‘One thought kept recurring. My mother might be dying, and I’m not there’
She had to spell it out to me. I was sitting in a staffroom in London, Skyping my mother on borrowed Wifi, while she sat pulled over in her car in the west of Ireland telling me she had cancer, writes Padraig Moran.
She had to spell it out to me. I was sitting in a staffroom in London, Skyping my mother on borrowed Wifi, while she sat pulled over in her car in the west of Ireland.
The engine can’t even have warmed up on the short, interrupted drive from the doctor’s, and there’s every chance she hadn’t even said the words out loud to herself yet. But in my own confusion and denial, I blindly dragged it out of her.
“What’s wrong?” “But what tests?” “What surgery are they doing?” “But what are they removing, what is it?”
“Well… it’s cancer.”
From 400 miles away, I had failed to take the hint.
There wasn’t much more room for conversation, or whatever shocked stammering I could’ve mustered. I had called to tell her I couldn’t afford a trip home; money was tight from my tendency to drink it. Not that I would admit that, but rough and ready excuses never made it out of my mouth.
She was being brought into Galway the next morning for surgery; but not, by God, before she got her hair done. This was cheering, as was the later call to let me know she’d had her eyebrows tinted too. But I went back to work worried and upset, staring at figures that seemed important an hour ago, humouring staff instead of following my instincts to just give them a good shake.
I kept it to myself for a few days, and life horribly, unforgivably goes on. You wake up and go to work. You’re constantly late to meet real life friends because you’re too busy talking to strangers on the internet. You eat toast.
You tell yourself there’s nothing you can do but call and talk and wait for the treatment to start and see if you’re needed then. Like being half way to work and remembering that you left a tap running.
“Just have to nip home, I’ve left the cancer on.”
You still know you should be there. If only to ask the things you’ve never asked, to celebrate the simple fact of being together.
The hardest thing to understand is how normal you feel. Routine replaces the shock. You worry when you have time to. Somewhere in the middle of getting on with things you’ll realise you didn’t text yesterday, and reality finds a voice in guilt.
“That cereal you’re eating isn’t helping.”
“Aren’t you lucky to be laughing?”
“Cancer can be hereditary, and it just got one generation closer.”
You hate yourself, instantly, for days.
I tell a few friends as the weeks pass, and suddenly everyone knows more about cancer than I do. They ask the questions I inexplicably haven’t, or can’t. What type is it? Where did they find it? What stage is she at and what have they said?
“Treatable.” “Doctors are happy.” “On the mend so let’s get on with it.”
Snatches of conversation with my mother resurface, sitting with friends, in bars, in parks. The well-meaning smile weakly, hopefully. All heart, no knowledge. But those with a clue smile significantly, and I quake at what they might be thinking. The things they know which I don’t. They pry out facts I’d missed in my own memory, trying their best to spin salvation.
But words echo. Theirs, out of kindness; hers, from the past. And one thought kept recurring.
My mother might be dying, and I’m not there.
Before I went back to work that day, I sat for a moment, in a tiny, boxed-in office in Soho. Upstairs was a brothel. Outside, in fading light, two drag queens handed out flyers, while a drug dealer handed out ways to fly. The bars along the street were my locals, where I danced and drank with the beautiful and unsuitable (often neatly packaged into one).
I’d spent most of my young life trying to get as far away from my quiet, rural upbringing as possible. Not the people, by any means, but the place. And here I finally was.
I booked a flight. I lived on noodles for a fortnight. It was time to go home.
Padraig Moran is an Irish journalist and sub-editor, currently working for The Times in London. He tweets at @padraigmoran.