The Cancer Fairy

I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer.

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I can’t say I envy those who say they have found their purpose in life. I don’t mean the ones who have managed to work out what they want to do for a career and then made a success of it.  No, people like that are lucky compared to the rest of us who manage to give off an air of knowing what we are doing, make it look like it’s what we aimed for, while secretly living in fear of being found out. I’m talking about the ones who believe they have realised the meaning of their lives, why they have been put here.

I once knew a young woman who had given birth to a cruelly disabled and sick baby whose condition was so rare, limited medical help was available.  She dedicated herself to her daughter’s short life and went on to promote awareness of the condition to be able to raise funds for research.  I was humbled by her conviction that she had been sent a daughter in whose name the campaign was founded and that the purpose of both their lives was clear.  Humbled; not envious.

What if your calling, your raison d’etre, has to work harder to convince you?  Is it still genuine?  Worse, what if you are pulled in its direction, but don’t want to go that way?  Or don’t trust you are up to the mark?  Fear of failure could prevent you from fulfilling the ultimate objective by which your time spent on earth is divinely measured.  Would you be sent back down to learn your lesson or punished in some way?

The only careers interview I remember having at school was a ten minute audience with the Latin teacher who asked each of us in turn which university we would be applying for.  She ‘advised’ me to be a teacher which I dismissed as unimaginative coming from an out- of-touch, elderly lady at the end of her working life spent educating girls in the vocabulary and grammar of an archaic language. I rebelled by studying Business and Finance – I know, shocking.  But then, years later, I retrained as a teacher and it was the best career decision I have ever made.  It took a little longer for my ‘calling’ to find me, I suppose.  That’s if it is a calling; I just think it’s what I want to do.

I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer.  I was compelled to be there by love and loyalty.  Someone has to be in that seat.  Someone has to remain calm enough to be able to listen to the words the doctor says after he says the word cancer, when all the patient can hear is white noise.  Someone has to find a pen and make notes of the unfamiliar codes, abbreviations and terms to be able to google them afterwards.  Someone has to drive the shocked patient home.  Someone has to say, ‘We can deal with this,  ‘I’m right here,’ and ‘you can count on me.’

Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy.

I didn’t imagine I would be sitting in that seat again some years later and then again for a third time.  Why was this horror coming after the people so close and so precious to me, one after another?  I wondered if it could even be some vicious punishment for something I had done, something I hadn’t done right, or something I should have done.  Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy. Was I up to it?  Could I pick a different one?

When cancer chose my mother, she drew on her faith to give her strength.  I stood beside her in church and sang each hymn loudly to show I was fully participating while secretly railing at God, in my head, for testing someone so good in this way.

When cancer picked my closest friend, I did my best to amuse her at seemingly endless, dignity-stripping appointments.  ‘How can I help you?’ met with, ‘Two gin and tonics and a table by the window please.’

‘How are you?’

‘Well, I’ve got a bit of a tummy-ache, but it’s my friend you should be asking.’

And, ‘On a scale of 1 – 10, what’s your pain level?’

‘She’s clearly just attention-seeking.’

Soon after that, I sat next to Drew, my life-partner, when he heard cancer had come for him.  I promised I wasn’t going anywhere, but I couldn’t find anything to try and joke about in anything cancer brings with it anymore.

And then a colleague told me she needed me.  She said she didn’t like to burden me after what I’d been going through, but she’d been diagnosed with cancer, knew nothing about it and didn’t know who to turn to.  I didn’t hesitate.  ‘We can deal with this,’ I told her, ‘I’m right here and you can count on me.’

Personal pronouns make a difference – something else my Latin teacher knew before me.

 

 

 

 

Moving On

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I wasn’t prepared for  the excitement of finally moving in with Drew to be as emotionally exhausting as it turned out to be.  Irrational feelings of maternal guilt and sadness over the end of an era surfaced last Christmas when the realisation that the family home, where my now adult children had all last lived together with me and their father, was to be transferred to another family.

When their father left in 2008, my three had bonded to form a loving unit which was uniquely theirs.  It was no longer them against us – we had been outnumbered when Rosie arrived – it was them against the world.  In those early days, if one of them was upset, they would squash themselves into my bed together leaving no room for me. Phsychologists would, no doubt, have much material there; the three of them instinctively found their own coping strategies. They all still needed me and their dad, but they needed each other even more.

