Cancer And The Search For A Lost Fridge


I sat impatiently waiting for her to enter, nervously trying to keep my emotions in check, knowing if I acted in any way out of character, she would be taken from me again. My heart bounced around my chest like a firework that had been lit in a confined space.

My stepdad entered first, with a look on his face that implored me to keep it together, but it was too late, I was already on my feet with arms stretched out to hold her.

I have a vague memory of a blank expression flashing before my eyes as I grasped her desperately. I can’t be sure if she was ever in my embrace, if so she had shrunk away, as in life, leaving me holding nothing but clothing, an old work suit she wore some time in the late eighties. I let out a desperate cry that permeated into my waking state — I had lost her again.

This was a dream I had two weeks ago, they don’t occur very often but when they do they leave me feeling both overwhelmed and a little silly. It is a very strange way to start your day.

It’s been fifteen years to the day since my mum died, although anniversaries frankly mean little to me, they do have the ability to force some memories into focus. I was 22 when she died and felt as helpless in cancer’s devastating path as she must have. She was just 46.

It was the summer of ’96, swathes of faux macho posturing sheep adopted laughable Liam Gallagher walks to the strains of “Football’s coming home” only for it to end, as it invariably does, in casual violence and a defeat on penalties to Germany.

I had been struggling secretly and quite profoundly with depression and panic attacks that winter and spring, so decided a week away by the sea with friends and a fridge full of alcohol would take my mind off these ever encroaching walls. I would not recommend this as a cure for depression; by the time we returned I was hung over, hungry and in desperate need of my bed. Still living at home I looked forward to whatever delights that fridge held. Somehow no other fridge ever seems as full as your parents’.

I could tell something wasn’t right as soon as I opened the door; there was something church-still about the place, as if all the life had been sucked out of it. Shrugging this off I went to the fridge to seek some nourishment — it was bare. I didn’t like this feeling at all and it had nothing to do with hunger.

I heard my mum coming down the stairs and turned around to see her looking gaunt and troubled; I didn’t have long to savour the dread.

I don’t remember the conversation, only the word “Cancer” It was the first time I had truly understood it. I can only imagine how it must sound coming from your own mouth. My response was the laughable “You’re joking?” but to this day I cannot think of an appropriate reaction to such news coming from someone you love so dearly.

I have little recollection of anything else that day, or much of those that followed, a kind of fog had enveloped me as I tiptoed around not sure what to do with myself. I did my best to keep my emotions in check, telling myself I must be strong for everyone, but in truth, I was barely coping with my thoughts before the dreadful news. I genuinely, and perhaps melodramatically, feared being sectioned, which was not an option in these circumstances. It’s a bizarre place to find yourself where insanity isn’t an option.

As I wasn’t working and the family was struggling for money, I was to be the carer, beginning with a follow up appointment at the hospital. When she came out of the doctor’s office I could tell it wasn’t good news, the original 50/50 assessment had worsened due to it spreading rapidly since the last scan. I think we both knew what this meant but neither of us spoke of it. Acceptance, perhaps strangely, came easily to me; I still wonder if it did for her. In hindsight I realised just how much she was protecting me through all of this, her shell-shocked look aside, she did what all mothers do and softened the pain for her child. This still happens with 22 year olds. Bearers of bad news often have to do this too, having to tell friends I remember almost apologising as I spoke the words, as if mentioning it was an assault of some kind.

After one of the following appointments they kept her in for a few nights due to worries over blood clots. As I left the hospital I heard her call my name from about 3 floors up, she was smiling and waving. I can remember forcing a smile before she watched me wonder off. It still breaks my heart to think of this although I’m not sure why. The simple things are often the most emotive.

I don’t believe there is a correct way to cope when a loved one is dying, there is only coping and you do this in any way you can. I acknowledged the reality but did not dwell upon it. Unfortunately, as time passed, I found it more and more difficult and I carry some guilt around with me to this day for not being the carer I would have wished to be. The perfect storm of mental illness and witnessing a loved one dying had me, all too often, seeking refuge in my bedroom, starving myself of food and much needed distraction. There is a ridiculous and very common response in circumstances such as these, where guilt informs every thought and action. Every smile, fleeting pleasure or thought of anything but the plight of the person afflicted sends waves of shame through you, as if it is somehow disrespectful to not flagellate oneself for even a moment. Of course this is nonsense. They need support, love, patience and, when appropriate, humour. So does the carer.

As summer gave way to autumn and winter and the horror of chemotherapy took its toll and the routine of cleaning vomit and collecting medication became the grinding reality of life, from which she heartbreakingly tried to protect me from. People with any potential terminal illness will invariably and somewhat patronisingly get called “Brave”, brilliantly parodied in the title of the book “Because cowards get cancer too”. Perhaps I am a little biased but I believe this to be true of my mum. I don’t remember her crying once, the least I could do was the same. The previous summer I went through a mild hippy stage, largely due to the heroic amounts of weed I was smoking. This led me to become interested in essential oils. She would often ask me to recommend an appropriate oil to help with blood flow; clots at this point were beginning to become an increasing problem. I knew deep down that this was going to be of little help but to feel a little less impotent in cancer’s path was a welcome respite and she knew it.

