Sun, Moon, Stars and Rain
Fri, 18 Dec 2015
It’s around lunchtime on Christmas Day, 2007, as we negotiate the maze of corridors – presents in tow. An occasion I had been both dreading, and looking forward to. She’s smiling – sitting up in bed, supported by a mass of pillows; resplendent in red! Red was her; the feisty madam she was, staying true to her star sign, Leo.
Mixed emotions peppered that afternoon; elation she’d met her goal...Christmas, coupled with abject despair, plus more than a pinch of anger thrown in for good measure. What had she ever done, or us, indeed, so terrible we deserved this? And if there was a ‘god’, as she truly believed, why was he putting her through this hell?
I’d prepared for this...my daughter’s last ever Christmas...squirreling away a multitude of presents, from late August onwards...presents wrapped with copious amounts of tissue paper and hope, to be stashed at the bottom of a wardrobe, but as the time fast approached, it became all too obvious, few would be relevant to give to her now. So then began the painful process of unwrapping them...the cotton socks with polka dots on from Top Shop...the mini-skirt not much wider than a belt from Miss Selfridge, and so on and so forth. The only survivors, warm, woollen bed-socks, dressing gowns, her favourite Clarins body-cream, a travel guide to Madagascar ( somewhere she and a friend had planned to visit in the spring) and a poetry book by e.e. cummings, containing her favourite poem ever, ‘Pretty How Town’.
A bitter pill to swallow...this; the archetypal perfect family as we were perceived. Childhood sweethearts, happily married; blessed with two beautiful daughters and their dad with a steady job. Nice house, two cars, and a goldfish. Until one afternoon in 1988 when a phone call from our eldest, Andrea, who was just twenty, and a student RGN at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. It was an afternoon that irrevocably changed our lives.
She’d been feeling poorly at work, and the lab ran routine tests. Incurable cancer of the parotid gland was diagnosed...the parotid gland situated at the base of the ear by the jaw-line; little consolation this cancer though extremely rare, is slow growing. My worst fears were realised. For some months she’d suffered severe headaches, and pain when she chewed her food. Her GP put it down to stress, a touch of neuralgia, even...something he would not have done if he had known her as we did...this scenario continued for over a year. Her father had been worried, but didn’t think it was anything serious. ‘Growing pains’ probably, he’d say with a grin, but deep down inside of me...or on reflection, not that deep, I knew something was seriously wrong. Call it a premonition, or maybe a mother’s intuition. Whatever...somehow it helped me cope with the nightmare situation about to unfold.
As if it that wasn’t enough, her younger sister was diagnosed at eighteen, with ankylosing spondylitis; a degenerative form of arthritis which affects the spine, and pretty soon after, their father – with Parkinson’s Disease. The bottom had fallen out of our world with a resounding crash, but Andrea’s insatiable thirst for life, sustained her through numerous operations, and in a way, it kept us going too. If she could smile through adversity, what right had we to feel sorry for ourselves? Her fight to postpone the inevitable was to continue for the ensuing twenty years; during which time she became a past master at helping me, and them, treat their respective conditions as nothing more than a handicap; life doesn’t come with guarantees, and is precious, whatever its guise.
Over the years, her battle scars were many and obvious; a tumour had ravaged her facial nerve and, after radical, disfiguring surgery she was left with a deformed jaw, plus total paralysis on the affected side. By necessity, she must relearn the mechanics of eating, and to sleep with one eye partially open; all of which she took in her stride. Unfortunately, though, the operations didn’t stop here, with skin grafts taken from her thigh to enable plastic surgery on her damaged cheek.
Picking up the pieces of her life, she returned in her professional capacity as Senior Lecturer attached to the medical school of Hertford University. Her career became paramount, and she continued in her position until but a few months before her final decline – the cancer subsequently having spread to her kidneys, lungs and spine. More than ironically, one of her final engagements was to give a talk to patients and staff at a Hertfordshire hospice...little realising then, that in but a few weeks time, she herself would be admitted there.
Her heart’s desire, as most of us, had been to find the perfect partner, put her roots down in a ‘pretty how town’, and she did...twice, as it transpired; her first husband, a doctor whom she found out too late, was married to his job as well as her, and the second, who complained she’d ‘duped’ him into marrying her, and in the end decided, quite literally, he couldn’t face the future of living with someone who didn’t have one. Two failed marriages later, through financial necessity, she was forced to move from her ‘pretty how town’ to a flat, which meant re-homing her constant companions, one cat and two dogs, and learning, herself, how to live without the garden she’d cherished as a bolt-hole, an escape from the mundane.
I massage her feet, legs and hands, and she whispers, ‘Thanks, Mum’; gifts duly given, her lunch is served, courtesy of the nurses and indeed, the hospice chaplain to whom she had grown close. Despite being on a continual diamorphine drip, and in terrible pain, it does little to curb her appetite. Pretty soon, after she polishes off copious quantities of roast turkey, plus trimmings, her familiar cry of, “More custard...please!” ricochets off the corridor walls.
We reminisce; what’s occurred in that small, hospice room of hers over the last month or so...Like the evening when ‘two husbands and a lover’ arrived simultaneously, consciences pricking. Incidentally, husband no. 2, technically, she was still married to; divorce proceedings dragging on, she’d decided to call it quits...preferring to remain, ‘an eternal thorn in his side’. Her caustic tone understandable, seeing as prior to their split, he’d already moved in his ‘replacement wife’, a lady with a remarkable likeness to her, until she could bear it no more, concluding three was a definite crowd and giving them both the boot. As for her lover, whom, sadly, she’d only recently met courtesy of an online dating agency, ironically appearing to be, at long-last, the ‘perfect partner’. Talking about the three of them turning up together, later, she concluded, that, as with most things, timing is crucial, and their timing was indeed ‘crap’, on this occasion (her words not mine)
Foolish, as it seems, on leaving that afternoon, driving home in the mist and murk, we kidded ourselves she’d rally round...a miracle might happen and we would still have her with us, celebrating yet another Christmas, next year. In reality, she died, aged 39, four hours before Big Ben heralded in 2008, and it still seems just like yesterday, when I’d told ‘The Lady in Red’, how lovely she’d looked and she’d smiled that familiar lopsided smile of hers, and quipped,
“Not bad for a dying lady, is what you really mean, isn’t it just!” and she was right, the book still open on her bed as she succumbs to the ever insistent, comforting embrace of slumber.
‘summer, winter, autumn, spring –
reaped their sowing and kept their came,
sun, moon, stars and rain.’
‘Pretty How Town’ e.e. cummings