this inappropriately upbeat national TV story seems hopelessly ironic. I don’t deny the numbers reflect some progress for the better, but I can’t shake the thought that creeping from 24 to 50% ten-year survival during the course of almost 45 years is extremely slow. Life threateningly slow. The kind of progress that earns a ‘must try harder’ comment on an end of term report.

It wasn’t an accident that we invented the large hadron collider, wi-fi, hybrid cars and protease inhibitors in the last 25 years. We verified the existence of dark matter and down-graded Pluto to a dwarf planet too. But when it comes to cancer we’re supposed to be pleased by a 50% ten-year survival statistic that’s taken 40+ years to achieve? It’s a statistic that means 50% of people, including my ex-colleague, still can’t expect to see their kids grow up, have kids of their own or spend time with their grandchildren.

Live Forever

We don’t of course, or at least not physically which is probably a good thing because our bodies wear out over time. It must be quite frustrating to go from being active to inactive and mentally alert to easily confused.  Loss of independence would be really difficult for me, potentially verging on unbearable. Hopefully that day is still a long way off. Although our shells, these complicated works of art, science and sinew we call the human body succumb to all manner of things, in many ways we are immortal and we live forever.  We’re captured in photographs and stories, documents and memories. When we have children our genes live on in them and we, hopefully, always have a place in our children’s hearts.

Two people who live forever in my heart had birthdays last week, my Grandfather and my Mother. Both were very dear to me during the time we shared and both continue to play a role in my life. They’re in my thoughts, my memories, my sense of who I am and how I want to lead my life.  They were both amazing people who would never have considered themselves anything more than decent human beings and that in itself made them wonderful.

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My Grandfather spent much of his life caring for other people. He was posted in various countries during World War II including Italy and North Africa. I’m fairly sure he almost died of dysentery at one point, then contracted malaria and was seriously ill for a very long time.  He hitch-hiked the length of Italy to rejoin his unit and was very close to Mount Vesuvius when it erupted in 1944. He spent time in Austria, though I can’t remember how that came about and he told us of a mysterious and frequent whistling sound in the desert. It happened to be the sound of bullets flying past and sometimes into people. When my Grandmother was alive we used to joke that it was a miracle Gramps made it home from the war, he’d had so many brushes with death. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps so although he was conscripted, his mission was to preserve life rather than deny it. We know that he had some truly horrible experiences and saw things that no-one ever wants to see, but he never spoke of this and he never let it cloud his nature.

When I was growing up my Grandfather was simply the best anyone could have.  He’d make things with us kids, normally messy things like papier-mâché or exciting things like dens and secret hide-outs. He’d take us to the zoo, play conkers, go fishing for tiddlers, sing songs and play games like ludo, monopoly and snakes and ladders. He also let us collect butterflies, caterpillars, grasshoppers and spiders (not in the same jar) as long as we treated them kindly and always let them go again. When I had my own son my Grandfather was as great with him as he’d been with me and my brother and although J was very young, he still has some memories of his Great Grandfather. A gentle man in all sense of the word, my Grandfather was empathic, knowledgable, encouraging and very good fun to be with. He was also an accomplished artist and musician, a good listener, hugely supportive and had a love-hate relationship with a rather large ginger tomcat my Grandparents took pity on as a 4 week old abandoned kitten.

My Mother was a kind and gentle person who always put others needs ahead of her own. Forced to leave school early to earn a living and care for her step-sister, she spent most of her early life being told she was clumsy and stupid. Today the things that happened to her when she was growing up would probably be considered neglect, or child abuse.  I know she used to clean the house and clear the fireplaces, polish the floors and fetch all of the groceries, almost like Cinderella but without pumpkin coaches, glass slippers or a ball to attend. When she met my a Father she said she knew he was ‘the one’ and her life improved enormously once she went to live with him and his parents.

My Mother had a talent for understanding people and animals, I suspect because she appreciated the sanctity of all life from an early age. She was a very loving and giving person with a strong sense of right and wrong, a placid temperament and the ability to turn her hand to almost any task.  She had a high work ethic, well-developed personal values and no ego at all. Though she was very talented, my Mother never quite believed she was as good or as talented as others – deep down she probably never completely recovered from her horrible childhood and that made her determined to ensure my brother and I never endured undue criticism, lovelessness, isolation or insurmountable chores. Because she was multi-talented my Mother spent time teaching us to make cakes and biscuits, identify plants and animals, read, write and draw, make models, build things (with Lego, scrap cardboard, or bits and bobs from the house and garden). She helped us understand that there’s no sense in violence, you should never sleep on an argument, and there is always room for another hug. My Mother loved music, the countryside, nature and her family. She found pleasure in the scent of a freesia, a starry night or a walk in the park with Dad and the dogs. I can’t ever recall my Mother asking for anything from anyone. She spent her whole life making other people’s lives easier, happier and brighter.

Grief is a funny thing. When we lose people a period of grieving is inevitable, it might last for weeks or months or years, but one of the downsides of grief is that it draws our focus towards the gaps in our lives – the people who are missing and how sad we are without them.  It can become all-consuming to the point where it blocks out the happier memories, the things we’re grateful for, and can make us lose sight of the fact that our loved ones probably wouldn’t want us to be broken-hearted, miserable or withdrawn for the rest of our lives. It seems there’s no easy way to understand this without going through the process of loss, grief, readjustment and reflection.

Although I was deeply sadden by the deaths of my Grandfather and my Mother I’m no longer consumed by sadness and grief. I can now draw on memories and stories while being happy for the time we had, the experiences we shared and the things I learnt from them. Gramps and Mum are in my thoughts and here with me every day bringing love, warmth and inspiration. I can’t wish them happy birthday in person but in my heart they live forever and we celebrate the good times.

The ones we have lost

The ones we have lost are not lost at all

They’re here by the sea, on the sand and the shore

In the world that we know, they may not be seen

But their spirits live on in our hearts and our dreams

The ones we have lost are not lost at all

They’re here in the clouds, a sun ray and rainfall

In the world that we know,  they may not be heard

Their voices live on through the sweet song of birds

The ones we have lost are not lost at all

They wait by our side until our curtain call

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When our time comes, then we shall be

Walking the shore, hand in hand by the sea.

In memory of my very special Grandfather (whose birthday fell on 17th February) and my dearest and deeply missed Mother (whose birthday fell on 19th February).