Fireworks in the Snow
The headaches increased, both in frequency and intensity, as did the pain in the right side of her face and the tiny lump behind her ear became more pronounced.
The doctors put it down to stress, or neuralgia maybe. And the lump? Probably a result of glandular fever she’d had a year since, or the mumps, when she was a child.
She was nineteen and training to be a nurse, which had been her heart’s desire. She was never happier, more content, she told them, but her words consistently fell on deaf ears.
A few weeks before her twenty-first birthday, she was taken ill at the Lister Hospital where she was working. One of the doctors there suspected something was very wrong and arranged for an immediate scan.
The results confirmed my worst fears.
She was diagnosed with so-called metastatic adenocarcinoma of the parotid gland and an operation was swiftly arranged.
The tumour was perilously close to her facial nerve and there was considerable doubt on the surgeon’s part that he had managed to remove it in tact.
After the surgery,the only scar she bore was a three inch, stitched, incision, following the line of her jaw below her right ear. Hardly a scratch really, in the grand scheme of things, which I remember telling her.
Her reply, constantly haunts me.
“Thank God,” she said, as I handed her a mirror. “I’d rather die than have them cut half of my face away.”
‘Why her?’ we asked, again and again. Why was she singled out to become a victim of this particularly rare type of cancer and even then, it was almost unprecedented in someone as young as she was.
Consequently, an accurate prognosis was impossible, which, in a way, I suppose, was for the best.
Despite everything, she got on with her life, qualified as an RGN, married and then decided to turn her talents to teaching at the Hertfordshire Postgraduate Medical School. Life seemed set fair.
On 2nd November, 1999, ten years later, on the threshold of the millennium and eight months married, I received a phone call that was to change lives irrevocably.
It was Richard, Andrea's husband. He and Andrea were sitting on a bench in Hyde Park. It was five in the evening and pitch dark. They were in shock, having just left the Royal Marsden Hospital with devastating news.
“The cancer’s come back,” he said. “It’s fucking come back.”
The tumour had re-grown as feared and presently had completely encased the facial nerve. Radical surgery was the only option. The implications of which were immense, for it meant removal of the facial nerve and much surrounding tissue.
They’d been told to go home and think about it. What was there to think about? At thirty years old and newly married, one grabs life with both hands, no matter what.
Funny, how we change, grow more pragmatic, the older we become.
After the operation, she was left with complete paralysis of the right side of her face.
Eating was laborious. Even blinking became a thing of the past. Fortunately, she was still able to half-close her eye, making sleeping less of a problem, but still not ideal. No more could she play her beloved cornet, kiss her husband even, blow on a cup of tea, or the worst thing of all ... smile.
Apart from the entire facial nerve, a significant proportion of jaw and cheek-bone was also removed. Obviously, it was an enormous shock, seeing her just after the operation. I have to admit, I wondered how the surgeon had felt, cutting into this beautiful young woman’s face. Half of me hated him for mutilating her and half of me thanked him for saving her life.
To my eyes, of course, she was still beautiful, which was easy for me to say. When she looked in the mirror, who would she see looking back at her?
It didn’t end there. Skin was grafted from her leg to repair her damaged face and repeated surgery on her eye and bottom lip, in an ongoing attempt to prevent them from drooping. All this, plus numerous radiation sessions, for which a mask, unique as she, was made so as to protect the rest of her face.
She dreaded those sessions, bizarre, claustrophobic as they were and the radiation itself totally drained her. So much so, that when treatment was finalised, she took the mask home, lit a bonfire and burned it.
Then began the painstaking process of picking up the pieces of her shattered life and fitting them together, as best she could.
Initially, she saw herself as ugly, disfigured and in fact her diaries reveal pencil drawings of herself – with half a face.
Eventually, she started wearing make-up again, caring about her appearance. Most importantly, the realisation dawned on her that others could benefit from her experience and she threw herself, headlong, into her career.
Consequently, she was promoted to Senior Lecturer, instructing the medical profession in how to help patients cope with similar facial disfigurements and also to come to terms with the psychological effects of being told that one has cancer, whether or not the scars were as visible as hers.
Nothing beats first-hand experience. Text books could go to hell, as far as she was concerned. The majority of doctors that she knew, especially after being married to one, certainly lacked excellence in their bedside technique, as did many of the nurses.
A couple of years later, fate dealt her a crueller blow. The tumour metastasized. Cancerous cells spread to her spine, her lungs and her liver.
