End of Part Two.

Today marks 1172 days since cancer came into our family. 1168 days since my husband and I walked through the doors of this hospital, hand in hand, for the very first time.

Those doors were the last thing my husband saw of the outside world, before being wheeled into an ambulance and brought home to die. He said, at that point, that a bag for life would probably be an unwise investment.

Today, 463 days since my husband died, and 343 days since my own diagnosis, I walk out of the same doors once again, on my own, to the outside world, for what we all hope will be the very last time. To freedom. To our children. To countless more days.

Here, they’ve given me the most precious gift – my life, wrapped up in a metaphorical box with a bow, when my husband couldn’t even begin to pick off the sellotape. Here, my treatment has finished, and I am cancer free. The words don’t even seem real, after so many days of nothing but cancer. It’s going to take a while to adjust.

To say thank you, I brought a big box of chocolates for my radiographers, and asked them to share it around my husband’s oncology team as well, in the room next door.

Next week, it’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary. My husband’s life in a box – the ashes which are all that remain of his hands, his smile, and his wonderful mind – will be interred in the church yard where we stood and kissed for our wedding photographs, and where his dearest friends carried his coffin as we said our goodbyes. In sickness and in health, I was with him, and he with me. Maybe it’s time now to let him rest.

Until my husband and I meet again, I’m going to do one thing – for him, for our children, and for me.

I’m going to invest in a bag for life.

Love Fanny x

One Fried Tit and a Healing Scab.

For two years, my husband and I went back and forth to the cancer hospital, through roadworks, down motorways, along side roads, and always into the same bloody car park. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then we waited. And waited. Their admin was dire. Their queuing system was dire. Their coffee was dire. But, the staff were lovely, and the relationship we had with my husband’s oncologist was great. Well, we knew each other very well in the end.

When we reached the end of the line – when it became clear that no more treatment could be found to save my husband – his oncologist told him that he needed to be admitted for a day or two; have a scan, and maybe a lung drain, and that we’d reconvene in a couple of days. Although the doctor’s message was clear to me, my abiding memory is of my husband being wheeled down the corridor to the ward, after the seventh failed attempt at cannulation. He turned around to grab my hand and said, “let’s not give up hope yet.” He couldn’t be dying. We’d just come home from holiday. A week before that we’d been riding rollercoasters in Blackpool. He wasn’t ready to die, and I wasn’t ready to let him.

But, there was no hope. I knew it. The oncologist knew it. All the nurses knew it. Over the course of the preceding weeks – when my husband was on a clinical trial which we thought might be the answer to our prayers – the oncologist hadn’t always been very direct, and we still clung on to the hope that a miracle was around the corner. 
A couple of days later, when we left the building for the very last time, we’d both commented that, at the very least, it was a relief that we’d never have to go back to that fucking place ever again.

How wrong we were. I now have daily visits to that same hospital, but without my husband to hold my hand. Parking in the same car park. Passing the café where we used to sit and drink awful coffee and wait for blood results. Walking past the same ward where I took one of the last photos of my husband, working on his laptop, tying up some loose ends. (We pissed ourselves at that, and he posed for the photo gladly. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he said.) I pass the BEREAVEMENT SUITE. It’s a hospital – of course there’s a bereavement suite – but just in case you’ve forgotten that this is a cancer hospital, it’s written there, just by the entrance, in massive jolly writing, so you never quite forget that there’s a chance of BEREAVEMENT the moment you step through the fucking door. (We never actually went into the BEREAVEMENT SUITE because my husband died at home. Our sitting room is our BEREAVEMENT SUITE instead. I never go in there now, either.)

I’d managed to avoid the cancer hospital up until now, apart from a brief visit to check that my heart was in good enough shape to start chemotherapy. How ironic, I thought, that they needed to check the condition of my heart in the very place where they broke it. I’d been fortunate, in a way, that my surgery was done in our local hospital where they also have an excellent chemo unit, and they moved heaven and earth to make sure I didn’t have to go back to the place so full of difficult memories. Until radiotherapy.

I was expecting to be able to have that treatment at one of the local satellite centres too, but my oncologist wasn’t happy. She said my tumour had been too large, in too awkward a place, and she wanted to fry not only my left tit, but also my neck and my chest wall, to give me the greatest chance of survival. She wanted me to be in the best place for the treatment I needed. The best place? That best place also happened to be the place where they couldn’t cure my husband.

So, there I go. Every day for three weeks. I walk down the corridors, in a building which was so very much ours. It’s not somewhere I ever wanted to be ours, but bringing a friend with me now would make me miss my husband even more, so I go alone.

On the first day, I walked through the same door, into the same waiting room, with the same writing on the board, stating that my husband’s oncologist’s clinic was running 60 minutes late.

I froze.

