Today marks six months since my mother passed away from cancer. A thick fog is only now lifting. Both my physical and mental health have suffered. But I’ve found solace in writing and this has been a cathartic exercise. Today is the culmination of a journey years in the making and one where I’ve yet to take the first step. This story contains references to death, cancer, mental health, self-harm, and suicide. I’ll post a second and third part on Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
“I’m sorry, she’s gone.”
I already knew. It had been five minutes since she took her final breath. I mirrored her—motionless, cold, empty. That was now my mother. A stark contrast to the hour before. All the reading, preparation, and conversations can never truly prepare you for what happens when a loved one passes. So I kissed her forehead and uttered the words:
“I love you, Mum. I’ll be with you soon. I promise.”
I never saw her body again. Though this was a choice.
What lay before me was little more than a container that had its contents spirited away. My attachment was to the person, not the body.
I spent the following twenty minutes speaking to—being consoled by—a nurse, though little registered. Everything from time to sight and sound just bled into each other. I remember being on the train back home, watching people as they go about their business thinking; do you see me? Am I sad? I knew I wasn’t crying but a wave of anxiety rushed over me. How was I being perceived by the outside world? I had expected a tsunami of emotion but anxiety, that was it? I wondered why now of all times when it was perfectly reasonable for me to cry; I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Later I would vividly remember not crying at her bedside because I felt it rude to do so. An ICU is full of people close to death, each with their own story of suffering, the last thing they needed was to hear my cries. On reflection, not a normal thought process but one I imagine protected me. At least until I got home. Alone, I cried and I wouldn’t stop for days but I guess to understand what had just occurred I’d have to go back.
This was the second time someone had given her the diagnosis. The first time was on Good Friday back in 2008. Osteosarcoma of the right tibia. In 2015 there were just 551 new cases of Bone sarcoma in the U.K., making up less than 1% of all cancers and Osteosarcoma makes up 30% of all bone sarcomas. So it accounts for just 0.003% of cancer cases. Osteosarcoma is most common and in teenagers and young adults. So as she said:
“Even with this, I am a rarity.”
A wry smile and a joke. That was how she approached her illness.
She had christened it ‘Frank’.
Her prize for adopting Frank was six rounds of chemotherapy and a brand new titanium tibia. Did she have any questions for the doctor?
“Will the scanner buzz me at airport security?”
“If I’m short of cash can I sell the leg?”
Ten years and many side effects later—she was facing down a second diagnosis. She didn’t name it this time, but I called it ‘The Bastard’ for posterity. The Bastard, for all intents and purposes, was an enemy in an unwinnable war. She received the test results in June 2018 with the news that cancer had taken hold in her spine. Having metastasized, it had a shopping list of organs:
That last one? Yeah. That was a real fuck you to someone who had already lost her ability to walk outdoors without the aid of a wheelchair. Someone who had lost feeling in her extremities because of Peripheral Neuropathy. To have dealt with all that for ten years and now have her brain consumed by this was heartbreaking. It was only a matter of time before she would lose all motor function. But something unexpected happened. After receiving a high dose of steroids her motor function returned. It had only been a week, but the difference was night and day. She could raise her arms, sit-up unassisted and could even take a few steps. The sense of pride I felt at seeing this woman, who against all odds was once again back on her feet was immense.
It was enough for the doctors to allow her home but even with this progress, the path only went in one direction and had one end. Now there was an invisible clock hanging over her head. No one knew how much time she’d have left, it’s not an exact science. Though with this improvement and some chemotherapy the doctors estimated six-nine months. Best-case scenario? Up to two years.
It was late July, summer was in full swing. England was marching on in the World Cup and though we marked her 54th birthday in the hospital, we could now have time at home. Planning how best to spend the time she had left.
And in my deepest desperation, I did something that most people end up doing at least once in their life. I prayed to a God I had never believed in. I prayed she would be around for my 32nd birthday and that we’d get one more Christmas together.
In the eerie silence of the chapel, if I really listened—I heard a ticking clock I couldn’t see.