Her strength failing, she was forced to take early retirement. The Health Service paid her a generous pension and, with the money, did what she had always longed to do ... see the world.
Cancer not only ravages bodies, but minds and marriages as well.
Her husband found the strain of living with a terminally ill wife too much and told her he was leaving, but not until after their planned trip. Still in love with him deep inside, she’d hoped that ‘getting away from it all’ might bring them closer together. Except there is no running away from cancer.
God only knows how she found the physical stamina but they visited India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Canada and more, but the place she really loved was India and intended to go back, one day.
A few months later, having returned home, she received the marvellous news that the cancer appeared to be in remission. She went from strength to strength, was reinstated in her job and started studying for a degree.
Her marriage over,she stayed on in the house they had been so happy in. Eventually, out of necessity, it was sold and she bought a small two-bedroom flat, close to the University and the support of her friends and colleagues.
Pretty soon after, not surprisingly, her health rapidly deteriorated and another tumour was detected in her stomach. By September she was barely able to walk except with the aid of crutches. One afternoon, she collapsed and was admitted to hospital, where we discovered that her pain had been so immense that she had not slept for weeks, or indeed eaten.
Contrary to popular belief, hospital is certainly not an ideal location for the dying and temporarily a place was arranged for her at a local hospice that specialises in cancer patients and their pain-relief. For the first time in months she was able to sleep and her overall condition improved. It soon became obvious she had a good few months ahead of her, at least.
Juliet, her sister, an ex-nurse and now a psychology teacher, decided to convert her house (with the help of a local building team who pulled out all the stops and completed the alterations in less than a week) so that she could spend her final days there. It had always been her promise to Andrea and she was determined to keep it.
Juliet loved having her there, but the emotional and physical strain was taking its toll, even with the help of many friends, most of them nurses.
The round the clock care that she now needed was becoming a problem. The MacMillan and Marie Curie nurses were wonderful but full-time care would have cost hundreds of pounds per week, plus the fact that Andrea was now on permanent oxygen which created a further problem and sadly she was forced to return to the hospice.
Juliet was devastated, but an inseparable bond had been made between the two of them and she was to be her sister’s strength in the hard days ahead.
In November, the University of Hertfordshire awarded Andrea a much deserved Master’s Degree in Higher Education. Upon learning of Andrea’s illness, they sent her certificate by post, prior to the official presentation planned for early December at St. Alban’s Cathedral.
They also provided her with cap and gown, which was fantastic because we now have many photographs to look back on, of her exclusive presentation day.
As expected, she was far too ill to attend the Cathedral, so her sister held a graduation party for her at her own house. Fireworks and all, which she adored. Even the weather put on a show. For Andrea, there were fireworks in the snow, her favourite kind of weather.
On New Year’s Eve, 2007, three hours before midnight, she died, holding her sister’s hand. She hadn’t quite made her 40th year. Although of course in India, where she had left her heart, all those months ago, it was already 2008.
As Big Ben struck twelve and with fireworks exploding all around, I couldn’t help but think she had planned it this way. There was nothing else in the world could have topped this as a more fitting send-off for that final journey of hers.
Everyone who had ever met Andrea was a changed person, inspired totally by her positive, tireless and quite amazing love of life. To the end, she never lost her sense of humour.
I recall Christmas Day, when I told her she looked really good, dressed in red, her favourite colour. She laughed that lop-sided laugh of hers and said, “Good? For a dying lady, you mean!”
Today, I shall be at her ‘Celebration of Life’, along with upwards of two hundred others. Testament indeed to the lives she’d enriched and the hearts she had touched.
For her, no ordinary coffin, as one of her closest friends has hand-painted it. A first for the undertakers, we understand. Also a first, will be the pall-bearers’ jazzy ties and orange gerbera buttonholes!
‘Master of Ceremonies’ will be the Chaplain of the hospice where she spent her final days. He plans to wear his ceremonial golden robe. The one normally reserved for celebrations such as Christmas and Easter.
That about says it all really … Except to reiterate a text message sent to her the night she died by her best friend, Nikki. ‘Bon Voyage’.
Bon voyage indeed, to one remarkable lady, who just happened to be my daughter.
“Celebrate the life I have lived. Don’t mourn the life that I have not.”
Andrea Parker MA
02.08.1968 – 31.12.2007
It’s not the dates that matter – it’s the space between them that counts.