There’s a fucking surprise, I thought. There are probably people in here who were behind my husband in the queue 15 months ago and are only just being seen. Three out of four of them will be dead by this time next year, I realised. I looked around and wondered which ones.

The same staff, the same waiting time, the same room, the same chairs, but no husband. No husband at all, because they couldn’t save him, here in the best place.

My husband’s oncologist never actually came to say goodbye. He never shook him by the hand, or said that it had been a pleasure to treat him. One of his colleagues discharged him in the end, because it was late on a Friday night and everyone else had gone home. We never saw the oncologist again, until the other day when I bumped into him as I was walking into Radiotherapy, and he was wandering over to speak to a patient.

He was thrilled to see me. He summoned over the whole team who were all smiles and welcomes and full of words about how sorry they were to have seen on the news that my husband had passed away – he was such a lovely man, they said. So humble. We’d had no idea how incredible a career he’d had, they said. Nor did we, I thought.

Then, of course, at the sudden realisation that I was quite clearly now a patient, the joy turned to concern. They wanted to know if I’d be OK. The oncologist asked after the boys. One of the nurses ran off to find catering quantities of tissues, and shoved sheet after sheet into my hands as the tears came – just as they always did, for my husband and me, every time we mentioned our darling boys as we sat together, holding hands, in the room just steps away from where I stood again, on my own.

They hadn’t forgotten us. It made me feel validated again. I was a human being – not a patient – and, more to the point, so was my husband. Of course they’d wanted to save him. They wanted to save everyone – and for the people like us with young kids, they throw as much as they can at us, even when they know there’s barely a scrap of hope. A scrap is sometimes enough. I think I understand that now.

I looked around, and realised that there would have been a string of patients who’d died under the oncologist’s care since my husband was discharged. The corridor still buzzed with people walking up and down; some in hats, some with lanyards, some in uniforms. A woman pushed her husband, too frail to walk, in a wheelchair. I looked at her sympathetically – I’d been there, even though my husband never opted for a wheelchair if he had the strength to walk. I realised she was looking back at me with sympathy too; I’d forgotten that I was now quite obviously a cancer patient, not a carer. Her husband had probably been normal and healthy, when mine was the patient in that wheelchair, just over a year ago. She smiled a smile of cancer solidarity, which implied that she knew how I felt. You haven’t a fucking clue, I thought. You poor, poor woman. Just you wait.

I realised then, that I’d been carrying so much anger within me for the team who couldn’t make my husband better, even though it wasn’t their fault. They can’t possibly shake every patient by the hand when they send them away to die, or point their relatives towards the BEREAVEMENT SUITE, because they’d be doing it every day. It would be soul-destroying. But, they did remember us. My husband was someone to them; they liked him, and they did their best. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t because they hadn’t tried. They tried everything. In fact, they probably tried too much – and my husband had wanted them to. Anything for another few precious days with his family.

Maybe, I didn’t just need this wound to scab over. The act of coming back here – of ripping it off, letting the blood flow out, and starting again, is perhaps just what I needed to do to let the healing process start afresh. It’s been a bloody long and complicated way of healing, though.

Just because my husband’s time at the cancer hospital ended, doesn’t mean that time stopped here for everyone else. The place still functions and runs without him, even if the home I return to doesn’t function anywhere near as well.

Wives still push dying husbands up corridors. Bald little children with tubes in their noses still walk into the garden to sit and read for a bit, and try to be children. Women with hats and drawn-on eyebrows still complain about the shit coffee, but buy it anyway.
 

And the lucky ones get to walk past the door of that fucking BEREAVEMENT SUITE on the way out, and keep on walking.

Love Fanny x

A Picture of Denial.

I spoke to a friend the other day. A friend who was deeply upset, because one of his friends had left it too late to check himself out… and now has a cancer which can’t be cured. We don’t yet know how long he has. It’s heartbreaking, and more so because it could have been avoided.

In the meantime, I’ve been receiving – for two bloody years – requests to put a heart on my wall, or an eight ball as my status, or to accept the challenge of posting a black and white picture, or a no make-up selfie, to raise awareness for cancer. Well, challenge accepted. Here’s my black and white, no make-up selfie, no hair selfie, no boob selfie, and no husband selfie. Our most recent portrait together, a few weeks ahead of our fifteenth wedding anniversary. ❤️

You don’t raise awareness of cancer by putting little gimmicks on Facebook. You raise awareness of cancer by sharing links to websites which outline the signs of cancer, like this one. You raise awareness by talking about cancer, and not being frightened to tell your doctor, or your friend, or you partner, that you’ve got a lump in your boob or bollock, or that you’re pooing blood, or that you’re struggling to swallow. The earlier you catch a cancer, the easier it is to treat. It’s not going to stop growing just because you don’t want it to be there, but it might not kill you if you do something about it early enough. And guess what? The process of my husband’s death was far more undignified than any check-up or operation, and had we caught his cancer earlier, he would still be here now – healthy, happy, and bringing up his children.