I hadn’t planned on being separated, of course.  I was conventional, ordinary and Catholic, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t contemplate divorce until  years later.  The reason was,  I couldn’t  risk projecting a sense of regret about having them and I wanted to be able to keep their home for as long as they needed it.  Five had become four; our family had fragmented and the house became a symbol of security.

When Liz, the eldest, later told me she would be moving in with her partner, we cried together over the wrench from her brother, sister and me in a way I hadn’t let her see me cry over my husband moving out.  She told me she wanted to be a good sister, but she was ready for the next stage in her relationship with Tony.  It’s natural for a child to grow up and move out of their parents’ house, but how often have you heard about the loss younger siblings feel or indeed the eldest child’s emotional confusion?  Four inevitably became three, another fragment had formed and although the family home was starting to feel too big, I was even more determined that the three of us left should stay there where we felt safe and stable.

Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do.

Then, they did that thing you always knew they were going to do, but are strangely unprepared for.  They grew up –  without me really noticing and certainly without my permission.  By this time, my relationship with Drew had become permanent and he had been patiently waiting for me to be ready to live with him and to notice that Jonathan and Rosie had outgrown living with their mother?  Eventually, after waiting in vain for the penny to drop, Jonathan gently suggested that it was time I got on with my life with Drew,  and that the big, old house I’d been struggling to maintain could be sold.  Rosie and Jonathan didn’t need to live with their mum anymore, they just needed somewhere to live – preferably with each other.  Jonathan’s touchstone had transferred from me to his sister and the only thing Rosie was concerned about taking from the old house to a new home was him.  So unconcerned was she, in fact, that she appeared to think the move would happen by magic and fairies would be on hand to select anything she might find useful to take with her.

Packing up the family home and dividing its contents between the two new ones seemed a massive project after living there for so long.  Jonathan and Rosie needed many of the ingredients I’d mixed over the years as homemaker; Drew clearly did not.  In order to fit myself into the house he owned and to fit Jonathan and Rosie into a much smaller place, numerous trips to the local tip were made over several weekends – so many, in fact, that the staff there stopped asking for proof of our address and instead began checking out what we had loaded into our cars, occasionally marching away from the cavernous drop of sorrow into which we hurled forgotten toys and bits of furniture armed with ‘treasure’ fit for saving.  I felt quite proud to have been identified as a better class of visitor to the local recycling and refuse plant, which took the edge off the experience if I’m honest.

And then, not long after I came to terms with my children telling me it was time I moved out, we three set up two separate households.

Several offers of help on moving day were gratefully accepted, but on reflection, prospective candidates should have been screened.  As boxes on legs paraded past me from the house to the van, I realised they were empty ones left in the hallway for last minute chattels and cleaning products and I spent time  I couldn’t spare unloading them again.

I must confess to feeling resentful when my ex-husband arrived to see his house for the last time, never having helped with the many exhausting tasks  leading to that point.  What was going through his mind, I don’t really know, he’s a mystery to me these days.  But my feelings were insignificant compared with Drew’s awkwardness as he drove the van and my ex to the house where his precious antiques (the ones I lovingly restored) were to be safely delivered.

Jonathan magnanimously insisted his sister should be the one to unlock the door to the place they had chosen together and we all held our breath.  Jonathan wanted it to be memorable for her, but after a few moments of wiggling and jiggling the key, checking it was the right one again, she had to ask for help and the ceremony became something of a farce.  It was all I could do to supress my maternal anxiety as a voice in my head shouted, “You can’t leave her here – she can’t even get in.”

Eventually we left them and after a day of lifting everything from washing machines to mattresses up to the second floor, Drew’s last lifting task was to carry me over the threshold of our home without bumping my head on the doorframe.  He managed it – just.

I don’t think of us as fragments of a family any longer.  Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do.  And sometimes mums are lucky enough to have the chance to move on too.

 

Gift Giving

Why monetary value is low on my ‘right gift’ checklist

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I’ve never been impressed by grand gestures or expensive gifts.  In my opinion, they say more about the person who gives them than the recipient.  Men – and it’s almost always men – who spend lavish amounts on their women, I fancy, are satisfying their own egos rather than focusing on pleasing the one doing the unwrapping.

