A few weeks before she died, Mum tried a dairy-free diet. She had heard that Japanese women have extremely low instances of breast cancer because of their low dairy consumption. Part of this, of course, was a complete reliance on soya milk- on cereal, in tea, in soup. A man came to the door one day and offered to deliver soya milk once a week. He said to try the first one for free. So she did, and he brought another one the next week.
Of course, she was miserable. She stopped drinking tea, the only time i’d ever known her to. And she was losing weight dangerously fast. Her nurse ordered her to go back to dairy to help slow the weight loss. There was no real evidence, she said, that dairy was linked to cancer.
Just a few weeks later, Mum was dead. Since then we’ve been back to her house every week, going through her things, sorting out paperwork. And every week, outside her door, we find a carton of soya milk. No-one knows how to contact the guy. He’s never been paid. And we just have an ever-growing pile of a dead woman’s soya milk.
Mother died today. Or yesterday. I don’t know.
OK, I do know. She died at 12.50 this morning. She went as peacefully as you can imagine, fast asleep. I was sleeping next to her, on a mattress topper she used to use, by her bed in the little bedroom she had slept in most nights for several years.
(It wasn’t her favourite bedroom. That was the green room, at the back of the house, which is large enough for a double bed. But she used to sleep in the yellow room because the green room was full of boxes of her disorganised belongings. When she returned after two days in hospital last week, having been treated for high calcium levels which could have killed her, we set up her hospital bed in the yellow room so my sister and her husband and baby could have the green room.)
I wasn’t even sure she had gone at first. I woke a little while before and noticed her breathing pattern had changed – she was breathing more slowly, and either more deeply or more shallowly – i can’t remember which, but it was definitely different. I thought about waking my brother and sister, but I knew they’d be reluctant to get up for a false alarm – we’d had a couple of those already. Then a few minutes later I heard a light rattling in her breath. I looked and she wasn’t breathing. I called my brother and said, “I think she’s going.” I went back in and thought I heard her exhale. But I think it was just the last few gasps of air escaping. She was gone. I woke my sister. We were all very calm.
It’s easy at times like this to fall back on platitudes about fate. But I genuinely think everything was as it should be – as much as it could be. We were all with her, in the house, and I know that she knew that and it was a relief to her. She became very agitated this afternoon and asked for my brother and sister, who were out, my brother at his own house and my sister out walking with her baby. I called them and asked them to come, thinking she might be ready to go. She wasn’t, just yet, but she was very relieved when they came, I could tell. In the evening, as she knew we were there, her breathing relaxed and she became incredibly peaceful.
Everything pointed to it being the right time for her to go. We had spent time with her, last morning and afternoon, sitting and talking to her and singing to her. Once, last morning, she began to sing along, in her weak half-concious way, to “Kum Bah Yah”. Had she gone Sunday night, I wouldn’t truly have felt we had spent the time together to say goodbye, as a family, that we should have done. But tonight I knew, as I laid myself down to sleep, that if she went there would be nothing we had left undone.
As I write, her body is still as soft as ever. She had – has, for a few more hours – the softest skin of anyone I’ve ever known. Even as her body was ravaged by radiotherapy and drained by chemotherapy, her face and arms remained beautifully soft and gentle, her embrace full of reassurance and love. Strangely, I think it’s her body I will miss most as a direct result of her death. Her personality, her friendship, have been slipping away for some time.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have an urge that maybe I should go away for a while. I want to drink grappa in Italy, and dark beer in Munich. But there’s months of sorting out of the house and the money before I can do that. I just know I don’t want my life to drift along. Something has to come of this. Something has to change – my life has to improve for me to be able to survive this without becoming depressed, I think.
It’s become obvious that mum has only weeks to live.
We were told only last week that not only had the chemotherapy failed to reduce the cancer, but it had spread to her liver. Since then she’s seemed more tired daily.