Regrets are commonplace after a loved one dies, one of my largest was to never say “I love you” or “I’m scared” or ask, “How are you coping?” or maybe even to cry together as in my dream. I wish I could have allowed myself to but unfortunately I was too scared. I could not risk opening my tear ducts for even a moment for fear they would never close again.

Come November my nan fell ill and died. With all that had been going on I hadn’t visited her in some months, another regret. No one should die alone but unfortunately she had fallen out with everyone else in the family, being, as she was in her latter years, quite difficult to deal with.

How could so much go wrong at once?

Her funeral was as dark as it got. The clots in my mum’s leg had caused it to swell grotesquely, making it hard for her to even stand. On that claustrophobically grey November afternoon, as the coffin slid into the fire, watching my mum struggling to stand, leaning on my stepdad’s shoulder, made me nauseous with sadness and no little anger that cancer could be so terrible, common and indifferent. I wanted with all my heart to take away her pain but could only stand there, helpless.

I recall it was Friday evening in the New Year. I was dressed up for a much-needed night out, something I needed about 4 pints of Guinness to deal with at this point, when we would say good-bye for the last time. Such a mundane farewell but I suspect that’s the way it normally happens. When I returned the following Sunday, dreading the routine of another week, she was asleep on the sofa. Not wanting to wake her I went to my room quietly and nursed my hangover in a stew of self-pity.

The next day my step dad was to take her to the hospital for a routine appointment, she was never to leave again. Blood thinners to help with the blood clots had caused bleeding in her brain and she was never to be truly conscious again.

She hung on for 2 weeks, more stubbornly than I would have I can assure you. After going through what she had, I would have been running for that white light and not looking back for a second. Visiting her had become nightmarish, wanting to spend the final few days clutching her hand like a dutiful son but deep down wishing for it to be all over. We tried at all times to have one of us sitting with her, telling ourselves it was so she would always have company, but in truth it was fear that she might die alone. I would sit there watching TV or reading, never taking in the words, frequently visiting the smoking room and occasionally moistening her cracked lips with a sponge. Every day I would almost vomit with anxiety, wishing I wouldn’t have to go through the time defying relentlessness and pain, wishing for her to be released from it all. I was ready to let go, at least of her failing body.

On Monday the 27th of January 1997, I received the call. I’m not sure what I felt, nothing maybe, empty. I told my friend who was with me after spending the previous evening emptying the local pub’s supply of red wine. His response was “Fuck off”. We would often enjoy a sick joke at each other’s expense but this time it was said more in disbelief than an attempt to disturb. It’s a little better than “You’re joking” and managed to make me laugh, something you might assume is impossible in such a situation. He later told me he went home and cried, it would be months before I could do the same.

The hour and a half journey in rush-hour was unwelcome in the extreme, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide or punch one of the wanna-be “Gangta” teenagers on the bus. What was really troubling me now was the idea of seeing her lying there in that dreadful room.

As I opened the door I remember being so focused on her that I didn’t see anyone else, her skin looked yellow and unreal. I placed my hand upon her forehead as a mother might with a sick child; it felt like wood, inanimate and empty. She was no longer in the room and I felt a huge sense of relief. I need not be strong for her now, nor she for me.

I dreaded the funeral that whole week; I was a nervous wreck yet still keeping those emotions firmly in check. I resented that I had to hold it all together again; I wasn’t sure whom I was doing it for any more. I should point out that I’m a staunch atheist, as was my mum, and I frankly could have done without the social nightmare and apologetic navel gazing that seems to permeate religious death ceremonies.

My breakfast consisted of several pints of Guinness, something I would regret very quickly as I hadn’t factored in the extra time it takes a funeral procession to drive 5 miles. Never in my life have I needed a toilet so badly but it is not the done thing to stop a funeral procession, which I was at the front of, for a quick piss. I wanted to scream at the driver “Put your fucking foot down and stop acting like an apologetic daddy long legs around us!” What I actually did was grind my teeth down to stubs whilst my eyes, not bladder, dripped like a broken tap. This was the first and only time I prayed, all that horror and pain and the only time I desperately searched for God was almost pissing myself in the back of a hearse. By the time the urine hit the cold steal of the cemetery urinal I was an atheist again.

It took me 3 months to finally cry and it wasn’t a particularly profound one, they came much further down the line. Still, it was a relief to finally let go of something. Like sexuality, grief cannot be contained for long, it has a way of coming to the surface and if you try and fight it, it can be dreadfully destructive. There is only so long you can hold back the tide before it starts to spill from your eyes. All those hours spent suppressing those feelings, drowning them in alcohol and “Pulling yourself together” did little more than postpone the inevitable, eventually leaving me sat up in bed, 15 years later, sobbing like a child who has just had his Mummy torn from him.

I still miss her everyday and can still hear her voice as if it were yesterday but the pain does subside, becoming a familiar, not always unpleasant feeling. My thoughts tend to dwell on her life now and not her death, as they should. I do hate the fact she was never to see me fully become an adult and I crave her advice and the warmth of family and a family home, I never did find a fridge that seemed so full again. I guess we all have to face the death of a loved one at some point.

I had love instilled in me from my Mum; it informs me, unconsciously, everyday. Death does cast long shadows but so do people’s lives, if I learned anything it is to not be afraid to express love when you feel it. If I was old and strong enough I would have said all my “I love you’s” and done all my crying 15 years ago, instead I am left clutching nothing but old clothing in a dream.

© Copyright Dean Stephenson 2012

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