Death and all his friends

February 16th, 2005

I’d got the call I was waiting for, from my older sister. “You’d better come”. It was time. My mum had been fighting terminal cancer since the previous August, over the new year we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She’d become increasingly frail and had lost a shocking amount of weight. A couple of days earlier – Valentine’s Day, just to twist the knife a little – she’d had a precipitous decline. I didn’t fully understand the biological mechanism, but her failing liver being slowly consumed by cancer (which would go on to kill her) meant she was slowly poisoning herself, most evident of which was the loss of mental faculties. I had been warned she was in a pretty bad state, neurologically.

I had understood some of this when I arrived in Southwark, but not the extent of it. Leaving the underground at London Bridge and walking to my parent’s flat, a journey I had taken so many times in happier days, I did not know what to expect.

My sister opened the door. As I walked into the entryway I caught sight of my mum sitting upright in bed, apparently trying to get on her feet.

Is that my boy?

The words were feeble and quiet, but It sounded like an anvil dropping to my ears. She was obviously in very poor shape but wanted to get out of bed to meet me, to put on a bit of a show, to let me know she was alright. She wasn’t alright. Those four words were the last coherent thing I would hear from her. For the rest of the day she just looked into the distance, making no sound.

want to trip inside your head
Spend the day there
To hear the things you haven’t said
And see what you might see
I want to hear you when you call
Do you feel anything at all?
I want to see your thoughts take shape and walk right out

There was no life in her eyes. This hurt most of all. I remember looking deeply into them to see If I could see any flicker, any remnant of my mum in there (that U2 lyric would be swimming around my head for days. I still cannot listen to that song without thinking of the lonely evening train up to London) I was struck by the thought that his person – my mother – was no longer there; that all she was and ever had been had been taken from me, leaving just this corporeal thing, an empty shell. It sounds dramatic, but I had about 15 minutes alone with her and the memory is still absolutely devastating to me. She was so still and quiet. The slow destruction of a person -a parent – is a terrible thing to witness. In time I recognised this was worse than anything that followed. I wanted to scream, I was so upset, so confused, so absolutely wounded, but I kept it all in, because i was desperate to reach her. For me, this was worse than death; someone stripped of their faculties and their dignity, helpless, frail, and dying. What this disease can take of a person made me loathe it. This woman carried me into the world, and she had been so greatly diminished (she was tiny, tiny by the end) I still wince at the memory.

She would hang on for another 9 days, before passing away with us all there around 6.30pm on February 25th, 2 days after her 62nd birthday. I think my dad thought she’d held on for it, but I’m not sure if she had sufficient awareness to know either way. I almost had a nervous breakdown during that period, it came out as a bit of a tantrum in Tesco at Surrey Quays, but I was sleep deprived, under severe stress, and starting to crack. I had to get her a birthday card, and it sort of lit the fuse. No, I was not alright. I don’t know if I’m alright now.

I swore at the time that if anything like cancer happened to me I would not let it go that far, that I would not want anyone to see me like that. I have no idea what that might have entailed. Maybe I would jump off Beachy Head, or go and walk into the sea somewhere, let the waves claim me. I was, of course, completely full of shit, because I would get to find out. Life, as the saying goes, is a bitch. Also Irony when I think about it, thanks Alannis.

Who said God had no sense of humour?

Fate would take a run at me. I would get get the disease, not the same kind and mercifully not as severe, although in fact very dangerous. Melanoma is a big, big killer, and I really won the lottery in getting to remission. I may be half-blind, but in all likelihood it’s not going to kill me. Yes I’m tempting fate, but fuck fate.

Bad days are better than no days

There’s a sticker that says this at the reception desk at the infusion centre. It made me laugh at the time, because it’s a bit Oprah, but it’s definitely true. it’s easy to retreat into solipsism and self-pity, and I have definitely had those moments (“why me?” Why anyone, dickhead…) but you have to just keep going and be there. It’s a different story when you have a family. You learn to eat some shit and smile, then eat some more. Every day is a small victory. I know that if the worst were to happen to me, my family would be there to the end, and they would deal with everything that followed, because when the time comes, people find it in themselves. Every three weeks I sit down and get 200mg of immunotherapy drugs. The people there always impress me. Some are very much in the trenches with their illness, but they have such incredible spirit. It’s not at all what you might imagine a chemo treatment centre to be. I mean, it’s not cartwheels and fireworks – it’s still a godawful situation for all concerned, for fuck’s sake, but everyone just grins and bears it. For obvious reasons, I’ve a bad association with hospitals – the smell of disinfectant, rumbling air vents, and prospect of death – and I’ve come to realise it’s not like that at all.

This helped me understand what happened with my mum that day, finding that last shred of strength and dignity to try and show me that she’s okay; that through all she was enduring she would stand tall for her son.

I recently started to dream about her pretty regularly. The illusion of dreams is that you don’t really question context – “What am I doing here? Why can I fly?” I never question that she shouldn’t be there – although I had those dreams in the past. It’s just normal, she’s alive and we’re doing mundane things.

The month before she died, I think it was the first week of January, she had a distinct rebound, a period of high function I would learn is not unusual in the course of terminal illness. We had a nice weekend together, we chatted and watched a film (2004’s Collateral) and I thought for a moment that maybe she’s getting better. But it was not to be. Anyway, I mention because that’s how she is in my dreams. Just normal.

I don’t question it too deeply, but it’s a pretty comforting thing for my brain to do. Her headstone in a quiet hilltop Andalusian cemetary reads “Until we meet again”. I don’t know if that will happen. I don’t know if I believe such a thing is possible, but we’ll see I suppose. Hopefully later rather than sooner.

MCT, 23/02/43 – 25/02/05



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2 responses to “Death and all his friends”

  1. Marc M Avatar
    Marc M

    My friends zodiac sign was cancer, ironic how he died

    Eaten by a giant crab.

    James – stay away from crabs, and you’ll be just fine.

    Positive thoughts coming your way cuz.

    1. sullybiker Avatar

      Haha, cheers Marc.

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