Leavetaking: A terminal diagnosis is fertile ground for angry outbursts
When my mother glibly changed her mind about a big decision, I got angrier than I have ever felt
‘It is almost impossible to think beyond the expanse of your body when it is in pain.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
You might like to think that a cancer diagnosis in your family will make you a better person. I’d like to think it would, but I’m unsurprised to find that it hasn’t. I’m very lucky to have a close relationship with my mother, but as anyone who shares such a relationship will know, that has its disadvantages. The fact that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer changes the dynamic of our relationship, but we are still the same people we were before the diagnosis, and that makes occasional clashes inevitable.
Mothers will always infantilise you to a certain degree, and there’s a part of you that will always morph into a self-involved, harrumphing adolescent at their suggestions or comments on your life choices.
I find this particularly difficult to deal with. Having spent so many years in academic study, focusing particularly on emotions and rationality, I have made it my life’s work to get my damn feelings in order. I try to make important decisions on the basis of good reasons, and will generally do something that makes me feel bad or uncomfortable if it’s rationally the best thing to do. The one person who can undo nearly a decade of that rigid training in an instant is my mother.
A terminal cancer diagnosis is fertile ground for arguments. When someone you love makes a big decision, there’s generally discussion, perhaps a roaring argument or tears if you disagree with it, and a period of adjustment. Cancer changes everything; more pivotal decisions than you can imagine are made in quick succession, and cancer alters the sick person’s perspective about how to live. As a loved one, you are consumed by a ferocious instinct to protect them, and the fact that they’re dying doesn’t always mean that you’re going to agree with every decision they make.
“It’s not about you,” I hear you say. “Just shut up, get over it and be supportive.” In theory, that’s exactly what I should do. Almost every moment, that’s precisely what I do, but sometimes I can’t. Life with the people you love is inevitably a pastiche of pettiness (“Did you move the bread? I told you I was making another sandwich”), and we’re not the Waltons. Even when someone you love is terminally ill, you can get angry with them, feel upset by their actions and think, If you weren’t dying I’d kill you myself. Not really, but you know what I mean.
End of your tether
I’m embarrassed to say it aloud, or to write it down, but this week I had a fight with my mother. It was the sort of argument you can only have with someone you love when you reach the end of your tether and find yourself trying not to lose your temper completely.
When people are sick, they’re self-obsessed. It makes utter sense that they would be. It is almost impossible to think beyond the expanse of your body when it is in pain. This week, my mother changed her mind about a big decision she had made after her diagnosis. She told me this glibly over the phone. She was having a tough day, wasn’t thinking about how I would feel, and I suppose she had forgotten the weeks of work I had put into trying to make her previously professed wishes into reality.
I was having a tough day too. Stressed, tired and hurt by the fact that she had simply forgotten the impact that her decision would have on my own life, I got angry; angrier than I have ever felt.
It took 24 hours for me to find my equilibrium, kick myself and adjust myself back into a kindly perspective. It is crippling to try to find a balance between prioritising someone else’s feelings above your own and still feeling that you deserve respect and love. The solution is having someone other than the sick person to talk to about your own selfish feelings. No one can support a loved one through terminal cancer alone, and terminal illness doesn’t make you a saint.
The sick person will drain your energy without intending to. They will sometimes take you for granted, snap at you, and overlook your efforts. This will hurt. You might snap back. Find someone who values you to give you a hug. Then forgive yourself and be better tomorrow. You’re only human.