Welcome to the club you never wanted to join
It had to come at some point. Inevitably, people around me would start dying. I am 45 and I have joined a club defined by loss; a club you don’t clamour to join. Suddenly, you are a member. No-one else wants to be members either. It’s an awkward bonhomie, but here we are. The big bastard C has a lot to do with it. That, and people’s tickers giving out.
Now, it’s worth reading on even if you are not a member yet. You will be, if you are lucky. Either that, or you are the one tripping off the light fantastic earlier than the rest of us. Read on.
I can’t decide which is more difficult: watching your friend’s journey with cancer or figuring out how to live without her afterwards. The worst part is her ‘long and winding road’ towards death was not sign-posted. There should have been a point when it was declared that she was dying from – not dealing with, not having treatment for, not recovering from – cancer. It should have been possible to have that level of openness, of certainty; to call a spade a spade.
But the most you could call it was a potential spade, an uncertain spade of unknown duration. I couldn’t handle the uncertainty. There was never a time in the five years since diagnosis that I was sure of what would happen next. I kept anguishing between hope and what is known in the books of grieving as ‘anticipatory grief’. I am sure I wasn’t the only one.
I didn’t think she would make it to Christmas judging by her appearance. But I didn’t think I was an expert so I didn’t say anything; neither did she. It’s a lot to take in: your own dying and then everyone’s reaction to that sad fact. I didn’t feel it was my call to say it looked like she was on the downhill run, the highway to death. Who would walk that untrodden path from hopes of living to her facing death? Earlier on, I had gingerly asked how long did she think ‘things’ might take. She said she didn’t think it would be soon. But then it was soon, and I didn’t know how to check where she was with her own dying.
It’s at these kind of kinks in the road, these blind corners, you would hope all the usual crazy family problems would disappear. They don’t. People have a hard time putting aside their own dilemmas and their fear of dying, to really be there for the one for whom the bell is tolling. Some people refuse to hear that low chiming and chatter on noisily to cover it up. I knew she had lots of friends and family and that she was exhausted with some of their reactions so I didn’t want to add mine to that pile.
Every time I visited I didn’t want to take up too much of her dwindling, and ultimately, finite supply of energy. I wanted her to live longer and I didn’t want to steal her life force by expecting too much conversation or too much time. At the end of my visit one day, she clambered all the way out of bed and gave me a hug goodbye. It was a lovely hug and I knew it was the last one. In the end, I had a three week infection that kept me from visiting. They don’t want infectious people around cancer patients in case it hastens their death. We had a long phone call largely to celebrate her return home from hospital- She in her bed, and me in mine. It was good that she made it home. A week later, she died.
Sarah arranged for Blasko’s version of Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees to be played at her funeral, along with It’s a Wonderful World. There are times when I could strangle her for doing that. Those songs are like random grief testing, popping up on the radio, in the car, at work. Anywhere, anytime, you will be caught. So, I well up with tears, and then I try to laugh at her ultimate mischief. Did she know how indelibly she signed her name across our hearts?
Two years on, I am still thinking of her often, trying not to recall all the pain and horror she went through, trying to just smile about the things we shared, trying to feel like it is normal to pretend she is here beside me sometimes. Often, I wonder how the others who grieve her are managing it. So I wrote a poem, Snookered:
Uninvited, cancer places a coin
on the side
Waiting, chalking a cue.
Shot for shot, we are mute.
Balls clink, rearranged and briefly still.
Our hopes for victory, stretched and snapped.
Below the table her ball drops
out of sight
slipping into the pocket
with a telling clink.
We roll on in a leaden waltz
rearranged and briefly still.
And while it is true we, her friends and family, share the losing of her, I feel we each have a different loss. My context is different to yours. Your response to loss is different to mine. It hit me hard. She was the same age as me. Her childhood photo could have been mine. I was still here. Why? Then another friend died. Then a friend’s mum. Then someone’s dad. Then a friend’s partner. It was like a never-ending freight train.
To make sense of my mortality was crucial in order to make sense of going on ahead without her and so many others. I didn’t find the answer in a meme. Nor did I find a complete answer in any one book of wisdom. I just kept on remembering and doing things for the first time without her and slowly I realised I was in the club, a life member, like everyone else still here, listening to those songs on the radio.