I’ve had more people pummelling my boobs over the last few months than I’d ever thought would be appropriate only weeks after being widowed, but it’s been worth it, because our little boys won’t have to watch another parent die. My left breast is now dangling in formaldehyde in a lab somewhere, probably. My hair is in landfill. And my husband is ashes, in a box. We miss him every second of every day.

I hate the way I look at the moment, but I hate the way my husband looks more. He’s going to look like that for far longer than I’ll look like this. Anyway, he was always keen to make a point at any cost, so maybe, together, at our least glamorous, we could save a life.

What are you most frightened of? Looking like me? Or looking like him?

See your doctor if you’re worried. This is what denial looks like.

Love Fanny x

Fanny’s Family Portrait 2017

Chemotherapy: The Highlights.

As I come to the end of my final cycle of chemo for breast cancer, and as the side-effects gradually start to wear off, I’d like to reflect on my personal highlights. If you’ve been there, feel free to add your own in the comments… 

1. It’s a bit like being pregnant. You’ll spend at least three months of your life feeling nauseous, with a hospital bag packed and ready, and you’ll have to treat soft cheese and shellfish with the same contempt as nuclear waste. And your tits will never be the same again.

2. Baldness can be liberating. At first. As even more hair falls out, the time you save not having to do your hair will be spent attempting to draw on ever more complicated eyebrows. You’ll save a fortune in waxing, though, so – every cloud.

3. But… as a cancer patient, you’ll qualify for a Look Good Feel Better course. A makeup lesson, complete with free bag of makeup in someone else’s colours, in which an unfeasibly elderly Michelle teaches a roomful of baldies how to contour their faces back out of The Chemo Swell and more towards normality. An extra tutorial on blending into the non-existent hairline might have been handy.

4. You probably won’t lose weight. In fact, the combination of anti-nausea drugs and steriods may make you pile it on, and apparently the one lost boob and a whole head of hair weighed nothing. Fucking NOTHING. I added a stone in 18 weeks. The pre-treatment weigh-in is a reverse Slimming World in which the nurses congratulate you for gaining a few pounds, and you have to smile and try to hide the fact that if you’d known about The Chemo Stone you’d never have agreed to having the bastard stuff in the first place. ( Obviously that’s a lie. You graciously and gratefully take whatever drugs might make you better. But you still feel shit about piling on the weight.)

5. It’s not all dreadful. Towards the end of each cycle, you may feel quite well. While there are many, many days ranging from feeling very ill to mildly off-colour, for much of the time, you can live your life. I worked daily (from home, admittedly,) still took the boys to their sports games even if I couldn’t always watch, and walked the dog on non-shit days. In fact, the more you do, the less time you have to think about how awful it is, and there’s no need to think like an ill person. Being widowed on chemo has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but actually, in hindsight, I’m proud of myself for not crumbling. I couldn’t afford to. I’m also truly grateful to friends and family for stepping in on the occasions when I’ve been stuck.

6. Talking of which, you’ll definitely find out who your friends are. And who your friends aren’t. ‘Nuff said.

7. Wigs. Itchy little fuckers. I didn’t usually bother. You’ll only need to find out once though, the hard way, that it’s a good idea to keep an Emergency Hat by the front door for that unexpected visit from the postman.

8. Chemo Brain. It’s an actual thing. I had a point to make about this. Forgotten what it was.

9. Needles. You’ll get used to being cannulated all over, but the daily self-injections are prickly little bastards that boost your blood cells, and you have to do those all by yourself. Take a deep breath, lift your dress, shove it in, and breathe out again. Similar to, but much less fun than, mediocre sex.

10. Loss of taste. Tabasco on EVERYTHING. You’ll know you’re officially ill when you go off alcohol.

11. The menopause. Or not. My ovaries decided to have a ten week long bloody protest in desperation, but have given up for good in favour of hot flushes. Keep a leaflet with you at all times as a makeshift fan (in my case, I use the order of service from my husband’s funeral which has never left my handbag. I like to think he’s doing his bit to help.)

12. Constipation. Or diarrhoea. Or both. Either way, when you finally produce a firm, slippery, satisfying turd you’ll never have been more pleased with yourself.

13. Every fucker’s an oncologist. Smile politely as perfect strangers trot out all the miracle cures they’ve read about on the internet. Or share their own cancer stories. My personal favourite amateur surgeon is a chap I meet on my dog walks. He’d noticed I’d lost my hair and, because we’re northern, he wasn’t too polite to comment. He told me he’d had radiotherapy ten years ago. “Doesn’t work, you know,” he ventured. Well, mate, I’d like to wager that if you’d had it ten years ago, then it probably actually did.

