You often hear that once something dreadful happens to you, like losing a child or a husband or a mother or a breast, people cross the road so they don’t have to talk to you. But I have found that many people are quite brave and stay on my side of the road, daring to face me.
Today, I found that it was me “crossing the road”, so I didn’t have to talk to others.
I was at an end-of-project event showcasing my son's work, and spotted a mother I had known since our boys were babies. I hadn’t seen her for about a year. She didn’t know about my cancer.
I tried to steer away from the inevitable How are you? It would have been the small-talk version, but even if I fibbed as befits a true Englishwoman (I’m fine thanks, how are you?) things would have got out of control with the question that was bound to follow. What are all you doing for the summer holidays? Going anywhere nice?
I am no good at fibbing, but today I really wanted to. Because today, I was tired of telling my cancer story for the umpteenth time, putting a full stop to any other conversation. No-one dares to chit-chat about their holidays after hearing about my cancer.
The holiday question popped up a lot yesterday, at my younger daughter’s last day of school. I managed to evade it by saying vaguely: Oh well, bit of this and that, just staying in England this year, and quickly moving on: How about you? Italy/France/America? How lovely.
Because if they pressed me, what could I say? I’m going to spend most of my summer holidays with my bald head down the toilet, probably. The children will entertain themselves, I’m sure.
I don’t mind people knowing this, but sometimes I am tired of thinking and talking about the profundities of life. Today, I just wanted to enjoy my son’s achievements without thinking about myself. I wanted to have a day without cancer.
Cancer sprung up on me this morning, and that was bad enough.
I went to the dentist, a routine twice-a-year family outing, nothing unusual. But I’d forgotten that the timing of today’s visit was dictated by the breast nurse, who had urged me to have any necessary dental work done before chemotherapy, as my battered immune system would rather not put up with extractions or fillings. So I had to tell the dentist this. Yes, that’s right, chemotherapy. Next month, probably. Breast cancer, you see.
There it was, the Oh dear oh dear poor woman look in his eyes, the sudden gentleness of a voice that had dropped in pitch to suit the seriousness of my situation. When all I wanted was a jolly time with my children who were looking forward to choosing an unsuitably sweet reward for another six months of cavity-free teeth.
I find that cancer, death and dying are everywhere. It’s relentless.
There are adverts for cancer charities everywhere.
There are stories about cancer patients in all the newspapers and magazines.
And there is death. Everywhere. There is no escape.
I am reminded of being pregnant, when you see pregnant women every way you look, and when empty-eyed war orphans on the BBC news turn you into a sobbing mess. There is no escape from being pregnant when you’re pregnant. But at least you can blame your hormones for over-reacting to the sight of motherless babies.
Now, there are constant life-and-death questions vying for my attention, tugging at my emotions, triggered relentlessly by snippets of conversation, kind comments from friends, billboard adverts, news stories. It only takes the news of fathers and mothers killed in a warzone to magic up the lump in my throat.
Or yesterday’s devastating plane crash in Ukraine, killing almost 300 people, two thirds of them Dutch citizens. Children going on holiday and university-based researchers flying out to a conference. (How many of us have thought: that could have been me, that could have been my family? I should have flown to an international conference this week, but cancer put a spanner in the works. In a few weeks' time, my daughters are flying out for a holiday with friends in eastern Europe.)
Lives snuffed out without notice. Isn’t that worse than dying slowly from cancer? (Not that I’m dying, of course. I’m just asking.)
Today’s debate in the House of Lords on the Assisted Dying Bill. Should doctors be allowed to prescribe life-ending drugs to people who know they have less than six months to live? It’s an impossibly emotive debate full of personal heartstring-tugging stories, and I have recent stories of my own to add.
I can still hear my mother’s nurse, asking me, two weeks before her death: Perhaps it’s time to ask the doctor to speed things up a bit? This is no life for your mother.
I was terrified that my mother would be sedated and then sedated just that little bit more, enough to tip her across death’s borders. I know it is not allowed, not even in Holland, but a number of my Dutch friends know of situations where death was given an unspoken and unresisted helping hand.
Is it better to end suffering than to die a natural death, which is full of suffering by its very nature? Who am I to make that decision on behalf of someone else? Yet how can we avoid a subtle change of attitude toward being terminally ill, being helpless, being useless (and yes, suffering), when it becomes acceptable to help people to speed up dying?
When the nurse asked me that question, I knew that my mother, however much she suffered, was not ready to die. I knew that what she needed was for us to sit and wait with her, patiently.
(And I think I was right. When I said my goodbyes five days later, and I told her that I could not see her again because she was going to die soon, her face shone with a light I had not seen before. Call it peace; call it acceptance; call it Heaven. She said she would pray for me in Heaven. That has sustained me ever since. I am so grateful her dying hadn’t been “speeded up”.)
I am not new to thinking about life and death. It is, after all, my chosen profession.
The difference is that now, I cannot use the protective mechanisms nurses use to cope with daily confrontations with death and dying. As a nurse working in a hospice, I hardly ever took my dying patients home with me.
But now, the slightest mention of cancer or dying makes me think about it in terms of myself and the people I love.
It is for this reason that I cannot go back to work at present, even though I am getting physically stronger. I am paralysed by an overwhelming emotive response to the issues I am researching and writing about. I was trying to justify this to my wonderful GP last week, who only needed half a word.
“You are NOT fit for work,” she said firmly, writing me yet another sick note, tolerating no debate about the issue.
I am just wondering: even though I am not working, might I be allowed a break at the weekend?
Now that all three children have finished school, how about spending the next few days watching Dr Who DVDs and playing Carcassonne whilst eating chocolates?
Because I know that CANCER will be back on Monday, when I have my appointment with the oncologist who holds my future (and my summer holidays) in her hands. I am trying very hard not to think about it.
So let's just do chit-chat for a moment.
Wasn't it sweltering today? Hottest day of the year, they say.