Leavetaking: My mother’s new attitude has unlocked something in us
There’s little positive about cancer, but her determination to use her remaining time well is infectious
‘Son, get out there and propose.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
It is difficult to make any definitive statement about cancer, except that it’s terrible. In itself, it has no redeeming characteristics; it is frightening and ugly and painful. It robs you of every certainty outside of itself. You can be sure only that it will, if allowed to run its course unhindered, probably kill you. In my mother’s case, it cannot be hindered. It has already spread through her like the fatal parasite that it is, draining her in order to grow itself.
So cancer is depressing, enraging and maddeningly futile. It has been less than four months since my mother’s terminal diagnosis, so trying to find any positivity in the midst of this is almost impossible.
I find that the urge to swear comes to me unbidden. When writing about this situation, I want to use profanities to describe it, because it is profane. Sometimes the build-up of tension will set a tear trickling down my cheek at random, but more often I’ll head to the bathroom to utter some profane refrain to myself – “Fuck, shit, shit” – before coming out and going about my business. The pressure has to leak out somewhere. I try to find relatively harmless ways to vent it. The cancer killing my mother isn’t polite, so I don’t feel obliged to be either.
Winter has come
I do feel obliged to try to find some positivity in all of this, because it is more necessary now than ever. As a species we spend the vast majority of our lives like squirrels, panicking about winter and living always in the shadow of fear of the future. When you’re diagnosed with terminal cancer, winter has come. There are no dreaded hypotheticals to guard against. The “in case the boiler breaks” fund can feck off. Things of that nature aren’t important any more.
That can be incredibly depressing, or incredibly liberating, depending on how you choose to look at it.
What you might not expect is that this sense of urgent liberation has a ripple effect. My mother decided that she had a certain amount of time left, and that she wanted to use it well. Almost overnight, her reservations about the future seemed to melt away, and my mother’s new attitude has unlocked something in everyone around her.
A modest proposal
It started with my brother. When people ask me about him, I always say that he’s probably quite a nice guy. I wouldn’t really know. I see him often, and I care for him, as you would expect, but he doesn’t really say anything. He is an architect right down to his bones, by which I mean he is weird. Architects, I’ve always observed, are weird. It’s a compliment really. Their love of their work is almost obsessive, and their attention to detail is frankly distressing to the rest of us. My partner describes my brother affectionately as “looking always like he’s about to go for a country lunch”.
He has been with his girlfriend for seven years, and my mother’s diagnosis convinced him that the time was right to propose.
He had always intended to, but in the usual manner of every architect I’ve ever met, he wanted the situation to be “just right”. Cancer pretty much obliterated any hope of that, so with a great deal of nervous energy he made his arrangements to propose, and decided to do it while my mother and I were with him for a weekend in Clare.
He dithered about. Nothing was right. When we got to the house, six of Co Clare’s famous (and I’d thought fictional) feral goats were lounging in the driveway, their beards waggling nobly in the sea wind. They stayed the whole evening. After dinner I suggested to my brother that it was going to get dark, and that he should get the proposal over with. My mother feared he might not last until tomorrow with the stress of it. He responded that he couldn’t possibly. “Sure the garden is full of Jaysusing goats. This is a mess.”
My mother, who was having a good day and had just enjoyed a dinner of fish pie and opiates (prescribed, naturally; cancer hurts), stood up and came over. She pulled my brother behind the dresser, cleared her throat and said: “Son, get out there and propose to that girl. At this rate I’ll be dead before you get it done.”
I ejected tea from my nose in a fit of laughter. My brother shuffled out, and my mother smiled heartily. “That did it.”