Today I spoke to her on the phone and I was taken aback by how out of it she seemed. She was talking about a meeting she’d had with a solicitor yesterday about some documents we’re looking for. I then mentioned a delivery she’d recently received that arrived broken and that I’d emailed to arrange a return. She got the two completely confused, going on about how waiting for the refund would help the solicitor with his search. I said, softly, that I thought she was getting the two confused. “Oh god, you’re right,” she said. “I never know what’s going on any more. Ask me what day it is.” “What day is it?” I asked. “Ah, see, I know today! I’ve already been asked twice! It’s Thursday!”
It’s Wednesday, of course. Apparently she’s better in person – my brother went round an hour or so later and says she seemed much better, though he’s one of those men who can make a woman be exactly the way he thinks they are. But my sister later confirmed on the phone that she’s sleeping a little more each day, a little less in touch with reality each day while she’s awake. She eats incredibly small amounts. Soon, my sister reckons, she’ll stop eating altogether.
The strange thing is that I’m not more terrified now about losing my mother than I was a few days ago. I’m terrified that I already have.
I’ve realised I’m losing two people. I’m losing my mother – the one person in the world who I know wants desperately for me to be happy. The one person who’s always rooting for me, always reminding me that it’s OK to laugh and enjoy life, not just always be worrying about some imagined problem or fretting about some invented task. The one person who I could have gone to with any problem, no matter how ashamed or tortured I was about of it, and who would have listened, not judging, not laughing about it with their friends afterwards. Not that I took much advantage of it.
But I knew that already. I’ve mourned that already, though I’m sure I’ve got more to go. What I realise now is that I’m also losing – have already, to be honest, lost – my mother, the woman. Who is – I always say most clichés are clichés because they’re true – my best friend.
I can’t think of anyone in the world who I could talk to, for hours, as easily as I do with my mum. Never trying to impress, never worrying how I’m coming across. And now that’s soon going to be over. Maybe it already is over. She can’t talk for hours now. I find myself sitting in awkward silence with her, for the first time ever, because she doesn’t ask the questions, make the responses she used to.
I think I’m only appreciating now, for the first time, how intelligent she is. Was. Is. I don’t know. She was educated, but more, she was unashamedly intelligent in a way it just seems people aren’t now. She studied Latin at school, for god’s sake. She didn’t know the derivations of all the words I asked her about, but she’d bloody well look them up. She wasn’t ashamed of being educated, like baby boomers all seem to be.
She was elegant. Not in the skinny, uptight sense. She just knew clothes. She knew style. She had an in-built sense for aesthetics. I went shopping with her once a couple of years ago. God, we had so much fun. And now I see her in her pink cupcake pyjamas, an oasis of class in this shitty ugly cheap world I seem to be stuck in.
I don’t know – I honestly don’t know – who I can just read the paper and talk about it with now. Or listen to music or discuss politics or philosophy or anything without it being a competition. I try to talk about these things with my other, male best friend, but it always seems to turn into a competition. With men, this stuff is all about egos. And the women I know are mostly trained not to talk about it in public. Or they just don’t want to. I feel like everyone else I know my age either is an idiot, or is trying desperately to be one. I’ve felt like this all my life; god, isn’t it time that stopped being true?
Ok. Let me try and explain a little bit about my life, right now.
I’ve just found out the 8 button is broken on my keyboard.
I’m in a transitional phase of my life, i think it’s fair to say. For the last three years, I’ve lived a vaguely crappy existence: in a demanding job where there’s a lot to do but it’s far too easy to waste time, I’ve spent afternoons mindlessly browsing the internet and evenings working late to catch up. I’m gay, and single. I’ve had short, abortive relationships, but nothing more. The sex in my life has been – well, not more than glorified foreplay, really. I’m intelligent, but my job can be brainless at times. Basically I’ve been living half a life.
