If there’s one phrase I remember vividly from childhood, it’s “Germolene and a plaster”. As in, if you fall over and scrape your knee, you stick Germolene and a plaster on it and you get up and carry on playing. No tears. No sulking.
I think that sums up my upbringing quite well. Whatever happened, we got on with it. And stuff did happen, and we did get on with it. But I think my mother, sister and I are all quite guarded people as a result. Whilst we absolutely have each other’s backs and are very close, we don’t tend to do the lovey dovey fluffy family nonsense. This will sound very fitting if you’ve met my mother, but for the benefit of the majority of readers, she’s not exactly a “would you like a cup of tea and a biscuit” mummy. She’s the most energetic, vivacious, alive person you could think of; when she’s not happily travelling an hour each way to her day job, she’s off with the Army Reserves, volunteering to teach DofE at the local school, doing some sport or other (more recently horse riding with me and scuba diving with Jess (?!)), hiking somewhere or other with her other half Pete and our dog Poppy, or just anything, anywhere but on the sofa in front of the TV.
Three years ago my sister and I were at our Dad’s place in Tenerife when he told us he needed to talk to us. We thought one of us had probably left hair clogged in the shower, again. He sat us down outside and, with some difficulty, told us that Mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was about to go into hospital to have a mastectomy.
And that was the start of The New Normal.
The breast came off, as did a number of lymph nodes. The chemo happened, along with the Herceptin and radiotherapy. The hair came out. The drains got put in a handbag and carried around. And slowly but surely it seemed to go away. The hair came back. The treatment stopped. The all clear happened.
Three years later and you’d never have known a thing. Mum managed to get rid of the extra weight the steroids had forced on her and, with the invaluable help of our hairdresser, get her hair back to its former glory, if not better. It wasn’t a ‘cancer house’ any more.
And then a couple of months ago, it was. Again.
Lots and lots of tiny little tumours are currently sitting in Mum’s lungs, too numerous to be operated on. It’s classed as terminal but, until she’s had more treatment we won’t know which type of terminal it is.
Last night she and I got sick of what was left of her hair and just shaved it off using Pete’s hair trimmers. During and after we sat and talked about what’s going on and I realised that in spite of everything, we do all feel strangely content.
So far from being some tragic post about dying and illness and general misery, this is a story about how what could have been a very depressing time is in fact a very peaceful, very happy, eye-opening journey.
I didn’t live at home when the first lot of cancer came. I was in Uni halls, just about to sit my first year exams, which went terribly (through all fault of my own). And she didn’t want me to come back, or even get involved really. That was hard, because you kind of get pushed out of the loop. I felt guilty for not knowing when her next chemo appointment was, or for not even really understanding what chemo is. Well, I’ll tell you. Having chemo is probably the most chilled part of having cancer. You essentially sit in a fat old comfy armchair for about 6-8 hours, sleeping, reading, eating or whatever else at will, in a ward with about 8 other people and their +1s. The chemo, along with whatever other drugs you need (I’ve lost count of how many Mum has but it in particular involves a number of ‘flushes’) gets put in your body via an IV. It’s very cold, so most people have a warmed up bean bag type thing on their arm all day. Her nurses are kind, and chatty, and to be honest if it wasn’t for the continuous beeping and bald heads everywhere you may as well be sat in your living room.
I know that because I go to chemo with her now, and take over from Pete in the afternoon. It doesn’t bother me being on the ward in the slightest, and I get to have a good chat and/or cuddle with Mum. But I do understand why we weren’t involved the first time round. It’s easy to find it difficult, especially if you’re not used to said bald heads, the universal symbol of cancer. And like I say, chemo wards are probably the easiest parts. You know you’re going to have it. What you don’t know, and what panics you, is the teeniest, niggliest, uncomfortable parts of cancer. The fact that Mum’s nails break and get infected – I mean really nasty green puss-filled infections – all the time. The hair coming off is expected, yes, but actually quite upsetting when it happens, precisely because it happens so quickly. One day she’ll have a head full of hair and then a couple of days later, I’m having to comb half of it out for her after she forgot and washed it. There will be hair all over your house. There will be snappy days, where she’ll scream at us for no reason. There will be lots of holding tongues as a consequence. Even the second time around, when we’re about as used to cancer as we could be, that is not easy at all. So I don’t blame her for wanting to protect us from that at first.
