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