14. Sympathy central. Cancer is the Rolls-Royce of illness, bringing with it everyone’s sympathy (and free parking at the hospital,) but there are definite degrees of shit, and most people who catch theirs early will almost certainly survive. People with other, more permanent life-limiting conditions – Crohn’s, MS, MND, mental health problems, etc. – don’t tend to get the same cocked-head reaction, yet their condition is ongoing, with no cure so far. If you’re lucky enough to have a treatable cancer, please remember those less fortunate when your hair has grown back and you’ve got your all-clear.

15. Sick bowls, not swords. Walking around with a sick bowl under your chin for a few weeks doesn’t make you a warrior. There are no “survivors” and it isn’t a “battle.” I found a stage three tumour in my breast in enough time to be cured. My husband had a stage three tumour in his oesophagus and died. Did he not tell the doctor in time, or fight hard enough? No. We both turned up to all our appointments and took all available treatment. I was lucky. He wasn’t. For his sake, and our children’s, don’t tell me I’ve been amazing. He was, too.

16. Living is lucky. If you’re fortunate enough to be rid of the bloody thing for good, please don’t let the shadow hang over you forever. Worrying about it won’t change anything. We all diagnose ourselves with an incurable brain tumour the moment we get a headache, but people who’ve had cancer before are more likely to be taken seriously by a doctor if symptoms persist. So, keep an eye on yourself, alert the doctor to any changes, and in the meantime, bugger off and live your life to the full, in honour of those who didn’t make it. They really do want you to.

Love Fanny x

*Bear in mind that all cancers are different and all chemo regimes have different side effects. Many don’t cause hair loss, for example. My treatment regime was Cyclophosphamide and Epirubicin for 9 weeks, and then 9 weeks of Docetaxel/Taxotere. Oh, and a massive overdose of tumour humour.

Picture by Askell on DeviantArt

Warts and All.

I haven’t buried my husband’s ashes yet. I still can’t bring myself to do it, although there have been some conversations with the vicar, so we’re moving forward, slowly. The other day, our son – who had hitherto been quite reluctant to part with them – asked when his Dad would be buried. I said I wasn’t sure.

“Oh,” he said, with obvious disappointment. “I wanted to go and lay some flowers on his grave for Fathers’ Day.”

Those boys are hurting, badly. And it’s only now that I realise just how much, and how much twelve-year-old boys without a father, or even a father figure, struggle – because I can try to be Mum and Dad, but it’s always going to be a compromise. I’m stretched so thinly that I can’t give them everything they need, and I’m taking a lot of my own stress and anger out on them.

Our boys were lucky. For ten years, they had the very best dad in the world, and I don’t use that term lightly. They really did. Nobody adored their children the way he did. He wasn’t always soft with them, but they were exceptionally close and the boys knew just how much they were loved. I was looking through some family photos last night, and what struck me the most was that the same little boy who asked to lay some flowers on his Daddy’s grave was always – always – pictured nuzzling into his father. Not just standing there. Nuzzling him. They adored each other. Even as his mother, I can’t begin to comprehend that child’s loss.

One thing I’m beginning to notice, now I’m a double – not single – parent, is how jealous and angry the boys are with other children whose father is still alive. They are furious. It isn’t fair. These dads – great as they are – are not my children’s dads. They’re pretty good prototype dads, but our boys’ dad was the real deal. The best in the world. They don’t want their friends’ dads. They want their own. When kids complain about their dads being grumpy old arseholes, my boys are cross about it. But at least you’ve got one, they think. You don’t know how lucky you are, they think. They’ve chosen to forget what a grumpy old arsehole their own dad could be.

It’s easy to look back with rose tinted spectacles, and my two do. Of course they do. They are children, and they think like children, but it surprises me that many adults think that way, too. On the online forums, widows and widowers write with great bitterness about friends who turn to them to complain about their (still very much alive) spouse, expecting their widowed friend to listen with sympathy. They don’t. They listen with rage and regret, because they’d give anything to have their own spouse back. They are angry. Angry with anyone who still has their family.

I don’t feel quite like that. Much as I wish my own family was still complete, I actually love to hear my friends complain about their partners. It’s what we do, we women, and being confided in makes me feel as if I’m still valid as a wife, mother and confidante. That I’m still normal. One of the gang. Men are terminally idiotic, and rolling our eyes at how stupid they are is every woman’s favourite pastime. My husband was no exception. He was grumpy, untidy, and out of shape. He never got around to finishing odd jobs, or picking up his wet towels. Don’t get me started on how keen he was to share his opinions, or what a terrible back seat driver he was. I’ve stopped and thrown the car keys at him in the middle of a busy road and told him to drive the fucking car instead then on more than one occasion. He could be a complete twat at times. But, as a husband, and a father, he was the whole package – from wanker to wonderful – and the only person we wanted to fill those very special roles. He was OUR massive fucking annoying twatbastard, and we wouldn’t have changed him. Well, not completely.