So why are things changing? Well. I’ve been in my current job – working on a magazine – almost two years, and it’s time to move on. I think – I certainly hope – that after years of maneouvring I’m now in a position to get a real journalism job, on a real magazine about things that matter to people. But I haven’t the slightest idea how to get started on getting that next job, and I’m vaguely terrified to try.
I’ve spent much of the last three years paying off debts accrued while at University and soon after. Not my actual student loans, but additional bank debt – overdraft, credit card – built up mostly by wasting a ton of money on junk food. Oh yes, I’m a compulsive eater. After a lot of hard work I’ve nearly finished paying it off – my last loan payment is on Feb 1. After that I’ll have almost half again as much disposable income each month. This might not sound important, but it’s going to make a real difference to my life – it means I can go out, go to galleries, have dinner with friends, and live a full city life in a way that’s very hard on the cheap.
And, my mother has terminal cancer. If it seems that should come first on a list of salient facts, well, I guess it’s sufficiently new that I haven’t worked out where it fits into the larger scheme of my life yet. I don’t even know what that last sentence means.
We’ve known for two years she had cancer, but it was always under control. We found out over Christmas that it’s spread from her tongue to her chest, and is basically unstoppable. We’re hoping chemotherapy will slow it down. But the doctor says, given the aggressiveness of the cancer and the difficulties of treatment, her life expectancy is probably measurable in months, not years.
My father, who left when I was nine, died ten years ago. When mum goes, I’ll be parentless.
Did I mention I’m 28?
I do have two siblings, thank goodness: a wonderful if somewhat maddening older sister, and a supportive if often hard to relate to older brother. They have kids, wonderfully, and my sister’s baby boy in particular just melts my heart. He came along just a few days before we got the news about mum, so as you can imagine it was an odd little Christmas.
So where does mum being sick fit into the transition in my life? Basically, it’s a cliche but it’s spurred me on to fix the things in my life that aren’t as they should me. I badly need to start living life more fully. Above all, I need to find love. Not, I stress, to “complete me” or some such crap. I spent a long time telling myself it was OK to be single. And it is, morally speaking. But that doesn’t mean it makes you happy.
I think there are a few reasons I’ve never been in love:
- Men are shits. The worst thing about being a gay man is that you have to seek love from other men. And men are cold, destructive and dishonest – sometimes. Of course, women have to put up with this stuff too, but they have other women to help them get through it. I’ve always been the kind of gay man who has mostly straight male friends. Between that and the men I’ve dated, I’ve always been in the zone of emotional distance, or some such jargon.
- I’m terrified of anal sex. I’ve never done it, and to be frank, it looks painful and unpleasant. The one time I tried – with my best friend, would you believe, when I was 16 – it was painful and unpleasant. Deep down I realise that, with preparation and care, it must be nice. But now I’m scared of telling any boyfriend that I’ve never done it before (again, I’m 28). I’m sure some of my fizzled relationships fizzled because I wasn’t responding to signals to do it.
- I’m terrified of getting hurt. This, more than anything, is the realisation that I’ve had since we got the news about mum. I used to imagine being hurt, crying, feeling heartache and I just couldn’t bear the thought of it. Of course, I’ve been through it, with my father’s leaving and so on. But it had become a haunting memory. But since December, I’ve cried more than in the preceding ten years. And I’m not so afraid of it any more.
The other thing that’s changed is that I realise just how much I’m going to miss the love that mum represents in my life. I’ve always wanted, and recently, mercifully, got much love and support from friends and my brothers and sisters – when I asked for it, at least. But only mum has ever really known me well enough to see through it when I’ve been putting up barriers, to see I’m unhappy when even I haven’t realised. Since I began contemplating life without her, I’ve been seized for the first time since I was about fifteen by a strong desire to find a loving, mutually supportive boyfriend. And ultimately, to marry one and raise children together. I need that love – that total, unquestionable love – in my life. I have it, from mum, now, but that won’t be true for long. And for the first time I think the desire for it outweighs my terror of being rejected, being hurt, or being laughed at.