I said earlier that she’s constantly on the move, and I mean it. Today, she’s going straight to the Reserve base in Grantham for the weekend after work. The only reason she’s not in Afghanistan right now is because she’s not allowed for medical reasons. She’s constantly out running, or at some fitness class or other, or organising a do, or like I say just anything, anything at all. People tell her to stop, and that she’s doing too much and will run herself into the ground. I can’t imagine her doing anything but. I certainly cannot see her sitting around in the same tracksuit for 3 days moaning about being ill and living off of Ryvita and spinach smoothies.
And yet she doesn’t blame those who do. She described it last night as ‘copingness’ – all of your copingness, all the energy you have in you, is taken up at first with having to deal with the fact that you might actually be dying, at the age of 43. So if you cannot find the willpower to ‘catch up’ with a shitmunching schoolfriend that you haven’t seen for 20 years, nobody’s blaming you. Nobody’s judging you. It’s normal. But that’s just it; do what is your normal, what actually does make you feel happier and better, not just what society is telling you does. For her, that’s running around an army base like the nutty cow she is. And that’s fine by me.
I did get upset when her hair started falling out again, because it was literally coming out in my hands after she’d gone in the bath and left it wrapped in a towel for too long. That was a very physical, very in-your-face encapsulation of what is happening to her. But last night, when I shaved her hair off – I shaved my Mum’s hair off! We should have filmed it – I wasn’t upset at all. In the short space of time it’s taken for her to go from re-diagnosis to bald-headed chemo lady, we’ve all been able to put this into perspective.
This is what my previous post was about. Perspective, and dealing with shit things, and coping with shit things. But mainly that bigger picture. And Mum talked about it for a long time last night, which is what I want to share with you now.
We’re not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re comfortable. It wasn’t always that way, but it is now, and we don’t have anything to worry about. We all go on holiday. We all go out to eat. We all get new clothes. We all go to the cinema, and so on and so forth. And that is just enough for us. You can not, absolutely can not find peace and happiness in your life if you do not appreciate what’s around you. That is so cliché I know, and easier said than done. But it’s true. If you’re struggling to do that, then do this: say to your close peoples every day “I’m proud of you”. And make it sincere. Be honestly and openly proud of something particular they’ve done. Giving credit where it’s due is absolutely crucial in life; not only does it put a smile on the recipient’s face but it also gives you a tangible notion of what makes you proud, and what you can aspire to in turn.
Mum’s not afraid of dying, which is freaking me out a little bit, but it’s also something I have a huge amount of respect for. She’s very open about the possibility of not being here by Christmas. I can’t get my head around that at all, to the point where it’s not even upsetting me because it’s not a reality right now. But if you ask her, she very calmly says that she’s got used to the idea because everything she could ever want, she’s got. She has a roof over her head, a job she loves, a partner that doesn’t mind her having a head of stubble and Jess and I. Whilst in her owns words she doesn’t know “how I managed to not fuck you up”, we only ended up a tiny bit mental and both in stable jobs with happy futures ahead of us. And that is where a lot of people stumble and go wrong; instead of constantly chasing after the unreachable dream, just actively appreciate what’s you can get your hands on right now. Single and depressed? Deal with it, you have your health. Fat? Get to moving, you could have HIV. HIV? Well, you’re not dead. Not yet. You’re very, very alive.
We have some friends in London that got pregnant very young and very quickly, without any money to support themselves and their now 4-strong family. They don’t have any luxuries, they don’t go on holiday, they don’t have many choices. Without perspective, that sounds like a lot of people’s worst nightmare. And for a long time, it was mine. But within about 10 minutes of having met them and their beautiful, beautiful children, I was SO jealous. I still am, and I’ve known them for a while now. Because it’s so obvious, without any showing off, that they’re perfect. They’ve reached the Holy Grail of happiness because they do not find it necessary to live in that convoluted competition that the majority of us torment ourselves with. And I aspire to that every day, in everything I do. That conversation with Mum last night sealed the deal for me.
I need this to sink in. I need you to turn to your loved ones and appreciate them. I need you to concentrate on making them proud, instead of making people that don’t matter at all jealous of a life you pretend to lead. Because I promise you, you will be happier.
Why’s this in the Unconventional Hustle category? I think we all know why. If she’s not hustling, I don’t know who is. Don’t get it twisted; the situation is still very hard to grasp sometimes, and there will always be an element of ‘this is completely unfair’. But my Mum’s outlook is inspiring, and I wish there were more humans like her. Her hustle is in staying alive, for now, and in being the best human you can be in the short time we have.
Because I haven’t embedded any Hip Hop for a while…