As a grieving widow, I’m so desperate to have him back – warts and all – that it’s actually important to remember that there were warts. Plenty of them. My husband’s greatest fear, before he died, was that he’d be canonised in our minds and remembered as some remarkable and faultless being. I assured him that this would never happen. While I can accept that he had faults, and love him because of them – not in spite of them – our children don’t yet have the emotional intelligence or maturity to take anything other than offence at other children’s comments – both positive and negative – about their own fathers. They miss their own too much.

Since he died – actually, no. Since before he died, when we knew he’d never get better, the boys have begged me to provide them with a new stepdad. This seemed odd to me at first, and actually a little offensive, because I couldn’t understand why they would suddenly want someone to take their beloved father’s place. But, they tell me that they just want to be a foursome again. They hate having to divide me in two, and think that if someone made me happy then I would stop crying all the time. (I also think there’s another rather significant element, in that they could really do with someone else around to offer lifts.) In their imagination, their stepdad is a man just like their Daddy. In reality, if they ever do have a stepdad, he’ll have baggage – probably a few kids that they may or may not get along with – different opinions, and a whole new selection of funny little ways. He won’t love them the way their Daddy loved them, because – by definition – he will not be their Daddy. He will be, just like my husband, unique. Irreplaceable. Different. I’m not sure I’m ready for different. I’m not even ready to accept that there’s a vacancy.

When other women whinge to me about their stupid fucking husbands, it doesn’t bother me at all, partly because I like to remember how often I felt like punching my own, and partly because it reminds me that I really am in no hurry to meet another man. I pity my friends, because they never had the privilege of being married to my husband. (Well, a couple of people did, but we’re not really in touch with them any more.) And I pity anyone who one day thinks they could fill my husband’s shoes. The only thing that hurts me deeply is seeing other couples loved up, and their children behaving, as ours used to do. A few weeks ago, I stood with extended family on a beach – the rest of them cuddling their spouses and adoring their wonderful children – as I screamed at my two to stop twatting each other and drawing massive cocks in the sand. My little family was unravelling in front of my eyes and I’d never felt so alone or missed my husband more.

I don’t want a new one, though. Maybe because I’m approaching the end of my treatment, and beginning to see a new start in life ahead of me which I know my husband would want me to grab with both hands, I do occasionally wonder if it’s time to start thinking about dating – not because I need male attention, or rampant sex, but because I’m beyond knackered and could really do with someone to let the dog out early in the morning every now and again.

I can only imagine the internet profile: Bald, one-titted widow. Mediocre cook. Needs a bit of a hand with the kids. Struggling to put up some shelves.

No thank you. Yes, I’m exhausted. Yes, I’m beginning to realise just how desperately my children need a father figure. Yes, I’m finding being Mum and Dad very, very tough. But I’ve just spent Fathers’ Day with our boys, ignoring the significance of the day, mending some garden equipment and building a new drum kit. I even changed a lightbulb. There was no trip to a grave, because there still isn’t one, but I know that their real dad will have been with me all the way, watching me use the wrong bloody spanner, and desperate to jump in and criticise. But he can’t. And what I wouldn’t give to roll my eyes, throw the spanner at him, and tell him to fucking well get on with it himself then, one more time.

We miss you, Superdad. Warts and all.

Love Fanny x

 

 

Bastard Funeral

Not my husband’s funeral flowers. He’d have approved, though. Image from Pinterest.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dear Chemo.

My relentless positivity is waning. The dark thoughts are setting in, and becoming far harder to shake off than the last few eyelashes which have long been sobbed into a snotty tissue. I have two children who miss their father, but I miss him too, and if it weren’t for them, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered to fight this at all. In fact, I think I resent the fact that I can’t just say fuck it and join him, wherever he is. Because I do have his beloved children, though, and no family nearby to bring them up, I don’t have a choice. But, Christ, it’s hard – especially when the two children you’re doing it for are not helping you to row upstream, but are standing on the riverbank, chucking rocks at you as you try to do it alone.