I never want to hear Drew say: “Show them what I got you,” in order to bask in the approval of an impressed audience and as for trying to keep up with the guys he knows when they buy presents for their wives or girlfriends, well, that would have nothing to do with me at all, would it? Instead, I see the right gift as saying: “You mean something to me and this is how I know you.”

As monetary value is low on my ‘right gift’ checklist, I’m either the easiest person to buy for, or the most difficult.

Being the conventional sort, Drew had always bought his now ex-wife jewellery on anniversaries and stuck pretty close to that on other occasions.  He knew it would please her and he considers jewellery an intimate gift.  It always had to be worth a few bob so’s not to suggest she wasn’t worth spending a decent (or indecent) amount of money on.  So can you see how confusing it was for him to hear that I don’t expect or want the same treatment?  I also had to explain that chocolates in a heart-shaped box and weekends away in a four-poster bedroom are too cliched to be heartfelt.  If Drew’s perception of what women want was accurate, I’m not a proper woman.

I have a friend who was swept off her feet by a tall, handsome gentleman with a smooth voice who regularly showed up with flowers from a particular florist or salmon to cook for her and who took her for mini-breaks in carefully chosen hotels.  I had my doubts about his sincerity, but kept my mouth shut even when I found out from his previous girlfriend that she had been to the very same hotels and eaten the same dishes while enjoying frequent bouquets.  It all began to unravel for him when he made the mistake of taking my friend along to help him choose a funeral tribute for a family member.  Florists are not as discrete as you might have imagined.

I’m from an era when most proposals of marriage happened in bed.

These days, it seems, the most romantic of romantic moments is thought to be an over-orchestrated marriage proposal at an exotic holiday location on top of a mountain or an elephant.  I suspect the proposer might be more concerned with the question his fiancee will surely be asked about where and how he did it than the life-changing question he is asking her himself. And the  cost of the ring is required to be some set multiple or other of his monthly salary, I’m told. You might think I’m cynical, but then I’m from an era when most proposals of marriage happened in bed, after which you probably got up, had a wash and went out to choose a ring together.

So, what would be going through your mind if you were handed a delicate, little box in front of 100 onlookers at the top of the Empire State Building?  Well, when my flustered friend  read the words, ‘Hot Diamonds’ on what she found in her hand, she suggested moving away from the crowd in order to have time to compose something in her head about touching sentiments, deep feelings and NOT being ready to take that step quite yet. No doubt he considered his plan romantic; he was, however, spectacularly wrong. It didn’t occur to him that his gift of diamond earrings would be received in the way it was.  But then, he really wasn’t thinking, was he?

For me, it really is the thought that counts and after years of doing his best to meet the high expectations of her who went before me, Drew has tried to adjust by listening to what I reveal and making mental notes (or sometimes even written ones) so’s not to be without inspiration at the appropriate time. But I don’t think I’m the transparent  hint-dropping, manipulative sort – well maybe just a feminine smidge if I’m honest.  What I mean is, he listens to me when I rattle on about my passions and notices what I’m drawn to when we are meandering around whichever town we happen to be visiting.

The gifts Drew has given me have been memorable, meaningful or occasionally just the right side of practical.  The most extravagant was a surprise pilgrimage to my spiritual home, Stratford, where I was allowed to indulge in all things Shakespeare.  Drew trusted, against his instincts, that if I reap such immense pleasure from Saint Will, he might not completely hate the experience and he would be learning more about me over the weekend.

I’m truly impressed by how Drew aims to get it right, but probably not as much as his youngest granddaughter who reached the splendid old age of three this month.  On opening her birthday present from Grandpa (a relatively inexpensive, plastic Bubble Guppies hair salon set), she leapt up onto his lap; circled his neck tightly in her plump, little arms; covered his face with countless, grateful kisses and wept the joyous words: “Grandpa – I’ve wanted this my whole life!”  I like the way she thinks.

 

 

Making Babies

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Do other women associate the feeling of long-lasting love with the desire to create babies together, no matter how impractical or improbable?  I definitely don’t want any more children and even if I did, Mother Nature would surely slap her forehead at the notion of it being possible now.  But in spite of this, I would hope that the man I grow old with, on some level, would want to give me his children.

Drew has a son and a daughter.  “Which one do you want?” he joked, confused. It took a while for him to understand my way of thinking.

