Sunday 11th August. 51 weeks without Mum. I found myself typing this IG post on my phone before heading up to the bathroom to dye my hair.
There are so many moments that start with the thought ”this time last year” (and finish with a lump in my throat). August in particular is peppered with them; the day Mum’s 3 monthly scan revealed cancer had spread to her brain; the day she answered my ”how was your day? question with ”the Palliative care nurse came”; the day she was referred to Sue Ryder; the days we waited for a bed. The day I last held her. The day she died.
We’ll spend a a quiet day with Dad this Sunday, making lunch together, playing with the boys, just like any other weekend meet up. Only it’s not just any other day, it’s a milestone day, one whole year without Mum. I can’t describe how it feels to write that, the cold hard fact of missing her and wishing it wasn’t true but accepting that it is. If you’ve lost someone you love you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I expect you understand it in the potential for loss we all fear as children, parents, siblings, lovers and friends.
When Mum was living with cancer we were so grateful for the support we received from Maggies in Cheltenham. I was working in the PALS team within Gloucestershire NHS when Mum was first diagnosed and familiar with signposting people to support services. I’d referred lots of callers to the Maggie’s website but had never had a need to visit. I suggested to Mum that we go together knowing it would be a place of refuge for Mum on her cancer journey and somewhere Dad and I could seek support too. Mum was hesitant at first and wanted to wait until she’d had her mastectomy, started treatment and began the process of recovery. I gently suggested it would be good to tackle any first time nerves while she felt well and still herself pre-treatment – to make friends and start to share what was happening before it became physically traumatic. She agreed and we visited for the first time in March 2013, receiving the warm and gentle welcome I anticipated.
When you arrive at Maggies you’re greeted by a kindly volunteer or a member of staff. Tea and cake are offered, as much as you can eat and drink, with the proviso that after your first visit you’re officially a member of the Maggies family and must help yourself next time! It’s a fitting acknowledgement that Maggies is there to meet whatever need you have when you visit. If you need to talk you’ll find a compassionate ear, if you need to cry there are boxes of tissues discreetly on each table (useful for sticky cake fingers too of course) and if you need to be alone with your thoughts there are quiet nooks too.
After our initial introductions and tour Mum relaxed and shared more openly about the reason for our visit than I expected. I played with 13 month old Euan and could see that having a baby there was light relief for everyone, not just us. After Mum’s op a few months later the 4 of us returned to Maggies. Mum and I would do the Tai Chi class together while Dad had a cuppa, chatted and kept an eye on Euan for me. Over the years Mum would pop in if there were delays to her treatment up on the Oncology ward or attend Tai Chi regularly herself when life with a toddler became too hectic for me to join her. In 2016 when Mum’s scans revealed the cancer had spread to her liver she began attending a fortnightly Secondary Cancer support group. I know she found it hard to be open with us about how it felt to have cancer. She never wanted to believe her life with us was going to be cut short. I found it comforting to know she had somewhere she could share her thoughts and with people who really understood what she was going through. I remember vividly the day she shared some sad news from a friend in the group. ‘‘She has the same cancer as me but but it’s gone to her brain. She came to the group to say goodbye because they say she only has a month left”. Mum was angry and it was the first time I heard her swear about how shit cancer is. Her anger was the anticipation of losing a friend. I think it was also her own anger at being cheated out life with her grandchildren. It was the fear of what was to come. I listened as she talked and gently raised my own emotional shield to hide the fear that her friends cancer story ending might become Mum’s. Sadly it did.
Mum’s fortnightly group at Maggies, weekly blood tests and chemo, monthly bone hardening injections, regular appointments with the consultant, all just became part and parcel of life for her and Dad. It became their ordinary life, like popping to the shops for milk, that it was like she didn’t even need to talk about it. Mum was always more interested in what other people were getting up to and would brush off any talk of what was happening to her. She loved to talk about her grandchildren and I realise now she became good at deflecting conversations. We all lived in a bubble of pretence that ”living well with cancer” could go on indefinitely.
Of course that wasn’t the case and it all came crashing around our ears over the course of two weeks. Mum had been experiencing a loss of appetite and low energy for a while. We put it down to the side effects of treatment but it was actually her liver failing. It upset her that she didn’t feel hungry and the range of foods she could eat was diminishing. She was always someone with a lot of energy, busy doing things and seeing friends. So it was debilitating for her to have no energy or motivation and to feel like there was nothing she could do about it. She tried to eat but found it increasingly hard. She couldn’t get her head around how you can feel better if you can only manage water. The answer of course is that you can’t but that was also incomprehensible to her.
After someone dies there is the heartbreak, the gut wrenching sadness, the insomnia, the drifting. When you’re a parent you’re anchored by the your children, their need for you keeps you sane but is also what makes healing as a bereaved child yourself harder. I felt indebted to the Sue Ryder home where Mum spent her last two days and to Maggies for the space they hold for people effected by cancer. At Mum’s funeral we asked for donations to these two charities in Mum’s memory and I wondered about what I could do to give back in some way. Losing my Mum led me to the work I now do with Weleda as a Wellbeing Advisor. I visit Charlies, the cancer support and therapy centre in Gloucester, now to give hand massages and in the Autumn will do so at the Sue Ryder Day Centre in Leckhampton. I wondered about doing Race for Life this year or setting myself some other challenge that would be worthy of sponsoring. Ideas came but putting them into action seemed a bit of a struggle so I nudged them to the back of my mind.
On Sunday whilst dying my hair I flicked through my Facebook feed as I waited for the colour to set. A new friend, made through Charlies, shared that she was doing ”Run the Runway” at Gloucestershire Airport to raise funds for Maggies. I clicked on the details and saw that it’s a 5km midnight run/walk that is taking place on Saturday night. I immediately went hot and cold at the same time. I was excited by the prospect of joining the walk to support Maggies and feeling goose-pimply about the timing. My calendar on Saturday 17th August is blocked out with ”keep free for quiet time”. I knew I would need some time to myself to reflect on my last day with Mum and how it felt leaving her. I knew I’d revisit my journal scribbles from that night, written after waking at midnight and needing to process what was happening. I was planning a restful day as I was anticipating a fitful night as we approached the one year anniversary. I had not foreseen this perfect opportunity to both reflect and take action by taking part in a midnight walk. I’ve registered my place and will be walking with a friend. The friend who is a Palliative Care nurse and was my rock last year when I couldn’t make sense of my own anguish. It helps that she knew my Mum too.
It’s 30 years since I last took part in a sponsored walk! My friend and I are paying the £30 requested donation ourselves as Maggies is such a deserving charity. I didn’t want to set up a Just Giving page and make this about fundraising but then someone said to me other people may wish to donate to remember my Mum or a loved one they have lost to cancer. So I’ve decided to set up a Tribute page on the Maggie’s website for donations to be made directly and as Mum’s legacy. I like the idea of being able to add to it through the year and on occasions such as birthdays or when I do eventually create a fundraising ‘something’ of my own. I’m usually shy about sharing things like this but have decided It’s not for me to worry about what you do or don’t do after reading this. If you wish to make a donation to Maggies that would be amazing – you can do so here and this is how your money will be used.
In Memory of Mum x