They’re eleven. Nearly twelve. And they’re about as much fun as you’d imagine a pair of bereaved pre-teen boys dealing with yet more cancer to be. We’ve been talking about their forthcoming birthday celebrations. Supermum here has always made sure they had a party – and a bloody good one. Well, they’re twins, so I massively overcompensated for the fact that they never got to have a party of their own (the obscene quantities of pirate bunting in our loft are testament to that.) But, yet again, this year, the thought of a whole load of boys in the house (all, inevitably, being dickheads – none more so than our elder twin) fills me with fear. And I’m trying to plan the date around my chemotherapy, and find a weekend when I’m most likely to be well enough to cope.
So why not postpone their birthday? Well, because this is the fourth birthday of shit, and they barely remember what life was like before cancer. The boys were eight when our world was turned upside down. On their ninth birthday, I handled things, because their dad was on chemo. He was involved in the party, but not feeling too well. They understood that it needed to be low-key, and that their next birthday would be better. On their tenth birthday, I handled things, because their dad’s first round of palliative chemo had just begun. They had a sleepover, but it was low-key, and they were really good about it, because they knew it might be the last one with their dad. On their eleventh birthday, their dad had just died. They had a sleepover and a trampoline party, but it had to be low-key, and we were all feeling pretty flat but didn’t want to not celebrate, because that’s not what Dad would have wanted. Just widowed, I didn’t have the energy to field a whole houseful of Year 6 boys, but I’d promised them, now that the whole cancer thing was over, their twelfth would be one to celebrate. And now, yet again, one of us is bald, sick, and having to crawl through yet another birthday on our knees.

None of this is fair – not on me, but not on them either. Recently, I’ve begun to identify the problems, and there are so many, I don’t even know where to begin. My husband and I had all the answers, you see. We were the greatest team in the world, and our children were brilliant. Not perfect – still little shits at times – but loved, secure, interesting, engaging, and funny. Happy. Really happy. We were so fucking smug about how happy they were, because we were getting the whole parenthood thing pretty much right. We decided, when they were tiny, that the greatest gift we could give to them was The World, and went on wonderful adventures to faraway lands with two little smiling blond boys, all skater shorts and smiles, who could have stepped straight out of a Boden catalogue. People would stop us in the street and talk to us, wherever we went. Our openness and sense of fun must have shone out of us. I didn’t realise at the time how precious this was, or how far down the spiral of shit we’d all fallen, until I walked into the house the other day to find one twin in his new natural habitat, fingers glued to the X Box controller and half an eye on a YouTube video about Fifa or wanking or whatever, and the other screaming into a kebab because the idiot in the shop had put salad on it. The stupid fucking twat.

They’re awful, gobby and angry, and I’m beginning to understand why. Because, three years ago, I was the same. I hated their dad being ill. I sympathised with him, because I’m an adult and (three weeks out of four, anyway) more rational than a little boy, so we talked about it at night and hugged each other better. We were both fucking furious with the disease, but while he just laid there being ill, I had to run around and pick up the pieces of the life we had before, and it made me bloody angry, but he understood, and he kissed me better. Our entire life as we knew it had been ruined, but I thought if he could just get off the sofa and pretend to be well, or turn up to football matches, or attend parents’ evenings, everything would be OK again. All those feelings of rage within me have now been turned on to me, by our children, who see me being defeated by the same damn disease which claimed their dad. They are afraid – quite legitimately – of becoming orphans. At their age, I’m fairly sure that my greatest concern was which member of New Kids on the Block I’d marry first. (Not Donny.)

Well-meaning people constantly tell our boys to look after me, but it’s the worst thing they could possibly say. It implies that we could all have done more as a family to save their dad, if only we’d looked after him better. It isn’t true, and it hurts so bloody much. We could not have saved him, and the boys can’t save me. We just have to hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be on the right side of the survival statistics, and I believe I will be. Either way, there’s not much I can do about it, but by the time they really start to believe I’m fine, when this is all a dim and distant memory, their childhoods will be over for good.

In only a few weeks, we’ll be back to normal. It won’t kill the boys to have a bit more screen time until then. It won’t hurt to just eat freezer food with oven chips. It’s fine if they go to bed a bit late, or haven’t brushed their teeth for precisely two minutes. Or at all. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t work all that hard at school today. Only a little while to go, and we can pick up again where we left off. Never mind that they don’t want to do drama at the moment, or cricket, or roller skating, or football. It’s fine. We’ll go back to it in a few weeks. It won’t permanently damage them if they don’t eat their vegetables for a while. Just let’s get through this bit of chemo and then we’ll slide back into normality again.

We’ve been saying all that for their last four birthdays. This brief hump of chemo, to overcome in whichever way we can – and another, and another – has become a lifestyle. An entire childhood. Because I don’t have the energy to pick many battles, I’m letting a lot of things slide. In fact, half the time, I’m lying down and crying while the pre-teen cavalry ride roughshod over me with their Xbox controllers and tracksuits, grunting into their phones, and dropping bits of unwanted kebab salad in my ear.

