I haven’t been sure how to write this post. I’ve been meaning to write it for a while. Not writing it has prevented me from writing any others. It’s not even important what I actually write here, or that anyone reads it, just that I write something and then move on. So I suppose I’ll just write what’s in my head.
Mum died last year. It feels like it all happened really quickly although in reality things developed over six months. I guess it just took a while to appreciate what was coming.
In April she went to see the doctor for a scan for suspected gallstones. The gallstones were there but so was something else, spotted in the pancreas. Probably nothing, but worthy of a further scan a few weeks later. This showed two ‘bodies’ in the pancreas. Small and isolated. Probably nothing, perhaps cysts, but worthy of a biopsy a month later. The biopsy showed that one of the ‘bodies’ was not an issue. But the other one was cancerous in the centre.
Clearly not good news, but seemingly small and isolated, and caught early enough to deal with. A quick web search on pancreatic cancer shows some pretty brutal statistics. Normally without symptoms until it spreads, it is unusual to be caught early enough to be dealt with. But this had been caught by accident, and Mum lived close to one of the best pancreatic care centres in the country at Addenbrookes. They felt that they could operate to remove the cancer, and that there were no signs that it had spread.
They operated on my birthday. A major operation, the biggest risk of which, in my head, seemed to be not actually surviving the operation, rather than the operation somehow not fixing the problem. We saw her afterwards in intensive care, tubes and wires everywhere, but having got through the operation just fine. It was the next morning when the surgeon sat the four of us – me, my brother, Mum’s partner of over a decade, and our 89 year old grandmother – Mum’s Mum – down in a little room to tell us what he’d told Mum just minutes before. That what he’d found when he operated was not what he’d hoped. That what he had to tell us was not good. That the cancer had spread from the pancreas to the intestinal cavity. That it was inoperable. That chemotherapy and radiotherapy would not cure things in this situation. That, at a best guess, Mum had 12-18 months to live.
As it turned out, she lasted just over two months after that. She never really recovered from the operation. Her digestive system never really adjusted to the changes that they made in order to relieve the symptoms that she would experience as things progressed. Even after a few weeks I don’t think we realised how quickly things were moving. We (my brother and I) even went away on a planned holiday for a week. It was only when we returned that things seemed more obvious. Mum knew though. She knew what was happening, faced up to it squarely, and accepted it. And she tried to make us do the same.
I think we were lucky. We got to spend Mum’s last week with her. Many people don’t get that. They don’t get the opportunity to try to make up for the years of saying the wrong thing, of letting silly things become stressful and turn into arguments, of reacting like a child even though you’re in your mid thirties (which is exactly what somehow seems to drive that childish reaction). They don’t get the chance to apologise for swearing at their mother whilst preparing lunch in the kitchen on what turns out to be the last Christmas Day that they’ll ever share together.
Watching someone die is pretty humbling, particularly the last few hours. It makes you realise pretty clearly what is important in life. Or at least, what is not so important. And I guess that if this post has any kind of purpose, then it is to try to solidify that for me. This isn’t meant to be about the trauma of cancer. It’s not about how to prevent it, find it early, fight it. It’s not about how to deal with death. There are plenty of other places for that.
I guess it’s about what these things make you think about your life. About the passage of time and how you spend it. About how you will feel when you look back at your life when the time comes. About how you would feel if that time came tomorrow.
Mum spent the past ten years or so constantly talking and planning about moving to France. It wasn’t simple. Finances were an issue, as was doing things in a manner that enabled her to look after her mother. There were many reasons to put things off. Excuses, I often thought, perhaps unfairly. There’s a pretty subjective line between excuses and genuine reasons, often blurred by your perspective. I’d worried that Mum had wasted a lot of time during those years, constantly spending time focussing on moving away without actually doing so, and in the meantime not putting that time to its best use. It turns out I might well have been wrong. In the weeks around and after her death, we met so many people who had only incredibly positive things to say about Mum. About how much of a positive effect she had had on them. How supportive she was. How knowledgeable she was about so many things. How involved she was with so many different groups of people. How she had rescued them; literally changed some of their lives. Many things that, as her children, we had perhaps been unable to recognise. Perhaps she had been exactly where she was meant to be.
Dad also died of cancer, back in 1995, when I was 20. I was away at University and didn’t really see how hard it was for Mum and my brother, who looked after him at home until 2 days before he died. I guess something about losing your second parent, and particularly seeing more of it happen, makes you think a lot about where you are. Whether you are where you hoped to be. Whether that even matters. Whether you are happy. What happiness actually means. Whether you are excited and stimulated each day. Whether you are spending your time doing the things that you want to do.
It highlights how short life is, how many of us don’t do half of the things we dream of, how quickly time passes if you let it. Suddenly I am the oldest person in my immediate family (with the exception of my soon-to-be 90 year old grandmother, but the feeling is there nonetheless). It puts the focus on needing to make change happen rather than waiting for it to come along.
Perhaps it’s also highlighted how I don’t quite feel that I am where I’m meant to be. Or at least, not where I want to be. I daydream of being elsewhere. Of having more time to do things I enjoy. Of not sitting in an office chair for 9 hours a day staring at a screen. Of being properly fit, not because I spend every moment I can outside of sitting in that chair in the gym, but because my daily life is active and makes me fit. Of making money doing something I genuinely enjoy or find worthwhile. Of being outdoors. Of wide open spaces and twisty trails. Of having time to photograph and write. Of exploring.
I guess I’ve been considering all these things for a while; this isn’t a knee jerk reaction (it’s probably more of a low burn midlife crisis!). I’ve been obsessing about breaking free of the ‘normal’ job, the office, of adventurous travel, of long term/distance bike trips, perhaps even of finding another way of making a living that enables more of the things I find important, for a few years now. But I guess this focuses the attention somewhat.
I’m tired of daydreaming. I need to do. The time to start doing is now.