Leavetaking: I have lost some friends as a result of my mother’s cancer

Her terminal illness has wrapped tendrils around unexpected areas of my life

‘People don’t know what to say, so they remain silent.’ Illustration via Getty Images

‘People don’t know what to say, so they remain silent.’ Illustration via Getty Images

 

This column is ultimately a selfish endeavour. I’m documenting my mother’s terminal cancer because it helps to preserve my sanity in a situation that threatens madness, and I hope that someone trapped in the same position might feel a moment’s relief to read about it.

It is comforting to write this column, and to hear from people who have undergone the same experience. It is comforting to see the pain of watching my mother deteriorate reflected back at me in other people, who have been overwhelmingly kind and supportive. Terminal illness is incredibly isolating for the ill person, and for those around them. This column reaches a hand into the void, and makes the experience that bit less lonely.

For every person who has contacted me to say that I “should” keep this experience private (none has said why), there are a hundred who have sent messages of support. This has been largely the case in my private life too. Family and friends have generally been kind.

For a few weeks after the diagnosis, everyone is in shock. They are consumed by the effort it takes to assimilate this awful news, and they mostly come to you baffled, hurt and full of warm sentiment. What I didn’t expect was what would happen after that. Cancer is uniformly horrible. When my mother, at 57, was told she has less than a year, I was too consumed by heartbreak and the sad tedium of practical planning to give much thought to how the people around me would react.

Cancer’s tendrils

Like anyone whose family has been struck by it, I’ve read a lot about cancer. I know what it will do to my mother, but you don’t read anything about the tendrils it wraps around other, unexpected areas of your life. I didn’t fully comprehend what her cancer would do to me.

I have lost some friends as a result of my mother’s cancer. Those friends don’t know it yet, but I cannot feel the same about them as I did before. It often happens with life-changing events, particularly negative ones.

People don’t know what to say, so they remain silent. I have had good friends abroad, full of emotion, tell me that they would email me and never do so.

Recently, an old friend was too uncomfortable to talk to me when he saw me on the street, so he continued walking while his companion – my best friend of many years – came over to say hello.

When someone you love is dying, you are already an open wound. I walk around most days doing my best to hold the wound’s ragged edges together, so that people won’t be able to see straight through me. In such a sensitised state, small injuries can feel very great. When my old friend walked away I felt unusually crushed.

Of course, there are also the people who have the sensitivity of a bag of hammers. Life is full of them. If you’re unlucky, you’re related to them. I’ve had two distant relatives, neither of them close to my mother, shout angrily that I didn’t understand how difficult her illness was for them. This after a particularly hard and upsetting day of going through my mother’s things in preparation to sell her house because we can no longer afford to keep it.

Another relative accused me angrily of having no feelings because I asked my mother calmly – though my rib cage ached and I felt dizzy with sadness – to make a list of the furniture she wanted to store away. I try to protect her from my feelings by not adding them to her burden. She understands this. Not everyone does.

Then there are strangers. Like the man who asked me flatly seconds before a radio interview about my mother: “Is she dead yet?” The wound exploded then and there, winding me, sending my organs spattering in ugly gobbets in every direction. No one but me knew that, of course. I simply had to pull the wound shut, try to catch my breath and then go inside to talk about my mother.

I suppose that what I’m getting at is this – if someone a person loves, really loves, is dying, and they are standing upright and forming sentences, then they have unbelievable fortitude. The fact that they can function does not mean that they are not pulp inside. So be kind. Always be kind.

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