We’d always been honest with our children about cancer, from day one. They knew their Dad’s would be a tough one to fight, respected our honesty, and believed us. We shared our triumphs and our darkest moments, and realised that no amount of stretching the truth would stretch out his life, so saving their feelings with white lies was pointless. As the oncologist said, if a miracle happened, the boys weren’t going to come back and punch him in the face for making their Daddy better. However, the doctors made a mistake. They thought he was getting better, and we told the boys we’d still be a family for a year or more. We hugged each other with delight, and booked another holiday. Six weeks later, he sat on our sofa late on a Friday night, having been brought home in an ambulance, hooked up to an oxygen tank and permanently discharged from hospital. We hugged and cried with our beloved boys again, as he told them they’d missed the biggest tumour of them all. It wasn’t fluid on his lung. He had been brought home to die. And guess what? Our boys now don’t believe anything that the cancer doctors say. So, why would they believe that I’ll be alive for their thirteenth birthday, even though the doctors are sure that I will be? Why would they trust that we’ll ever go on a Christmas adventure holiday again, when the last three have been cancelled?

And nobody really, truly understands. Even I don’t understand. That’s why, maybe, despite my kids being the most difficult, angry, stubborn, malnourished, over-screentimed, worst people in the world at the moment, I still feel the need to fight their corner. I observe the boys and their friends a lot, and canvass opinion with other parents, and the general consensus is that they’re no worse than anyone else’s children at this stage in their lives. In fact, considering what they’ve been through, they’re doing bloody well. They’re working hard(ish) at school, seem popular with teachers (mainly,) are maintaining and developing friendships, and are also going through all the usual shit of being picked on or dropped by others. But that’s what kids do, and – for the most part – I let them get on with it, because two oversensitive kids who are already struggling with friendships probably don’t want some bald-headed titless wonder wading in and cramping their style. Apparently, some of their friends are bored with hearing about cancer now. Well, so the fuck are we.

In a few weeks, when the chemotherapy and radiotherapy are over with, I like to think we will – somehow – find this elusive New Normal. The one we’ve been trying to find for so long. The one with discipline and energy and fun and good manners. And possibly even one or two vegetables. (Sadly, I think I’ve probably lost the Battle of Boden, and the tracksuits are here to stay for the foreseeable future.) Until then, I know I have to just keep a lid on it and understand things from our children’s point of view, when I’ve stopped screaming at them. Our children, who still play football on a team run by dads, who desperately miss their own dad being on the sidelines, cheering them on. Our children, whose mum had no sooner taken the role of Dad, than she’d begun to disappear from the football sidelines as well. They don’t believe it’s temporary. They don’t believe I’ll be back, willing them to victory next season, along with their friends. I intend to prove them wrong.

Until then, I’m going to give them the one thing that their friends have had every year, even though our boys probably don’t deserve it – a birthday party, with cake and candles, friends and fun. And, next year, there will be no cloud of doubt to choke them when the candles are blown out.

I promise.

Love Fanny x

The shittiest birthday cake of them all. (Source: Google Images.)

Blue Lights and Red Lipstick.

I don’t like to do things by halves. If you’re going to have cancer, you may as well do it properly, so I’ve been in hospital these last few days with neutropenic sepsis. Much to the disappointment of our children, who were out playing a football match, they missed a very dramatic ride in an ambulance as I was rushed off to A&E (but not before I’d left a present and card on the kitchen table for one of them to take to a birthday party that afternoon, because, you know, motherhood.) Like most women, I’ve always been fearful of having my jeans whipped off by a handsome paramedic on a hairy-leg day, but the chemo has sorted out that problem for me. My blood count had dropped so low that the common cold I caught last week could very well have killed me, but hey – at least my legs are smooth and shiny. As is my head.

Infection is a well-known complication of chemo, and easily fixed with antibiotics and blood-boosting injections, and because our children have already lost a parent, I didn’t mess about or wait a few hours when my temperature went up. By the time you read this, I’ll be home. They can save lives at our local hospital, but they can’t provide wifi. That’s a trade-off I’m happy to take, although our adolescent twins would probably think twice.
A few days before my admission, I’d been feeling really fed up. This latest recipe of chemo has floored me with flu-like symptoms, and a general feeling of exhaustion. I’d been fantasising of a nice lie down in a hotel room, with the boys and dog taken care of. Just me, on my own, relaxing with a book or two. I’ve decided not to make any more wishes as they obviously get lost in translation.

To keep life normal for the boys as I go through chemo, I’ve still been playing Mum’s Taxi, I’ve still worked full time from home, still attended school events, still watched them play football and cricket, still walked four miles a day with the dog, still played badminton with them in the garden, and I’ve even driven the three of us on a fourteen hour round trip, and spent two nights in a hotel, to attend a family gathering on the south coast – because if I carry on as normal, paint on some eyebrows, pop on a hat, and don’t behave like I’m ill, then I’m not ill. Right?