Between us and in between us we have five grown up children, but they will always be either his or mine, not ours, and they were there first.

At certain times there are others who take priority over a life-partner.  For us, these times will likely be frequent, but the difficulty is that we do not share these people equally. My children are not his children; his children are not mine.  We both are mindful not to overstep an imaginary boundary line for fear of upsetting each other, our sort-of-step-children or their other parents. Some would call it a minefield and so would I if it wasn’t such an overused metaphor, but we’ve been lucky to avoid any serious injury so far.

In our early days I would tease Drew about us adopting a Chinese baby girl together and once spectacularly embarrassed him in a gift shop when he was looking at stuffed corgis while trying to convince me how cute they were.  Before flouncing off at what I imagined was drama queen stride, I loudly announced to him and anyone else I wickedly hoped might be listening: “I know what you’re doing Drew.  I don’t want a dog – I want another baby!”  Apparently he received sympathetic looks, before catching up with me.  Well, I thought it was funny.

We have even named the imaginary children we will never have.  One of each.  Max and Betty.  As it turns out, naming imaginary babies is a lot easier than real ones – pretty much instant in fact. Although come to think of it, he chose the names and because I was so charmed by the fact that he was understanding rather than simply humouring me, I agreed with his choices uncomplainingly.

The babies born in our families since we met have been our grandchildren – his and mine.  It was much harder for me to settle on what I would be known as on becoming a grandmother than it was to name my children and, in the end, my daughter decided to call me Nana which was the only grandmother name ever used in our family. She rejected those made up grandmother names many women ask to be called these days for fear of sounding too elderly.

Drew was already a besotted grandpa and excited for me about the imminent arrival of my first grandchild and since she was born in the summer of 2012, there have been three more granddaughters and another grandson.  So we now have five granddaughters and two grandsons and despite the population boom, still can’t quite believe we’re old enough.

These new people have no memories of Drew or me with our former spouses and so this generation, if not their parents, expect love from us as a couple without reference to any bloodline hierarchy.  It’s up to us to make sure they are given it equally because we owe them something they won’t understand for many years – if ever.  They give us total, uncomplicated acceptance of our partnership and the fulfilment of that desire to create babies together. Although as Drew often says: we can keep on ‘trying’.

 

 

Starting Over

Dating in middle age, it has to be said, is a bizarre experience.

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Photo by Clem Onojeheghuo on Unsplash

Sent:
Really regretting waxing my chin this morning. I’m going out for a meal with Drew tonight and I look like an acid attack victim!

Received:
Don’t, whatever you do, tell him you wax your chin, Mum – just don’t.

Sent:
OK, OK, I promise – unless my face falls off and lands in the curry.

 

Is it modern or mad to be set up by your own daughter?

Liz’s mission to get Mum out there began with advertising me online, but when I tired of shopping for a match on websites and began to feel it was vaguely distasteful, Plan B was put into action.

 I’m not saying I was actively looking for a lifelong partner; someone to get dressed up for and go out with was all I was really interested in, but no-one seemed to believe me.

After a long marriage and a few years separated, those around me opined I couldn’t be truly happy unless I was paired off in a permanent relationship again.  Apparently, everybody wants to be with somebody.  I had no expectation of that ever happening and instead focused on making sure I chose to be happy with my single status.  Living in hope of finding happiness with a man seemed a sure way of being unhappy until it happened – and it might never happen.

However, I agreed to give Liz’s target male my number and let him know that, as Liz and her partner, Tony, insisted we would get along, I was game if he was.  I wasn’t thrilled to be the chaser – not thrilled at all, but  Drew would never have made the first move.  It had been a very long time since he had been out for dinner with a woman, he’d been divorced less than a year, and dating in middle age, it has to be said, is a bizarre experience.

So, is it appropriate to mention a scalded chin?  Well, I felt I had to clarify the situation in case he was sat opposite an angry, red rash creeping up my face, so a ‘beauty treatment’ was blamed for my strange appearance and he politely assured me that he hadn’t noticed.  Of course he hadn’t because he’d left his specs in the car.  He hadn’t managed to read the menu either and there was no way he’d deciphered the bill when it came because he can’t read a word of print without glasses.

There are glasses in every room in the house we now share, in the shed, both our cars and in my handbag.  Sometimes I catch him with a pair of glasses on his nose and another on the top of his head.