Leavetaking: Because of my mother’s cancer, we had to sell the family home

Since pancreatic cancer tends to interfere with daily routine, she could no longer work

A line drawing of No 8 by Laura Kennedy’s brother, Damien, who is an architect

A line drawing of No 8 by Laura Kennedy’s brother, Damien, who is an architect

 

In many ways my mother’s house was the defining symbol of her life. It represented the choices she made – good and bad – and it represented the finest aspects of her character.

She bought it with my father when my brother was seven and I was four. It was a shabby brick construction smattered with old wooden shelving that had been flung at the walls and menacing-patterned carpets that whispered of another time. It was dark, sternly decorated and rather ugly.

Over the next three years, before their marriage shattered against the rocks, in his brief bouts of sobriety my father made furniture that transformed the house. One of my resounding childhood memories of my mother is her painting: doors, walls and ceilings. Everything was made fresh again by her determination and a few dozen litres of Dulux. Slowly, the house began to change and brighten. It became homely. We never had any money, so the project of reviving No 8, as we affectionately called it, would last nearly 30 years. It ended about a month ago, when we sold the house.

We didn’t want to. After my mother received a terminal diagnosis last June, we sat down together – my mother, my brother and me – and discussed the horrible reality of our situation.

Pool of debt

When my father left, my mother was plunged into a pool of debt that was not of her own creation. At seven I was oblivious to the extent of her difficulties, but we came very close to losing No 8. Only by remortgaging and extending the duration of repayment could she keep it. I remember the horror I felt as a teenager when I learned of the enormous commitment my mother had made to keep our house.

When they told us she had 12 months to live, there were just six years left on that mortgage. Since pancreatic cancer tends to interfere with daily routine, she could no longer work. We looked at all the options, and none of them proffered a feasible solution that involved keeping the house she had worked decades to pay off. Within view of the finishing line, when the house was nearly hers and hers alone after all that work, we had to let it go. Just over four weeks ago, the sale closed.

There wasn’t time to mourn our home. In a flurry that returns to my mind only as a baffled, contorted half-memory, its contents were packed up and carted away. Instead of going through my childhood room with tear-filled eyes, wrestling over which tatty souvenirs of my formative years to keep, I tossed the diaries, the dusty stuffed animals torn and limbless from a childhood of love, and the general junk into black bags. The books went to charity shops. There was time and space only to keep a few photos. There wasn’t room for sentiment. Things moved on.

Place of safety and peace

We have all been adjusting to the realities of my mother’s declining health. Only this week I’ve had the time to think again about No 8. A strange, disjointed feeling rises underneath my skin at random moments. It’s close to panic. It seems almost impossible that in just under five months – since the day my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer – we have lost our home.

It’s just a building, I hear you say. But it is something more than that. My mother turned it into a place of safety and peace. She worked two jobs six days a week for years to pay a mortgage of which she should only ever have had to pay half. The injustice of that would make me angry if I let it.

The house was integral to our experience as a family. It was the place to which my brother and I could always return, and there she would be, giving out that this visit – like all the others – wouldn’t be long enough, grasping us in a hug. “Welcome home,” she’d say. “I’m so happy to see you.”

Now, I’m sitting next to her bed – not her bed, a hospital bed – as she sleeps. Our home is gone, and gone too is the energy and force of spirit that propelled her through so much hardship. Sometimes it is impossible not to sit and contemplate what you have lost.

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