Wrong. The last few days have been an eye-opener, and a lesson in self-care, to say the least. Much as I remain impressed with our amazing NHS, I don’t want to come back into hospital again. I was placed in Protective Isolation in the world’s most uncomfortable hospital bed, and until the IV antibiotics started to work, and until my temperature came down after 36 hours or so, I didn’t even have the energy to read or write. Fortunately, Twin 1 very kindly loaded up his iPad with films for me to watch. His choice, not mine – a handpicked selection of movies about aeroplanes, terrorism, and a documentary on brothels.

I wasn’t allowed to drink tap water (and sterile water is, well, fucking disgusting) but they did let me wander up and down the corridors to keep myself moving during the long and miserable nights – partly to ease the lower back pain of lying down for too long, and partly so I could perfect my Lady with the Lamp impression, but with a drip, and a less attractive silhouette featuring one boob and a bald head. Oh, and there was always a people-watching opportunity outside Maternity, as the expectant mothers squeezed in one last cigarette just before the baby’s head started to crown.

Family and friends have been wonderful, as ever, and rallied around to help us, but my Mum and Dad live two and four hours’ drive away, respectively, and it can take some time to mobilise family troops. The reality of the situation here remains the same. No amount of eyebrow pencil, no supply of sparkly headgear, no carrying on regardless, can change things on a day-to-day basis. It’s getting tougher. When my husband was ill, he had me to keep everything going, and I remember so vividly that he said it was harder to be the carer. I think he’s right, but I’m now the patient as well. Having an ambulance sent for you because you’re alone; having to miss your kids’ football match (and then having to start making panicky calls from the back of said ambulance, under the blare of the sirens, to try to get them brought home and looked after,) and leaving some cash for them to go to the chippy for lunch because you’ve been too tired and weak to go to the supermarket (my Parent of the Year award is in the post) is properly, properly shit. The boys have eaten nothing but crap, and barely a vegetable or a vitamin has passed their lips, for weeks and weeks. I’m hoping that’s one of the fonder memories they’ll have of Mum’s Chemo Days.

On admission to hospital, I was asked about my marital status, and my next of kin. I should be used to the questions by now, but I still hesitated. I didn’t really want to say the answer out loud. All I know is that the tears came yet again as I let them tick the boxes about alcohol intake and stool consistency, and told them why I was there alone; that my real next of kin was dead. That the last time we raced to A&E, he was here, in the cubicle opposite the one I was now in. Just like him, I came in with a high temperature, collapsed veins, and a bald head, but this time, without a spouse to hold my hand, or to go in search of magazines and coffee machines. To carry the load of responsibilities still waiting at home.

I’m home now, where life is our own brand of normal. Where I can keep busy with work, and start every day in heels and war paint, once I’ve walked the dog. Where I pretend to the boys that I’m OK, because none of us can bear the alternative. Where I came out of hospital to a huge pile of work, but three hours after discharge returned to A&E with further complications. Everything was sorted without another admission, and I returned home in the early hours to find the boys sleeping side by side in mine and their Dad’s bed, for comfort. I slept in Twin 2’s bed instead – which definitely wouldn’t pass any Infection Control inspection.

My parents have done a brilliant job of keeping things going, even though the boys associate Grandparental Visits with Dying Parents, and respond accordingly, like proper little shitbags. Because they’re frightened. Because when their Daddy started to get taken away in ambulances, and grandparents arrived to help, he died soon after. They’re taking their anger out on everyone, especially me – as I did with my husband and children, when I thought life couldn’t get any worse. I was angry with the cancer, not with them; but I couldn’t always differentiate, and nor can they. How I wish we could go back to those days when being a family of four with terminal cancer was so much better than this.
When my husband and I could still be parents together.

Six weeks more of chemotherapy. Six weeks more of pretending I’m fine for the sake of the boys, but being a little more careful with myself to make sure I really am – because they will suffer the most in the long run if I’m not. I’m almost at the end of the road, and the end of this road will be the start of a new beginning, but perhaps I need to trade the heels for slippers, wear pyjamas more, bare the reality of my pasty and puffy chemo face, and admit that I’m not finding it all so easy.

My husband called me Wonder Woman. (He also called me TwatFace.) He knew I’d be OK, that it was safe to leave us, and that the boys would be alright in the end; that I would throw my heart and soul into the vacant position of Dad. He didn’t realise I’d go so far as to chop off my boob and shave my head to get into character, but – as I said – I don’t do things by halves. In a few weeks, Wonder Woman will be reborn – with a new razor for her legs, some hairspray, a sparkly scarf, and a brand new shade of lipstick.

Love Fanny x

Dedicated to Karen, who loved my husband, loved me, and encouraged us to love each other, despite the challenges which lay ahead. Who went to hospital last week, and wasn’t lucky enough to return home to her beloved family. A true Wonder Woman, and champion of the world. Rest in peace, my friend. X